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  • Writer's pictureRev. Gerald (Jerry) Reiter, Emeritus

“The Unfairness of God”

Seventeenth Sunday After Pentecost

“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard.

“About nine in the morning he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. He told them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So, they went.

“He went out again about noon and about three in the afternoon and did the same thing. About five in the afternoon he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?’

“‘Because no one has hired us,’ they answered.

“He said to them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard.’

“When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.’

“The workers who were hired about five in the afternoon came and each received a denarius. So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. ‘These who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’

“But he answered one of them, ‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’

“So, the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

Matthew 20:1–16

Have you ever noticed that sometimes life isn’t fair? Of course, you have. It’s one of those hard realities we learn early on. You don’t have to live a long time to find it out. You can learn it in preschool. Sometimes life just isn’t fair!

Little brothers and sisters get such special privileges. At least that’s how big brothers and sisters feel. It’s the way older employees feel when young hot shots come into the workplace, and the older ones get shoved out into unemployment lines. It’s the way veteran athletes feel when rookies get drafted with multi-million-dollar contracts while the veterans have been slugging it out at smaller salaries for years.

Some coaches even treat these rookies differently from the rest, giving them special privileges the way we sometimes do with our children, or our employees, or our students. Of course, there was one coach who never did that. Commenting on Vince Lombardi’s fairness, one of the Green Bay Packers said that Lombardi treated every player the same. “He treats us all like dogs,” he said. 😊

Some coaches are fair, but some aren’t fair in the way they treat their players – just like parents with their children, employers with their employees, and teachers with their students.

Sometimes that’s just the way life is, which is one of the points of Jesus’ parable of the workers in the vineyard. I don’t suppose anyone here has been a migrant worker, but it doesn’t take much imagination to know how we’d feel if we were the workers in this parable. Suppose you had signed on to pick fruit for eight hours at $5 an hour, or $40 for the day. You work right through the heat of the day without letting up except for lunch. You go to the paymaster at five o’clock and stand in line behind someone who showed up for work at four o’clock and who had only worked one hour.

You watch and see that he is paid $40 for his one hour’s work. Naturally, you figure since you worked eight hours, you’re going to get eight times as much. But you open your pay envelope and find only $40 – tell me how you’re going to feel. I’d be pretty upset!

So how do you handle life when it isn’t fair? Maybe deal with it directly – or at least indirectly. Like the little truck driver, just a little guy, who had parked his semi at a highway café and had gone in for lunch. He was sitting on a stool at the counter when three burly bikers came in and started picking on him, grabbing his food, and laughing in his face. The little truck driver didn’t say anything, just got up, paid for his food, and walked out. One of the bikers laughed and said to the waitress, “He sure isn’t much of a man, is he?” The waitress replied, “No, I guess not. And he’s not much of a truck driver either. He just drove over three motorcycles.”

Yes, some handle the unfairness of life directly, or at least indirectly. Others try to deal with it by just thinking positively. No matter what happens to them, they always see the sunny side. For some that works pretty well, at least for a while. Then life deals a blow that really lays us low, even bringing positive thinkers down. Bad things do happen to good people. The good do die young, while the wicked sometimes live long and seemingly happy lives. The good do get cancer and suffer, while the bad are often healthy. The honest and upright do lose their jobs, while the cheats and liars seem to keep theirs.

Sometimes life is so unfair that not even positive thinking can overcome it. Sometimes life is so unfair we can’t begin to understand it. And that’s when we begin to question, not just the fairness of life, but also the fairness of God. That’s what the workers in the vineyard no doubt did. That’s what good people sometimes do when bad things happen to them. The world is full of people who love to tell us about the unfairness of God. But – and here is a crucial point of today’s Gospel lesson, so don’t miss it – saying life isn’t fair is not the same as saying God isn’t fair. Why? Well, first of all, God doesn’t owe us anything, and secondly, God’s justice doesn’t work the way ours does.

Saying life isn’t fair is not the same as saying God isn’t fair because first of all God doesn’t owe us anything. On the contrary, we owe God everything: our time, our talent, our money – even our very lives! The lives we live are lives that God has given to us. Even each breath we’re taking right now, the clothes on our backs, the food on our tables, our health – in its varying degrees, since some of us do have ailing parts, but at least we’re here! – the gifts of mind and body to do the jobs we’ve been called to do. All of this is the sheer gift of God.

And in addition to all this, is the amazing grace given to us through Jesus Christ – a gift that goes beyond our imagination. In the parable of the unforgiving servant that we looked at last Sunday, the king forgave his servant’s debt for 10,000 talents which translates today to about ten million dollars. That’s a good way to think about grace. For our sin, and for the trouble we’ve caused God, ourselves, and others, at the check-out counter the checker rings it all up, and do you know what your bill is? It’s the same as mine: $10 million! That’s what we owe. And just as we’re about to faint, God takes our bill and tears it up. And He does that for those of us who’ve been faithfully working around the store for years – but also for the person who walks in right off the street!!

Our bill with God is so big we could never say, “Hey God, you owe me. I deserve more of your grace, more of your love than the one siting in the pew next to me.” The fact is, we don’t deserve any of it because God doesn’t owe us a thing! And when God doesn’t owe us anything, we shouldn’t begrudge God’s acceptance of those who seem less deserving of God’s love than those of us who’ve been slugging it out in the church all these years.

Saying life isn’t fair is not the same as saying God isn’t fair because God’s justice doesn’t work the way the world’s justice works. It’s not that God’s justice replaces the justice of the world – and it’s not so much that God’s justice contradicts the justice of the world – it’s that His love takes justice further.

Paying a day’s wage to someone who’s worked less than a day doesn’t seem fair to the ones who’ve worked for the whole day. It just isn’t fair by the world’s standards, but in God’s eyes, it’s ultimately fair. In Jesus’ parable, the landowner (who is God) was completely fair in paying the men a day’s wage for a day’s work. And He was more than fair in paying other men a day’s wage for an hour’s work! We say, “That isn’t fair!” God says, “You’re right – it’s more than fair!” You see, God’s justice doesn’t work the way the world’s justice works. His love takes it further and makes His kind of justice to be a model for us.

God’s grace is God’s grace. It’s the same for everybody. Since we don’t earn it, it comes to us in different ways. Some of us have been aware of God’s grace for a long time – maybe all our lives. Others of us have come to know His love and grace more recently, and maybe His grace means more to this group – not taken so much for granted. But the gift of grace is all the same.

That may seem unfair to you, but it’s not, because God is more than fair. In Jesus Christ, God took all the unfairness of our lives and our troubled world on Himself, and suffered the unfairness of death on a cross that we might have life. In church, or hospital, or home – in scripture, sermon, and song – in word and font and table – we meet our God who is not only fair, but much more than fair.

In Jesus Christ we find that, what seems to be the unfairness of God in saving those who don’t seem to deserve it, is in reality the grace of God for you and for me! So, don’t worry about those who don’t seem to deserve it. Remember that, except for God’s grace in Christ, neither do we deserve it.

Remember that the Kingdom of Heaven is a gift. In a way, we’re all latecomers, aren’t we? And the Good News we need to share, is that in Jesus Christ it’s never too late to come home to God!

And that’s better than fair!


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