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Parables Of The Master

Matthew 20:1-16

The Laborers In The Vineyard

(Or: Grace Is Not Fair)

Jesus had been dealing with the increasing opposition of the scribes and the Pharisees, the religious leaders of His day. The Pharisees trusted in themselves that they were righteous and they despised others. The Jews thought that they had earned salvation because they had been God’s chosen people for two thousand years since the days of Abraham. They also believed that there was no room in God’s kingdom for any Johnny-come-lately Gentile.

These parables of the kingdom reveal the truth that God’s thoughts are not our thoughts, and God’s ways are not our ways. This is particularly revealed in Jesus’ parable of the laborers in the vineyard.

One of the recurring phrases of children in the classroom and at play are the words, “It’s not fair.” Children reflect adults who also often complain, “It’s not fair.” Jesus confronts us with the reality that God’s grace is not fair!

A Fair Arrangement

Are you acquainted with the modern day labor pool? Laborers gather every day hoping that someone will hire them for the day. This is also the way it was in Jesus’ day. Jesus tells of the landowner who went into the marketplace to hire some laborers for his vineyard. He went out at daybreak and hired a group of men to work twelve hours in his vineyard. He agreed to pay them a denarius (a denarius was a coin worth about a day’s wages, equal to about $75-$100 in today’s money). It was a fair arrangement.

The landowner went back at the third hour (9:00 a.m.) and found some more men with nothing to do. He hired them with the agreement that he would pay them what was fair. The landowner did the same at noon and again at 3:00 p.m. Finally, at 5:00 p.m. he went out and found another group of workers, who had not been hired. The landowner hired them for one hour with the assurance that he would pay them what was fair.

When the workday ended at 6:00 p.m., the owner called the workers together to pay them. He summoned those who had worked only one hour and paid them a denarius ($100). When the first ones hired saw this, they expected to be paid more because they had worked all day. When they were also paid a denarius (the same $100), they complained that this was not fair. They complained against the landowner, saying: “These last men have worked only one hour, and you made them equal to us who have borne the burden and the heat of the day” (Mt. 20:12).

We would agree with them. By our standards, it doesn’t seem fair. According to the principle that a person gets what he deserves, it is not fair. Jesus reminds us that the landowner paid the first ones hired what they had agreed to. If he wanted to pay the others the same $100, that was his business.

A Fair Warning

Jesus warns God’s people–especially second or third generation confessional Lutherans–about comparing their lives with others and whining, “God, it’s not fair.” This is the self-righteous attitude of a person who has borne the heat of the day, laboring all his life in God’s kingdom. The person who has been a Christian since birth through baptism and worked in the church all his or her life looks at others and concludes that he or she deserves more from God. The fact that the thief on the cross could confess Christ in his dying hour and be welcomed into paradise doesn’t seem fair. Perhaps this is why the Catholic Church had to invent purgatory so that these persons could suffer and pay the fair price. It does not seem fair that a person like Aristotle or Plato or a good neighbor will not go to heaven just because he doesn’t believe in Jesus.

Grace is not fair by its very nature. Grace is a free gift of God. Salvation is a gift to those whom God has chosen and brought to faith in time through the working of the Holy Spirit. Grace is not without cost, because it cost God the suffering and death of His beloved Son, Jesus. Those who have received the grace of God through faith tend to conclude that this is due to something that they have done. There is no worse condemnation of one’s own self than to conclude that someone else doesn’t deserve what God has given him. For in doing so, we condemn ourselves. It is not fair that God has saved us from sin and the deserved consequence of eternal death.

God will do what He wants to do. God’s ways of grace and God’s thoughts of free forgiveness are not our thoughts and our ways. God is in control. “Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with my own things? Or is your eye evil because I am good?” (Mt. 20:15)

Jesus concluded this parable with the familiar words, “So the last will be first, and the first last. For many are called, but few chosen” (Mt. 20:16). Those who thought they were deserving (the Jews) would be replaced in the kingdom of God by those who were the unworthiest (the Gentiles, and especially us).

Man can’t handle the concept of grace and an acceptance by God outside of us and outside of what we have done and so complains, “It’s not fair.” Thank God that grace is not fair, or we would be in big trouble. God’s grace is not fair precisely because it saves sinners like us by grace.

–Pastor John Schierenbeck