IS GOD FAIR?
The parable I just read of the laborers in the vineyard is a difficult one for many people. Not surprisingly, the message of the parable was also difficult for the disciples. We know that, because if you pull back and look at the other passages around this parable, you discover that this is the third time in two chapters that Jesus is trying to make the same point, and he will go on to make it a fourth time before chapter 20 is over.
Look at the big picture with me for a minute. Back in chapter 19:13, the disciples are trying to stop parents from bringing their children to Jesus. No, says Jesus, don't stop them...these are the ones valued in the kingdom. Just because children have no status in society, doesn't mean they have no status in God's kingdom. Things are different there...in the Kingdom of God, the one's you consider least are considered best.
Then along comes the rich young ruler. He can deal with keeping the commandments, but he can't manage to give up the wealth and prestige of society. He can't accept Jesus' suggestion to sell all he has and give to the poor. That would put him at the bottom of the social heap...too much of a leap from his current place at the top.
You can almost hear Jesus give a sigh. He has just tried to show them that things are different in the Kingdom of God by giving honor to the children. But they didn't get it, so he says it again...in the Kingdom of God, many who are first will be last, and the last will be first. Since it doesn't seem to be sinking in, Jesus tries to come at it again, this time with a parable. We'll come back to the details of that in a minute, but for now notice that it ends with the same sentiment. Verse 16 of chapter 20, "So the last will be first, and the first will be last."
Then, to illustrate how that concept will play out in Jesus' own life, he tells the disciples what is about to happen. They are on their way to Jerusalem for the last time. The disciples think Jesus will take the reins and be an earthly king...power and fame and glory. Instead, Jesus tells them that he will be handed over to be mocked, flogged and crucified...he who is first becoming last...then to be raised on the third day...the last becoming first in the kingdom.
So how do the disciples respond? James and John, two of Jesus' closest disciples want to know if when Jesus is glorified they can sit in the two places of honor...one to Jesus' right and one to his left. Jesus has every right to go bang his head against a wall, but he doesn't. Instead, he goes to them with the message one more time...chapter 20, verse 26-28, "Whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many."
In this whole section, Jesus tries time and time again to explain that the ways of the world are turned on their head in the Kingdom of God. Status and power and wealth are just so much dust in the Kingdom of God, and if you want to truly understand the ways of God, you've got to shake off those things and get a new perspective--the perspective of a child, who was property in Jesus' day and had no rights; the perspective of those who own nothing and must depend on the kindness of strangers; the perspective of those who are not paid a fair wage and cannot find work; the perspective of the slave.
With that thought, let's go back to the parable. The parable begins "For the kingdom of Heaven is like..." which means this is not a true story...it's an illustration, an allegory of sorts, we call it a parable. That means that the landowner represents God and the workers are human beings. It's like a fable in that it has a moral, and the moral comes at the end of the story..."So the last will be first, and the first will be last." Some people have called this a parable of judgment. But nobody is condemned in this story. It does not end with some first and the others cast into outer darkness. Some are first, some are last, but everybody's in.. Judgment is not what this is about.
The point, I think, is the same one made back in Isaiah 55:8, "For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord." This is making the point that the Kingdom of God values different things than we have come to value on earth. We value the possessions, the wage, the money, the reward. God values the harvest, the fruits of our labor, which in the case of the Kingdom of God is human lives brought to a love of God.
But is God fair? From a human standpoint, no. God is not cruel...the wage paid is the one agreed upon by the first set of workers, and we are told it was the usual daily wage. It wasn't a substandard wage. It was fair and according to contract. But part of our human standard of fairness is in relative fairness, and every employer knows that if you pull what this landowner pulled with his workers, there will be mutiny in the ranks.
But it is only unfair if the standard of value is the wage. Suppose the standard of value is not the wage, but the work. Suppose these are not people who put up with a day's labor because it's the only way to get paid. Suppose we have a bunch of guys who really love to work with grapes. Suppose these are people who love to tend and dress the vines, who enjoy working outdoors and making things grow. Suppose they were out in the marketplace early just hoping and praying that they would be hired for work in the vineyard...they jockeyed for position, hoping to be the ones who could go. When the usual daily wage was offered, they just said, "Yeah, yeah, whatever" because it didn't matter. They had to pay the bills, but it was just an added benefit to be able to get paid for something you loved doing.
If they were working for love of the work...or for love of the landowner...or both, you wouldn't have had the final scene in the parable. Everybody would have just stuck their pay envelope in their pockets and not paid it much mind. They knew it would be fair, because the owner wouldn't pay them less than they needed to live on, but whether it was just the amount due for the work they did or twice as much or more wouldn't matter. The important thing was spending time working with grapes and helping the landowner bring in the harvest...and the more time you got to spend in that pursuit, the better. You felt kind of sorry for those poor guys who only got to be out there an hour. Think of what they missed! But you're glad they were able to help...the more the merrier.
But the workers in the parable didn't care about the work or the landowner. They were there for the wage, which meant even when they received what they had agreed upon, they were not happy. That's the point the landowner is trying to make. That's why he makes the seemingly poor business decision to give everybody the same pay and to let everybody see what he did.
Somehow the point has got to be made...if you're here for the reward...if you're here to keep records and to make sure that nobody gets anything that they didn't deserve, you have missed the boat and you're going to go home miserable.
The Kingdom of God has nothing to do with how much you have earned and work is not done for the sake of reward. No, there's no difference between first and last in the Kingdom...first, last, middle, it's all the same. The last will be first, the first last...everything all jumbled up so you can't tell who was president of what company and who had how much in the bank.
So now let's bring that in to our current situation. One of the most common forms of evangelism has been to focus on reward and punishment. Are you saved? Are you going to receive the reward of heaven? Have you contracted with the landowner to get paid? There's a certain amount of truth in that line of thinking, but I think the focus on the reward is dangerous. When we focus on the reward, we can end up like the workers in the vineyard, upset by the grace, generosity, and mercy of God.
One of my favorite discussion starters in Sunday School classes is "How would you feel if you got to heaven and discovered that Adolf Hitler had a deathbed conversion and now occupies the mansion next to yours?" You've spent your entire life serving and sacrificing and giving to the work of God, and some jerk who did nothing but party and abuse his wealth, power, and fame repents at the eleventh hour and gets the same as you do. If we are taught to look for the reward, to focus on the wage, to put up with the work of this life in exchange for the great payment in the life to come; we're going to be right there with the workers in the vineyard, grumbling against the landowner and whining, "It's not fair!"
Jesus just shakes his head. "My ways are not your ways, neither are my thoughts your thoughts, says the Lord." Let's try this again...look at this child...this is who gets into the kingdom...the ones who know nothing of wealth or power or fame. They know only that they have parents who take care of their needs, and gold coins are only shiny playthings.
Rich young ruler...I'm glad you honor me by keeping the commandments, but if you're going to be perfect...if you're going to be complete and truly understand my ways...you've got to look at life from the other side of the tracks and prove that you understand the worthlessness of your gold. Go, sell it all...give to the poor and become one of them...become a child under my care and rely on me to meet your needs. Then you will enter the Kingdom of God.
James and John...don't worry about having places of honor...you're thinking about this all wrong. Look at me...do I sit around and make you wait on me hand and foot? No...I serve you...I teach you...I heal the sick and cast out the demons, and in only about a week's time I will give up my very life for you. The Kingdom of God is not about being rewarded with places of honor. It's about loving so much that the work of service becomes pure joy and you don't even notice whether you are reigning in glory or dying on a Cross.
Is God fair? Not when it comes to rewards and punishments, no. God is not UN-fair in that God does not pay a sub-standard wage or ask us to work for nothing. God does not take us on as slaves. But God will pay everybody the same in the end...no matter if you've been with him 80 years or 80 minutes.
Hey, cool. That means I don't have to do any of this hard giving and sacrificing and turning the other cheek until the last minute...then I can just check back in with God, leave my money to charity and I'm home free...same reward as everybody else! Typically that attitude has been met with the Scripture passage from Luke 12 that says, "Fool, this night your soul shall be required," or, in other words, you never know when you're going to die, and you might wait too long. But that is still an approach that leaves us focused on the reward and when it might be smart to claim it.
The message of evangelism is not grab your reward while the gettin's good. If it is about reward, then the person who decides to do what they please and repent at the last minute is right. Why struggle, if you can get the same thing without it? The good news of the Gospel is that there is unspeakable joy to be found in the work...so much so that mansions and golden streets and reigning with God in glory are hardly worth thinking about when compared to it. The amazing Christian message is that the work of God's kingdom is so exciting, beautiful, and meaningful that we are amazed to receive anything for it at all.
What you realize at the moment of repentance is not that you can lay claim to heavenly real estate. You realize at conversion...whether that conversion is in a moment or across a lifetime...that this is the life you were made for...this is who you are, and why you exist...you finally understand that it's all about love and you want to slap yourself silly for not realizing it sooner. And that's why you shouldn't just wait until the last minute...not because you might miss the reward, but because you are missing the joy of living that way now. You are missing out on love...not love later, love now...here...today.
Is God fair? Are you troubled by God extending mercy to someone who hasn't worked as hard as you have...or are you amazed that God would pay you so much for the privilege of working in his vineyard? The first are last, the last are first, it's all in how you look at it.
(c) 2001, Anne Robertson
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