What Is Fair?
The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard
Read Matthew 20:1-16
For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard.
~ Matthew 20:1 (NIV)
Most people living in Detroit are in some way been affected by the unions whether positively or negatively. You have to join the unions there even if you work six hours a week at Montgomery Wards. You just cannot escape the long arm of the unions. Let’s face it the union is here to stay.
This is not to take away from the original purpose of the unions. They were designed to fight unfair labor practices by employers. Employees had no rights, no control over their wages, no health plans. They worked long hours sometimes with no overtime pay, it was a sad state of affairs. Then along came some strong willed people that put the pressure on the employers to straighten up their act. It was a long hard process but the workers finally got what they wanted, fairness.
Well in today’s gospel reading we have what could be viewed as a step back for the workers. In this parable the owner of the vineyard went out into the marketplace four separate times to hire workers. The first time it was about 9 a.m. and the last time it was around 5 p.m. He paid all the workers the same amount. So the workers that worked all day were paid the same as those that worked one hour. Now is this really fair? Sounds like these workers could have used a "union rep" back then. Today we will take a closer look at the meaning of this parable of Jesus. We will look at this parable in three ways: 1) God’s system of reward, 2) God calls us, and 3) God’s universal grace.
As we look at this parable one thing really seems to bother us; the treatment of the workers. It all seems so unfair. We have these men that worked all day in the hot sun only to receive the exact same pay as the workers that only worked one hour. It just seems like something is not right here. I think what really bothers us is not the treatment of these workers, but our potential treatment by God, because we realize that this is a parable about the way God calls us by His grace. In the back of ours minds we feel that we are the ones who worked in God’s vineyard all day. We are asking ourselves the question, "Is this fair?" Are we hard-working Christians going to be treated like these workers? Is the man who lives a life of sin who converts on his death bed going to get the same reward that we are? Will there be Charles Manson’s and Jeffery Dahmer’s getting the same benefits we worked so hard to receive? Surely we must warrant at least a higher ranking in heaven? Maybe on a cloud with the Apostle Paul or Moses. Surely we life-long Christians deserve more. This is the very argument of the workers in the vineyard.
Is it fair for you to pay these men that only worked an hour the same thing you are paying us? The land owners response is very interesting. He answered, "Friend, I am doing you no wrong. You agreed with me on a denarius, didn’t you? Don’t I have the right to do as I please with what is mine?" The land owner is right, He gave the workers the amount that they agreed on. This is the way God deals with us. God’s reward system is not our own. God’s system of reward is not based on personal accomplishments or hard work, but based on love. God, in His mercy, promised us a reward and that reward is eternal life. This reward is not something we earn but it is a free gift. As Paul says in Romans 4, "Therefore the promise is by faith that it might come to us as a free gift [by grace], so that the promise might be sure to all descendants, not only to those who live by the Law but also to those who only believe as Abraham did." God made His rewards available to all. His rewards are available through faith in Christ Jesus. He set up the system, so that everyone that believes in His only begotten Son will not perish but have everlasting life.
The main reason this reward system seems so unfair is that we have no control over it. We can’t work hard and receive our rewards, because Christ did it all for us. He paid the price that we could never pay. He gave up his very life on the cross in order for us to receive all of God’s promised rewards. The greatest reward of all is eternal life with God our Father.
However, God does not stop here. He set up the system so that it is not dependent on us having to come to Him. He comes to us. Just as in this parable the Lord invites us into His kingdom. He comes out and recruits us. Some of us were recruited early; about the third hour. We were baptized as infants and became one of God’s children. For others it took God coming to us a little later in life. And for others it will take God until the eleventh hour to bring them into the kingdom. But, never the less, we will be there. God made us a promise and God never gives up on us. He has called us by his grace to be His own. Whether we are "the first or the last" we all receive the same reward: eternal life. So is this fair? Not by human standards, no. This is the very reason Paul said in 1 Corinthians 1:22-23, "For the Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God." Only proving that God’s ways are not our ways. For those whom God has called this message of faith is the power that saves and wisdom for salvation. This message of faith is that Christ loved us so much that he stretch out His arms and suffered and died on Calvary’s cross for our sins. God showed us grace in the form of His only Son, who has redeemed us with His own precious blood.
If you were to ask ten people to define the word grace you would probably get ten different answers. For some grace is a total mystery, but for the Christians it is the reason we are saved. "For it is by grace that you are saved through faith." In the dictionary there are many definitions of grace, charity, pardon, forgiveness. And for the Christian all of these words have a special meaning. The one definition that sums up what grace really means is, "undeserved love." This is what God has shown us, an "undeserved love." Because instead of turning His back on us and walking away, He call us to be His own. He went out and invites us to work in His vineyard. He calls us to be a part of His kingdom.
It is like the parent’s with their first child. All during the pregnancy the parents wonder whether this new little one will actually be a part of the family. You wonder will they really be able to welcome him or her into the this intimate circle of two. You wonder if the new one will even want to be a member of this family. And then once this child is born you realize that you would do anything for this child. You are willing to make all kinds of sacrifices to make sure he or she is happy and safe. Now this child has done nothing to warrant such love, it is undeserved. Yet this love is pale in comparison to the love that God has for us. He sacrificed His Only Son for us. There is no greater love than this. We are God’s children and we can rest assured that His grace is universal.
Finally, this parable not only reminds that God’s reward system is not like ours, and that He calls us all to be his own, but it also shows us God’s universal grace is for all. So to answer the opening question, "what is fair?" Nothing is fair. Fair is the wrong word. God does not deal with us fairly and it is a good thing. We should be thankful God did not give us what we deserved. The word we are looking for is grace. The question should be "What is grace?" And the answer is, it is that "undeserved love" that God has shown us through the death and resurrection of His only Son Jesus Christ. As it is written in John 1:17, "For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ." God did what he pleased with that which was his. He decided to save us. We can now go out into the biggest mission field, "the world", with the joy and assurance that we have been chosen by God to work in his kingdom.
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Scripture taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. Devotion contributed by Byrene Haney on May 20, 2005.
Let’s face it the union is here to stay.