A little boy just celebrated his sixth birthday. He got 5 presents from his family1. But he remembered very clearly that his older brothers had each received ten presents at their last birthdays. This did not make the boy happy, and he let his parents know about it. That’s not fair!
A girl is in the seventh grade. One of her classmates keeps making noise and interrupting things, though that doesn’t stop this girl from working. Once, though, when one of her classmates asks her a question, this girl turns and whispers an answer. The teacher gets furious: Why are you making a noise and interrupting class like this? This is unacceptable behavior! The girl remembers the noise that her classmate usually makes and doesn’t seem to get in trouble for, and she’s pretty upset that she gets in trouble for something so minor. It makes her want to shout out: That’s not fair!
A seventeen year old boy wants to spend some time on Saturday afternoon with his girlfriend, but his parents have other ideas. You need to be at your little sister’s volleyball game that afternoon, they tell him. Why would they force him to do this? It’s not like the whole family made a point to be at all of his games for different sports! It’s not like this volleyball game was going to be more important than all the other games he’d already been to this year! This was ridiculous and his parents were about to find out what he thought about it: That’s not fair!
A young woman was about to graduate from college. She’s spent so many years of hard work to get to this point. Her grades were always good. She had what it takes to make it in her field, and she had been excited when she started applying for jobs and going to interviews. But with each job opening, after each interview, she got the same frustrating answer. No. Some of her classmates had already gotten jobs, so why hasn’t she? So when she’s all by herself she breaks down, and all she can manage to say is, That’s not fair!
The young couple has been married for several years now. They’ve always loved kids and dreamed of when they would start their own family. But it’s just not happening. Family and friends keep asking them why they’re waiting so long. Birth announcements keep coming in the mail for friends of theirs having kids. Even their doctor isn’t sure why and says they’ll have to do even more tests. In frustration the couple confides in each other how they really feel: That’s not fair!
An older couple were thankful just to have had their son. They knew you couldn’t control these things. Still, they wish he could’ve been around longer. There was so much they wanted for him. And having him taken away so soon, well, it left them feeling upset. Sometimes they even wanted to yell at God and tell Him what they thought. They wanted to shout, That’s not fair!
The man wasn’t even surprised when the tests came back positive. After a lifetime of doing everything right, things seemed to be going wrong. I mean, he never smoked, he didn’t really drink, he’d been healthy and active. So how could God do this to him now? How could it be one thing after another, one more thing he didn’t deserve. It’s like God didn’t even care, and no one else seemed to understand. And now he was stuck suffering for it. That’s not the way things were supposed to go in his life. That’s not fair!
No matter what your age, no matter what your position in life, no matter what you do, there are times when it becomes abundantly clear to us that life isn’t fair. Sometimes our frustrations are directed at the people who should know better, the people that could’ve made things fair. Sometimes we get angry at our circumstances, wondering why they didn’t work out differently. Other times, we take our anger out at God. Maybe we express it in words, or maybe we bottle it up. In the end, though, the thoughts are the same: God messed this one up. He gave me the raw end of this deal. Maybe he’s just not so great after all.
Of course, we’re not the first ones to feel this way. In the Bible, one of the psalm writers in Psalm 73 is pretty upset at God. He saw wicked, evil people all around him, and guess what? They were happy! They had no problems! Everything went just great for them, while for people who actually tried to do the right thing, everything was falling apart.
And do you remember the parable of the Prodigal Son? (Lk. 15:11-32) The one son insulted dad, abandoned the family, and wasted half the inheritance! Yet dad throws a party for him when he gets back and the other son, the son who cares enough to do everything right gets nothing special. It’s not fair.
It’s true. It’s not fair. Life isn’t fair. God himself isn’t fair. But as we look at our text for today, another of Jesus’ parables, we’ll thank God that He isn’t fair. He’s a God who doesn’t give us what we deserve. Instead, he’s a God who gives us exactly what we don’t deserve. And for that we rejoice.
The story of our text is pretty simple. Jesus tells us that the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire men to work in his vineyard. (Matt. 20:1) Remember, these are earthly stories with heavenly meanings. They’re about earthly events but they point us to heavenly realities. In telling us an ordinary story, Jesus is showing us extraordinary truths about his rule in our lives.
In this case, it’s a landowner who needs some work done. We don’t know what the work is, and it doesn’t matter. We just know he hires some people and offers them a day’s wage, which is known as a denarius. (Matt. 20:2) They agree to work for this wage. They can do their work and collect their pay, and everyone’s happy. Right?
Well, maybe, except for the fact that this landowner goes out and hires more workers every few hours. We don’t hear him agreeing on a price with these other workers as the day goes on, he just tells them, I will pay you whatever is right. (Matt. 20:4)
This keeps going on, every few hours, until finally we hear about the last group he finds. About the eleventh hour 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.’ (Matt. 20:6-7) So, this is at the eleventh hour. That probably means 5pm, where the standard work-shift was the 12-hour period from 6am to 6pm. So, with one hour left in the day, he hires more people.
These workers don’t have to wait till payday; the landowner is going to pay them right away. We hear about the most recent hires first. The workers who were hired about the eleventh hour came and each received a denarius. (Matt. 20:9) They got a denarius! Remember that’s usually the pay for an entire day, and they got it for one hour. Not too bad!
So you can just see those guys who had worked a full twelve-hour day starting to get excited. The one-hour guys got a denarius; just think how much we’ll get! When those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. (Matt. 20:10)
One lousy denarius?! Of course they were angry. ‘These men 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.’ (Matt. 20:12) But the landowner kind of put them in their place. They did agree on a one-denarius payday back when they started working, after all.
He said, Take your pay and go. I want to give the man 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?’ (Matt. 20:14-15) The workers were mad, but the landowner told them, Deal with it. You don’t think it’s fair? Too bad for you. It’s my money and I’ll do what I want.
Now, remember, Jesus is not telling the story of how the local vineyard workers’ union got started. He’s telling a story that has to do with our lives and our relationship with God. So what was he saying?
I think the first point for us to remember is that God doesn’t give us what we deserve. Those first workers in our text felt they deserved a bit more than the one-hour part-timers. And let’s face it, we feel that way sometimes in our lives, too.
For example, we know bad things happen in this world. We know, of course, that if we were to commit some horrible crime, that we might have to suffer for it. We would get a punishment and know we deserved it. But when we’re just doing our best. When we go to church and try to love our families and try to get by, we expect things to go a little better. And when they don’t, well, it doesn’t seem fair.
In a similar way, it sure gets annoying to see everyone else doing so well, doesn’t it? Here you are struggling and having a hard time and someone else out there just breezes through life and gets everything handed to them. Oh, and did I mention those happy people don’t seem to care about God all that much, either? That’s not fair.
Remember, God doesn’t give us what we deserve. But believe me; that’s a good thing. Jesus himself said, Be perfect…as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matt. 5:48) And how many of us are perfect? Zero. None of us is perfect. So what do we deserve? What do we have coming to us? Death and hell. That’s it. That’s what we deserve.
But God doesn’t give us what we deserve. He gave that to Jesus. Jesus paid the price for our sins. Jesus got what was coming to us for the times we were angry at God, for the times we thought we deserved special treatment but weren’t getting it.
So, what does God give us? God gives us what we don’t deserve. Despite our sins, despite the fact we don’t deserve it, he gives us his grace, his undeserved love. He watches over us. He hears our prayers. He promises to be with us to the end. And then at the end, when our life in this world is over, he takes us home. He takes us not the eternity that we deserve — that would’ve been hell — no, he gives us heaven. He gives us the heaven we didn’t deserve. And he gives it to us forever.
It’s true that, in heaven, we might find a situation like our parable. There will be some of us there in heaven who have been Christian all our lives, who maybe have struggled with our faith and lived our faith with great effort and even difficulty. And there will be other people in heaven who perhaps didn’t become believers until days or weeks before they died. Will it be fair that whole-life-believers and new-believers will share the same heaven? No! None of us deserve the heaven Jesus won for us. But in Christ God gives it to us anyway.
And as far as our time in this world goes, well, we’re going to be frustrated. In this world, things will often not go our way. We’ll have plenty of opportunities to get angry, to wish things could’ve worked better. There will be times when we wonder what God could have possibly been thinking when he allowed certain things to happen. And we might not get those answers in this lifetime.
But we have a God whose love goes beyond anything we can imagine. We have a God who knows what’s happening in our lives right now, but who also sees the big picture of eternity itself. We have a God who knows the full extent of exactly what we deserve. But he doesn’t give it to us. We have a God who has something planned for us that we don’t deserve, that we couldn’t deserve in a thousand lifetimes. But he gives it to us anyway. Is that fair? No.