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"The Unfairness of God"

Matthew 20:1-16

Rev. Alan Taylor

Pentecost 16, Proper 20, series A
St. John Lutheran Church  
Galveston, Texas

Sun, Sep 20, 2020 

Matthew 20:1-16 (Pentecost 16A)

Alan Taylor / General

+ In Nomine Jesu +

Grace to you and peace, from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

This morning’s message is based on the Gospel reading from Matthew 20. It’s the parable of the laborers in the vineyard. The parable is pretty straight forward really. The owner of a vineyard sent workers out to work the vines. Some of the workers he hired early in the day. They were promised a denarius as wages. Other’s were hired later. They were told that they would be paid “whatever is right.” Finally, about the eleventh hour, that is, right at the end of the day, the owner found some workers who were standing around. “He said to them, ‘Why do you stand here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You go into the vineyard too.’”

At the end of the day, those hired last were paid first. They were given a denarius for their one, or, two hours worth of work. As the others approached the vineyard owner, they assumed that they would be paid more. But, they weren’t. Each worker was given a denarius for their work. Those who were hired first grumbled at the master. They said, “these last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.” To which the master said, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?’”

At first we might ask what point God is trying to make with this parable, that it’s OK to be unfair in our business dealings, or, that fairness really isn’t something to be concerned with? Since the parable is about the Kingdom of God, and since, the vineyard owner represents God, we have before us another question too, one that is infinitely more important and more serious than any other that we might ask, namely, is God unfair? Heaven forbid that should be the case, right!?

The truth is, the whole notion of fairness is deeply ingrained into all of us. I’m sure you parents can recall a time, or, two when one of your kids stomped a foot on the floor and put out that pouty lip and declared with all authority and absolute certainty, “that’s not fair!” What’s not fair? Well, it could be virtually anything. Someone else got a bigger piece of pie, or, a bigger allowance, or, more time to stay up at night, or, whatever.

The point is, the notion of what’s fair and unfair is ingrained in us from a very early age. And, all of us, it would seem, have a pretty good notion of where the lines should be drawn, which is to say, generally a bit towards our favor. What’s fair and not fair is generally measured in a couple of different ways. On the one hand, we gauge, or, measure fairness without any sort of comparison to another person. In this case, we use an internal measure, as we consider what we think we deserve for a given amount of effort. And so, if you work all day on a given job and at the end of the day you’re paid $5, you are going to believe that you have been treated unfairly. On the other hand, we gauge fairness by comparing how we’re treated in relation to how others are treated. The parable this morning is a perfect example of this particular measure of fairness. Those who were hired early in the day thought they were treated unfairly because they were paid the same amount as those who only worked a short time.

So, considering these two ways we have of judging fairness, we come back to the question that was posed earlier. Is God unfair? What do you think? Is God unfair? I suggest to you that He is unfair. But, I also suggest that it is His unfairness that is a great blessing to us and that His unfairness is actually the very foundation of the Gospel itself, whereby, as the Apostle tells us, “God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself.”

Let’s consider the premise that God is unfair first according to the first gauge, or, measure we use to judge fairness. In this case, we could ask, does God give us, or, more personally, does God give me, what I deserve? I think we all know the answer that question. After all, we have often stood here in this very sanctuary and, in confessing our sins to God, we’ve said, “We have not loved You with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbor s as ourselves. We justly deserve Your present and eternal punishment.” And so, you see, God isn’t fair. If He were fair He would condemn each and every one of us to hell, for “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God,” and “the wages of sin is death.”

God deals with you, not according to what you deserve, but according to His grace and mercy. And so, even as we confess our sins to God, we ask Him, for the sake of His Son, Jesus Christ, “to have mercy on us. To forgive us, renew us, and lead us, so that we may delight in His will and walk in His ways to the glory of His holy name.” And yes, the Pastor, as a called and ordained servant of Christ, and by His authority, pronounces the results, the outcome of the most unfair life and death the world has ever known. “Almighty God in His mercy has given His Son to die for you and for His sake forgives you all of your sins.”

“Whence come these sorrows, whence this mortal anguish?

It is my sins for which Thou, Lord, must languish;

Yea, all the wrath, the woe, Thou does inherit.

This I do merit.”

And so, as to the sin of the world, which, of course, includes your sin and mine, God is most decidedly unfair, in that the iniquity, the sin of the whole world was laid upon His own dear Son. But, what about the second measure we use to judge fairness? Does God withhold any of the blessings of the Kingdom from those who come into the Kingdom late in life? To put it another way, are the blessings of the Kingdom accrued, sort of like a pension plan maintained by our employer, or, are the given to us in full when God claims us as His own in Holy Baptism?

What the parable specifically teaches us is that “when we enter into the Kingdom of God, we have entered into the Kingdom of God.” Now, I know that may seem simplistic, but it really is the point of the parable. Whether we enjoy the blessings of God’s Kingdom and serve others through the Kingdom for long time, or, a short time, we are heirs of the Kingdom. God, as the parable says, chooses to be gracious. He chooses to be merciful and that grace and mercy given to one, does not diminish His grace and mercy given to another. 

All of this is to shed light on what Jesus says at the end of today’s parable. “The last will be first and the first last,” which is to say, in the Kingdom of heaven everything is turned upside down. God, in a marvelously mysterious sort of way, is, in fact, unfair. And we want Him to be unfair as He deals with our sins. Sinners are pardoned by grace, not by the justice of the Law.  And those who enter the Kingdom even at the eleventh hour, receive from God “grace upon grace.” “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us (says the Apostle John), and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only-begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth. For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.”

There was a man who spent his entire life in wanton pleasure. What he had never seemed to be enough for him. He always wanted more. He was known simply as “a robber.” People were his prey and their possessions were his wages. One day he faced the consequence of his life of sin. He would die for what he had done. There were others who would die along with him that day. The world, you know, is never short of those deserving of death. One of his fellow robbers looked over, from cross to cross, to see the bloodied and beaten face of Jesus, the man they called the King of the Jews. Yes, He would die that day too, for sins He never committed, but of which He was nonetheless guilty. The one robber reviled Him and made fun of Him. “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” But the other robber rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And (Jesus) said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.”” And the man, the robber, closed his eyes in death, only to open them again in the paradise of God as an heir of the Kingdom. Such is the unfairness of God. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

The peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus unto life everlasting. Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

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