Grace ISN’T Fair

Grace Isn’t Fair

Matthew 20:1-16


Brené Brown makes her living studying social concepts that are inherently hard, and uncomfortable, to study. Things like love and hope and vulnerability and wholehearted living. In her book Daring Greatly, she shares this story from the life of her daughter Ellen. When Ellen was in fourth grade, she came home from school one day and burst into tears as soon as we shut the front door, then ran up to her room. I immediately followed, then knelt down in front of her and asked her what was wrong. Through her sniffles, she said, “I’m so tired of being the other! I’m sick of it!” I didn’t understand, so I asked her to explain what she meant by “the other.” “We play soccer every day at recess. Two popular kids are the captains and they pick the teams. The first captain says, ‘I’ll take Suzie, John, Pete, Robin, and Jake.’ The second captain says, ‘I’ll take Andrew, Steve, Katie, and Sue, and we can split the others.’ Every single day I’m one of the others. I never get to be named.”


I don’t know about you, but hearing a story like that takes me right back to my childhood. To waiting to be picked. Hoping I wouldn’t be last. I wasn’t usually last. I’m not a horrible athlete. But I was always so thin. Just for reference, I’ve gained fifty five pounds since I graduated high school, and I haven’t grown an inch. People used to call me things like “Skinny Bones” and “Skeletor.” I remember climbing up the ladder to the high dive at the pool and having one of my friends yell, “Don’t jump Skinny Bones! When you hit the water your bones will slice right through your skin!” Gee, thanks buddy. Or maybe you were picked first, one of the captains even, on the playground, but no one wanted to be paired up with you for class projects or in chemistry lab. Maybe it was at home, constantly being compared to brothers and sisters you couldn’t compete with in the classroom, or on the field, or in life. For every single one of us, there was a place where we felt like we were the least, the last, the one nobody wanted.


In his Gospel, Matthew goes to great pains to parade us past the least in his world, letting us catch a glimpse at the way Jesus interacted with them. Children. A leper. Two blind men. A paralytic. A Canaanite woman. Even a Roman centurion. Being last, the least, doesn’t mean you are poor and weak, although being poor and weak almost guarantees it. Sometimes those in positions of power and influence are rejected, abandoned, looked down upon. Maybe it was because Matthew was himself one of the least – a tax collector, that he noticed Jesus’ interactions with people everyone ignored, avoided. Was Matthew rich? Yes. Was he influential? In a manner of speaking. When he gave you a tax bill, you had no choice but to pay it. And Rome’s legions would make sure you did. But included? Respected? Loved? Not so much. Matthew’s presence in a house made the house unclean in the eyes of the good people of the community.


And then Jesus tells a story to illustrate for us the way in which the Kingdom of God reverses all of our expectations of what the Kingdom of God is like. Look at Matthew 20:1-7. I’m actually going to start with 19:30, because it introduces the story Jesus is about to tell. In fact, he uses the same words to begin and end his story, kind of like brackets.


Place yourself in this story for a minute. You’re a day laborer in Israel in Jesus’ day. Day laborers are hired by the day to perform a variety of menial tasks, if there’s work to do. Fortunately for you, it’s harvest time, so if you arrive at the city gate early enough, you should be hired. Paid by the day, this means you’ll have enough money to buy food for your family for another day. You’re up before dawn. The good masters are at the gates early looking for the best workers. You and three or four others arrive at about the same time. The muscles in your neck and back ache from the labor of the past few days, but it’s been good. There’s always work to be done during the harvest, and that means plenty of food on the table. It isn’t easy living day to day, trusting the master to pay you a fair wage at the end of the day, as is the custom. If the money isn’t there at the end of the day, neither is the food. You, your spouse, your kids … all will go hungry. But the good masters arrive early. They want the best workers. So here your are, before the sun rises, waiting on someone to offer you work for the day.


Pretty soon, the masters start to arrive, looking over the workers. The village isn’t large. Masters know workers. They know who they want. Workers know masters. They know who they prefer to work for. But any work is better than no work. Pretty soon, one of the good ones looks your way, smiles, and waves you and two of the others you are chatting with over. “Twelve hours work in my vineyards harvesting grapes. The wage is a denarius each for the day’s work.” Although the morning is cool, the sun is not yet up. The day will be long and hot. But a denarius is a fair wage. Pretty typical for this kind of work. You and your friends accept, and off you go, following the master to his field. He introduces you to his foreman and you get to work in the vineyard. It’s 6 am.


At 9 am, three more workers arrive. Not completely unexpected. Sometimes the master spies a few more good workers who have been passed over by the others and hires them so that more work is done that day. They join you and your three friends in the vineyard and pretty soon the six of you are chatting away as you work. The sun is getting higher in the sky, the temperature is warming, but it isn’t too bad yet.


At noon, the master shows up again with three more workers, and does the same again at 3 pm. They aren’t as good, as strong as you and your friends. They’re a little lazy. Probably not hired earlier because they slept in and weren’t at the gates early like the good workers were. And they aren’t getting nearly as much done as you and your friends are. Some of them are chatting too much, taking extra breaks. And the heat and humidity are oppressive now, the sun beating down on their sweaty backs from directly overhead. There is no shade in a grain field. Unlike many of the others, you’ve been slaving away in this vineyard for hours. You were at the gate early. You’ve been in the field since 6 am. Your back hurts. Your neck hurts. Your shoulders are sore. Your legs are tired. Sweat glistens from your back and drips down your face, stinging your eyes. Only three more hours. These new workers have no idea what you’ve been through. They’re fresh. You’re exhausted. But your family will eat tonight. You’re providing for your family. They won’t get as much of a wage as you.


Two hours later, at 5 pm, you look up and, astonished, see the master returning to the vineyard with three more workers in tow. Who could have been left at the gate, unhired, at 5 pm? The really lazy ones? The weak ones? The ones no one else wanted to hire? They’re the least desirable laborers in the village. But they head out into the vineyard and get to work, the same field you’ve been sweating in since 6 am. The sun is low in the sky now. The heat and humidity are receding. They have no idea what it was like working out there at 1, at 2, even at 3, in the oppressive heat. At 6 pm, you and all of the other workers, the ones who came with you first thing in the morning, along with those who were hired at 9, and at noon, and at 3, and at 5 head to the edge of the vineyard and line up to receive your pay for the day’s work.


Day laborers led a hard life. Foreign slaves had more security than they did. Masters always fed their slaves, but if there was no work for a day laborer, they and their family went hungry that day. And masters always hired the labor they really needed early in the morning. If they hired anyone later in the day, it was done out of compassion. And this master is compassionate indeed, for it seems that every time he passes the city gate, he takes on more unhired workers, offering them work. He may be compassionate, but in business terms, he’s a fool, uncalculating. He’s going to spend way more paying all of these workers than the crop they harvest will bring. He’s generous to a fault. He’s going to lose money. They first crew hired was all he really needed. But look at what he does now. Look at vv. 8-16.


It’s surprising that the master asks you all to line up with those who arrived last, those who did the least work and who didn’t sweat through the worst of the heat, in the front of the line, while you are your friends, those who did all of the work and sweated all day, are in the back, to be paid last. That doesn’t seem fair, does it. You were up before dawn and have been working away since 6 am. You should get to go home first. And then you notice something else. The master is really overpaying the workers in front of you. The ones who were only out there for an hour got a full denarius, a full day’s wage, the same wage you agreed to slave in the vineyard all day for. You don’t have to be highly educated to realize that adds up to twelve for you. That’s almost a half month’s wages!! You might even be able to buy a cow to provide some milk for your family and a calf to sell. This hard day of work could turn out to be really fortunate for you and your family. But then, the ones who worked three hours, missing the worst of the heat and labor, get a denarius each too. So do the ones who worked six hours. And the ones who worked nine hours, almost the whole day. And then one of your friends who has been out in the field sweating with you since 6 am is standing before the master, and the master slips the agreed-upon denarius into his hand, wishes him well, and turns to the next. And then you are standing before him, bewildered. How can you possibly be receiving the same pay as folks who were only out there for an hour? Where is the fairness in that? So you decide to say something. “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.” It just doesn’t seem fair does it?


In telling this story, Jesus offends our sense of fairness, doesn’t he? Why should everyone get equal pay for unequal work? And it isn’t fair. Robert DeMoor tells the story of peeling apples with his siblings when he was growing up in Canada. “Back in Ontario when the apples ripened, Mom would sit all seven of us down, Dad included, with pans and paring knives until the mountain of fruit was reduced to neat rows of filled canning jars. She never bothered keeping track of how many we did, though the younger ones undoubtedly proved more of a nuisance than a help: cut fingers, squabbles over who got which pan, apple core fights. But when the job was done, the reward for everyone was the same: the largest chocolate dipped cone money could buy. A stickler might argue it wasn’t quite fair since the older ones actually peeled apples. But I can’t remember anyone complaining about it. A family understands it operates under a different set of norms than a courtroom. In fact, when the store ran out of ice cream and my younger brother had to make do with a Popsicle, we felt sorry for him despite his lack of productivity (he’d eaten all the apples he’d peeled that day–both of them). God wants all his children to enjoy the complete fullness of eternal life. And here’s the kicker: no true child of God wants it any other way.[i]


The master turns to you and says “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 gave to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity.” Like a good master, this one is faithful to the terms his workers had agreed upon. He doesn’t short them a single penny. They receive everything promised. And look at what the master said to everyone he hired after the first group in V. 4. “You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you.” He doesn’t promise them a denarius, and they certainly aren’t going to work long enough to deserve one, even the workers who were hired just 3 hours after the first bunch. He agrees to pay them “whatever is right,” in other words, whatever is fair. And anyone who can do basic math with fractions can figure out how much each set of workers should get. But they all get a full day’s wage. It just doesn’t seem fair. But grace ISN’T fair.


The issue here isn’t the master’s lack of fairness. He completely fulfills his promise to the first set of workers. He gave them everything they should have received. The issue is the master’s generosity to all the rest. By rights, in terms of justice, they should have received less than the others. But they didn’t. They receive a full day’s pay, some for an hour’s work as the day cooled. That just isn’t fair. But it IS generous. And that is the nature of God’s grace. It isn’t fair. It confounds our sense of justice, to think that those who hurt us, sometimes deeply, can have their sins forgiven by God too. But this is how God rules his Kingdom, for justice IS done. It is done in the same moment that God in his generosity offers grace, for it is done in the life, the excruciating death, and the resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is on the cross of Christ that the justice and mercy of God come together in an offer of grace to all who will receive it. Grace isn’t fair, but it certainly is generous, and it confounds those of us who can’t seem to get past our sense of fairness, our sense that we are better than … Because the truth of grace is that in ourselves, none of us belong. Not one of us deserves anything from God. And yet we receive everything.


Youth pastor Denise Banderman remembers this experience from her time in college. In the spring of 2002, I left work early so I could have some uninterrupted study time before my final exam in the Youth Ministry class at Hannibal-LaGrange College in Missouri. When I got to class, everybody was doing their last-minute studying. The teacher came in and said he would review with us before the test. Most of his review came right from the study guide, but there were some things he was reviewing that I had never heard. When questioned about it, he said they were in the book and we were responsible for everything in the book. We couldn’t argue with that. Finally it was time to take the test. “Leave them face down on the desk until everyone has one, and I’ll tell you to start,” our professor, Dr. Tom Hufty, instructed. When we turned them over, to my astonishment every answer on the test was filled in. My name was even written on the exam in red ink. The bottom of the last page said: “This is the end of the exam. All the answers on your test are correct. You will receive an A on the final exam. The reason you passed the test is because the creator of the test took it for you. All the work you did in preparation for this test did not help you get the A. You have just experienced grace.” Dr. Hufty then went around the room and asked each student individually, “What is your grade? Do you deserve the grade you are receiving? How much did all your studying for this exam help you achieve your final grade?” Then he said, “Some things you learn from lectures, some things you learn from research, but some things you can only learn from experience. You’ve just experienced grace. One hundred years from now, if you know Jesus Christ as your personal Savior, your name will be written down in a book, and you will have had nothing to do with writing it there. That will be the ultimate grace experience.” If we misunderstand grace, we misunderstand everything. If I think that I belong, that I am forgiven, but someone else is hopeless, isn’t good enough to be in church with me, I misunderstand everything.

[i] Robert De Moor in The Banner. Leadership, Vol. 5, no. 3.