That’s Not Fair!
17th Sunday after Pentecost
That’s Not Fair!
Text: Matthew 20:1-16
That’s Not Fair! We’ve been slaving away all day long! We started working at the break of dawn at 6:00 am. We’ve put in over 10 hours of work. We poured out sweat as the sun beat down on our bodies. Our hands and our joints are aching from grueling work. Our hands and our feet are stained with grape juice. We did our job faithfully and dutifully. We worked hard. We smell like dirty tunics and we look like filthy pigs. And you’re telling us that you’re going to pay them the same amount that you pay us? That guy didn’t even start until 9:00am! That guy started after lunch! And that guy only worked one hour today! You’re going to pay us all the same? That’s Not Fair!
The outrage of the workers in Jesus’ parable is understandable. Working a vineyard was no cake-job. It was out in the scorching Middle Eastern sun. It was tedious work. It was tiring work. It was slave work. That’s likely why the landowner was hiring day laborers to do the work.
Jesus really sets up the story for the great injustice at the end. He tells us that the landowner hired men early in the morning—about 6:00 am—and agreed to pay them a denarius. A denarius was a command and fair day’s wage at that time. Then the man hired more men at about the third hour, or 9:00 am, and said, “You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.” Again, Jesus is setting us up here. The landowner doesn’t say how much he’ll pay, just whatever is right. The landowner did the same around noon and between 4:00 and 5:00pm. We would assume he also told them he would pay whatever is right. So far so good. This makes sense to every working person that has ever lived. If today a day’s wage would be about $75, we would expect the other workers to get $50, $25, and $10 perhaps. That would be expected. That would be fair.
But that’s where the surprise comes. The men who worked just an hour or two got a denarius—a whole day’s wage. Ok, well maybe the landowner changed his mind. Maybe he would give the men who worked the whole day two or three denarii, right? Not at all! He gave them all the same amount!
That’s Not Fair! It makes us cringe and makes our skin crawl, especially in a down economy. Imagine if you worked long, hard hours all week long. You put in 40, 50, even 60 hours of work. But then at pay day, the bubble-gum chewing, lazy, teenage punk who works 10 hours a week got the same pay check you did. That’s Not Fair! I’m sure even our kind and loving teachers would have a few comments to share if one worked 40-50 hours in a week and another worked one hour a day, but both got paid the same on the 15th and the 30th! We relate to this parable as well as any other Jesus told because things still work the same way today. We join the workers and cry out, That’s Not Fair!
But listen to the landowner’s reply: “Friend, I am not being unfair to you. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? 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?” The landowner was right. He didn’t cheat the first workers. He gave them exactly what he said he would. And if they questioned the “fairness” of equal pay for all, the landowner said that it was his money and he could be generous if he wanted to.
Yet this is still a parable that doesn’t sit well with us. We’re all about fair trades and fair deals and fair pay. We have laws guaranteeing minimum wage and laws regulating taxation and much more. Most of us have probably had at least one experience in our life when we were cheated out of money. This doesn’t sit well and is hard for us to grasp.
But do you know what makes this parable even harder for us to chew on and digest? It’s not really about work or pay or money. The first verse says, “The kingdom of heaven is like . . .” Jesus is teaching us a lesson about his people, about himself, and about heaven.
And so just like in the vineyard parable, there are people who are Christians their entire lives. They are born and raised Christian. They live to be 80 or 90 or more, and then they go to heaven. That’s the “pay” they receive as a free gift from Jesus. But there are some people who become Christians later in life. Maybe in elementary school. Maybe in high school. Some realize what’s most important when they have children. But then, there are some people who are unbelievers down to their last few dying moments and then become Christians.
So far so good. This makes sense. We know this happens. So maybe we get a little more credit then. Maybe we get a little better place in heaven. Maybe we enjoy heaven a little bit more, right? Not at all! Jesus is telling us that gives to all believers—no matter the length of belief—equally and the same amount of “pay.” Every believer receives the same, equal, free gift of heaven.
Now wait a second! This is what makes us cringe and makes our skin crawl a bit. Many of you know who Jeffrey Dahmer is. Jeffrey Dahmer was a mass murder that lived a few miles from my house growing up. He killed 17 men and boys, most of them over a four year span from 1987-1991. Some of the men he had relations with first. Some of the men he had relations with after he killed them. Some he cut up into pieces and ate. When he was finally caught he had fridges full of body parts. He was sentenced to 15 consecutive life sentences. But in 1994 an inmate stabbed him to death in prison. However, many sources claim that Jeffrey Dahmer had repented of his wrongs and became a Christian shortly before he died. That would mean that Jeffrey Dahmer is now in heaven.
Wait a second! That’s Not Fair! This last week a legend passed away. Steve Jobs died from cancer at the age of 56. He revolutionized the world. He changed the way we live and listen to music and buy music and how we use computers and what we use them for. While he was worth several billion dollars, he also gave very generously to many causes. He was an innovator, a pioneer, an entrepreneurial mastermind, and seemingly a pretty nice guy. Yet it would appear that he may not have been a true Christian, which means that he would be in hell.
So Steve Jobs, the nice guy and world changer goes to hell, but Jeffrey Dahmer the mass-murdering cannibal makes a last minute change and goes to heaven? That’s Not Fair!
Ah! Now we really understand why Jesus told this parable. This is troubling to us. This doesn’t make sense. This doesn’t sound fair. You can even break it down and relate to it on a lesser level too . . .
So I could be a Christian my entire life. I could go to church every Sunday. I could volunteer at all the events. I could faithfully give offerings to the Lord—even 10% or more. I could curb and restrain my behavior as best I can to live a God-pleasing life for my whole life. But you’re telling me that someone who goes to church occasionally, rarely does anything around the church, hardly gives anything to the Lord, but yet still is a Christian would get the same gift of heaven that I get? Or someone could live a wild and crazy life of sin and live it up with sex, drugs, and rock and roll, but yet later in life become a Christian and still get the same free gift of heaven that I get? That’s Not Fair!
Peter had the same kind of thoughts. Just before this parable in chapter 19 of Matthew Peter said to Jesus, “We have left everything to follow you. What then will there be for us?” Peter also figured that since he had committed himself to the Lord longer and more, he should get something better. So Jesus then told this parable.
Well what should we get? What should we get if we are better Christians? What should we get if we are Christians longer in life? I suppose we should examine what’s really “fair.”
God has offered heaven to every human being. It was really a simple offer and a simple command. God has said, “Be perfect because I am perfect,” and “Be holy because I am holy.” God also said that if we obey him, then we will be his people and he will be our God. It is very simple. If we want to live with him in heaven God says that all we have to do is obey everything he tells us to do.
That’s very simple. That’s also a very big problem. I haven’t upheld my end of the bargain. I haven’t been perfect. I haven’t been close to perfect. I’ve done so many things in my life, many of which I would never want to even share with you. Even if I thought I was pretty good, God tells us, “Whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it.” Even one sin makes me a total sinner, and yet I’ve sinned much more than that.
That means I’ve broken my end of the deal. That means I should face the consequences for breaking the deal. God says, “The wages of sin is death,” and, “The soul who sins is the one who will die.” Therefore, because I’m not perfect—in fact far from it—because I’ve sinned, I should die physically and die eternally in hell. That’s fair.
You see, as we ache and moan and whine and complain about who receives what from God, we have flipped everything upside down. We’ve turned God’s grace and mercy into something we can earn. If we think that we should get something better than Jeffrey Dahmer because we are “better people,” then heaven and God’s grace must be something that we earn and achieve (because we’ve achieved more than Dahmer did). But that’s the problem right there. Heaven is not something we earn. God’s grace is not something we merit, because we can’t. We could never do enough to please God because we sin too much. We might not have murdered 17 people, but we have sinned countless times in our lives. So whether we are “good” Christians or Jeffrey Dahmer or Adolph Hitler or Mother Theresa, no one can earn heaven because everyone is a sinner.
Now let me read for you something else that isn’t fair. This is from the book of Isaiah, “He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”
What isn’t fair is that Jesus was perfect. He was innocent. He always obeyed his Father and never sinned once. Yet he was pierced and nailed to a cross for our wrongs. He was crushed under the weight of our sins. He received the punishment of death and hell that we deserve. We were the ones to go astray, but he was the one to suffer and die for it. That’s Not Fair!
The words of the loving landowner ring in our ears, “Friend, I am not being unfair to you . . . Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?” You see, Jesus teaches us about his grace, his boundless grace, in this parable. It’s not at all fair that he was the one to suffer and die, but he did for us out of love. It’s not at all fair that we sinners should receive the gift of eternal life. But he gives it to us because he is generous and gracious and merciful.
So our perspective was upside down and backwards. The workers in the parable should have been thankful and rejoiced that the landowner could be so generous that he would give the same pay to all of them. And so should we. If anyone goes to heaven at all, we should rejoice and be glad. If a 30-year-old mother comes to our church because of our school or our kids carnival in November and then learns about Jesus and goes to heaven, great! If a person joins our church as a 50-year-old and first time Christian and later goes to heaven, awesome! If a 90-year-old comes to our church for the very first time at Christmas Eve this year after a wild and sinful life, but then learns about the Savior and goes to heaven, terrific! If the thief on the cross next to Jesus could be crucified for his crimes, then repent and turn to Jesus, then be promised by Jesus that he would be in paradise too, amazing! And if Jeffrey Dahmer would be a mass murderer of the most vile kind, but in his last few months perhaps repented of his sins, turned in faith to Jesus for forgiveness, and is now in heaven, then thanks be to God!
You see, not one of those people deserve eternal life. But I don’t either! It is only by the generosity, grace, and mercy of our God that any person—including me—would ever go to heaven. So be it the life long Christian, the recent convert, the rebel man now turned believer, the modest woman who has lived an entire life of faith, or the one who turns to Jesus on the deathbed—whoever receives Jesus’ generous gift of forgiveness and heaven—That’s Not Fair, but thanks be to God for his grace!
Posted on October 9, 2011, in Church, Sermons and tagged Adolph Hitler, Apple, Church, Fair, Fairness, Generosity, Grace, Jeffrey Dahmer, Matthew, Matthew 20, Mercy, Mother Theresa, Peter, Sermons, Steve Jobs. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.