Fair Is Fair
By Rev. Heidi L. Barham | September 24, 2023
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Read Matthew 20:1 – 16
I am going to go out on a limb here and make an assumption that most, if not all, of us have looked at a particular situation when someone else got something we felt we deserved and we uttered with complete consternation and utter frustration, “But that’s not fair!”
That’s not fair that she got the promotion when I’m the one who comes in early every morning and leaves late every evening and puts in overtime on the weekends…
That’s not fair that he got a raise and is making more than me when he’s only worked here for a year and I have been here for more than twenty…
That’s not fair that they get to stay out late on a school night… we never got to do that when we were that age…
That’s not fair that they are changing the rules to try and make things more equitable for “those people” …don’t they realize they are taking away the unfair advantage we have always had…
That’s not fair that they are asking for laws to be enacted to protect the lives and rights of society as a whole… I have a right to do whatever I want to do… so what if it puts someone else at risk…
That’s just not fair!
So, let me pose this simple question… whoever said that life would be fair??
And while we’re at it… as long as we are in this mode of inquiry… exactly what is fair anyway?
And who gets to make the decision about what is fair?
Well, I am so glad you asked… because this morning, I want to invite our attention to the text and encourage us to think on the subject: FAIR IS FAIR.
In this passage from Matthew’s Gospel, we find Jesus telling the Parable of the Vineyard Workers to explain to His listeners, and to us, that entrance into the kingdom of heaven is purely a matter of God’s grace… of God’s unmerited favor.
It is not about us being able to earn our way into the kingdom… nor is it about us doing anything to deserve God’s favor. You see, unlike our modern-day places of employment or our educational institutions… the gift of eternity is not something that is granted as part of some merit-based system… it is all about God’s grace.
Now as we dig a little deeper into the text, what should become clear is that the landowner in the story is really God and the workers that the landowner hired are believers… you know, like you and me.
As we look at this parable, the workers that Jesus refers to were actually day laborers… peasants who were forced to hire themselves out for work on a daily basis because they needed a way to repay the debts they had incurred as well as a means to pay the exorbitant taxes that were levied against them.
And as the story goes, the landowner went down to the local labor pool and hired a set of workers to go to work in his vineyard around 6:00 in the morning. He offered to pay them a denarius… which was the going rate for a day’s work back in biblical times. The landowner went back a few hours later, around 9:00 a.m., and hired some more workers and he agreed to pay them “whatever is right.”
Now, according to the Scriptures, the landowner went back again around noon and then again around 3:00 in the afternoon… each time offering to pay the new batch of workers he hired, “whatever [was] right.”
Now, in all likelihood, the second, third, and fourth batch of workers probably figured they would earn something proportionately less than a day’s wage because they had been hired at later times throughout the day. They would not have been the least bit surprised to get a lesser amount.
And then around 5:00 in the evening, the landowner came back by and saw that there were still more workers that had not been hired. He asked them why they had been standing around doing nothing all day and they simply replied, “Because no one hired us.”
So, the landowner told them to go work in his vineyard also… apparently, he still had a lot of work that needed to be done… although it is rather interesting to note that he did not say anything to this last group of workers about what they would be paid.
In any event, at the end of the day, the landowner told his foreman to call the workers in from the vineyard and to pay them their wages… starting with the ones who had been hired last and then moving on to the ones that had been hired first. And that is just what the foreman did.
The workers who were hired on at 5:00, almost at the end of the day, were paid a denarius… a day’s wage… much more than they were likely expecting…
And something that got the wheels spinning in the minds of those who had been hired earlier in the day… they probably started seeing dollar signs swimming in their heads… believing that because of the generosity the landowner had shown to the workers hired on for just that last hour they would be paid much more.
So they must have been more than a little surprised when they received the exact same amount… a denarius… one day’s wage. And looking at the text, I think it is fair to say that not only were they surprised… they were downright indignant.
“These last workers put in only one easy hour, and you just made them equal to us, who slaved all day under a scorching sun.”
Don’t you just love it when someone gets mad at how you spend your money?
Well, the landowner told the spokesman for the group of disgruntled workers:
I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the one 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?’
If I could use my imagination for just a moment, I can almost see that landowner telling that worker, “FAIR IS FAIR.” I can choose to do what I want to do with my money… and I can bless whoever I want to bless… I get to decide what is fair… (keep in mind the landowner is really God after all… and God is the One who ultimately gets to decide what is fair.)
And let me just say this, God’s determination of what is fair is vastly different than what our definition of fair would be…
Whether we say anything out loud or only think it to ourselves, we have an uncanny ability to judge others by what can be some seriously harsh standards… and in doing so, we set up a matrix of sorts in our minds of who deserves what and who doesn’t…
And if we are being completely honest… we have a tendency to tilt the scales in our own favor… seeing ourselves as the ones who should receive the greatest rewards and the highest honors.
We are the workers who were hired first… the ones who have done the most work… the ones who deserve to get paid more than anyone else… the ones who have earned the right to receive the greatest accolades for our contributions…
After all, FAIR IS FAIR! Right?
Or is it?
Remember what Jesus said in the last verse of the text, “the last will be first, and the first will be last.” Jesus basically, turned that concept of fair completely upside down and inside out.
Now, I, for one, am rather glad that I have not always received what is fair…
Let’s just take a moment and look at what Paul wrote in his letter to the Romans where we find these sobering words, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23) …and in that same letter we also find, “For the wages of sin is death…” (Romans 6:23a). YIKES!
But thankfully, Paul doesn’t stop there… he goes on to say, “but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23b). What a relief!
Because of God’s grace and mercy we do not get what would be fair… we do not receive what would actually be the just punishment that our sins deserve…
It reminds me of the story that we find in Luke 23, about the two criminals who were crucified alongside Jesus. The one criminal was frightfully aware of all that he and his compadre had done to deserve their punishment.
In fact, he offered a stern rebuke to the other criminal who had the audacity to taunt Jesus. He told him, “‘Don’t you fear God… since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong’” (Luke 23:40 – 41).
And then the repentant criminal turned to Jesus and simply said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
No pleas for mercy to spare his life. No last-minute cries to be taken down from the cross. No appeals for a pardon from the governor for a stay of execution. No declarations that “This isn’t fair!”
No… only a simple request to be remembered.
This man was literally being crucified… he had been nailed to a cross so he would suffer an excruciating, painful death… a punishment that was reserved for the most heinous of criminals… a punishment which this criminal acknowledged that he deserved… a punishment that he seemed to consider was fair in light of his criminal behavior.
But did he ultimately get what was fair? Did he get what he truly deserved?
No… on the contrary… what he got was a promise from Jesus that, “Today, you will be with me in paradise.”
In other words, he deserved eternal damnation but instead he received the gift of salvation… and not because he joined the local church and attended Bible study regularly ... not because he completed a thousand hours of community service ... not because he served hot meals in the soup kitchen and passed out clothes to the homeless ... and not even because he made large donations to a bunch of charitable organizations.
Although all of that would have been honorable indeed… that criminal received the gift of salvation in those precious moments before he died ... not because of anything he had done to deserve it ... not because it was fair… but simply because of his faith in Jesus.
Now, to be clear… we don’t read in the Gospel account how this criminal came to believe that Jesus was the Messiah… but the fact THAT he believed, opened the doors to the kingdom of heaven for him, even in his final moments.
That criminal got the same thing in that last hour… that many others have received after what amounts to a lifetime of believing…
And that my friends can be the sticking point for some…
There are some who feel that FAIR IS FAIR… and it is only fair that those who have been serving the church and giving of their time, talent, and treasure for longer than they can remember… they are the ones who should be granted an all-access pass to the kingdom… while the latecomers should take a backseat or go on a wait list of some sort.
But thankfully for all of us… Jesus doesn’t operate like that… or we might all find ourselves in that backseat… being waitlisted… okay, maybe it would just be me…
But I don’t think it is a far stretch to say that there is always someone else who has done more than we have, served longer than we have, and gone over and above in their giving than we have…
But here’s the good news… our salvation is not based on any of that.
In Ephesians 2 (8 – 9) we read, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.”
It is by grace… it is by God’s unmerited favor that we have been saved… and as I have heard said on more than one occasion, “Favor ain’t fair.”
We receive the gift of God’s grace, God’s unmerited favor, not because it is fair… but because God is God… and because God loves us so much, He has made it possible for us to be like that criminal that hung on that cross at Calvary… who in spite of whatever heinous crimes he may have committed… he received the promise of eternity when Jesus told him right then and there… “Today… you will be with me in paradise.”
It's like the story that Max Lucado tells about his sense of outrage that Jeffrey Dahmer, arguably one of the most vile criminals in our lifetime… it is said that Dahmer made his confession of faith and accepted Jesus as his Savior before he was killed in prison. Which means… as far as we know, he would have received the same gift of eternity that is promised to anyone of us… Yes, even a convicted serial killer like Jeffrey Dahmer.
Jesus makes eternity possible for each and every one of us not because it is fair… but because of His great love for us… and as we read in John 15:13, Jesus said, “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”
And isn’t it good to know that whether it is fair or not, we have a friend like Jesus? Someone who was willing to give His life as a ransom for ours… to pay the penalty that all of our sins deserved?
Can I just say, that is a friend like no other we will ever have… and that’s perfectly okay because in the end… He’s the only friend we will ever truly need.
And with that thought in mind, let’s stand and join in singing our Hymn of Discipleship: What a Friend We Have in Jesus #585. Back