Grace Is Not Fair

Sermon on the Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard

It is human nature to grumble and complain. We see this as a consistent problem among the people of God throughout redemptive history. When a person has been liberated from sin and called by God into the process of sanctification, there is a range of the sins of the flesh that Christians generally don’t struggle with as much as secular people do – Prodigal son-type sins. These are the ones to first work their way out of our lifestyles after we have been saved by Jesus. The sins that Christians tend to struggle with more are the sins of disposition, of attitude, of the heart. This is why Paul says in Romans 12 that we need to make a break from the pattern of the world and renew our minds.

This is what happens for the Israelites after they have left Egypt. They need to shift from a slave mindset, subservient to both the people and gods of Egypt, to a God-only mindset.

In Jesus’ parable of the laborers in the vineyard in Matthew 20, this is the very mindset he is addressing. One of the most pesky sins that plagues the faithful is that we struggle with grace. We gravitate more toward self-righteousness and dependence on the law – the legalism of the Pharisees that requires fairness according to our own understanding.

In this parable, the landowner hires more workers all throughout the day, and a problem comes at the end of the day when he is paying his workers. What we do in our modern culture is keep secret how much each person is being paid to avoid jealousy or a sense of unfairness among workers who are being paid different amounts. But Jesus isn’t giving business advice here; he’s teaching a lesson about grace and generosity.

“That’s not fair!” It’s a common phrase heard among parents of siblings, who are striving to make sure they are being given equal treatment from their parents. It’s the charge that’s being leveled against the landowner in this parable, and it is very frequently a charge that we level against God. We accuse him of not being fair in the way he distributes his beneficence.

We say, “God is being better to them than he is to me.” “Why are they so happy when I struggle with this?” This is a very dangerous game to play against our brothers and sisters in Christ. We claim that others don’t have to bear the burdens we bear, and we resent God for not being kind to us.

We see the same principle in the parable of the Prodigal Son. I believe this parable is misnamed, because it’s really about the older brother, who resented the kindness of his father and grumbled against what he perceived to be unfairness. How very often we see this attitude in the church. We need to be careful with this, because it implies that we believe working for the kingdom of God to be drudgery, that being faithful to the Lord feels like slavery.

We also see this among the Israelites in Exodus. God displays his incredible, mighty acts in setting them free from slavery in Egypt, and then when they get out into the wilderness, they grumble and complain because of food. They accuse God of being cruel and uncaring. They claim that slavery in Egypt is in any way better than following God through the wilderness. Their nostalgia for the old, familiar ways had them believing that somehow those who are faithful to the Lord receive less blessing than those who are not. This is a common deception that the enemy uses against God’s people. We see it all through Scripture and even today.

A common misperception in our culture is, as my wife says, that we compare other people’s outsides with our insides. We assume that what we see on the outside is what is actually true on the inside, and that is very rarely true. In the parable, it’s interesting to see the attitude of the first vineyard workers toward the ones who were hired last. They did not show compassion for the workers hired last or an awareness for the need they might be experiencing.

And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing. And 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.’

Matthew 20:6-7

In verses 6-7, we see the motivation of those hired last – they wanted to work! They would have been glad to have worked all day, but no one hired them. In the same way, we have no idea the motivations and circumstances of the people around us who don’t yet follow the Lord. One of the things about grace is that it is a great equalizer – we all stand in the same need of it, regardless of how or when we come to receive it.

The last attitude that Jesus challenges in this parable is our bad attitude toward the generosity of God. God’s kingdom doesn’t work according to our plans, our timetables, or our methods. The landowner makes the point to the workers: It’s my prerogative to pay my workers what I want to. If I want to show them generosity, that is up to me.

Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?

Matthew 20:15

The landowner made an effort to go out all through the day and seek out all those who needed work, and to make sure they had what they needed. The first workers failed to see this because they were focused only on themselves. So they begrudged his generosity. In the same way, God intentionally seeks out the lost to save them on his own timeline, and it is up to him to give mercy as he sees fit.

All of us need his mercy in the same way. Especially recently, the season of coronavirus and quarantine has been a challenging one, but some have struggled worse than others. We may be tempted to get angry and resentful at God over this, but the Lord’s desire is to redeem and sanctify us into mature believers. It is a privilege to fellowship in the sufferings of Christ, and that is a hard thing for us to grasp, but this is the maturity that God wishes to grow in us. May our mindsets change so that we accept that we get to bear the burden of each day in working for the kingdom of God as a reflection of the burden that Jesus bore for our salvation.