When God’s Generosity in Unfair
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For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard.
About nine in the morning he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. He told them, “You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.” So they went.
He went out again about noon and about three in the afternoon and did the same thing. About five in the afternoon he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, “Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?”
“Because no one has hired us,” they answered.
He said to them, “You also go and work in my vineyard.”
When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, “Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.”
The workers who were hired about five in the afternoon came and each received a denarius. So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. “These who were hired last worked only one hour,” they said, “and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.”
But he answered one of them, “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?”
So the last will be first, and the first will be last.
Mathew 20:1-16 NIV
I am unsure if you have ever had to stand in a line with a shovel in hand at 6 in the morning waiting for some one to offer you a day’s work. The closest I have been to this was when I was in university and would go downtown Edmonton to see if temporary manpower had something for me to do that day. Since then I have not really had to worry about receiving a paycheck at the end of each month, not at the end of each day.
The last few weeks we have been looking at how dependent we are on God’s generosity. Rusty made it clear that we have to become like children in order to receive what God offers. Dan shared that what God offers a man is worth everything he has. Ingrid explained how our appreciation of God’s mercy gives us the capacity to forgive.
If you or I see ourselves as the 100 dollar debt types, and not the multi-million dollar debt types, we will get upset with God when He forgives the multi-million types, especially if you are one of those whom they have wronged. I need to see myself, as the multi-million dollar debtor and stop thinking my sin needed less of Jesus’ blood than yours. The Kingdom of God is made up of those who recognize their utter unworthiness of what they have received. They are the ones who are embarrassed by the gift and generosity of God.
One of the first jobs I ever had was when I was 17. It was in a factory in England making gadgets for a dollar an hour and I was so grateful to have a job for the summer, until a man who was disabled in a wheel chair started to work beside me. He was making half the gadgets that I made. I mustered up the courage to ask how much he earned. Not a good thing to do, but give me some slack, I was only 17. When he told me that he was making two dollars an hour I said, “What? That’s not fair,” not really but sure thought it. It contaminated my heart. For some reason I was not thankful for my dollar an hour anymore. If you have brothers or sisters it’s happened to you too.
We want formulas and techniques to assure what we get. The idea that “there is nothing free in this world” is written on our hearts. But for a Pharisee like me I want to believe—I desperately want to believe—that if I “do the right things” all will be well. Whether in parenting, work, marriage, whatever—I hope for a cause-effect relationship in life. Many of us even think we can twist God’s arm, and if He does not come through on His part it throws us off. These are precisely the things that create a barrier for me to receive the grace of God.
Who was invited to work in the vineyard? It seems apparent that they are nothing more than unemployed workers with shovels in their hands. All these workers live precarious lives. These guys live one day at a time. They are the lowest rank workers of society. The men waiting for work have nothing secure. No long term contracts, no labor union. All desperately need work, and that is why they wait till the last hour.
It is important to note that it is the father of a family that goes out to look for workers. He represents our Heavenly Father. He understands what it is like to take care of a family.
The 6am workers arrive at the break of dawn in order to receive a contract for one day. They make a deal based on fair wages with the owner of the vineyard. The Pharisees who are listening are accustomed to making deals based on what is fair. A Pharisee wants to know the rules of the game and be able to measure everyone else with them. They also believe that “God helps the early to rise” and “God helps those who help themselves”.
But, when injustices are done towards them, what do they desire? Justice! Fairness.
When they have done an injustice towards another, what do they want? Mercy?
They have a double standard. There is a disconnect in their theology.
Those who were contracted at 9am and noon also go to work seeking a contract based on what is fair. The father comes back to the market place and asks the men at 5 o’clock why they are not working. There are always reasons behind the questions Jesus asks. The men answer with a half-truth. No one has hired us, they say. Why do you suppose they have not been hired? The worst workers are last to be hired.
The measure of a man’s dignity is often associated with his capacity to produce, but in this story Jesus wants to let us know that the dignity of a man is in the hands of the Father. Although this father knows the quality of work he will be receiving from these men—especially the 5 o’clock workers—he still offers it to them. You probably have worked with a few of these types yourself, the “good for nothing lot”. If I was the foreman I would say “don’t take them!” Crazy, why would anyone do this?
Does God need my inferior work? Of course not, it is crazy that He invites me to work in His vineyard at all.
Do you think they are worried about a contract being written up? They are simply thankful to have been given even an hour’s work. In verse 8 we have the pay scale for these workers. There is a reason for why he pays the last first! He is reinforcing what He had said to the disciples, the last shall be first and the first shall be last. Jesus pays the last a whole day’s wage? Do you think He is generous?
Why don’t the workers come back to tell the foreman that he had made a mistake? When’s the last time you returned to ask the government that they have given you too much on your tax return? The workers know they have received more than they deserve, they do not want to know if there has been an error. They are embarrassed with the gift. No entitlement in their minds. They do not want to discuss what they deserve. But not so with the early birds.
Early that morning they all were poor precarious workers. But something happens between six in the morning and six at night. Why is it possible to lose my joy in working in a factory knowing that someone who was physically disabled made more than me? The sad thing is I never even reflected on, “Do you want to earn double as much but live with the same challenges?”
We lose perspective so easily. These men lose perspective between when they were hired and when they were paid. One day. The early birds are not even glad to know that these latter workers will have enough to feed their families.
We lose perspective when we forget that we were as dependent on this Father as the other workers, when we forget who defines us. We lose perspective when we establish a set of rules to compare what we think we deserve with what others receive. The early birds expect to be paid more. They assume they will receive more. They believe they are worth more to the owner. Why? They compare themselves to the other workers rather than the contract they had agreed upon in the morning.
Entitlement kills gratitude. They murmur against the Father. When reading this parable, people often feel as if it is not fair. Remember, it is a parable and Jesus is trying to make a point about who really is first in the Kingdom. Do they not have a reason to grumble? If these early birds had gone to fight their case in court do you think they would have won? No, they had agreed upon a fair wage, one denarii per day.
It is amazing that at six in the morning these workers think that the owner had done them a great favour, but at six in the evening they think they have done the owner a favour by working the whole day. They have lost perspective of who they really are and begin to demand rights that are not theirs to demand. At six in the morning they would never have thought of demanding more from this father. They enter the day grateful for the grace shown to them, but by the end of the day they are mad at the father’s generosity towards others.
Those who are first in the Kingdom never demand fairness. Can you imagine what would happen to you and me if we demanded fairness from God?
Why do these men murmur? Not because they had not been paid; look at what it says, ”You have made these last workers equal to us.” That is what causes the rage. Not only has he paid them the same but he also values them the same. We have to work in the sun and under a greater load, etc, etc. It’s an argument based on fairness. Jesus is trying to teach the disciples that they should never go to God on the basis of fairness.
In verse 13 the owner says he has done no injustice, he owes no one anything and will never owe any man anything. The owner of the vineyard treats the first workers on the basis they wanted to be treated. According to a fair contract. But he treats the last workers according to mercy and grace, with generosity. The self righteous and proud cannot receive what the owner would like to give.
In verse 15 Jesus says, don’t I have the right to do what I want in my Kingdom where the rules are different, they are based on grace and not human merit. They cannot be manipulated by earthly rules or human accomplishments. By faith, the workers in God’s Kingdom receive blessings because of the merits and efforts of another: Jesus Christ. The generosity of this owner is not won by human efforts. Again He reiterates, “Are you envious of my generosity?”
Envy is the thief of joy. Jesus’ generosity caused the workers great discomfort. In contrast, gratitude will slay the foe of comparison.
Who are the first and who are the last? The last are those who know they are in desperate need of Jesus. The healthy person does not need a doctor. The rich do not need a co-signer. The just do not need a lawyer. The able need no help. Jesus identifies truly blessed persons as those who recognize their spiritual poverty and utter dependence on God. All the workers that day were in this category but only some went away recognizing it.
Brennan Manning writes in All of Grace, “We are not measured in the light of what we do but in the light of the grace we accept.” He goes on to say that the prerequisite to understanding what God offers us is to recognize our incapacity to impress God and recognize our poverty. It’s impossible to be impressed with God’s offer if I am still amazed by my own wealth, beauty, fame, and importance.
The older son in the prodigal son story could not enter into the joy of his younger brother’s feast because he was furious with His father’s generosity toward him. He thought that he would never need that type of rescuing.
God sees us all as precarious blue collar workers with a shovel in our hands, desperately needing the owner of the earth to look upon us with mercy and invite us at five in the afternoon to work for Him.
Let me stop here for a moment and offer someone who is tired of trying to do everything right, trying to earn your way, like the rich ruler that Dan spoke about last week—you never feel enough, you are tired of trying to measure up, Jesus comes to you today and says, “you are the type of person I came to rescue and dignify by getting it all right for you. Let me credit you with my account. Rest in my crazy generosity. Let me be enough for you.”
Have you slowly gotten self-sufficient and no need to pray, “give us this day our daily bread”? Have we lost perspective of God’s grace? Entitlement kills gratitude and makes it hard to forgive.
As I was meditating on my frustrations about some of my kids’ mistakes, I had to recognize my pride; their mistakes will never be bigger than mine have been. If it weren’t for the grace of God who has given us His Spirit to live in us we would not have the strength or ability to obey what He has asked us to do. Grace is justified only because Jesus suffered unjustly. Grace is unmerited favor bought by Jesus’ blood.
1 Peter 3:18 says, “For Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, in order to bring us to God.”
I am and we all are the men and women that God saw as incapable of doing or producing anything of worth and has had mercy to invite us into His vineyard. As a disciple of His, Jesus promises you in John 15 that if you abide in Him you will produce much fruit; useless 5 o’clock workers transformed into fruitful laborers.
Are we still afraid, like Peter, of how the Owner will pay us? I encourage you not to make a contract with God, get used to needing His helpful hand and grace as a child needs his father.
Thank you, Father, for inviting me into your Kingdom and into your Kingdom care. Thank you for picking me up at the market with a shovel in my hand, knowing what I could offer; thank you for how you can make me useful by your transforming power.
A question I leave with you: Do you realize how unfair God has been with you? I encourage you to spend some time praising Him for it.