Read Matthew 20:1-16
“ ‘Those 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.”
“It’s not fair!” is a recurring cry of childhood, when hawk-eyed little auditors detect that siblings, playmates or classmates might gain the slightest advantage. Those most afflicted are ever poised to pounce – usually prematurely – at the least sign preferential treatment for anyone else. They keep a running tally, demanding that the bottom line must always be exactly equal – unless, of course, it’s tipped in their own favor.
As Jesus shows in this parable, we retain this tendency as adults. We want to cling to that earlier expectation that life will be “fair.” Scripture contains many promises, but that’s not one of them. Jesus put it to His disciples quite bluntly: “In this world, you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33) He was telling those who followed Him most closely what they would face so they wouldn’t be looking for peace from their circumstances, but from their relationship with Him.
Just as children want scrupulously equal treatment from their parents, we can consciously or unconsciously look for what we consider fairness from our heavenly Father. This often translates to an expectation of payment for services rendered, as it did with the vineyard workers. That is, we expect good health, adequate provision, pleasant family relationships and freedom from tragedy in proportion to how long we’ve been doing good works and following the rules. It can also manifest in a need to see others punished for their indifference or misdeeds, as it did with the older brother of the prodigal son. This kind of “fairness” leaves no room for wanting others to repent and come to salvation.
The hankering for this definition of fairness highlights a flawed understanding of the nature of our fallen world, ourselves, our God and our salvation. It reveals a focus on this life as all there is, rather than only a brief prelude to eternity.
In truth, we should fall on our knees and thank God every day that He isn’t “fair.” If our salvation depended on what we call fairness, we’d all be doomed. What’s fair about a people who, throughout history, have kept turning our backs on the One who created and loves and continues to reach out to us? What’s fair about forgetting or ignoring or taking for granted what God has done, blithely tossing Him aside to worship what looks good or easy? What’s fair about grown children who only show up when we want something? What’s fair about the sinless Son of God being nailed to a cross for something He didn’t do, but to pay for what we did and continue to do?
God gave us the responsibility of making our own choices, and those choices have consequences, He placed us in communities, both large and small, for mutual benefit. However, depending on which choices individuals and communities make, others are affected. What we choose impacts others. What others choose impacts us. We don’t live in a bubble.
But still we sometimes say, “I don’t understand why God let this happen.” No, we don’t – and we can’t. We’re not supposed to; we’re not God. It would take far more than our limited knowledge, vision and experience to unravel all the contributors, consequences and ultimately redeeming elements that make up any particular outcome. That’s what trust is about: following whether or not we understand where God is leading, and why.
That’s what happened when, despite the well-known intention of the religious leaders to kill Jesus, He led them to Jerusalem, “and the disciples were astonished, while those who followed were afraid.” (Mark 10:32) Where God leads can seem astonishing to us – surely contrary to any sane or logical purpose we can imagine. What we have to understand is that God’s knowledge and vision far outstrip our imaginations. Those who chose to follow Jesus to Jerusalem even though they were afraid witnessed an outcome that changed their lives forever.
Even when God tells us plainly what’s ahead, we sometimes can’t take it in. Mark goes on to say: “Again he took the twelve aside and told them what was going to happen to him. ‘We are going up to Jerusalem,’ he said, ‘and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will hand him over to the Gentiles, who will mock him and spit on him, flog him and kill him. Three days later he will rise.’ (vs. 32-34)
Luke tells us that “The disciples did not understand any of this.” (Luke 18:34) They didn’t understand, but they followed. Jesus told them plainly, but it was too far outside the scope of their expectations and experience for them to make sense of it. It was only later, after God’s purpose had been accomplished, that they understood. In the meantime, their responsibility was to follow even when they didn’t understand why.
We’re often in the meantime, in-between-time – the times when we don’t understand, can’t see any good purpose, and are afraid. Those are the times when trust takes over; when we remember the heads-up Jesus gave His disciples, and therefore us: “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”
In Him, we too can overcome the world, not by expecting the world’s version of fairness, but by embracing grace. That’s so much more than fair.