Unfair Grace

Posted: November 5, 2012 in Matthew

Matthew 20:1-16, “Unfair Grace”

"That’s not fair!"  How many times have we heard this from our children, or perhaps we’ve said this ourselves.  We think that someone else got more than what we got, and it’s not fair in our eyes, so we begin our protest.  It’s one thing to do that in our place of employment, or perhaps a court of law…it’s another thing entirely to do that in our relationship with God.  We see God bless someone in one way or another, and we complain about His lack of fairness towards us.  "God, why did You bless him/her like that?!  He doesn’t deserve it…he’s evil, and I’m trying to serve You!"  "God, how could You allow something like this to happen in my life?  It’s simply not fair!"  Of course the problem is that we try to hold God to our system of what we think is fair.  Whatever would be most beneficial to US is fair; whatever we might not like is not fair.  In reality, it’s our own standard of justice which isn’t fair!

If we really wanted what was fair and just, then NONE of us would have any right relationship with God.  What we believe is fair towards us is generally patently unfair towards God.  God’s standard is perfection, and when we ask Him to act on our behalf though we are sinful creatures, we are being severely unfair to Him.  God doesn’t act towards us on the basis of fairness; He acts in his grace.  Grace isn’t fair; grace is a gift.  Grace is…grace.

As we pick up in Ch 20, we need to be careful not to divorce it from its general context with Ch 19.  Jesus is still speaking to the disciples after the disappointment if the rich young ruler.  This young man, well respected in the community, and a seemingly pious Jew according to the traditions had approached Jesus asking for assurance of eternal life.  To all around, he would have been viewed as a shoo-in…easy pickings for evangelism.  God had already shown His blessings on the young man through his riches, so surely he would be closer to the kingdom of God than anyone else…right?  Wrong.  Jesus used the law to demonstrate that the young man’s supposed goodness was really false self-righteousness.  The young man truly didn’t love his neighbor as himself, and he was willing to let his love for his money and possessions hold him back from the kingdom of God.

To the astonishment of the disciples, Jesus showed that riches do not guarantee one’s inclusion in the kingdom.  In fact, nothing a person could do for him or herself is sufficient to earn eternal life.  This is truly impossible with man.  But with God, all things are possible.  A man or woman could not take themselves into the kingdom of God, but God could bring them there.  God could grant them the eternal life they could only otherwise dream about because it wasn’t coming by the work of man, but by the gift and grace of God.

In comparison with the rich young ruler who had left nothing, the disciples had left everything to follow Jesus.  They had entrusted themselves fully to the grace and power of Jesus as their Lord, which is exactly what God wants for each of us.  Recognizing this, Peter asked Jesus what awaited them in eternity.  The young ruler had chosen the riches of the world over the riches of the kingdom, whereas the disciples had chosen the latter.  What could they expect?  Jesus gave them the assurance of eternal life, and the promise of positions of authority and leadership in the future millennial kingdom. (A similar promise awaits all who follow Jesus as Lord!  We have different roles in the kingdom than the 12 apostles, but we have a glorious inheritance that awaits.)

It is with all of this in the background that Jesus teaches the parable of the vineyard owner and workers.  Jesus had taught that the last would be first, and the first would be last.  One way this was illustrated was in the difference between the young ruler and the apostles.  The apostles were last among the Jews, but they would be first in the millennial kingdom.  Yet that was no reason for anyone to get cocky.  Everything we receive in our relationship with God through Jesus Christ is through the gift of His grace, and that is always something that is undeserved…by definition.

Matthew 20:1–16
1 “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2 Now when he had agreed with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard.

  1. The first thing we need to remember here is that a parable is a parable; not an allegory.  It can be easy for us to look at a parable, and start trying to find all sorts of ties to all sorts of different aspects about the faith, so that everything ties in perfectly with something else.  That’s not what a parable does.  That more accurately describes an allegory.  CS Lewis’ “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” is a modern example of an allegory with Aslan representing Christ, the stone table representing the law, and goes so far as to show substitutionary death and resurrection.  It was meant to be an allegory, showing a picture of Christ in a way that at child could understand.  A parable, on the other hand, is a teaching illustration with (usually) a singular point.  A parable doesn’t have symbolism hiding behind every single aspect of it – most of what is taught is background that sets the scene.  That’s all there simply to highlight the point of the parable: the main idea of what is being taught.
    1. Why is this important?  Because if we miss this, then it’s easy to get lost and distracted.  If we start peeling back the layers of a parable like an onion, looking for every single potential symbol that might be there, then we’re missing out on what Jesus was doing when He originally spoke it.  There are some aspects of some parables that don’t really match up well at all to our theological minds (some even in the parable today!), but those minor aspects are really just window dressing to a greater point.  Like a masterpiece painting, there may be all sorts of details around the edges, but the artist typically tries to draw our attention to a singular focal point.  That’s what we’re looking for in a parable: the focal point.
  2. We do know that this particular parable is about the “kingdom of heaven,” because that’s exactly what Jesus tells us.  He’s already introduced the theme: “But many who are first will be last, and the last first,” (19:30) and He’s already introduced the idea of the kingdom of heaven when speaking to the disciples about their rewards there.  How might God provide these things?  How might God work with people within the kingdom of heaven?  That’s what Jesus goes on to describe.
  3. There are two main groups of characters introduced here: the landowner & the laborers.  The identification of the landowner is easy – Jesus is obviously referring to God.  God is the One who owns all the land in all the universe, and He is certainly the ruler of the kingdom of heaven.  There’s no one else the landowner could refer to, other than God.  (And of course Jesus is easily included here because He IS God.)  The identification of the laborers is a bit more tricky.  Suggestions have been made all over the map (ranging from the Jews to the apostles). For now, what’s evident is that they are laborers in the field of the landowner…that is what is going to be important regarding the lesson.
  4. Note that these first laborers had agreed to a certain wage.  A “denarius” was the common wage for a day-laborer.  (Quite a bit more than the KJV “penny” implies!)  Some have suggested that this was a generous sum, but there doesn’t seem to be much support for that idea.  Most likely, this is what the laborers would have normally expected for the day, and this was their agreed-upon price with the landowner.  The landowner had come “early in the morning,” most likely a reference to 6am, when he found these workers first, and he hired them immediately.

3 And he went out about the third hour and saw others standing idle in the marketplace, 4 and said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and whatever is right I will give you.’ So they went. 5 Again he went out about the sixth and the ninth hour, and did likewise.

  1. The landowner was not done hiring workers.  Continually he went back to the marketplace throughout the day looking for more workers.  Whether the harvest was especially plentiful, or the master was simply that generous, we’re not told.  Whatever the case, he went out at 9am, noon, and 3pm always looking for more laborers, and whomever he found he hired.
  2. Note that at these other hirings, he never set a price.  Certainly the laborers would be grateful simply to have been hired for the day’s work at all…especially as the afternoon was headed on, and they may have gone back to their homes without anything.  They came at the call of the landowner, trusting him at his word that he would give them what was “right.”  Whatever it was that would have been viewed as just, that’s what the owner promised to give the workers.  (Interestingly enough, this is exactly what he would come under fire for – only not from the workers to which he made this promise.)

6 And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing idle, and said to them, ‘Why have you been standing here idle all day?’ 7 They said to him, ‘Because no one hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and whatever is right you will receive.’

  1. Finally, 5pm comes and the landowner is back in the marketplace, and he finds men that haven’t worked all day long.  Graciously, he makes the same offer to them as he made to the other laborers throughout the day. The amazing thing here is simply the time-frame involved.  One hour to quitting time, and the landowner is still willing to take more workers.  Surely their labor wasn’t needed – after all, how much could they really have done in an hour?  They would have barely enough time just to get in the field and get started and they’d have to pack it up for the night.  Yet the landowner still wanted them, fully prepared to reward them for whatever it is they could do.  That speaks of more than just the amount of work to be done, but of the heart of the master.  He didn’t need these people, but he wanted these people.  He wanted to give them every opportunity, despite the lateness of the day.  It was never too late to start work for the master.
  2. The excuse given is rather flimsy.  When asked why they hadn’t been working, the men said, “Because no one hired us.”  Technically, that’s true – no one had hired them all the day long.  But that wasn’t for a lack of opportunity.  Those men had been in the marketplace, and “idle all day.”  The landowner knew it well because he had been coming to the marketplace every three hours all day long!  It’s not as if the opportunity for work had not arisen; it’s that the laborers to this point had never answered the call of the landowner.  Obviously the landowner would have hired anyone who responded to the call – there’s no other reason he would have been out there at 6, 9, noon, and 3, and now 5.  These men could have been working all day long; they simply chose not to do so.
    1. And yet, the landowner still hired them.  The fact they had refused his call all day meant nothing at this point.  They were now listening to the master, willing to hear what he had to say, ready to work.  And the master was willing to accept them as his own laborers, no matter what hour it was.

8 “So when evening had come, the owner of the vineyard said to his steward, ‘Call the laborers and give them their wages, beginning with the last to the first.’

  1. The time frame was common.  At 6pm, it was time to pay.  This would have been expected by everyone listening to the parable.  Day-laborers are paid by the day; not the week.  So far, so good.
  2. What was uncommon was the system of payment.  It may not have been unusual for the men to just line up however they saw fit in order to receive payment for the day, but the landowner makes a point to ensure that the last workers were paid first, and moving so-on down the line. (This is the first example of Jesus’ statement of the last being first.  They were the last to arrive, and the first to receive their wages for the day.)
  3. What does that tell us?  The landowner wanted everyone to see what he was doing.  If the first to be hired would be the last in the line, this had the specific consequence of that person seeing exactly however much everyone else was paid.  The owner wanted the others to see what was about to take place regarding his generosity.
    1. Which also tells us the owner likely knew the reaction he was going to get.  He had a point to make, and it was going to be abundantly clear to everyone there.

9 And when those came who were hired about the eleventh hour, they each received a denarius. 10 But when the first came, they supposed that they would receive more; and they likewise received each a denarius.

  1. Here’s where it really gets interesting.  The last got the same that was promised to the first, and the first got exactly the same as was given to the last.  They began working at different hours, but they received exactly the same.
  2. And this was right.  Remember that the landowner had first agreed with the initial group regarding a price, but promised to give the other workers (in all the shifts) “whatever was right.”  In the owner’s eyes, this was exactly the righteous & just thing to do.  He saw fit that everyone receive the exact same amount, and so that is what he gave.  It was righteous in his eyes, but certainly not righteous in everyone’s eyes.  See vs. 11…

11 And when they had received it, they complained against the landowner, 12 saying, ‘These last men have worked only one hour, and you made them equal to us who have borne the burden and the heat of the day.’

  1. Here’s the complaint.  The first group had been out there (literally) from dawn till dusk (6am-6pm) working hard through the day.  The sun had come up on them and beat down while they labored, and the group had done everything that the landowner had asked them to do.  (There were no accusations of laziness or incompetence.)  The last group came, worked barely an hour, and got the same amount as the first group.  Call the union!  Call the commerce department!  From man’s point of view, this seems to be totally unjust.  Where is their fair share?
  2. Interestingly enough, none of the other shifts are mentioned here.  The first group didn’t have a complaint about the 9, noon, or 3pm shifts.  Once they saw the 5pm shift getting a denarius, they had their hopes set on something great, and when it didn’t come to pass, they were angry and confused.
  3. Part of the problem here wasn’t so much what the last group received, but their own expectations.  In vs. 10, they started imagining what kind of grand wage they would receive, having been there all day.  They didn’t really have any real reason to think this.  They saw the last group getting a full day’s wage, and their imaginations took off from there.  They imposed their expectations onto the landowner, and started having problems.
    1. Isn’t that so often our issue?  It’s not that God is doing anything wrong or truly unfair.  We just have our own expectations for what we think God ought to be doing, and when He doesn’t do it we get upset. …

13 But he answered one of them and said, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius?

  1. The landowner’s response is simple: “How can you complain about receiving what it is you agreed to receive in the first place?”  The first group specifically agreed to a denarius, and that is what they were given.  Obviously we’re not told who negotiated the price (whether it was the laborers who insisted upon the price, or if it was the owner who offered it), but the fact remains that this was the agreement.  The owner had kept his agreement with the first group exactly as he kept his agreement with the others.  He had offered one group a denarius, and the other groups “whatever was right.”  And that’s what he gave them.

14 Take what is yours and go your way. I wish to give to this last man the same as to you. 15 Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with my own things? Or is your eye evil because I am good?’

  1. Why did the owner pay the men in this way?  Because he wanted to. “I wish to give to this man…”  He desired to show goodness to the people whom he hired late in the day.  Since when is showing goodness a bad thing?  How can it be bad to show grace to some?  Even if not everyone availed themselves of the same grace of the owner, why would he not be allowed to show grace to whomever he wanted?  After all, it’s not like he paid the first group any less than they deserved or that the last group was paid any more than the first; it’s that his grace made the value of what was given so much more.  The first group could not claim to be gypped or deceived; they simply had not experienced the free grace of the master as the others had done.
  2. Did the owner have the right to do it?  Sure!  Then what was the problem?  Jealousy.  The first group had the “evil eye” because they were envious of what little the others did to receive their wage.  But that is why it’s called “grace.”  Grace (by definition) is undeserved.
  3. So that’s the parable.  But what is the interpretation?  Unlike some of the other parables that Jesus taught in the past, this one has no personal interpretation by Jesus – Jesus only gives the main point (in vs. 16).  But the rest He left unexplained, which has been the cause of much speculation.  Obviously the landowner represents God, and the field of work is the work of the kingdom of heaven.  But what about the rest?  Who are the workers & what is the wage?  There have been many suggestions, but here are three possibilities:
    1. The original laborers are Jews, the rest are Gentiles, and the wage is salvation.  In this viewpoint, the Jews are shown as the recipients of the law, and labor according to its dictates, whereas the Gentiles are those who come afterward and receive salvation solely according to the grace of Jesus.  There are two primary problems with this idea.  (1) The original hearers surely would not have even imagined the Gentiles taking part in this at all.  In talking about the Kingdom, most of the listeners would have been thinking about the restored kingdom of Israel, and the national identity of the Jews.  (2) If this is the interpretation, then the Jews would be shown receiving the gift of eternal life, along with the rest of the people – which would directly contradict the essential doctrine of salvation by grace.  We are not saved by laboring according to the dictates of the law; we are saved solely by the work of Jesus Christ, once we place our faith in Him. 
    2. The laborers are all Christians, and the wage is salvation.  In this viewpoint, the laborers are all those who have been called by God to do the work of the kingdom.  They entered the field when they answered the call of God, and work until the day they die.  Whether someone lived their whole life for Christ, or experienced salvation only moments before death is irrelevant to the question of eternal life.  Perhaps the first group of workers represents the apostles, who although they were promised much, were not to get jealous of God’s gift of grace which would be given to all who followed them.  The gift of life to all is the same, as demonstrated with the thief who died next to Jesus on his own cross and was promised to be with Christ in paradise.  The denarius is equal, like the gift of salvation is equal to all who receive.  The landowner went out to call the workers – like salvation.  The landowner called many, but only a few received his grace – like salvation.  This is by far the most common interpretation, though it does have a problem with the wage of a denarius.  Salvation is most certainly NOT a wage.  A wage is earned; it is counted as a debt against the one who is to pay, and that is the opposite of grace. (Paul makes precisely this point in Romans 4.)
    3. The laborers are all Christians, and the wage is eternal reward at the Bema Seat Judgment.  Christians will not be judged in regards to our salvation (that was assured for us when Jesus died upon the cross and rose from the grave), but we will be judged for the things that we have done for the Lord after becoming believers.  We will be judged how we handled the stewardship of the people, things, and opportunities God gave us.  As Paul wrote, “we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ,” (2 Cor 5:10) – that’s commonly known as the “Bema Seat.”  As with the last interpretation, this viewpoint has all of the workers as Christians, shown in the fact that all of them receive a wage from the owner.  They had already come to faith, and were involved in the kingdom work.  Only the wage they receive at the end of the day is not salvation (because that had been given in the call), but the reward they received in the kingdom.  Peter had asked about the reward he could expect in the kingdom, and Jesus told him not only of his, but of all those who would surrender everything to follow Christ as their Lord.  Peter wasn’t to put his reward above another, because whatever the Lord gave others would be what was right.  The problem here would be in the equality of the wage.  Certainly the reward we receive at the Bema seat of Christ is based upon what we have done as Christians, there is no indication that what everyone receives will be the same.  In fact, we’re not told much at all about the reward – only that there will be one.
  4. With all that said, don’t miss the forest for the trees.  Again, this is a parable; not an allegory.  We’re not looking for every single point to match up.  We’re looking for a principle.  A parable teaches a primary point.  What is it?  See vs. 16…

16 So the last will be first, and the first last. For many are called, but few chosen.”

  1. God deals with us according to His grace.  We’re not looking for God to give what is fair in our eyes; we’re looking to God for grace.  Those who believe that they can expect certain things from God because they’ve somehow earned them in this life have a misunderstanding of what grace actually is.  Grace is wholly undeserved; grace is something that is given.  Grace reverses expectations, much like how things were reversed in regards to the rich young ruler and the disciples.  The one who thought he should have been first was actually last, and vice-versa.  The disciples were the cast-offs of the Jewish world, but were first in line to the kingdom.  Likewise with all of us.  Truth be told, ALL of us are the 11th hour workers.  When Jesus called us to respond to His grace, we had nothing to offer Him.  Most of us had put off His call many times before & we had idly wasted our lives.  Other people had the capability to serve Him better, with more fruit.  The only thing we had was the opportunity to say “Yes, I’ll come!”  And yet, when we came, we were given more than we could have possibly dreamt!  We didn’t just receive a singular blessing from the Lord, we received the full measure of His love & grace.  Redemption from the past, power for the present, salvation in the future – forgiveness, love, and inheritance for all eternity.  We who ought to have been made the very last have been brought by Jesus to become first.  All praise and glory to God!
  2. And how did it all come?  Because God chose to do it.  Like the landowner in the parable, God willed to show His goodness and grace to those who would receive it.  All have been called – the gospel goes out to the entire world.  Every person seated in this room today has the opportunity to respond.  Every person who hears or reads these words later have the opportunity to respond.  Every person all over the world who hears the good news of Jesus Christ as God has the opportunity to respond to Him in faith, surrendering their very lives to follow Jesus as their Lord & Savior.  Many are called!  But yet few are chosen.  The whole world is called, but only a few actually turn to Christ to be saved.  Those who do have shown to be chosen by God.  Without getting into all the debates of predestination, there’s no doubt that the Scripture teaches that those who respond to the gospel of Jesus have been chosen by Jesus to be saved.  God chooses, and we are called to choose Him.  The relevant question isn’t so much what we think we can imagine from God’s perspective, but what we can know from ours.  Have you responded to the call of Jesus to be saved?  That’s the only real way you can know you’ve been chosen by God.  It’s never too late to heed the call.  You might be at your own personal noonday, or at your own personal 5pm.  None of us ever know how much time we have in our lives to respond to the gospel of Christ, but we do know that we have this moment right now.  How will you respond?  God has called – will you respond to His choosing?

Is grace fair?  Thankfully, no.  Grace is wholly unfair.  When God gives His grace, He gives it as He sees fit, and not one of those who receive His grace can say they’ve received better or worse from the Lord than someone else who received it, simply because it was undeserved in the first place.  Be it the gift of salvation or eternal reward, or just the abundant grace of God needed to live this life right now, all of us have received what was unfair to God.  And that’s the way God wanted it, because He is supremely good.

Personally, we may all be like the 11th hour workers in that we have nothing to offer God, but we can sometimes cop the attitude of the 1st hour.  Some of us have followed the Lord Jesus for decades, and we’ve had our ups & downs – perhaps we’re even struggling right now in our walk with Christ.  (It’s like the heat of the day for you.)  And yet someone else comes along towards the end of their life after much sin, and once they put their faith in Christ, life has been great!  Or they went home to the Lord soon after & never experienced the same struggles.

Christian, be careful of the “evil eye” syndrome.  It is not good to get jealous of someone else’s relationship with God, nor of the things that God has given them.  Whether we believe it is deserved by them or not is irrelevant.  If God chose to give it, we know that God is good and that He has His plan and purposes in mind.  We can trust God for His goodness and to do what is just in His sight.  We cannot judge another man’s servant, but we can rejoice in our Master.  He is good, and no matter what anyone else receives from Him, we know that what we receive is totally undeserved.  And for that, we’re eternally grateful.  It’s a matter of perspective.  Where is your focus: on the other workers, or upon your loving gracious Master?

On the other end of the spectrum, we don’t want to get the idea that God wants us to wait until the last moment to follow Jesus as our Lord.  This parable is not a recommendation of the “death bed conversion,” where someone tries to wait until their personal 11th hour, living their whole lives for themselves until their final moments when they finally ask Jesus for forgiveness to be saved.  We never know when our last opportunity might be.  Not only from the perspective of we don’t know the hour of our death (it could happen to anyone at any time), but we also don’t know when the moment will come that our heart is completely hardened to the gospel.  There have been many who said that they would wait to be saved, in an effort to manipulate the grace of God so they could live for their sin throughout the life – only to come to the end of their life and totally reject the grace of God.  Their heart was hardened by that point, and they completely missed the opportunity to be saved.  Don’t make that same mistake!  Today, if you hear Jesus’ voice calling you to come – if you have your heart stirred by the Lord to respond, then respond!  The Lord is willing to receive you as His own, and His call has already gone out.  Don’t turn away from Him – don’t deny Him and deny the opportunity you have now to be saved. 


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