Is God Fair?

A dandelion letting go of its petals, with a quote about God keeping promises.

A reflection on Matthew 20:1-16.

 Any household with kids will know the constant refrain of  “It’s not fair”.  In my house this is often said in relationships between siblings – it’s not fair he got…., it’s not fair she didn’t get in trouble for…..  But I remember as an only child until age 16 that I still said those words to my mom.  It’s not fair my friends get to….It’s not fair you don’t trust me…

I would love to say that we lose this refrain as we become adults and in some ways we do. I rarely hear adults use this exact phrase, It’s not fair, but I think this idea still lives in our consciousness.  Why did this happen to me? Why do bad things happen? Why doesn’t he get punished for what he did? Why does she get a promotion when I earned it too?

It is interesting that we rarely proclaim things not fair when they work in our favor. We don’t question the status quo when it benefits us. But when something comes our way that favors someone else over us, or simply deals us a difficult blow, that is when we often echo the manta – it’s not fair.

Maybe we have some hope that the Kingdom of God will be fair. When we get to heaven all will balance itself out and some cosmic evenness will prevail. 

But this story points to something different. It points to God’s Kingdom being unfair. Or perhaps it rearranges our understanding of what fairness really is.

Perhaps this is what discipleship is – reorienting our understanding of the world to God’s understanding of the world and then living according to God’s values rather than our own.

The parable clearly is not fair according to the standards of the world. One group worked much harder than the other and deserves more pay.  But is it fair that some found work early in the morning, were afforded the opportunity to work all day and earn a wage that could provide for their families and others were left to wonder what they might bring home at the end of the day?

Questions of fairness are never easy.  They aren’t easy for parents – we might know why we have made one decision over another, but our children’s cries of it’s not fair can leave us questioning ourselves.

Questions of fairness are not easy in the labor force. Who gets paid what for their work. We are watching the unfairness of women’s wages, which have never been equal to men’s, suffer even more during the pandemic.

Questions of fairness are not easy in the civic world. Really, at the heart of racial unrest right now is the anger at the injustice of the treatment of Black people and other people of color compared to white people.

Jesus comes along and tells us this story depicting the Kingdom of Heaven and what we expect is that the people who work at the end of the day will be paid what they earned, less than those who started in the morning.

But fairness in the Kingdom of God is more about God’s provision than it is about what we earn. 

I think this drives us crazy.  How can we get ahead? What can we do to earn favor from God? How will we know who is deserving and who isn’t?  While we obviously have practical decisions to make in life, perhaps when we start asking who is deserving we need to turn back to this story.

Jesus seems to be telling us that even those late to the game are provided for in the Kingdom of God.  This parable most certainly has implications for the gentiles who would come into the family of God through Jesus, those who could not trace their ancestry back to Abraham and thus claim to have been workers in God’s vineyard from the beginning.

But certainly this parable preaches as well today as it did back in Jesus time. This parable has implications for racial justice, immigration policy, fair wages, education,the community of the church,  and more.

It also has implications for each one of us and how we view other people, how we view ourselves.  Do we walk through life feeling like we deserve more than others? Have earned more? The master in the parable doesn’t seem to hold with these arguments.  He says that he is free to use his resources as he pleases.  This extends not just to what God doles out directly to us, but how God uses God’s people to share his grace with the world. 

A woman named Jamie comes to mind as I hear this parable.  Jamie called me many years ago and asked me to come do an exorcism of her house. I agreed and one of the members of the church went with me.  We arrived at Jamie’s house and she was living in the living room with her partner and two kids because they were convinced there were demons in all of the bedrooms. The church member and I went through all of the rooms praying and at the end we assured the family that their home was safe.

I suspected at the time and I came to learn later that Jamie and her partner used drugs. There were demons in the house and they were demons of addiction. I am not sure that our prayers dispelled those demons but here is what I am sure of- that in those prayers God provided grace for Jamie. 

About a year later Jamie and her partner showed up at the church. They wanted to get married. We rustled up some people to be witnesses.  Someone rushed to the nearest grocery store to get some flowers so she would have a bouquet. She picked up the floors, prepared to carry them down the aisle still wrapped in the crinkly store cellophane. We took them back, unwrapped them, made them pretty for her.

She walked down the aisle in a dress from our clothing bank. After the wedding the truck wouldn’t start. Her new husband sat in the driver’s seat while Jamie pushed the truck, in her wedding dress.  We rushed out of the church to help her push.  

Later, Jamie came back to the clothing bank after a long absence. She left her husband because he abused her. She was living in her car and he had custody of the kids. I suspect she was using again. We gave her some essentials and clothes, a few toys to give her kids next time she saw them. 

It is so clear to me that Jamie’s life isn’t fair – not by any standard we would use to measure fairness. I don’t know her backstory but I can guess that life didn’t set her up succeed. Certainly, once drugs took hold in her life, her chances as living a life our culture would consider successful dropped even more. She reminds me of the people who are not hired until five o’clock, passed over for opportunity or a chance.

By no measure had she earned the kindness of the church. She never tithed a penny. I think she volunteered at the clothing bank sometimes but I can’t remember. She never taught Sunday School or even sat in the pews on Sunday morning. Ever. By no definition had she earned our care or attention.

But that didn’t mean that she didn’t deserve it. She deserved it because she showed up asking for help, like the people waiting for work at 5:00pm. She deserved it because she may not have been able to come sit in the pews on Sunday mornings but she had some sense of who God was as known in God’s people and she turned towards God. She deserved it because she is a child of God, made in God’s own image. She deserved it because she is a human being.

The grace of God doesn’t follow human rules. It is unfair in its extravagance and abundance. None of us could earn God’s grace if that were required. This parable is not just a story about workers in an ancient vineyard, or about people like Jamie. It is a parable about each and every one of us who has received God’s grace, not because we earned it but because God gifts it to us promised in Jesus.   

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