The Unfairness of Grace by Pastor Paul Becker
April 30, 2023 ~ Matthew 20:1-6.
"For the kingdom of heaven is like…." These words start a parable where a vineyard owner hired day laborers to harvest grapes. The owner hired a round of laborers at 6 AM, and all agreed on one denarius as payment. The vineyard owner hired additional shifts at 9 AM, Noon, 3 PM and 5 PM. He only offered to pay what was right. The workday ended at 6 PM.
In Jesus' time, poverty was rampant in and around Jerusalem. The Roman tax rate was 50-85%, and many landowners had their land taken by the State. Working at any price, for any time, was highly needed. A denarius was a standard wage for a day laborer. It provided for necessities.
All laborers were paid at the end of the day in accordance with Deuteronomy 24:14-16, and this proved the owner to be a righteous man:
Do not oppress a hired worker who is poor and needy, whether one of your Israelite brothers or one of the resident aliens in a town in your land. You are to pay him his wages each day before the sun sets, because he is poor and depends on them. Otherwise, he will cry out to the Lord against you, and you will be held guilty.
The owner instructed his foreman to pay the laborers a specified amount, starting with the last and ending with the first. The foreman paid the 5 PM shift one denarius. He also paid one denarius to the 3 PM, Noon, and 9 AM laborers. They all received pay that showed that the owner was a generous man. And then, the foreman paid the 6 AM shift one denarius, which showed the owner to be a just man who kept his word.
In the parable, the owner is accused of being unfair. The owner addressed one of the workers from the 6 AM shift saying,
Friend, I'm doing you no wrong. Didn't you agree with me on a denarius? Take what's yours and go. I want to give this last man the same as I gave you. Don't I have the right to do what I want with what is mine? Are you jealous because I'm generous?
Like the owner, God is righteous, generous, just, and has the authority to give what is his, and he will give it in measures that do not violate his attributes. And like the laborers, we can be like the child who is overjoyed to receive a bowl of ice cream but whose joy is extinguished when we deem our serving to be smaller than our siblings. We go to bed feeling slighted and angry.
Commentators vary when it comes to the application of this parable. In the New Testament letters, believers with Jewish roots were envious of Gentile believers who didn't observe Jewish dietary laws. They would say it wasn't fair that the Gentiles had greater leniency when following dietary rules. Today, lifelong believers can feel slighted by the promise of eternal life offered to those who come to faith near the end of life. It's like a life of devotion to Christ is a form of begrudged oppression. Also, lifelong church members can feel slighted by attention and perceived honor given to newer members. Pastor Paul pushed these applications aside and brought us to the most important fact about God and fairness.
Ultimately, it wasn't fair that Jesus sacrificed himself, in our place, for our sins. According to God's law, we deserved to die for our sins, not Jesus. If God were fair, we'd pay the price for our sins, not Jesus. Friends, grace is not fair. This is a good thing. It sets us up to live in a spirit of gratitude, celebrate God's displays of generosity, and trust that God is just, doing what he promises.
For God loved the world in this way:
He gave his one and only Son,
so that everyone who believes in him
will not perish but have eternal life.