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Tales With a Twist: Who Said Life Is Fair?

Matthew 20:1-16

My good friend, Leonard Sweet, likes to say: “Life is not fair—get over it!” That’s great theology. And it’s Biblical. It comes straight out of Jesus’ “Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard.”

Remember, please, that Jesus, the Master of both life and language, frequently employed the technique of contrast in order to drive his points home. For example, in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, the gracious love of the forgiving father is seen all the more powerfully as it is contrasted with the unbending bitterness of the elder brother. Or in the Parable of the Pharisee and the Publican, the genuine humility of the publican is underscored more dramatically as it is set alongside the pompous arrogance of the Pharisee. Or in the Parable of Dives and Lazarus, the terrible plight of the poor man, Lazarus, is accentuated when his situation is compared to that of the indulgent rich man, Dives. So this use of stark contrast is one of Jesus’ most effective teaching techniques.

Here in Matthew 20, we see it again—the revealing contrast between the gracious and generous landowner, and the angry and resentful day laborers. But wait a minute. I’m getting ahead of myself here. Let me back up a moment to say that this particular parable is perplexing and troublesome to many people. They hear the story, and like the laborers in the story, they cry out: “Unfair! Unfair!” And of course, in a sense, they are right. That’s the point of the story. Life is not fair! And that’s why Leonard Sweet is echoing Jesus when he says: “Life is not fair. Get over it!”

A quick reading then of the parable.

Remember that Jesus frequently took the images and the events of everyday life in His times and twisted them into powerful spiritual directives. That’s exactly what was happening here. You see, in first century Palestine, the grapes growing in the vineyards ripened in late September. Shortly thereafter, was the advent of the rainy season. It was essential to harvest the grapes before the rains came. More often than not, it was a frantic race against time. Consequently, because this work was so seasonal, the landowners would hire on day laborers to do the job. Now the going rate for this kind of day labor was a denarius—not much money, but enough to feed and support a family for a day. Any wage less than a denarius wouldn’t do much good. If a worker returned home at the end of the day without a full denarius, he would have a worried wife and hungry children. Quite clearly, the landowner in Jesus’ story knew that.

So the story begins as the landowner goes down into town early in the morning to hire workers to harvest his grapes. The workers agree to work for him that day for a denarius, and he sends them out into the vineyard. But then, during the course of the day, he realizes that the harvesting process needs to be hurried up. So at nine o’clock, at noon, and again at three, he continues to hire more and more workers to speed the harvest. It’s urgent to get the crop in and to get it in rapidly.

Still later, “at the eleventh hour” it says—since the usual work day was from 6:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m., that would be at 5 o’clock in the afternoon—the landowner became desperate. Maybe he saw clouds gathering on the horizon. Maybe it was Friday and he knew that work would have to stop for the Sabbath. But whatever the reason, even at that late hour, he sent more workers into the vineyard to help complete the harvest.

Now, at the end of that day all of the workers received their pay packets—and all of them received a full denarius. The workers who had been hired later in the day received the same wages as those who had started early. Needless to say, those who had worked all day long, screamed, “That’s not fair! You can’t do that! We worked all day. They worked part of the day, some of them just one hour of the day and yet you’ve paid us all the same. Not fair!” And the landowner responded: “Look, I did you no wrong. I paid you the going rate for the work you did. Am I not allowed to be generous to these others? I don’t want their families to go hungry tonight. Do you? Surely you wouldn’t begrudge my generosity.” Well, that’s the story that Jesus told.

But now a couple of quick keys to understanding the parable.

The first key is found in the first seven words of the story. Jesus said: “For the kingdom of heaven is like…” That’s the key. This story is not about labor relations or fair market practices. It is about God and His kingdom. Jesus is reminding us that God’s kingdom is not about laws and merit and earnings and privileges and benefits and fairness. No. It’s about grace and acceptance and generosity and unconditional love. Whosoever will may come, even those who arrive late. Think of it in terms of the church. It means that a person who joins this church today is just as valid and valuable a church member as the person who joined this church forty years ago. Or think of it in terms of a question one of our new members put to me last week. On Easter we had right at 5,000 people in our three worship services, twice the number we have on any given Sunday morning. This person asked if I resented the fact that all those people showed up only on the holy day, and was I ever tempted to unload on them because of that. I said, “Absolutely not! For a lot of those people, it’s the only chance I’m going to get to preach to them, and I’m not about to miss that chance. Besides, they are the ones running the risk. You see, when they step inside the doors of this church, even once, they run the risk that the Word of God is going to hit them between the eyes like a two-by-four and their lives are going to be transformed by Jesus Christ. So let me at ’em, even if they don’t come here much, even if they come here only once.” So this is a story about God’s grace. He doesn’t give us what we deserve; He gives us what He desires. Grace. Whosoever will may come, even if they arrive late!

The second key is found in verse 15 where the landowner says to the resentful laborers, “Are you envious because I am generous?” That’s the key. God is gracious, kind, and generous and God wants us to imitate His loving ways. Mark this down. The Christian life is its own reward. I believe that I am headed toward heaven, but even if I did not, I would still choose to try to live the Christian life—why? Because I want to have a compelling reason for getting out of the bed every morning, to know that the candle is worth the burning, even sometimes at both ends, to see a purpose in life beyond feeding the body so that it can keep running for another day. My Christian faith gives my life such a clear and consuming purpose. It transforms life’s quantity into quality. I am blessed—so magnificently blessed—that all I have known from childhood is Jesus Christ and His love and His church. To borrow the imagery of the parable, I was hired on at the beginning of life’s day. So I have been blessed all my life with a sense of life’s purpose and value and beauty in Christ. How could I ever then be bitter or resentful toward those who come to Christ at “the eleventh hour”? Shall I envy those who have had to go through life with no clear goal, battling their way through disillusionment and despair because they haven’t known Christ in their lives? Of course not! I’m just overjoyed that they have come to the light before the day is done. Whenever I recall the story of the penitent thief on the cross who came to Christ with his last breath, I always think to myself: “Thank God He came, even at the end. But all the joy of Christ I’ve known across the years of my life, he missed out on knowing across the years of his life. Still, thank God he came, even at the last hour.”

Now, a couple of quick lessons for living the parable.

Lesson One: resentment kills. For nineteen years, Leonard Holt worked in the same Pennsylvania paper mill, giving a performance that was considered excellent. He was a model citizen, a volunteer fireman, and was said to be active in his church. But something was badly amiss in Leonard Holt’s life. On a cool October morning, he walked into the paper mill, carrying two pistols and he began to systematically pump thirty rounds into his startled co-workers. The police later found Leonard at home. His first words were: “It’s not fair. I’m not going to take this any longer.” The headline describing the tragic event in Time magazine read: “Responsible and resentful.”

Resentment kills. Did you notice what happened in Jesus’ story? In the morning, those workers thought a full day’s wage was a wonderful thing. But in the evening, something changed. Suddenly, resentment began to eat away at them, and they ceased to be grateful for what they did have. That’s what happens to us. When we stack our accomplishments, our successes, our possessions, our salaries up against those of someone else, especially if we think that someone else is less deserving but better off, then we stop being grateful for what we do have. And unless we get it under control, the resentment will destroy—we may not destroy others like Leonard Holt did, but that resentment will destroy us. We need to be grateful to God for all the good things we do have—health, home, job, friends, family, money, and a host of other good things God gives us in life. Resentment kills, unless, with the Lord’s help, we can kill it in ourselves.

Lesson Two: grace fulfills. I used to believe that Easter was the greatest miracle in history. I don’t believe that anymore. You see, in a sense, Easter is altogether inevitable. It had to happen. The God who sends all things and who is above all things cannot remain dead. Nothing can finally defeat Him. Nothing can put Him down and hold Him there. You see, Easter is not really so surprising. It has a kind of inevitability to it. So I have become convinced that the greatest miracle in history is not Easter, but Good Friday. The hardest thing to believe that the God who made everything and sustains it, should be willing to die in the person of His Son for the people He loves. That is the greatest miracle of all.

I heard about a small town where there was a town drunk—a despicable and degenerate man. Everybody avoided him like the plague. He had a foul smell and a foul tongue. One day he was staggering along the edge of a rain-swollen stream in that town and he fell in. He cried out for help. He managed to catch onto the branch of an overhanging tree and he was holding on for dear life in the midst of the rushing waters. A small crowd gathered. They knew he couldn’t hold on much longer, but they knew it would be dangerous to try to reach him. And besides…Well, just then a young high school boy—he was the star of the football team and he was an outstanding student and everybody loved him—he happened by and saw the problem. Immediately, he stripped off his jacket and his shoes and he plunged into the swirling waters. He swam out toward the imperiled man. When he got to the man, this fellow was so inebriated that he panicked and he grabbed the young boy so forcefully that they lost their grip on the branch. The rushing waters swept both of them downstream. The young football star kept holding the drunken man’s face up out of the water so that he could breathe. The crowd went running along the shore, hoping for an opportunity to pull the two of them out of the water. Eventually, they floated close enough to the shore to be reached. When they pulled the two of them in, the young boy—this brilliant student and fine football player with all of his life before him was dead. And the drunk was alive and cursing.

How does that strike you? Don’t you think there’s something terribly unfair about that? But you see, my beloved, that is the Gospel. For Calvary was where a young star, who had never done anything in His life except what was good, died in order to save people caught up in their own dismal errors and ugly failures. How does that strike you? Don’t you think there’s something terribly unfair about that? Yet, unfair though it is, God so loved you and so loved me that He gave His only Son so that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.

Everything I have told you today is true. It’s all in the Book. It’s all in this Book.

Read it…and live!

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