September 18th, 2011
“It's Not Fair!”
The first will be last, and the last will be first, Jesus often says. God has a way of doing the unexpected, the opposite of what we think should be. He turns things backwards. Or maybe we are the ones who have things backwards.
In the parable of the workers in the vineyard, the workers find it all so unfair. When the master pays them the same as those who haven't worked as long, they whine and complain. They find the master's sense of justice doesn't always line up with their own. And we can relate.
For from an early age we gain a sense of what is far. How many times a day do my children tell me my parental policy or decision is “not fair”?
There's an online bank that runs commercials these days which use humor to show that “even a kid knows it's not fair...” the way some other banks treat their customers.
But when we find ourselves in a place to question divine justice, it's no laughing matter.
Since the days of Job and well before, humans have questioned God's sense of fair play. Today the militant atheists love to engage Christians in debate over how a supposedly good God can allow so much evil in the world. If you ever have a chance to engage such a person, beware – for they come to the battle well-armed. They are skilled at putting God on trial, putting his governance under the microscope, and revel in pronouncing him guilty of malevolent rule, that is, right before they deny he exists.
Even we believers question God from time to time. And often those questions come from suffering – our own, or someone we care about. Why does God let it happen this way? And if there has to be evil in the world, why does it come to my door? Why here, and now? We might be led to the conclusion that we did something particularly wrong or bad – worse than all the rest. But that's not so. We might be led to think that God simply forgets about us, but we know that isn't the case either. So is God just a fickle master? Giving and withholding his blessings here and there, with no rhyme or reason? And face it, don't we all think we would be a better judge of what is fair?
But who are we to turn our human sense of fairness against God? Yet that's what we do. When troubles come. When suffering finds us. When tragedy strikes. “It's not fair God!” we cry. At least in our hearts.
We, too, try to subject the Almighty to our own limited, sinful, self-deluded sense of fair play. But thank God you are not God! Thank God he, in his ultimate wisdom, and in his mysterious judgment, is the one who calls the shots. His ways are above our ways. His thoughts are higher than our thoughts.
The master in the parable scolds the servants who think that he hasn't been fair. After all, it's his money, his right to do with it as he sees fit. And he knows better than those servants do.
Likewise with us. If God were truly just with us, and treated us as we deserve - according to our sins, we would all receive the same for our day's work. We'd get “fired”, and I don't mean Donald Trump style. We would face temporal and eternal punishment. We'd go straight to Hell, do not pass go. That would be fair. For he set the rules up long ago – the soul that sins shall die. And we poor souls do a lot of sinning, and deserve death by the boatload.
But God is not only just, he is merciful. He must punish sin, and hold to his word, there is a price of blood – but the merciful God does not desire the death of sinners. So he provides for our salvation. He sends Jesus to pay the price – the wages of sin – death – the cross. There, Jesus bears the fires of hell. He swallows death whole and spits out the bones. He takes all the bad we deserve, and gives us all the good we don't deserve. Jesus blows fair play to smithereens, at least when it comes to us poor miserable sinners.
God doesn't pay rewards, so much as he bestows gifts – by his grace and mercy, for the sake of Christ. We all deserve the same – nothing, and worse. He gives us all the same – Christ, and all blessings.
And it doesn't really matter how long or hard we work. It doesn't matter how much scripture we've memorized, or whether we've gone to seminary, or whether we've had a conversion experience. It doesn't matter how little you think you sin, or how much you love your neighbor. Whether you volunteer at a soup kitchen, or deliver meals on wheels, or wash feet or wipe noses.. You need to do all those good works because he commands and because, well, you should. But they won't get you your spiritual payday.
Don't let all of that be a distraction from the real denarius – the gift of God's grace in Christ. The wage we didn't really earn. The salary we never ever deserved. God gives us what is right – not according to our sin – but according to his grace in Christ, who earned it all for us. That's his sense of fair play.
Oh, and He doesn't hand it out in the field or vineyard – but he distributes it here in his presence – in the word preached and proclaimed and in the sacrament given and shed for you. Here you line up with the other laborers in your corner of the kingdom. And here you receive the free grace in hand and mouth. Jesus Christ is that reward, and all the blessings that come with him.
So the next time you find yourself questioning God's fairness, do not grow angry or offended at your kind master, but rejoice. Rejoice that he does not treat us as we deserve, but for the sake of Christ, that he gives us good gifts galore. That he forgives our sins, restores our life, and promises us a future hope forever. And life's ups and downs, even the worst sufferings we face, will find meaning and perspective through Christ. We are here in the vineyard but a short time. But the reward is forever. And thank God it's not fair. In Jesus Christ, Amen.