Jesus didn’t carry any swords or spears. He didn’t have an army behind him. His only weapons were his words, and it was his message that got him into trouble. He made people so angry that they wanted to kill him.
A dangerous message
His message was seen not merely as wrong – it was dangerous. It was subversive. It threatened to upset the social world of Judaism. But what kind of message could make the religious leaders so angry that they would kill the messenger?
One idea that could anger the religious leaders is found in Matthew 9:13: “I have not come to call the righteous, but the sinners.” Jesus had a message of good news for sinners, but people who considered themselves good often thought that Jesus preached bad news.
Jesus invited prostitutes and tax collectors into the kingdom of God, and the good people didn’t like that. “That’s not fair,” they may have said. “We have been working hard to be good, and why can they get into the kingdom without working hard? If you don’t keep sinners out, it isn’t fair!”
They thought that Jesus was saying that God is not fair. Even today, people don’t like to hear that idea. Good Christian people want God to be fair – but he isn’t. Most people think that fairness requires equal treatment for everyone, but when it comes to salvation, God simply isn’t fair.
More than fair
God is more than fair. His grace is far beyond anything we could deserve. God is generous, full of grace, full of mercy, loving us even though we don’t deserve it.
That kind of message bothers religious leaders and all who say that the harder you work, the more you will get; if you behave better, you will get a better reward. Religious leaders like to have that kind of message, because it makes it easy to motivate people to work hard, do right, live right.
But Jesus says, It isn’t so.
If you have dug a really deep pit for yourself, if you have messed up time and time again, if you have been the worst sort of sinner, you don’t have to work your way out of the pit to be given salvation. God simply forgives you for the sake of Jesus. You don’t have to deserve it – God simply does it. You just need to believe it. You need to trust God, to take him at his word: Your million-dollar debt is removed from the record.
That is good news for ordinary people.
But it seems that some people are distressed at this kind of news. “Look, I’ve been working hard to get out of the pit,” they might say, “and I am almost out. You mean to tell me that ‘those’ people are pulled out of the pit instantly, without having to do any work at all? That’s not fair!”
No, grace is not “fair” – it is grace – it is a gift we did not deserve. God can be generous to whomever he wants to be generous to, and the good news is that he offers his generosity to everyone. It is fair in the sense that it extends to everyone, even though this means that he forgives some people a big debt, and some people a smaller debt – the same arrangement for all even though there are different circumstances.
A parable of unfairness
Matthew 20 includes the parable of the workers in the vineyard. Some people worked all day long in the heat of the day. Some worked only half a day, and some worked only one hour, but they all got paid the same amount, a day’s wage. Some got exactly what they agreed to, but others got more. However, the people who worked all day long said, “That’s not fair. We worked all day long, and it’s not fair to give the same amount of pay to those who worked less” (see verse 12).
But the people who worked all day got exactly what they had agreed to before they began work (verse 4). The only reason they got upset was because other people received more than they deserved.
What did the boss say? It was this: “Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?” (verse 15).
The boss said they would be given a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work, and they were – and yet they complained. Why? Because they compared themselves with others and other people the same pay for less work. They got their hopes up, and then they were disappointed.
But the landowner said: “I am doing you no wrong. If you think it’s not fair, the problem is in what you expected, not in what you actually got. If it hadn’t been for the amount I paid the newcomers, you would be quite happy with what I gave you. The problem is in your expectations, not in what I did. You accuse me of being bad, simply because I was good to someone else” (see verse 15).
How would you react to this? What would you think if your boss gave a bonus to the newest employees, but not to the old faithful workers? It would not be very good for morale, would it? But Jesus was not giving us payroll advice here – he was telling a parable about the kingdom of God (verse 1).
The parable reflected something that was happening in Jesus’ ministry. God was giving salvation to people who hadn’t worked very hard, and the religious leaders said: “That’s not fair. You can’t be generous to them. We’ve been working hard, and they have hardly been working.” Jesus replied, “I am bringing good news to sinners, not to the righteous.” His teaching threatened to undermine the normal motive for doing good.
Where do we fit in?
We might like to think that we have worked all day long, bearing the burdens and the heat of the day, deserving a good reward. But we have not.
It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been in the church or how many sacrifices you have made – those are nothing in comparison to what God is giving us. Paul worked harder than any of us; he made more sacrifices for the gospel than we realize, but he counted it all as a loss for Christ. It was nothing.
The time we’ve spent in the church is nothing to God. The work we’ve done is nothing compared to what he can do. Even at our best, as another parable says, we are unprofitable servants (Luke 17:10). Jesus has bought our entire lives; he has a fair claim on every thought and every action. We cannot possibly give him anything on top of that – even if we obey everything he commands.
We are like the workers who worked only one hour and got a whole day’s wage. We just barely got started, and we were paid like we actually did something useful. Is that fair? Maybe we shouldn’t even ask the question. If the judgment is in our favor, we shouldn’t ask for another opinion!
Do we think of ourselves as people who have worked long and hard? Do we think we deserve more than we are getting? Or do we see ourselves as people who are getting an undeserved gift, regardless of how long we’ve worked?
Author: Joseph Tkach