Grace and Fairness

Matthew 19:30-20:16
30But many who are first will be last, and the last first.
1“For the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard.
2After agreeing with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard.
3And going out about the third hour he saw others standing idle in the marketplace,
4and to them he said, ‘You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you.’
5So they went. Going out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour, he did the same.
6And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing. And he said to them, ‘Why do you stand here idle all day?’
7They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You go into the vineyard too.’
8And when evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last, up to the first.’
9And when those hired about the eleventh hour came, each of them received a denarius.
10Now when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more, but each of them also received a denarius.
11And on receiving it they grumbled at the master of the house,
12saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’
13But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius?
14Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you.
15Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?’
16So the last will be first, and the first last.”

A few years ago, I took a group of our youth to El Paso, Texas for a youth mission trip. El Paso is located right on the Texas / Mexico border with a sister city, Juarez, right across the border. Every morning as you pass by the border station, you will see dozens of men standing around waiting to be hired by an employer for the day. They come across the border each morning and simply hope that they will get a day’s worth of work. Some of them are skilled in the area of construction work, landscaping, truck driving . . . who knows what else. Employers drive by and pick up willing workers for the day. Then they return across the border each evening to go home to their families with a day’s wage in their pockets. I suppose that other situation similar to this exist in the United States, but I don’t know where.

Our story for today is just like the situation in El Paso. Workers know where to congregate in order to be hired for a day’s labor. This is one of those stories where it is easy to place yourself into the action. You can be a laborer who is hired first thing, or the guy who stood there all day, waiting for work. Either way, the true drama takes places when it comes time to receive your wage for the day. You have to admire Jesus’ ability to tell a story and keep the dramatic tension high. When the climax comes, he has the bookkeeper pay the last guys hired first; and they receive what had been promised to the men hired first thing in the morning! Now if you’re one of those men who put in a whole day’s worth of work, you’re probably thinking, “Wow! Imagine what I will get paid for this day’s labor!” But Jesus keeps it interesting. Everyone gets paid the same thing. As always, Jesus does the totally unexpected. Of course, there are complaints. But the Master is allowed to do whatever He wants with His resources.

Many thoughts run through our minds as we read a story like this. Most of them have to do with fairness and getting what we deserve. What we must assume is that Jesus always does the right thing even when to our little minds it doesn’t seem like the “fair” thing. In the Kingdom of God, self-promotion is always the wrong thing. In the Kingdom of God, humility and meekness is always the right thing. Sin has wired our minds differently, but that doesn’t make us right. What is easy to lose in this story is the abundant grace of God that grants bounty (heaven) even to those who come late to the party. God’s grace is available to everyone even if those of us who have been at it for a long time don’t think that’s fair. Fortunately for us, God doesn’t care about our “fairness” sensibilities. His grace extends to all and that is Good News for all of us.