Sep 9, 2013

Fairness or Justice

My wife and I were in the grocery store when we noticed a little boy running to his mom with some candy. “No Bobby put that back.” Then later he ran to his mom with some pop. “Bobby I said no, now quit.” At the register Bobby placed a chocolate bar on the checkout and the mom put the chocolate back. Bobby began to whine, “It's not fair! I want my share of stuff! I never get what I want!”
I am sure we have all heard this before and I am sure heard it recently. At some point we were Bobby and others we were his mom. You do not even have to be a child. Perhaps waiting in line to buy a movie ticket, or pay for some shopping. Or waiting for a car parking space. And someone pushes in front of you. And you want to get even. To stand up for your rights. To make things fair. After all, you DESERVE it. It’s ONLY RIGHT! These rude people just push others around because they think they are special. Who do they think they are – there are no CUTS!
Or perhaps you’re working on a group project at school or work. And there’s always that one person who’s A SLACKER. You know what I mean. They roll their eyes at meetings, fiddle with their pins, tap on their phones during work, and hide in the restroom half the day. They never pull their weight, and always complain about how nobody listens to their ideas. Yet, expects everyone else to do the work. And yet, it always seems to be THAT PERSON who gets the best compliments from the boss. They get the raise and promotion. We get skipped over so some boot licking slacker gets the cream while we get the milking chore. It’s not FAIR! He didn’t EARN it! I want my share!
Or like the older brother, Robert, on Everyone Loves Raymond. Always disappointed that it’s Raymond who gets all the attention, the promotions, the lucky breaks. Mom always dotes over Raymond and poor Robert is pushed aside so mom can get to her favorite. And his classic quote, whenever Raymond gets ANOTHER lucky break? “Of COURSE he did. It’s always about Raymond!”
What about me? It ISN’T fair! I want my share!

It’s the way the world works. It’s the natural human reaction. We ALL react when things don’t seem equal and fair. Especially when it happens to US. Those who DESERVE it should get the reward. And those who DON’T should either get less or nothing at all.
It’s the way THE WORLD works. But it’s not the way God works. The reality is that, in God’s kingdom, we DON’T get what we deserve. We DON’T get what’s FAIR. Which is just as well. Because that would be TERRIBLE. We deserve nothing from God. All we have is a gift from God to begin with. The fact we have life is what is equal and fair. The GOOD NEWS is we get something better and much more. We get our sins paid for by Christ's sacrifice – which we did nothing to earn. We get eternal life in God's kingdom when we die. We did nothing to build this kingdom and did nothing to earn it. It is a gift. On top of that we are heirs of God's kingdom – not just adopted children. Heirs get security. Adopted children get support. We are given more than equal and fair.
In today’s Gospel, the point is that the kingdom is not about what is. It's about generosity to people who do not deserve it. The kingdom isn't about equality or fairness to those who deserve it. It’s about generosity to those who have done little to receive what they are given. It is about the generosity of God to people who demand fairness when they have no idea what fairness is because they have no idea what generosity or humility is.
But let’s set the scene first. Little children are coming to Jesus. The disciples want to shoo them away. Perhaps they decide they don’t deserve of Jesus’ attention. Kids haven’t earned their place, and they are messy and loud. They need to get to the back of the line with their mommies and daddies. Perhaps the disciples think the kids are skipping in line. Maybe the disciples are jealous of the affection Jesus shows the children.
But rather than send them to the back of the line, Jesus says the kingdom belongs to children. The kingdom belongs to adults like the children. Those who suffer, those who are ignored, those who are treated like garbage. Jesus says he cares for the unimportant and undeserving people.
And then there’s the rich young man who wants to EARN his way into the kingdom But Jesus says that’s IMPOSSIBLE. And only GOD can bring someone into the kingdom. People can’t do it on their own. Many rich people are too greedy, arrogant, complacent, and power hungry for God's kingdom.
At which point Peter pipes up and wonders what reward God has got in store for the disciples. They’ve given up everything to follow Jesus. Peter wants to know what sort of return they’ve got coming on their investment.
And there Jesus’ answer is that God’s no man’s debtor. He’ll repay one hundred fold whatever we’ve given up for his sake. That’s how GENEROUS God will be! He WON’T give what’s fair. He’ll give lavishly ABOVE than what we deserve. Way beyond what we’ve EARNED.
And the chapter finishes with the summary for how things are ordered in God’s kingdom. Many who are FIRST will be LAST, and many who are LAST will be FIRST.
Undeserving, un-noticed children will end up being FIRST. And rich, upright pillars of society will end up being LAST. Those who showed gratitude for what little they had will rise above those who sought more and more, and demanded even more. Those who recognise they’re EMPTY will receive until they are full. But those who think they are full and deserve EVERYTHING will receive NOTHING.
And then Jesus tells a story to illustrate His point. Which is where we pick up now. We get a clue that the two bits tie together because ch 20 begins with “for”. Many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first. FOR (or BECAUSE)… the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner.
Matthew 20:1-16
So let’s look at the story to see what it has to say to Peter. And to us. It’s a story about hiring, receiving, complaining and correcting. First up, HIRING.
Hiring (1-7)
A landowner owns a vineyard. And he needs workers. So he heads out to the local labour contractor first thing in the morning. He hires a bunch, and they both agree on payment of one denarius for the day’s work. The going rate. Fair and reasonable. And so they head off to work in the vineyard.
But then 3 hours later, the owner heads back to the marketplace for MORE workers. This time there’s no explicit agreement on wages (there in v4). Only his promise to pay them whatever’s right. They TRUST the owner, and so THEY TOO head off to the vineyard.
Three hours later – same thing happens. And again, three hours after that.
Finally, v6, 11 hours into the day, nearly quittin’ time. And the owner heads back to the market place ONE LAST TIME. There’s STILL people waiting to be hired for the day. Probably the dregs of the labour force. Maybe the old or the weak. V7. Still there because no one wants to hire them.
But even THESE GUYS the owner sends off to work in the vineyard. And notice they head off immediately – no mention of wages. They TRUST the master. By THIS stage, they’ll take whatever they can get.
That’s the HIRING. Next we come to RECEIVING. The day’s over, and it’s time to settle accounts. The owner starts with the LAST ONES hired, and the foreman gives them a denarius each. That’s TWELVE TIMES the going rate! They worked an hour, and get a full day’s pay!
We’re not told THEIR reaction, but we ARE told how the FIRST ONES HIRED felt (v10). They quickly do their sums, and they’re rubbing their hands together in expectation. They reckon, to be FAIR, they should receive TWELVE TIMES AS MUCH. After all, they’ve worked TWELVE TIMES AS LONG.
But they’ve forgotten what they agreed to at the start of the day. What’s FAIR is they get paid the going rate for a day’s work. One denarius. Which is what they GET.
Complaining (11-12),
But it doesn’t SEEM fair. And so they move from RECEIVING to COMPLAINING (v11).
11 When they RECEIVED it, they began to GRUMBLE against the landowner. 12′These men who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’
What about ME? It isn’t FAIR! I’ve had enough, and I want my share!
Correcting (13-16)
The WHOLE GROUP grumbles, but the owner turns to ONLY ONE of them, and CORRECTS him. V13.
Friend, I’m not being unfair to you. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? 14 Take your pay and go. I want to give the man who was hired LAST the same as I gave YOU. 15 Don’t I have the RIGHT to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’
He makes two points. First, You’re so busy looking at OTHERS, you’ve forgotten how YOU’VE been treated – which is PERFECTLY fairly. Exactly what you deserve. A day’s pay for a day’s work. Nothing fairer than that! Your REAL problem is that someone else has got something they DIDN’T deserve. Something BETTER.
Second: That’s MY problem. I can pay OTHER people whatever I want. What business is it of YOURS to tell me who I can be generous to?
And Jesus finishes the story almost the same way he finished talking to the disciples at the end of ch 19. The same way he’d STARTED this story. “The last will be first, and the first will be last.”
Which ties the parable into the question PETER had asked at the end of Ch 19.
And perhaps that’s why there’s ONE COMPLAINER in Jesus’ story. One person singled out for the owner to answer. Because it’s PETER who’s spoken up for the disciples about what reward they’re all going to get.
And Jesus’ point is that his emphasis is all wrong. He’s too focused on HIMSELF. Too concerned with what’s fair FOR HIM. And not enough on THE REST of the people in God’s kingdom. Peter was too focused on him and not the people suffering around him. Not seeing how hard the other disciples worked as well. Not seeing what Jesus offered was not what the world does but what the Father in heaven offers – life in its fullest.

Peter’s the early vineyard worker in God’s vineyard. He thinks he’s EARNED a huge payday from God. But the reality is thinking like THAT is “LAST PLACE” thinking. Thinking about how you deserve to be in first place. How you deserve to be paid more. Only leads to coming LAST. Which means missing out on God’s kingdom all together.
FIRST PLACE” thinking means seeing yourself as the eleventh hour workers. The undeserving ones. They work for an hour expecting 1/12 of what the first workers get. They expect less than the others. They are amazed they get the same as the first workers, the second, and third workers. They get generosity on top of what is fair.
Some people have a hard time accepting the doctrine of election. That God chooses people. They say it’s not fair that God chooses some to be saved, and doesn’t choose everyone. They think that simply cannot be the way a loving God works, because that wouldn’t be FAIR. MUST be that WE choose GOD. Surely, that would be more fair so that must be the way it is. WRONG – God chooses who he pleases just as the vineyard owner chose the workers. God gives as He wishes to whom He wishes.
But I’m glad God’s not FAIR. The reality is  if God was fair with EVERYONE, NO ONE would receive eternal life. We’d ALL receive JUDGMENT. That’s what we DESERVE. That’s a FAIR days pay for a day’s work – that is what we have earned for our sinning and rebelling. Yet God gives generously His kingdom and forgiveness. Those we did not earn. In a sense isn't it all unfair to Jesus. Afterall Jesus was innocent and was put to death for our salvation. Yet Jesus says it was the the will of the Father for this to happen. Why? God is generous and Jesus knew His life was only beginning on the cross – not ending. With crucifixion came the Resurrection.
The reality is we don’t really WANT God to be fair. We’re all rebels who deserve DEATH. Be assured it is much better that God is LOVING and GRACIOUS.
Which is the message of the gospel. That while SOME people GET what they deserve. Fair and just JUDGMENT. OTHERS get what they DON’T deserve - GRACE. Eternal life. Forgiveness. Reward. A hundred times what they’ve given up. That’s GOOD NEWS!
Grace ISN’T fair. It’s MORE than fair.
And while lots of people COMPLAIN about God’s unfairness. For those of us who understand it, we should CELEBRATE God’s great generosity. How INCREDIBLE that he chose us, opened our eyes to his riches, and gave us the faith to respond!
Rather than putting ourselves in the shoes of the first workers who’ve earned their pay. Who’ve done God (Ahem!) a favor. Much better to put ourselves in the shoes of the last workers. Who come in at the last minute. Hardly work at all. And, undeserving, receive the full payment!
That’s God's kingdom thinking. That’s thinking that works itself out in lives of thanksgiving.
The reality is JESUS is the one who’s earned the pay. He’s the one who’s worked all day in our place. Who’s born the heat of the day. Who’s endured his Father’s anger – his justice. So that we didn’t HAVE to. So that we might come in at the last minute, and receive the rewards that Jesus has worked for.
At the end of this story Matthew describes how Jesus continues on his way to Jerusalem. V18. And Jesus tells them how he’s going to bear the burden of the work and the heat of the day. How he’s going to be betrayed, condemned to death. How he’ll be flogged and crucified. And that he’ll be raised to life. How he’ll receive what WE deserve, so that we might receive MUCH MORE than we deserve.
We’ve got to learn to walk in the shoes of the LAST HOUR workers, and not FIRST hour workers. Jesus has already DONE that. Worked all day. Earned a just wage. And we can’t do it again.
When you put yourself in the right shoes, it affects how you think about YOURSELF. It affects your MOTIVATION for WHY you do things. Doing them out of GRATITUDE, rather than because you have to - your trying to earn a wage. You do right because it is right and pleasing God is what pleases you.

It affects how we see and treat other people. We laugh to make others laugh. We will go without so others do not have to. We seek to be a gift to people and not a burden. We will comfort those hurting with a smile and cry with them if necessary. There are no people too dirty, too smelly, too drunk, too high, or too anything to hear about what God has generously done for us.
And it affects how you think about the things that happen to you in life. Plenty of people give up on God when something BAD happens in their life. A business goes bust, or a child goes wild, or a marriage breaks down. And they blame God. “How could you let this happen to me? After all I’ve done for you! I don’t DESERVE to be treated like this. I deserve BETTER!”
I DESERVE a better job, or a new lounge, or good health, or great air-conditioning, or an expensive holiday.
But DO we?
What we DESERVE from God is JUDGMENT. But he shows us GRACE. And then, like EVERY loving Father, he DISCIPLINES us for our GOOD. Bringing TRIALS our way. Suffering. To make us more like Jesus (That’s Hebrews 12). Working all things for good for those who LOVE him and have been called according to his purpose (That’s Romans 8). And so we can REJOICE in suffering (that’s Romans 5)
That’s Kingdom thinking. Eleventh hour thinking. It affects the way you think about YOURSELF and your circumstances.
And it affects the way you think about EVANGELISM. If you think you’ve EARNED your place in the kingdom, then you’re CONTENT. God’s pretty lucky to have you. You can sit back, put your feet up, and enjoy your place in the sun.
But if you’ve worked an hour, and received 12 times the wages you’ve deserved, wouldn’t you back up for more the next day? And wouldn’t you bring all of your friends to a job like THAT?
It’s too good NOT to share!
And Kingdom thinking – eleventh hour thinking. It affects how you think about OTHER PEOPLE – how you treat them, and respond to them. It affects how you FORGIVE them. How you refuse to JUDGE them. Because you recognize YOU’RE nothing special, so how can you put someone else BENEATH you, or BEHIND you.
Some of you know T D Jakes. He’s a mega-minister who’s also a prison chaplain at Texas prisons. And part of his job is to find churches for ex-prisoners who’ve become Christians. But it’s not an easy thing to do. He struggles to find churches who’ll genuinely accept these people.
Sometimes there are real, practical difficulties to deal with. But often it’s just the judgmentalism and lack of grace on the part of people in these churches.
And it shouldn’t BE like that. If we UNDERSTAND where we deserve to be before God, it should affect how we treat OTHERS.
But more than that. It should show itself in our whole attitude to LIFE. If we really worked that attitude out in all of life. It would make us a lot more CONTENTED, and less judgmental. A lot more THANKFUL, and less NEEDY and GRASPING.
It would make us less inclined to stand up for our rights. For what we DESERVE. To get worked up about the person who pushes in, or grabs our parking spot.
What do we really deserve? Do we deserve top marks, or recognition, or a speedy parking space, or to be served first? No, we deserve God’s judgment. But he showed us GRACE!
If we’ve really UNDERSTOOD that. We should LIVE it.
How well are YOU living it?
We were at Northpark Mall a couple of weeks ago, and we saw a local radio station van giving away free stuff in the car park. So the wife and I went up to van as the radio staff were handing out mugs and thermos mugs. We were standing a short distance away, waiting while they organized themselves. And a teenaged girl walked up next to me, and then inched across in front of me, leaning in closer and pushing me back to get her free stuff FIRST.
And my FIRST reaction was to tell her to get to back of the line. To wait her turn. I DIDN’T. More because I DIDN’T WANT TO CREATE A SCENE than because I was being particularly PATIENT. She asked for a shirt and walked off. We got our stuff a few seconds AFTER her. We got a full bag of stuff not just a gimme shirt. We got some really nice stuff.
But why did I react like that? Because I felt I’d DESERVED justice. I’d EARNED it…
But hang on! It was FREE stuff. And I’d done NOTHING for it. We didn’t pay for it, and we’re still enjoying it. That’s the right attitude to have. Whether it’s to free stuff, or to the free grace God’s shown us in Jesus.

If we’ve really understood it, we should be LIVING it. How well are YOU living it? We can be like the first workers who complain about the masters generosity to others or we can respond as Peter did when Jesus finished speaking. We can look inside our self and see what we need to change to come closer to God and to be better servants of God's Kingdom. That is Peter thinking – that is Kingdom thinking. That shows we allow God to be in charge. We allow God to lead and we humbly submit to follow.

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