But It’s Not Fair!

We hear children —and adults — argue, “It’s not fair!” Sometimes we are not treated fairly. But, as Matthew 20:1–16 tells you, don’t address those words to God!

Beware of self-righteousness. This is a parable of the kingdom. A parable, you remember, is an earthly story with a heavenly meaning. Jesus specifies what the parable is about. His language reflects imagery that the Holy Spirit had used in the prophets, such as Isaiah 5. The central point of the parable is not economics. The parable has been used as a justification for socialism—everyone ought to receive equal pay. But that is not the point of the story Jesus told. Others have argued exactly the opposite point from the parable: the householder asks, “Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money?” A contract freely entered into, such as between the owner and the first workers, is binding. While that may be true, it also misses the mark. It’s not the reason Jesus told this parable. The actions of the owner tell you about God’s dealings in the kingdom of heaven. The parable is introduced specifically with: “the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner….” As in many of the parables of the kingdom the activity of a central figure tells you something about how God works in his kingdom. The owner reaches an agreement with the initial group of laborers to work in his vineyard for the standard wage of a denarius for a day’s work. At three hour intervals he hires additional workers, who are willing to trust his “I will pay you whatever is right.” Finally he hires some more men at the 11th hour. Perhaps it was harvest time, and the grapes had to be picked right then. At the end of the day, to their surprise the men who worked only one hour received a full denarius, as did each of the other laborers.

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A young man and woman may meet casually, but later see the relationship develop into a life-long commitment. If you enter the military, you undertake a commitment to serve for a certain number of years. What kind of commitment does the kingdom of God require? Matthew 19:16–30 records Jesus’ teaching.

Give up everything! This rich young man was searching for some good thing to do. A man came to Jesus, asking what he must do to inherit eternal life. Matthew is sparse in the details of introduction, but does tell us that the man was young, and we find out that he was wealthy. Jesus responds to the question with another question, implying that there is something basically wrong with the man’s approach. His focus should have been, not on some good thing he could do, but on the One, the only One, who is good. The man is seeking eternal life, verse 16. Later in the conversation this is described as “entering the kingdom of God,” verse 24, and being “saved,” verse 25. God’s good character is reflected in his commandments. Jesus points the man to his Father’s revelation of his will. God has not left us ignorant of what he expects of us. In response to the man’s question as to which commandments, Jesus quotes portions of the law dealing with our relationship with those around us, and concludes with the command to love our neighbor as ourselves. The man has an inflated view of his ability to obey. His response is glib (yet he still senses a need). When you appreciate the deep nature of God’s commands, as Jesus had pointed out earlier (Matthew 5:17–48), you cannot claim that you have earned favor in God’s eyes by your obedience. Note that in that context Jesus requires that your obedience exceed that of the teachers of the law and the Pharisees, Matthew 5:20.

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