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.
Envy betrays the idea that you can earn something from God. The workers hired first may have started out admiring the generosity of the owner, who was paying their coworkers so generously: a full denarius for as little as an hour’s work. You can imagine the direction their imagination took: if these men received a denarius, what will we get? But when they received the denarius (to which they had agreed), they began to grumble. They had borne the burden of the work. They had endured the hottest part of the day. Their complaint, in essence, was that it was not fair that they received no more than those who had worked fewer hours, or especially than those who had worked only one hour. This parable follows the exchange with the rich young ruler. That man’s thinking was typical of many in his culture. Eternal life was essentially something earned, something that you could receive by doing some good thing. Even Peter’s attitude has something of that concept: how will God reward us for giving up all that we have surrendered? (Matthew 19:27). The scary thing about Jesus’ parable is our natural tendency to identify, at least initially, with the complaint of the workers. Somehow it doesn’t seem fair. “Can God not do what he wants to do with what belongs to him (Matt. 20:15)? All things depend solely on God’s will for their being—that they are and what they are (Rev. 4:11). God’s will is the ultimate ground of all things. Both mercy and hardening originate there (Rom. 9:15–18). In the church the Holy Spirit apportions to each one individually as he wills (1 Cor. 12:11). Humans have no right whatever to object to God’s free dispositions (Matt. 20:13ff.; Rom 9:20–21).” (Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics,Vol. 2, pages 232–233)
Trust God’s generous grace. God freely dispenses his grace. God freely dispenses his grace. In the parable the landowner reflects God’s grace. He recognizes that even the laborers hired later in the day had families to feed and obligations to meet. They have depended on his word to do what’s right, and he gives them beyond that—what they need for themselves and their families. He reminds the complaining workers that he had not short-changed them. They had received exactly what they had agreed to work for. His generosity to others is not unfair to them. He has the right to do with his money as he pleases. Their envy should not limit his generosity. Similarly, God is sovereign as he dispenses his grace. The owner of the vineyard was generous with his money. The generosity of the triune God is seen in next incident that Matthew records—Jesus speaking of his coming suffering, death, and resurrection. That is how you measure the generosity of your God! Your salvation is not based on anything that you do, or on God foreseeing some good in you. It is simply by grace alone. It’s not a matter of fair or unfair when God is acting. Remember, that if we got what’s fair, we would all receive eternal judgment. That is what we deserve because of our sins. “God as God is entitled, apart from every contract or stipulation of reward, to all the service or obedience man can render…. And the parable of the laborers in the vineyard teaches that in its ultimate analysis the reward is a free gift, whence also the one who has labored but a little while can receive the full wages, Matt. 20:1–16 cf. Luke 17:10.” (Geerhardus Vos, The Kingdom of God and the Church, p. 68)
Enter the kingdom by God’s grace in Christ, not by what you do. This parable explains, and is bracketed by the expression, “The first will be last, and the last first.” “This parable explains, and is bracketed by the expression, ‘The first will be last, and the last first.’ The kingdom of heaven does not function on the basis of human standards of reward or of what’s fair. There is no heresy as widespread as the one we can put simply as ‘If I live a good life, I will go to heaven when I die.’” (Leon Morris, The Gospel According to Matthew, p.504) The kingdom of heaven does not function on the basis of human standards of reward or of what’s fair. The concept that salvation really depends on your works is common, but is dead wrong. Jesus is not teaching that God is indifferent to whether or not you obey him. Remember the conclusion to the Sermon on the Mount: It is those who put into practice the words that Jesus spoke who are building their houses on the rock. In this parable, all of the workers are busy in the vineyard. You cannot separate a holy life from being one of God’s people, but your salvation is never on the basis of what you do. This parable is not just about grace to the Gentiles who entered the kingdom after the Jewish Christians did, nor is it just about newer Christians, who haven’t been through the struggles that older Christians have. Rather it is about all of us. How you enter the kingdom of heaven is based, not on anything you do or anything that you are. Rather, it simply depends on God’s grace in Jesus Christ. Whenever you compare yourself to others (whether in a positive or negative way) you have the wrong standard. The kingdom of heaven is about God’s generous grace, not about your efforts.
If we received what was “fair” we would all suffer eternal judgment. God in his grace has given you, not just a full denarius for a little bit of work, but he has freely given you his own Son, who suffered and died, so that you could enter his kingdom.