Grace Is Not Fair


Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps

Old First Church

September 17, 2017

Text: Matthew 20:1-16

       How many times have we heard a child cry out, “But that’s not fair!”  Even at a young age, children have a sense of fairness, of what’s “fair.”  Researchers doing empirical studies have shown that even among children as young as two and three years old there is a strong aversion to inequity and unfair advantage. Some of these studies show that children will evenly divide items, such as cookies; and at times they will divide those cookies between themselves and others, even when they have control of the cookies.

      The concept of fairness lies at the heart of our moral development as human beings and has been seen by social scientists as one of the prime movers of cooperation, thus advancing civilization.   We know how we bristle when we feel someone has taken unfair advantage of us.  We know that such unfair advantage does little to engender a feeling of cooperation.

      Little wonder, then, that the men who had been working in the vineyard all day became angry when they realized that the men who had worked for only a few hours were being paid as much as they themselves had been promised for the full day’s work. The text tells us that they “grumbled against the landlord.” It's is certainly obvious that there was no hourly minimum wage there.

      Early commentators on this parable approached it in a number of different ways. Irenaeus, the Bishop of the Roman city known as Lugdunum, now Lyon, France, in the second century, allegorized the parable to mean the con-tinuity between the Hebrew God and the Christian God while Augustine writing two-hundred years later, stated the parable was about God’s salvation to all.  

      Martin Luther preached on this passage many times. In one sermon, he called it a parable against envy while in another sermon he preached it from the point of view of faith versus works. In that sermon, he commented that one did not need to look at every detail of the text to get the point, which, for him was trying to live a life of works without faith, as did the early birders, one missed God’s grace to all.   

     A scant hundred and fifty years later, however, the prolific commentator Matthew Henry took off from Irenaeus’ approach and saw it as a statement of full equality for the Gentiles to whom Jesus was preached after the Jews, a sort of play on Paul’s letter to the Galatians. There’s no shortage of interpretations

     What does come across early in this parable is the seeming unfairness of the day’s wages paid to those who showed up at the end of the day. It just doesn’t seem fair that those slackers received as much as the early birds who worked all day in the scorching sun. Think of it this way: how would the crops we eat get picked if people were paid like that? No one would show up to the end of the day!

     Others, far more learned than I, have suggested that this parable is really about the nature of God itself in that God’s generous grace extends to all, no matter when they ask for it. At first glance, that sounds fine but what do we do with those who have hurt others all their lives and then turned the leaf, so to speak. How do we address the idea of redemption? Do we really believe in redemption or is that word just another nicety, like grace.

     Our concept of justice is rooted in fairness. What do we do when love or grace trumps fairness? The parable tells us that the landlord asks the early birds if they are angry or envious because he is generous.  God’s grace and love certainly is more than our concept of justice. Should we be judged by a standard of justice, I daresay many would be found wanting, including me.

     If we governed our relationships primarily by justice, we would be balancing lives on a scale. Where justice calculates, love lets go. So, how do we deal with the con-flict between grace and love against justice? One writer has suggested that love acts differently than justice in that it passes beyond the law of justice into the realm of relationship.  

      We certainly don’t govern our personal relationships by the idea of justice or even equity, but by love and grace, and, in fact, we probably hope that the grace we extend to others is extended to us as well. We do not want to be judged and found wanting, so we pray that God’s grace will extend to us as well as to others.   

      There are many instances when we feel that we have been treated unjustly even in a relationship and want some kind of recompense. Those are relationships gone sour. But even as we bristle or are truly angry, it’s not the feeling of injustice we have but that of a betrayal of love and its resultant grace. A betrayal of love runs far deeper than even a sense of injustice.

      This parable is not just about our own expectations, however. We do not expect that the first will be last and the last will be first. That seems out of the order of things. We usually have certain expectations in our relationships with others and even, I daresay, with God. We may hear these words that come at the end of the parable, but they really have little meaning for us in our world today.

      When we think about God’s grace, we usually separate it from the reality of daily living. We may think of justice as restorative or distributive, but we still operate in a world framed by our ideas of justice. And we often use words like “fair” to describe what justice should be or not. Grace, the word we sometimes use for God’s generosity in our lives, is not like that.

      Although the landowner uses a word translated as “envious” when the late comers are given the same amount in wages as the ones who worked all day in the scorching sun, it’s not exactly envy in our traditional understanding of the word. It’s more like feeling slighted because we have been workers all day and others came late and received the same kind of generosity.

       I remember my Aunt Ruby feeling miffed because she had worked all day on a church bake sale and someone brought in a spectacular pie and got all kinds of praise while my aunt’s work seemed to pale by comparison. I have the feeling that had someone told her of this parable regarding her response, she would have really been furious.  Her sense of justice had been breached.

     The thing about grace – and its generosity – is that it must be freely given without any thought of return. As one writer noted, generosity with strings is not generosity; it’s a deal. Often when we think ourselves to be generous, we are not being totally honest with ourselves about our own expectations.  It’s particularly difficult when there’s not even a “thank you” for a generous action. We at least expect some expression of thanks.

     There is no “thank you” from the late-comers men-tioned in the parable, just the grumbling from the ones who worked all day. It does not seem fair to our ears but grace is like that. Grace is not fair. It is extended to all, no matter what.  We like the part about “extended to all” but chafe at the part “no matter what”.”  What do we do with persons who have transgressed all laws even to the point of murder?

      Sister Helen Prejean is a person who hopes to bring God’s grace to even the most horrible and despicable criminals, those on death row, some of whom have no regrets for what they did but just fear death. Her ministry to the condemned goes beyond our idea of justice, even restorative or distributive justice.  

       Sister Helen expects nothing in return, not even a “thank you” for her attempt to be comforting to those who are about to die.  She is clearly an instrument of God’s grace, which also expects nothing in return. That, of course, is where we really falter. How is it that God expects nothing in return? Not even repentance?  How is that possible?

       As we read in Isaiah: For my thoughts are not our thoughts; neither are your ways my ways. For as the heavens are higher than the earth so are my ways than your ways.  

      Let us pray: God beyond our comprehension, we pray that we may better understand your mysterious ways and enfold them into our hearts. In the name of him who showed your grace to all, even Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.