I am sure most of us can recall a time when we’ve been in a situation that we believe unfair. I can tell you many times that I feel I have been mistreated or a situation happened that just wasn’t fair! Can you recall a situation that you deem unfair?
How do Christians address such situations? Should we defend ourselves or try to put things, right? Or should we grin and bear it? I wonder, what would Jesus do? Well, these times, we turn to the word of God for advice.
Matthew 20 https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Matthew+20&version=KJV. This parable teaches about issues of unfairness and fairness. However, it is not a factual story but a parable to teach us what the kingdom of heaven is like. The story revolves around the equal rewards given to workers in the vineyard for unequal amounts of labour. This story will guide us if we are looking for answers to the unfairness we’ve been dealt with.
In the context of Matthew, Jesus uses various events to communicate his vision of what the kingdom of heaven should be on earth. Heaven is a place of justice, peace, and joy, and no one is dealt with unfairly. Remember that divine justice is not the same as we experience here. And not surprisingly, it differs from the current ideas of what is fair and what is not.
Jesus shows us God’s ideas of fairness when he says the last will be first, the first will be last.
Just before this parable, Jesus accepts the children, blesses them, and uses them as a model for how the kingdom is granted by grace and God’s mercy alone and should be accepted in faith.
Then in the encounter with the rich young ruler, Jesus indicates that it is almost impossible for anyone to be worthy of the kingdom based on their actions. This story reminds us that we can only enter God’s eternal kingdom by God’s grace and mercy alone.
This story is about a farmer who hires at regular intervals throughout the day, from sunrise at three-hour intervals to the ninth hour, which is mid-afternoon.
And the casual labourers are called together at the end of the day and beginning with the last hired. They receive a day’s wage, a denarius, considered enough to live for just one day. And here, the farmer pays the last ones first and the first ones last; they all receive the same amount. The workers who have worked all day are agitated, so we say they should be. However, the poor blokes were exhausted with work and so upset by this apparent unfairness that they were outraged!
Jesus has a way of using outrageous scenarios in his stories. It upsets the hearers; it unsettles us, challenging our comfortable traditional ideas. Jesus uses shock tactics to get people thinking; his storytelling turns what we consider typical values upside down.
At first glance, the scene is one of exploitation and decisions based on a whim and injustice. It’s not fair! We say, yet the story opens new mental pictures for us of what the kingdom is like in heaven and what should be on earth.
The story seems unjust as the farmer kept his contract with the first hired and gave the last hired the same wages according to the contract. A denarius was an amount someone needed to live for just one day. The last men hired received their denarius. The practice comes close to what we understand as normal. They both agreed on what the wage should be and received accordingly.
Also, look at it this way. For example, in times of need, our government provides unemployment benefits to ensure that everyone has enough to live on in the short term without working for it. Likewise, the National Health Service in the UK provides medical care for free to all people regardless of income. Here, the standard is on need and not on earning rights, which is emphasised. Jesus’ story is about fulfilling a need. It reflects upon the Lord’s prayer where Jesus taught his disciples to ask the Father ‘to give us this day our daily bread.
Jesus promises in earlier parts of Matthew that he will supply all our needs according to his riches in glory and not according to our income or wants.
God’s Ways aren’t our Ways
We must realise that God’s idea of justice is different from ours. God’s kingdom is this upside-down kingdom that must reflect the life of the Church. To accept this different way of thinking puts the question of justice into perspective for us today.
Interestingly, Jesus uses familiar imagery, familiar even to us some 2,000 years later. The images are of hiring people who wait in the town centre for work. We get the image of desperate people, local people battling unemployment, looking for just one day’s wage to feed themselves and their families. Things aren’t good for them.
These are poor people. Hanging about the town centre waiting for work is humiliating because they are at the beck and call of other people’s whim and can be easily exploited and seen as an expendable resource. The poor are dehumanised in their poverty, and this to Jesus’ thinking is unjust – they are in need, and the ways of the kingdom of God would make a significant positive change in their lives.
There is a familiar cry today about human rights, but we have found that those who shout the loudest demanding their rights get accommodated, while those who do not shout the loudest or cannot shout are marginalised, and their human rights are denied.
Through this story, in Matthew 21:1-16, Jesus shows us that there are no favourites with God. The weak and the strong, the first and the last, are equally loved and shown God’s mercy.
I believe that this is a story about what our earthly reality should look like as believers in Christ. And it is more about equality rather than justice. It’s more about equality than what is fair and what is not. Because without equality, we can have no true justice.
But I think it is also about what our spiritual reality should look like. What do I mean?
Well, those who have accepted Christ’s saving grace early in their lives and have lived 70 or more years following him will have no advantage over those who have lived an unrighteous life but repents on their deathbed. Nevertheless, they are offered the same gift of salvation.
Far from exploiting anyone, God’s kingdom brings love and mercy, equality and justice based on the need for a saviour, the need to be saved from the power of sin and death, and not based on our ability or status. God’s kingdom on earth should reflect what is happing in heaven. And for us, it’s the upside-down kingdom. But God is saying to us that our human way is upside down, and God’s way is the right side up!
Jesus is challenging our long-held ideas of what society should be and is bringing the idea of a new society called the kingdom of God. In so doing, God is showing us in picture form, through this parable, what God’s kingdom should look like here on earth in our day-to-day living. It is not about fairness or unfairness—it is about Justice.
This parable can unsettle us and raises many questions because this is what Jesus wants, to unsettle us so that we will listen to the alternative.
Jesus uses this story to show us what the kingdom of God is like, and within that, God’s mercy, equality, love and true justice.
In Jesus, we are learning that God is not working with purely human rights, but simply that Father God loves us all equally without prejudice; this is at the heart of God. It is God’s very being- God IS love!
The last will be first, the first will be last – Is that fair? In God’s kingdom – YES!
And that is a challenge for us all to do likewise.
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Paula Rose Parish
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