Justice vs. Fairness

“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard.  He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard.

 “About nine in the morning he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing.  He told them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’  So they went.

“He went out again about noon and about three in the afternoon and did the same thing.  About five in the afternoon he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?’

 “‘Because no one has hired us,’ they answered.

“He said to them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard.’

 “When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.’

 “The workers who were hired about five in the afternoon came and each received a denarius.  So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius.  When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner.  ‘These 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.’

 “But he answered one of them, ‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius?  Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you.  Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’

 “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

Matthew 20:1-16

I love this parable that Jesus told about the workers in the vineyard. He uses both the principles of paradox (last shall be first) and the great logic of the master’s authority to pay his workers in the way that he had promised. It was also about generosity, and our often-injured sense of fairness.

I found it interesting that the workers hired in the morning expected higher pay than the vine master had originally promised them, simply because he had paid the last hour workers the same wage he had promised the all-day workers. Now, if I were one of the workers who had worked all day in the hot sun, would I have been upset? You bet I would! My sense of fairness would have been violated. And believe me, if someone wants to set off another into a fit, just mess with their sense of fairness.

Jesus explained here however that justice was done, even if it did not seem fair. One could argue that the master was simply being generous to the late day workers. Possibly, he reasoned that he had to get the harvest in that day, and he would need to pay a premium to the late workers just to save his crop. Who knows? The point is, the master had the right to make that decision. Even if it did not seem fair to the all-day workers, it was justice, and he was honest to his word to them.

Just human nature at work here, and we all qualify for that. But Jesus had a higher sense of justice, and a lesson for us all. He is sovereign, and the paradox of the “last shall be first” is one of those themes in the Bible that we all need to reckon with.

Prayer: Lord, your ways are higher than our ways. Help us to see your truth, Amen

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