God is NOT FAIR! (a sermon on Matthew 20:1-16)

It’s been a hard week for me in many ways. I buried an old friend on Wednesday (who, while an ‘old friend’, was significantly younger than me) and that was all very confronting and draining. More draining still though this last week, was my attempt to deal with my Twitter and Facebook feeds!

This was not a problem any of us had a few years ago. Facebook fatigue is a very 2017 problem! Never before, in the history of humankind have we been able to express an opinion and instantly have the whole world weigh in on that opinion and its author, which is lovely when the whole world is telling you that you are a rock-star, and less lovely when they are telling you something else.

I’m not an expert at calculating my ‘reach’ in social media. Even so, I do know that the link to my recent article in support of same-sex marriage had been retweeted 222 times (at time of writing) and was ‘shared’ on Facebook 75 times, in addition to the countless likes and dislikes, and the commentary, which, if printed out and published could be turned into a decent-sized book (though not one, I think, worth purchasing).

I tried, for the most part, to resist the temptation to add to the dialogue, as I figured I’d already expressed my thoughts in the article. Even so, I did lose my cool a little the other night, and I came very close to suggesting that the boxing gym might be a better venue to resolve the issue with my online antagonist, given that, in my opinion, the nature of his attack on me was little more than verbal slugging.

It has been a learning experience for me, reading through the often long and passionate dialogues from people on both sides of the divide, and I did have what I felt was a bit of an ‘ah ha’ experience the other night. It clicked with me the other night that one of the reasons that a number of religious people involved in this debate feel so strongly about maintaining the status quo regarding marriage is because the issue really confronts their belief in the justice of God. The connection might not be immediately obvious, so let me spell it out for you as I perceive it.

God mandates laws for us to live by. If we obey those laws, God rewards us (if not in this life, then in the next) and if we disobey those laws, we are punished (if not in this life, then in the next)! In as much as we might find God Himself incomprehensible, His laws are not hard to understand, and the system of reward and punishment is straightforward and intuitive. If you start to dismantle that system by saying that it’s OK to break some of those laws, how do we stop the whole system from falling apart? We might as well abandon any sense of law, sin, reward and punishment!

I trust I haven’t done anyone an injustice in framing the issue this way, and I’m not suggesting that everybody who disagrees with me online necessarily buys into this sort of theological framework, but I do believe that for a lot of religious folk, it’s not the issue of same-sex marriage as such that is the problem, so much as the way this issue threatens their greater understanding of God and God’s justice – a God who is wise in His decrees, unchanging in His will, and reliable in the way He rewards those who are good and punishes those who are evil. And it seems to me that Jesus, in His parables, goes to great lengths to challenge this sensible understanding of God.

“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the workers for one denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing in the marketplace without work. He said to them, ‘You go into the vineyard, too, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So off they went. He went out again about noon and about three o’clock and did the same thing. About five o’clock he went out and found some others standing around. He said to them, ‘Why are you standing here all day long without work?’ They told him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You go into the vineyard as well.’ ” (Matthew 20:1-7)

I’ve only read you the first half of the parable, as it’s a long one. Many of Jesus’ parables are short and pithy –

  • the Kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed that grows into a great big bush’ (Matthew 13:31-32),
  • the Kingdom of Heaven is like treasure hidden in a field’ (Matthew 13:44).

This isn’t one of those short and pithy parables. It’s long, and I’m sure that there must have been people listening to Jesus who didn’t hear all of it or who had to go home mid-parable, before the story was over.

“What was it like, listening to Jesus today, son? Did you learn anything?”

“I had to leave before he was finished, dad, but Jesus was saying that the Kingdom of Heaven was like a vineyard-owner, taking on workers to help with the harvest.”

“Well, you know the prophets teach us that our nation is like a vineyard. In a sense, we are all workers in that vineyard, my boy! Did Jesus have anything specific to say about what us workers should be doing?”

“No, but he was just saying that some workers start at dawn, because they are up bright and early and ready to work, whereas others start work much later in the day. Indeed, Jesus said that the vineyard owner keeps heading back to the market-place, looking for more people who have nothing to do, and whenever he finds someone hanging about, he invites them to come and join the team and get to work!

Indeed, even at 5pm in the afternoon – not long before the sun goes down and the harvesting is over – this vineyard owner is still offering work to anyone who wants it – even to the layabouts who stayed in bed most of the day because they were hung over from the night before and couldn’t be bothered putting in a full day’s work!”

“Wow! Did Jesus explain what he was getting at with this story?”

“Like I said, I had to leave before he was finished, but I figure he was saying that it’s never too late to start doing the work of God – that it’s never too late to pitch in and do your bit, for the country, for our people, for the Kingdom!”

“Hmm … it sounds to me as if Jesus is looking for more disciples himself and is saying that it’s never too late to sign up!”

And it does sound like that. And maybe Jesus did mean that, at least in part. These, at any rate, are the sorts of ideas that come to mind as we listen to this story, but those of us who know the full story know that the sting comes in the tail!

When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the workers and give them their wages, beginning with the last and ending with the first.’ Those who were hired at five o’clock came, and each received a denarius. When the first came, they thought they would receive more, but each received a denarius as well. When they received it, they began to complain to the landowner, saying, ‘These last fellows worked only one hour, yet you have made them equal to us who have endured the burden of the day and the scorching heat!’ (Matthew 10:8-12)

And that’s exactly what I would have said! Indeed, that’s what we all would have said! It’s not fair, and surely the Kingdom of Heaven has to be fair!

Those of us who are parents of more than one child have no doubt heard those three words a lot – “it’s not fair!”

If you’ve ever had any doubts as the innate nature of the human sense of justice and fair play, try dividing a stash of lollies between two young children. The complaint will never be “I didn’t get enough” but always “she got more than me!” That is why King Solomon developed the principal that, if diving a piece of cake between two children, one cuts and the other chooses! (I think it was Solomon)

In truth though, it doesn’t stop when we are kids. We just come up with more sophisticated ways of making our case as we get older.

I once heard a trade union leader quoted, saying that there had never been a strike called over low pay, but only over ‘pay differentials’.  In other words, it’s never that what we are getting isn’t ‘enough’ (in some abstract sense of the word).  It’s that we’re not getting as much as the guy next to us!

A hard day’s work deserves a fair day’s wage – that is basic to our sense of justice, is it not? This is what our parents taught us as children, and this is what we teach our children – you get what you deserve!

I remember back in my school days, I learnt the importance of discipline and industry, and I knew that when one of my classmates, lazy Joe, would say, “hey Dave, can I see your homework? I had a big night last night!”  I could say, “sure”, because I knew that in the end this guy was only hurting himself!  He wasn’t really learning. He wasn’t ever going to get ahead this way. And then, the exam results come in and lazy Joe and I get the same mark! It’s not supposed to work like that!

Good, honest, hard-working people like us are supposed to get rewarded for all our hard work, while useless good-for-nothing lay-abouts, who spend their days at the pub and who can’t be bothered to get a real job and who take up our tax dollars and use it to buy weed for themselves and won’t even get themselves a decent haircut … don’t you tell me that they get the same heavenly pay-cheque at the final checkout?

This is a very confronting story!  If the Kingdom of Heaven isn’t about justice, what is it about? I know ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’ is rough, but it’s fair, and if you’ve been working all day since dawn, and enduring the heat of the midday sun, you deserve some sort of recognition for your effort. It’s only fair! Have we somehow got our whole concept of justice wrong? I don’t think so. I think the problem is not our concept of justice. The problem is the vineyard-owner!

“But [the vineyard owner] said to one of them, ‘Friend, I’m not treating you unfairly. You agreed with me for a denarius, didn’t you? Take what is yours and go. I want to give this last man as much as I gave you. Am I not allowed to do what I want with my own money, or are you envious because I am generous?’ (Matthew 20:13-15)

It’s hard to argue with the vineyard-owner’s logic, isn’t it? It’s just that it’s not the logic of justice. It’s the language of generosity – of mercy – and there is always going to be a degree of tension between justice and mercy.

  • Jesus saying to the woman caught in adultery “I don’t condemn you either” (John 8:11) – that’s mercy. It’s not justice. Justice would have seen the woman pounded to death by stones.
  • Jesus saying, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they are doing” (Luke 23:34) – that’s mercy, not justice. Justice would have seen those who mocked Jesus strung up on crosses alongside Him, seeing how they liked it!
  • ‘Doing unto others as they do unto you’ (or even ‘doing it to them before they get a chance to do it to you’) – that’s the language of justice. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” (Luke 6:31) – that’s the language of mercy, because that’s how we want to be treated by God and by others – mercifully. We don’t really want justice – not for ourselves, not if we’re honest.

“In the same way”, Jesus concludes, “the last will be first, and the first will be last” (Matthew 20:16), which doesn’t quite make sense, as the people who come last don’t really end up ahead of the people who came first. They all end up as equals, except perhaps in terms of the affection they feel towards the vineyard-owner where the late-comers are probably well ahead of their beleaguered early-rising colleagues.

The point, at any rate, Jesus says, is that the Kingdom of Heaven is just like that!

Really? Is the Kingdom of Heaven really that confusing? Is Heaven really filled with labourers, some of whom are exhausted, whereas others, still suffering from hang-overs from the night before, barely lift a finger? Is it really a place of resentment and of arguments, where no one in management takes seriously the concept of a hard day’s work deserving a good day’s pay, and if so, is God perhaps not really just?

I’m not sure how many elements of this story Jesus really wants us to adopt as part of our understanding of God’s Kingdom. Even so, if justice is about everybody getting what they deserve, then maybe God isn’t just (not in that sense, at any rate). What God clearly is, according to this story (and according to the whole life and ministry of Jesus) is merciful.

If you’ve ever been to court, you have probably seen an image of Justitia – the Roman goddess of justice. She is a well-known figure, even in the twenty-first century. She is robed, holding a pair of scales in one hand and a sword in the other, and she is blindfolded, showing no partiality and being no respecter of persons.

The God of the Bible is never depicted that way – with eyes blindfolded or closed.  On the contrary, God’s eyes are always open, and God shows great partiality!     God bends towards the poor and the needy, the weak and the oppressed, and God has mercy upon all – from first to last and from last to first!

First preached at Holy Trinity, Dulwich Hill, on Sunday, October 1st, 2017

About Father Dave

Preacher, Pugilist, Activist, Father of four
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4 Responses to God is NOT FAIR! (a sermon on Matthew 20:1-16)

  1. Madeleine Kingston says:

    “The God of the Bible is never depicted that way – with eyes blindfolded or closed. On the contrary, God’s eyes are always open, and God shows great partiality! God bends towards the poor and the needy, the weak and the oppressed, and God has mercy upon all – from first to last and from last to first!”

    I am surprised that I have entered into such spiritual dialogues, since I am not a church-goer and nor can I be described as religious. My view is that even non-religious people can find well-reasoned philosophical argument appealing and your posts do not permit room for boredom. It is possible to be areligious whilst at the same time embracing the fundamental ethical principles of inclusivity, justice and equity, which is one of reasons that like you, I support same-sex marriage as an extension of those principles.

    I have posted divided posts on your Fit-to-Box blog of 16 October on that topic, as an unaffected party supporting such principles, being a happily married woman who believes that those currently denied the right to legal marital status should be permitted to marry with or without religious blessing which is a separate matter to legal entitlements and globally recognised status in committed loving relationships.

    Kind regards

    Madeleine Kingston, Victorian voter

  2. Madeleine Kingston says:

    Father Dave

    I have deduced that you are a fan of the work of FYNN. I have concluded that you have been influenced by the thoughts of ANNA, the creation of FYNN, who heroically died at the age of eight, completely prepared for her end and in her view ascension to Heaven as she understood it. It was ANNA’s viewpoint that God was not only fair but also a friend. As I have understood it, ANNA did not base this viewpoint on any possible interference with secular matters. ANNA was right down to earth. She lived and died as most of us could only aspire to. She was inspired by life and was at peace with death when she was confronted with it. She apparently thought that God was quite fair but not necessarily judgemental.

    I understand that you are inspired by philosophical reasoning and that you are prepared to put yourself out there holding a non-traditional viewpoint. We accidently encountered each other in the context of a particular aspect of equality that has been denied over centuries; that of marriage equality and legalisation of same-sex-marriage. As an unaffected party, being a happily married woman, I would like to see this legislation passed as soon as possible. My household ticked YES.

    The God of the believers may not be concerned about secular matters, but rather about far more important matters of intuitive belief in broader ethical matters, the interpretation of which may have become distorted in the rush, if I may suggest, political pressure by religious and/or political groups or else their supporters not only confuse the public at large, but to steer them as a matter of unacceptable control into decisions and viewpoints that fail to meet the test of further analysis.


  3. Madeleine Kingston says:

    Father Dave

    Is God not Fair? Anna creation of FYNN, whose remarkable literary award won a rare Ah Award for Mister God This is Anna. Your blogs indicate that you are familiar with work of FYNN and views of 8-year old Anna, who died following an accident, not before she provided insights well beyond her years with a lasting impacts on religious, areligious, atheist and/or agnostic.

    Now as I understand, the Graveyard is a Men Old Place. Do you agree or not?

    There are those who believe in actual purgatory; assuming in the first place that one believes in such a punitive destination; sounds like a horrific destination; just onestep from Hell itself; assuming also that this place Hell actually exists. All Fire and Brimstone eh? And Judgemental. A bit too damn judgemental for me. My pick is to opt for softer landing place. What should I do to achieve that goal?

    Surely Three Hail Marys won’t quite get me there five times a day flat on my face on a yoga mat? Forgive my irrelevant position, I just can’t help myself. So honesty is what you actually seeking? The full confessional then. Look no further. Honest I am to a fault.

    Surely, flat on my face on the same yoga mat whatever I may choose to believe; whatever my religious convictions; or absence of such; and however I choose to live my life; surely, surely the God of the New Testament is somewhat forgiving. My cursory understanding is acceptance and forgiveness fundamental to Christian principles.

    I understand it as an areligious person embracing fundamental ethical principles presumed to be common ground for all those committed to the principles of fairness, justice and universal equality regardless of foci; I hope we can continue to work together.

    Madeleine Kingston

  4. Madeleine Kingston says:

    So continuing Father Dave

    I have a copy of Fynn’s “Mister God This is Anna” on my personal bookshelf. If you like the “East-End Perspective” and so much more, and wish to think beyond the box; Anna is just for you..

    “Mister God This Is Anna” by Fynn

    Ah! Books come once in a while … and as soon as you get onto it May I suggest ….

    The book was acclaimed by Trevor Huddleston, Guardian as follows:

    “Here’s a book which is a pearl of great price. It will mean everything. Truth, beauty and goodness, to choose who understand .. a heavenly book, rooted in earth. It explores the philosophical beliefs of a young lady from the East End of London who did not make it to eight years old. She died in an accident. Her biography was written thirty years later by a man whose life was transformed because of Anna and her unique philosophy of life.

    Mr God this is Anna is an Ah! Book. These I am led to understand are books that change the reader’s consciousness. Vernon Sproxton in The Introduction to Fynn’s book refers to the impact of Ah! Books as a transformation through which sensibility is widened in such a way that familiar things may be seen through a different filter and for the first time. Ah! books are not often published. One of them was published just after the warMalraux’s The Psychology of Art.

    Sproxton begins with tantalising comments about:
    “touching the nerve-centre of the whole being so that the reader receives an almost palpable physical shock, a tremor of excited perception ripples through the person.”

    Madeleine Kingston
    Victorian Voter Supporting Equality Rights All Across The Board
    (since fair is fair and justice is justice; don’t you agree?)

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