God Is Not Fair

A sermon preached on Matthew 20:1-16 by Pastor Michael Johnson at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Sioux Falls, SD, on October 4, 2020.

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The words explode out of the child’s mouth. I’m sure every parent here as heard them at some point. You’ve probably said them at some point. Burning with emotion and irritation, your child shouts, “That’s not fair!” He got more than I did. Or she didn’t have to do that! In reality, we still struggle with things not being fair as adults don’t we?

In fact, that’s one of the more common denials of God. How could a good God allow terrible things in this life? He doesn’t seem to always be fair. And here’s the thing, God isn’t fair. And I couldn’t be happier that he isn’t. Today, he shows us why it is a good thing he isn’t fair.

A man came up to Jesus and asked him – Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life. Jesus could see what we cannot. He could see his heart – he knew the man sincerely believed he had kept God’s commands. The man believed God when he said be perfect and he thought he was perfect. He was looking for assurances that he was on the right track and asked Jesus if there was one more thing he could do. Jesus needed to show this man he wasn’t as close to perfect as he thought.  So he said if you want to earn heaven – go sell all your possessions and then follow me. The man walked away sad because he had great wealth. Jesus had showed this man he was not as pure as he thought he was.

Now the disciples were watching Jesus tell this man to give up all he had and follow him and it got them pretty excited. Peter said – Lord we’ve left everything for you – what will our reward be? Jesus told them you will join me in glory and sit on twelve thrones and judge the twelve tribes of Israel. He would go on to say everyone who leaves his father and mother for me will receive 100 times what he has given up. And knowing that the disciples would immediately misunderstand him, Jesus added a “but” … he says many who are first will be last and many who are last will be first.

Now, what did he mean by that? Jesus taught them with this story. The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who had a vineyard. At harvest, he went out early in the morning, around 6am. He found people waiting to find work and he offered to pay them a denarius, a day’s wage, for a day’s work. He went out again at 9am, noon, and 3pm. He found men waiting to work each time. He told them: “You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.” The owner even went out at 5pm and found still more waiting around. “‘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.’”

The day was almost over, 6pm rolled around and the owner had his foreman line all of the workers up and pay them starting with the ones who worked the least. And he pays them a denarius, a day’s wage. And the ones who worked a whole day see this and they get excited. If he paid the guys who worked an hour a denarius, how much are we going to get!? He goes down the line to the ones that worked a whole day and they each get a denarius, the same as the others. They get upset. They had worked all day, including in the heat of the day, and they say it isn’t fair.

And you know what? I agree with them. That wasn’t fair. Have you lived your life constantly decrying God’s fairness? Maybe you didn’t even realize you were doing it? Have you been frustrated as you see those who live wicked lives getting ahead more and more and you struggle to make ends meet some days? The world is certainly not becoming more Christian. Are you tempted to throw your hands up and shout, “What gives God?”

My life is riddled with times I have cried out against God’s lack of fairness. Maybe you’ve done everything right this year, self isolating, wearing masks, social distancing, and somehow you still got Covid. Or even if you haven’t gotten it, you look with frustration at someone who isn’t as careful as you think they should be and they haven’t gotten it. Have you been tempted to look at them with anger and think, God it’s only fair if they learn a lesson. Or on the flip side, have you cried out it wasn’t fair because you were comfortable but something you wanted to do was cancelled because of Covid.

And here’s the thing, God isn’t fair. Because, do you know what each and every one of us deserves if God is 100% fair? The only fair thing for God to do would be to throw every single one of us into the fires of hell forever. After all, the Bible clearly tells us: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). That is a simple equation that none of us have ever lived up to. So when God says: “The soul who sins is the one who will die” (Ezekiel 18:20). He is absolutely fair. Eternal suffering in hell would be fair for me.

But thank God he is not fair. He does not treat us as our sins deserve. He does not pay us what is right for our sins. Instead God did something that is great and marvelous in our eyes. He did the most unfair thing imaginable. God sent his one and only Son into this world and he did live a perfect life. He lived without sin…and then he died. But his death on the cross was more than just a death. There God took all the punishment that would be fair for my sins and your sins and he punished Jesus in our place. God satisfied all of his justice and anger against sin by punishing Jesus instead of you. “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). In other words, God punished the righteous one for the sins of the unrighteous. He treated his Son as an enemy so that he could treat you as his dear sons and daughters. Could anything be farther from fair? Thank God he is not fair because it is the foundation of my hope for heaven.

That certain hope I have moves me to tell others as well. See how in the parable the land owner keeps going back again and again to find more people to be generous to. He is continuing to search out the lost until the very end.

You hold in your hand right now a full day’s wage. You hold in your hand the glories of heaven. What makes it so amazing is that it’s a gift. He freed you from guilt and punishment. And he gives us the best story to tell people. Tell them that God is not fair. He doesn’t pay us what we deserve. He showers us with so much more. He reminds us that the gift he gives has nothing to do with if we have worked harder than someone else. The reward is his to give and he is not fair with who and how he gives it.

You are living proof that God is not fair with how he gives heaven and who he gives it to. So who can you tell next? This parable shows you it’s never too late. Maybe it’s a spouse who doesn’t share your faith. Maybe it’s one of your children who have rejected what you taught them when they were younger. Maybe it’s a friend or coworker who has led such a life they are convinced that they are beyond salvation. Show them this parable.

God is not fair. It doesn’t matter if it’s at the eleventh hour, on death’s door. He offers forgiveness and heaven freely in Jesus. He comforts them saying the last shall be first. Treasure the fact that in Jesus, God is not fair. And share that joy. Amen