The Unfair God
Grace to you and peace from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
The Apostle Paul wrote, “The foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.” The Gospel appointed for today is a prime example of what the world and sinful human nature consider the “foolishness” of God. This parable is full of what the wise of the world would consider foolishness from God. What kind of employer goes out at four o’clock and seeks more workers when the workday ends at five o’clock? Why would he hire workers who were too lazy to be looking for work first thing in the morning? And, of course, why would he pay workers who only labored for one hour--or three or six or even nine hours—the same wage as he promised to those who were hired to work for the whole twelve-hour workday? Why would he risk alienating the hardest-working and most faithful of his hirelings? Such is the foolishness of God--and it seems quite foolish indeed.
Jesus said that the kingdom of heaven is like this landowner. The kingdom of heaven is the Church, and our Lord Jesus Christ is Himself the landowner. He is the One who calls workers into His vineyard. Jesus tells the parable to illustrate what He had just said to Peter in the verse that comes just before today's Gospel: "But many that are first will be last, and the last first." Peter had overheard our Lord's conversation with the rich young ruler. You might remember the story of that young man who comes to Jesus and says, "What must I do to inherit eternal life?" Jesus pointed him back to the commandments--do not murder, do not steal, do not commit adultery and so on. The man replies, "Been there, done that." Jesus says to him, "You lack one thing. Go, sell what you have and give it to the poor, and come and follow me." Peter speaks up, as if to remind Jesus of what he and his fellow disciples had done, "Lo, we have left everything and followed you. What then shall we have?" Jesus then tells the disciples of how blessed they shall be in His heavenly kingdom, but then He adds, "But many that are first will be last and, and the last first."
The first—those who are relying on their works, their piety, their progress in sanctification—are going to topple. Those who know that they are last--who know that their sin has disqualified them from any claim on God--will be first. Jesus is speaking of justification by grace through faith apart from the works of the law. That excludes fairness and breaks any attempt to squeeze God into the mold of human justice. The child on the playground cries out, "It's not fair!" To bring this self-centered attitude into our life with God is more than arrogant; it is downright damnable. But to be honest, would you really want God to play fair with you? Do you really want God to give you what you deserve? Do you really believe that God owes you something? If God were to give you what you deserve, you would have only damnation and hell. God demands perfection. Sin makes you imperfect and incapable of achieving perfection. You miss the target. Whether you miss it by an inch or a mile doesn't really matter. We fall short of the glory of God. Close might count in horseshoes and nuclear weaponry, but not when it comes to salvation. Even the mightiest saints of old, were they to rely on their good deeds, would only receive a sentence of eternal death.
How foolish, then, we are, to slip into the language of fairness to feed the self-pity as though God were cheating you. How utterly insulting it is to charge God with being unfair. Jesus' words stop every mouth that would dare suggest that God be subject to our notions of fairness and justice: "Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with my own things? Or is your eye evil because I am good? So the last will be first, and the first last." There is no law that is above God. There is no higher principle to which He must submit. That would make Him less than God. He is the Lord and the source of all things. Christ is merciful to those who cling to Him through the faith they receive in Holy Baptism. But God is also just. If you want fairness from God, don’t doubt for a moment that He will give you exactly what your deeds deserve--and when it kicks you in the teeth, don’t forget that it’s exactly what you wanted. Death and hell await those who seek fairness from God--and in receiving death and hell, they receive what they have earned through their works.
Out of the fullness of His love, He elected to deal with you not by the standards of justice and by the perimeters of fairness, but out of His fatherly and divine grace without any merit or worthiness in you. The Apostle Paul puts it like this: "For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not of your own doing, it is the gift of God--not because of works, lest any man should boast." Or again in the Epistle to the Romans, Paul writes these words by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit: "But God showed his love for us in while we were yet sinners Christ died for us." Jesus came to save sinners. We see that in the way that He extended His kingdom to people who had wasted their lives--to the tax collector and the prostitute, to the dying thief on the cross--while the scribes and the Pharisees like the elder brother in the parable of the prodigal son whined, "It's not fair!" No, it's not fair. But God doesn’t have to be fair. "The last will be first, and the first last."
Do you despair that you haven’t done enough? Do you fear that you aren’t holy enough? Don’t be afraid. You are as redeemed as the mightiest saints of God—saints who were sinners, just like you. Thanks be to God that He gives sinners what they don't deserve and could never earn. He gives us Jesus, His own sinless Son who lived a perfect life of obedience in our place and died as our substitute so that we might have everything that He deserved--all the gifts of life and salvation in His Father's everlasting kingdom. God gives us something that exceeds fairness and surpasses justice. He gives us His grace, His undeserved favor in our Savior Jesus Christ whose body and blood are given to us for the forgiveness of sins.
Hard to understand? Maybe a little. But this is the wonderful, backwards way of the Gospel. This is the foolishness of God. God gives and we receive. He forgives your sins, recreates you in his image, and gives you the gift of eternal life. God doesn’t pay you what you have earned; He pays you with what Jesus earned on the cross. That wage of death is paid, and so you receive the gift of eternal life. In the name of the Father and of the Son (+) and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The peace of God which passes all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus always. Amen.