Unfair Like Jesus

“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. And after agreeing with the workers for the standard wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When it was about nine o’clock in the morning, he went out again and saw others standing around in the marketplace without work. He said to them, ‘You go into the vineyard too, and I will give you whatever is right.’ So they went. When he went out again about noon and three o’clock that afternoon, he did the same thing. And about five o’clock that afternoon he went out and found others standing around, and said to them, ‘Why are you standing here all day without work?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You go and work in the vineyard too.’ When it was evening the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the workers and give the pay starting with the last hired until the first.’ When those hired about five o’clock came, each received a full day’s pay. And when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more. But each one also received the standard wage. When they received it, they began to complain against the landowner, saying, ‘These last fellows worked one hour, and you have made them equal to us who bore the hardship and burning heat of the day.’ And the landowner replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am not treating you unfairly. Didn’t you agree with me to work for the standard wage? Take what is yours and go. I want to give to this last man the same as I gave to you. Am I not permitted to do what I want with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ So the last will be first, and the first last.”

—Matthew 20:1–16 (NET)

When I was in college, I spent my summer breaks working as an intern for a financial services company. The work was hardly glamorous, but at the time, I thought it was the smart thing to do to prepare for life in the real world. Mostly, I called brokers to pester them for missing paperwork needed to process their transactions. But I was good at it and earned a reputation as someone who could get things done.

When I graduated from college, the company offered me a full-time job, and I was ecstatic—until I started. As an intern, I had been a part of the top sales team in the company. I watched as my full-time co-workers received bonuses and other prizes for breaking sales and service records. As an intern, I had been ineligible, but now that I was on staff, I looked forward to receiving these same rewards. Instead, my reputation as a resourceful intern preceded me, and I was placed on the team that needed the most help—the worst performing one. Though I worked just as hard, if not harder, as a full-time employee than I had as an intern, I never received a single prize, trip, or bonus.

Jesus told a parable about a man who hired workers for his vineyard. Some men worked all day in the hot sun, while others worked only a short time. At the end of the day, the vineyard owner gave every man the same pay. The workers who had arrived first complained about this development, even though they received their agreed-upon wage. But this is the way grace works—each one of us, no matter how long we’ve been walking with Jesus, gets the same wonderful gift: Jesus. “So the last will be first, and the first last” (Matthew 20:16).

That first job out of college, I had a chip on my shoulder because I thought I was being treated unfairly. But there was nothing in my employment contract guaranteeing me free trips or extra checks. Those things are called bonuses for a reason. When it comes to the kingdom of God, none of us is getting a bad deal. God treats us unfairly—that’s true—but it’s unfairness in the most wonderful way. We all get the reward of knowing Jesus, even though there’s not a single one of us who could earn such a privilege.

“Grace, like water, flows to the lowest part.”

—Philip Yancey—


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