Grace is Not Fair (and That’s a Good Thing)

Grace is unfair. Do you agree?

In the parable of the laborers in the vineyard, Jesus paints a picture of grace that runs counter to human intuitions. The story begins by relating the Kingdom of Heaven to a landowner who agreed to pay workers a denarius when he hired them early in the morning. As they labored, he went out a couple hours later and hired some more workers. He did this twice more, with the last group of workers being hired just a couple of hours before the workday ended. They had been standing around in the marketplace– it seems like their inertia was the result of both laziness and a lack of opportunities.

When the landowner called the workers to be paid at the end of the day, he gave all of them a denarius. Whether they had started at the break of dawn or just an hour before the end of the day, they all got the same.

Of course, the workers who had worked all day were upset– how unfair that they should be paid no more than the lazy bystanders who got the gig for just an hour! When they complain, the landowner replies with a gentle but firm response. “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?” (Matthew 20:13-15)

This passage is often interpreted as a demonstration of grace regardless of the timing of one’s salvation. I think it can also be understood more generally as a story about grace and deservedness. We live in a society that says “you get what you work for.” Whether it be the grades you get in school, the salary you’re awarded, or even the quality of friendships you have, most good things we receive are correlated with the amount of effort we put in.

Not so with God. As Jesus’ words demonstrate, there is no such thing as effort-based deservedness before Him. Everyone gets a denarius at the end of the day, whether they were in the vineyard for twelve hours or one.

If this seems unfair to you, consider who you relate to most from the parable. Do you perceive yourself as the worker who started early in the morning and was diligent all day long? Or do you see yourself as the worker who came an hour before the day ended?

When I first meditated on this parable, I thought it was super unfair. Not surprisingly, I also identified more with the first group of diligent laborers. For most of my life, I’ve professed with my mouth that I was inherently sinful, but in the depths of my heart I saw myself as the worker who came at the crack of dawn. I have always been the “good” kid who sought a holy lifestyle, worked hard in school, and tried to do things “right” before God. I’ve understood in my head that sanctification is a lifelong process, but if I’m honest, I never saw myself has having an entire life’s worth of growth left to go. Deep down, I’ve always perceived myself as “deserving.”

Over the past months, disappointment, frustration with discernment, and uncertainty have beaten down on my self-perception to expose just how skewed it is. This semester has been hard in many unexpected ways. Painfully, I’ve begun to come to terms with the fact that I’m actually the worker who stood lazily in the marketplace and only labored for an hour. Perhaps worse, I’m that worker and in my arrogance, I thought I could pose as one who had worked all day. Yikes.

The reality is, we’re all that worker who squeezed in at the end of the day and worked for just an hour. None of us can really say we’ve done perfectly right before God.

Well, good thing God doesn’t give like the world does. Good thing grace isn’t “fair” as we understand “fairness” to mean in our tit-for-tat culture.

If this reality doesn’t already challenge your understanding of grace and fairness, consider one more subtle but essential part of this parable. Every time a group of workers comes to the vineyard, it’s because the landowner went out to the marketplace to hire them. They didn’t approach him and ask for work; he went out searching for them as they stood around doing nothing.

Our God isn’t just a God who gives regardless of deservedness. He is a God who actively comes and brings us into His Kingdom so that we can receive from Him. We are not only the undeserving last worker; we did nothing to find our hour of work in the first place.

In all of this, what we see is that God does not give rewards that are deserved. Instead, He gives gifts to the undeserving. In every way that this parable depicts our relationship to God, I see overwhelming, unmerited, “unfair” grace. I see grace in the fact that He comes and finds us so that we can be brought to His Kingdom. I see grace in His gentle response to the complaining workers, in His calling them “friends” and treating them with integrity. I see grace in his generosity to give to all far more than they deserve.

There is freedom in being broken, realizing that we are the last workers, and receiving anyways. Grace is unfair. And when we understand our inability to justify ourselves before God, that is a good thing.

This post was inspired by Chapter 5 of Philip Yancey’s book “What’s so Amazing About Grace?”

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