The Unfair God


This morning we are looking at Matthew Chapter 20, specifically, we are looking at the parable at the start, the parable of the vineyard and its workers.  But before we get stuck into it it is important for us to look at the last few chapters, not only to understand the context but because it gives added depth and meaning to what the parable is teaching.


Context and Build-up

Imagine being one of the disciples in the chapters leading up to this parable.  Imagine being in their shoes as they listen again and again to him and marvelled at his wisdom.  Specifically, this time imagine being in their shoes as they listen in.  It was not that he was teaching something new, something they had never thought about before.  What must it have been like to sit at the feet of Jesus as he spoke on things that were so common, thinks they would have heard in the synagogue before yet in a way they had never heard before.


They listened as he challenged all around about the heart of God the Shepard, who was concerned with the one lost sheep and not just the safety of those who were with him.  That their God was as concerned with the one who was lost as the 99 who were already found.[1] Then, they must have marvelled as he spoke about how the Kingdom of Heaven was like a King who not only forgives great debts but expects the same from those who had received forgiveness.[2]  Imagine the conversation with Jesus and between the 12 as they moved from Galilee to the region of the Judea.  A Journey that would have tired them and Jesus out, so imagine the lesson they learnt in compassion and the priority of Christ’s ministry as he took time to heal the sick.  They saw that Jesus was concerned with the least of society and their needs as he moved the crowds followed him and he acted with compassion towards them meeting their needs through healing.[3]


Imagine being a disciple as they witnessed the life and ministry of Jesus and then compared it to the Pharisees who where meant to be like him yet he seemed to expose the insincerity and shallowness of those who were meant to have shaped their lives of the call of Yahweh. Nevertheless, with every question they asked, no matter the subject or how complicated it was he seemed to have an answer, even when they had confusing questions around divorce he concluded with such authority:  “let the one who is able to receive this receive it.”[4]


Then he beckoned the children to himself, blessed them by laying his hands on them and declared that the Kingdom of Heaven belonged to them. The very one’s the disciples sought to reject where the ones he wanted. Again and again, he showed them even thought they could not see it, that the Kingdom of Heaven was not like the ways of the world.


The Rich Young Ruler and the ways of the world.

Imagine for a minute being one of the disciples as they tried to grasp their head round the incident just before our parable, the incident that sets the tone for the parable and is its spark, as we listen to the parable of the vineyard we must remember the rich young man.  Imagine as this fine citizen approached Jesus and for some reason, he is sent away with his head between his tails, they can’t understand it – he has everything, he seems willing, has wealth and desire.  As they wonder then Jesus tells them that its impossible for Man, and only possible for God.  They must have thought “What chance have we!!”


“With man it is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”[5]

Jesus was about to teach the disciple and us, the danger of the earthly mindset, thinking that we can earn something from God or have something to bring to God.  We cannot work to earn it the way the world tells us.  It is impossible for humankind. But for God, it is possible, because it is his to give.


“With [insert name] – you – it (eternity secured) is impossible, but with God  all things are possible.”[6]

What is impossible for humankind as a collective and me and you as individuals, is possible for God because it is only he who can give it. Salvation comes from him through him and to him. Grasping this is grasping the Logic of the Gospel.

Matthew 20: The Mysterious Master and his Kingdom.



Our best practice this morning is to ignore the Chapter numbers and page headings and read the next sixteen verses directly in response to the rich young man. We see form the start that the whole point of this parable is to further explain to the disciples what the Kingdom Of God is actually like. From the Parable of the Lost Sheep, his teaching on divorce, How he interacted with the young children and the rich young ruler. Jesus has been teaching all who were willing to receive it that the Kingdom of God is not like the world they know.  In the Kingdom, the first will be last and the last will be first, and the master will lavish as he sees fit, not according to means or status.


The working day (1-7)

Verse one also sets the scene, we were told it is early in the morning; there is a land owner who needs some work done in his vineyard so he heads out to find labourers.[7] In first-century Palestine, a landowner typically went early in the morning to the market – where the people gathered – to find workers, who would then receive payment at the end of the day.    The master is not looking for slaves but day labourers a regular mode of employment. Thus, for those standing around listening at the time, nothing would have seemed out of place: the Master was following the normal practice of employment,  go out early to get the best workers, agree on what to pay them and then put them to work.


However, from verse three where the story moves things would soon start to seem odd and people would soon grasp that this is no ordinary employer.  He is somewhat eccentric as he heads out to the market around the third hour of the day to hire more workers Furthermore, the fact that he does this thrice more when each time the has for us a lesson in it.  Each time as the master goes back to the market and employs someone they were less desirable than the first. the cry of ‘because no one has hired us’ was probably a reflection on their social standing or ability.  These people are the un-hireables. They would have bene the disfigured, the elderly – those who if they had of been hired on the first run would have represented a poor investment and return.


When those standing around Jesus at the time would hear this master described they would have been amazed at how he was being described.  We should be blown away be the character of the master: his heart for the poor and the needy, his desire to be generous, his compassionate and sympathetically heart and by the urgency of his work as with each time he gores out and employs more people. The Merciful Master is God.


The End of the Day (8-10)

Soon the working day (6am to 6pm) has passed and the master of the house who has gone out (9am 12pm and 3pm 5pm) to find people to call to his work now summons them vis his foreman. Yet again we are meeting with the Gospel Logic: the foreman is instructed to bring those who have been there for the least time and have done the least work first. The fore and calls the first last and the last first.  So those who arrived at the vineyard at the 11th hour of the day with only one hour to work arrive with little expectation of what they are going to receive.  They arrive aware of how little they have done and probably grateful to receive anything.  Imagine then,  how they then the overpowering sense of gratitude where the received for a few works work a days wage.  Again and again, those who arrived at 9th, 6th, and 3rd hour and received a wage greater than their effort must have been the emotion and feeling of thankfully until the final batch.


In verse 10 the first batch of workers to receive their wages.  Those who have been there from the break of dawn and had labourer through the dry heat; who’s day was interrupted every few hours a new batch of – less capable – workers arrived.  Imagine how they felt when with an hour left to go more arrived and then those same people where summoned fired the by the foreman and were giving what they were expecting for the day. Thus, as they approach, they do so with the expectation of more, based on the fact that those who had worked less than them had been rewarded well. Even though they had not right to assume such as they had agreed to an amount – which they received – they are repulsed by their payment.[8]


Grumbling at the Fairness of the Master (11-12)

In this section of the passage, we see those who arrived first grumble at receiving exactly what they expected, we should be shocked bu not surprised.  Would we be any different? Yet they do not try and hide their disgust, instead, they turn from foreman to the to the master of the house and speak against.  Judging his actions towards them against those who came after them and received the same.  They judge the master as being unfair to them because we were generous to others. The reality is that we feel some sympathy with their complain, we put ourselves into the same situation in work and think how we would feel if we agreed to a payment for a job and people came in far into the work and then received the exact same amount. We relate to their frustration and annoyance just as the crowd would have, in the fairness of the master against the payment of the others it seems unfair to pay. It’s because we are judging Gospel Logic with earthly logic.  We are like the rich young man and think merits should be rewarded and not grace received.  How far off we are.


The Master Responds (13-15)

Yet again, the master reacts as no one would have expected.  As he turns to address his disgruntled employees and defend himself. This is a person who has great wealth, even if you consider the amount of workers he hired them and then what he paid them.  So that someone of great means would respond to grumbling and accusations of unfairness with such tenderness, that he speaks gently to them and explains the fairness of his course should shock us. The master shows great patience. Patience that reminds me of the God of the Old Testament as he dealt with the grumbles of Israel.  His defence is simple: Can I not do what I want with that which is mine? Can I not use my resources as I see fit?  In verse 15 when he asks them are the envious because of his generosity the translation is almost too weak, he basically says to them: “is my generosity evil in your eye?.” The Master reminds the Labourers that their sense of injustice is not a judgment of him, it is a judgement of their own sinful and selfish hearts: The problem is they are blinded by their own sense of self-interest and have exposed their lack of compassion for those less-fortunate.


Conclusion & Application

There is so much imagery packed into sixteen verses, it is a passage that hammers home and summarises all that Jesus has been teaching in the last few chapters: The kingdom of God is like nothing we know.  It is a passage that speaks to:


  1. the heart of God in comparison to the heart of humankind.
  2. The way fo the kingdom against the ways of the world.
  3. How we relate to our fellow human beings compared to God.
  4. How we relate to God.


It is a passage that shows us a Gospel Reality. As we conclude, let’s remind ourselves of who the main characters are:

  1. In the Master is a God.
  2. The Vineyard is the kingdom of God.
  3. The work in the vineyard is that which we have been commissioned to by Christ, the Great Commission.
  4. Those who the Master seeks and calls are the elect, those chosen by his hand to bring about his kingdom on this earth.
  5. The Days wage is the Grace that we receive when we accept God’s call.
  6. The final payment is the final judgment when that Grace is made complete.


The Urgency of the Work

The first thing that challenges me when I read this passage is urgency in the work of the kingdom.  The master could have left those he had hired to get on with the work.   Yet he didn’t. Such was the urgency and the need in the vineyard that even as the end draws near he seeks partners in the work of the vineyard. Do we share the same heart as the Master when it comes to the work of the vineyard, the work that we who are followers of Christ are all beckoned to?  It is not an optional extra or a task that belongs to CMS or Crosslinks it is the very essence of our being!  We exist so that others too might know the joy of a relationship with the father and may be overwhelmed when they receive more than the thought they deserve.


Let us be Like the Last

As the master employs workers, the only group he makes a covenant with are the first group, all the others accept gratefully the unexpected offer that is presented to them without condition or enquiry as to wage.  Such is their desperation and need, that they are both grateful and willing, it’s not a negative sight on the first group who made a contract but a reminder of Grace.  The offer that was forthcoming was unexpected. They were simply glad to have been called to the vineyard and receive any sum.  We must be like those in the 11th Hour and trust him who calls us, thankful to be called and overwhelmed by all we would receive.


A Master that none can Match

It has been a theme throughout this passage, hidden between the sentences that Jesus spoke.  We see a Master who does not fit the mould, who acts not as he is expected to but as he chooses to: Who calls people not because of their merit or standing but because he can; Who is consumed by his work; has a compassionate and merciful heart;  is slow to anger and gentle in how he deals with false accusations and who gives abundantly, fairly and as he chooses.  What we see is Yahweh the God of Israel.  Does this fit your view of God?  Because the same Master in this passage is the God who loves you and call you to a relationship with him through the cross of Christ.  The only question is have we responded to it? Have we accepted the call of God to join the work of God, not to earn a days wage but simply because we are grateful and know it is only possible to him.


The Last will be first and the first last (15 – 16)

The parable closes quite abruptly, with the master now addressing the workers and asking is it not his prerogative:  “Can I not with mine as I chose?” The final challenge to their grumbling – after patience and tenderness – is to point out the obvious:  that he had paid them what they agreed on. How often do we do this, think of the things of heaven not with a Gospel Mindset but an earthly one


When I read Gods defence of himself it reminds me of two things:

  1. When God responds to the enquiries of Job, A man who lost everything and suffered at the hands of the devil who demanded to know why God would let this happen.  Gods response: “Who are you to question me.” Which was expanded over four chapters as God asked question after question rhetorically with the simple purpose to remind Job that he was not God and could not understand the things of Heaven? To Remind him to trust.
  2. Secondly, I am reminded of the How Paul responded to the concerns of the Church in Rome:


It does not, therefore, depend on human desire or effort, but on God’s mercy. For Scripture says to Pharaoh: “I raised you up for this very purpose, that I might display my power in you and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.”

Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden.

Romans 9:16-18

Paul reminds the church in Romans that God will act according to his own sovereign will because he is God. A truth that should delight us and free us, because God only acts to his own purpose and his own purpose is always for our good.  But we will always struggle to understand the Logic of Gods actions when we try to judge them with an earthly mindset. How can finite beings judge the actions and intentions of an infinite God?  Are we then going to be like the grumbling labours who have received their just reward and accuse God of evil intentions or are we going to be like the last and rejoice in receiving anything?


Finally, the segment of speech closes as it began, with those confusing words: “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” This is the start, middle and end of the parable because it is the point of the parable:  That the kingdom of Heaven will not be like the world, it will not order itself like the world orders itself. God will order his house however he wants, those who are the least will be the most, and those who the world thought most because of their power, wealth or status will be held least. This is not a judgment against having power or possessions it is, however, a judgment against a person – who like the rich young ruler – clings to them for the hope that they will give them meaning.  Only a repentant heart which empties itself of false hope can know the beauty of the call.


This Parable sets out criteria for joining the work of God that is so different to any benchmark we will find in this fallen and broken the world. Where people’s importance to us is judged via their wealth or influence.  The worlds way of think is highlighted in how the disciple responds to Christ treatment of the rich young man, they worry that if someone like him cant gets into heaven on his own then what hope is there for them. The parable then present’s the kingdom way in opposition to the disciple’s concerns. Furthermore, it extends the sentiment of “With man it is impossible but with God its possible.”


The parable of the vineyard shows us that entry into the kingdom is possible for all people there is no distinction based on class, bloodline, ability, effort or social standing.  Entering the kingdom and experiencing Grace comes from God alone. Because the kingdom is ordered as God chooses it, it won’t look the way of the world. Those untouchables of the earth will be the princes of heaven. Can we say the same of our thinking, of our church? Are the least of this world thought of as high as those in power or with wealth and how do we view those who?


Which one are you?

There are two responses in the vineyard, Which one will yours be? Because the last shall be first and the first shall be last.  This is the logic of the Gospel.

[1] Matthew 18:10-14

[2] Matthew 18:21-33

[3] Matthew 19:2

[4] Matthew 19:12

[5] Matthew 19:26

[6] My Phrasing.

[7] Notice that Jesus is using everyday situations that the people could relate to teaching about the things of God. How do we in the church speak today and present the gospel is it in a way people understand?

[8] Verse 2

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