Is God Fair?

With these words, Jesus explains and applies the parable He had just told his puzzled disciples, who had wondered at His saying that it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven (19:23). Peter had said, “See, we have left all and followed You. Therefore what shall we have?” and Jesus had promised that the disciples would sit on thrones with Him, judging Israel, upon the Lord’s return. But then He had added, “But many who are first will be last, and the last first” (20:30). After that enigmatic saying, Jesus tells the parable about a landowner who hired workers at different times of the day. The first group were promised one denarius – a day’s wages. The second, third, and fourth contingents were told they would receive “what is right.” Finally, one hour before quitting time, some men were put to work, and told, “And whatever is right you will receive.” At the end of the day, each man received one denarius. Those who had labored hard all day thought they would get more than the latecomers, were outraged, and complained. That’s when Jesus spoke the words quoted above. What’s going on here? As always, we should note the context. Just before Jesus had upset the disciple’s notions by saying that it would be hard for a rich man to be saved, He had rebuked them for preventing children to be brought to Him for blessing, declaring, “Of such is the kingdom of heaven” (19:14). And right after the words we are examining, Jesus once again told His disciples that He must suffer and die. The very next passage tells of how two of the disciples tried to get themselves appointed to the highest positions in the kingdom of heaven, and ends with “Whoever desires to be first among you, let him be your slave – just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many” (20:28). In short, this is one sustained refutation of all our ideas about human worth. The kingdom of God belongs to the humble, the poor in spirit, those who renounce all earthly wealth, power, and glory to follow Christ. God honors those are willing to serve, just as He would honor His Son, the Suffering Servant. And He does all of this according to His own sovereign grace and choice. Our God does not save us because of our works – that is clearly the import of this parable. Our standards of fairness are fundamentally flawed, at least as far as gaining eternal life is concerned. Even among faithful followers of Christ, “many who are first will be last.” We simply are not able to ascertain who is most important in God’s eyes, and certainly must not assume that we are among those!