Ask Father Paul – A parable of Jesus … unfair?


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A parable of Jesus … unfair?


Dear Father Paul: Would you please explain the parable Jesus gives in Matthew 20:1-16. Jesus seems unfair. — Connie.

Dear Connie: In Matthew 20:1-16, Jesus tells a parable about a vineyard owner who, at six in the morning, hires some laborers to work all day in his vineyard and promises to pay them a day’s wages at the end of the day. At 9 a.m. he hires more laborers for the day and agrees to pay them “what is right” for the day. He goes on to hire even more laborers at noon, more at 3 p.m, and still more at 5 p.m. only one hour before the end of the work day. At 6 p.m. all of the men  line up for their pay, with those hired last at 5 p.m. being paid first, then those hired at 3 p.m. and so-on down to the first hired at 6 a.m. who had worked all day. Each and every man was given a full day’s wages, even the ones who worked only one hour.

Those who had worked a full day became irate. “We have worked all day in the scorching heat, and you have paid those who worked only one hour the same as us. That isn’t right,” they said.

To which the owner replies, “Friends, I have done you no wrong. I paid you exactly what I promised. As the owner of the vineyard, don’t I have the right to be generous to these other workers if I so choose? Take your wages and go. For the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

I can remember the first time my Sunday School teacher read this parable to the class back when I was a young boy. I thought, “How unfair! The workers who worked only one hour should have gotten only one hour’s wages, not a whole days wages. I didn’t fully understand God’s character then.  He wants to give us mercy as-well-as justice.

 The story isn’t really about vineyards, workers and wages. Its meaning is heavenly, not earthly. God is the vineyard owner in the parable and all mankind are the workers. The story in essence is about God’s love and his unsurpassed generosity. It is about God’s grace, its about “God’s unmerited favor toward mankind” which is the best definition I’ve ever heard for “God’s grace.”

Most people on planet earth today are like the early workers. They cry out for “justice” and what they think is “fair and right.” It’s the way the Kingdom of the Earth works. “She made her own bed, now let her sleep in it,” many of us would say. Or, “He got drunk, wrecked his car and lost both legs, so he got exactly what he deserved.” But this is not the way the Kingdom of God works. Oh God is just for sure. At the end of our days on earth each of us will surely face a just God and give an account. But God is also merciful and generous. The God of the Bible is full of love, compassion and generosity for all of us his children.

II Peter 3:9 tells us that (KJV) “ … God is not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.” God takes no joy in our misfortunes, even if they are our own fault.

Other major world religions teach justice without mercy. They teach that all of us are doomed, but if we will first love their religion’s deity, then, and only then, he will love us in return. But the God of the Bible says, I love all of my children unconditionally, even before they love me. Indeed, I love them while they are yet still sinning. The Bible affirms this in Romans 5:8 (NIV) “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we sere still sinners, Christ (God) died for us.” Think about it. Why wouldn’t every person want to love, follow and serve this God?

 The parable also gives great hope to those people who perhaps have lived almost their whole lives without God. The parable tells such people … be of good cheer, there is still time! Yes, it’s now 5 o’clock, almost the end of your life. But if you will heed God’s call and go to work in his vineyard now, there is still time for God to bless and reward you way beyond anything you have a right to expect or even what you deserve. Seniors take note.

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[Father Paul Massey is pastor emeritus of Church of the Holy Cross Charismatic Episcopal Church in Fayetteville, Georgia. Visit for information.]