The story goes that a dad had a little 5-year-old son. Finances were pretty tight at the time, but the dad made his son a promise.
“Son, I’m going to work hard and one day we will be able to buy a boat so we can go fishing and skiing together. And the day I go to buy that boat I’m going to take you with me and we’ll buy it together.” The boy was thrilled and remembered his dad’s promise every day of his life until he was 10 years old.
In the meantime another son was born and when the day came to buy the boat, the dad said to the younger son, “O.K., little brother, come with me and we’ll go buy our boat.”
What do you imagine the older brother said when he heard that? “That’s not fair! That’s not fair!”
In Matthew chapter 20 Jesus told a parable about a master of a vineyard who hired laborers early in the morning with a promised wage, and he then proceeded to continue to hire more laborers throughout the day, even as late as almost the end of the day.
When it was time to pay each one for their day’s work, the master started with the last ones hired and paid them a full day’s pay, and all the others the same.
When the master came to the first hired who had worked hard all the day long in the hot sun, those laborers expected to be paid more, but they received the same wage as all the others, the wage the master had promised.
In our vernacular they cried, “That’s not fair! That’s not fair!” But the master gently told them they had received what he had promised, and he said they had no right to begrudge his generosity to the others.
Jesus concluded the parable with one of the most well-known verses of Scripture, “The first shall be last, and the last shall be first.”
The parables of Jesus are always about The Kingdom of God, and the message in this one is quite clear, that entrance into the Kingdom of God, both in this world and in the eternity of heaven, comes totally at the grace of God, totally at His love that no one deserves.
There are three responses to the message of this parable that I’ll discuss here. The first is this, “That’s not fair! And boy! I’m mad!”
I’m a life-long Christian and I’ve been “in the church” since the day my parents brought me home from the hospital after I was born, and their apartment was actually in the church building where my dad was the young pastor. I jokingly like to say, “I was brought into the church nearly the first day I was born, and I’ve been here ever since.”
We life-long Christians still bear the mark of our sinful human condition, and when we think about how long we have been faithful to The Lord, we sometimes begin to believe that we “hold a higher place” than those who are recent converts, who also get all the fullness of God’s grace and Kingdom, just like we do. In our sinful hearts we are tempted to cry, “That’s not fair! And boy! I’m mad!”
For example, sometimes that gets acted out in our churches when we life-long Christians and “Charter Members” think our opinion should count for more than those who are “Johnny-come-lately.” Sound familiar?
But there’s a second response, and this one is much more appropriate. It’s this, “That’s not fair! And boy! I’m glad!”
When all of us Christians realize again that our lives are so full of failures, faults, and short-comings, and fall so short of God’s rightful expectation of us as His creations, we can only jump for joy in celebration that God’s grace and His Kingdom come to us despite our total unworthiness of them.
God’s grace, His love for us that we do not deserve, showers us over and over again, keeping us in His Kingdom, keeping us in the loving relationship with Him that He creates and sustains with us in the work of His Son Jesus on the cross and in His glorious resurrection back to life.
What our sin deserves is death and separation from God. What our generous and loving Heavenly Father gives us instead is truly the un-fairness of His Love. And oh yes! We jump for joy and cry, “Grace isn’t fair! And boy! I’m glad!”
A third response is the natural result of the second. It’s this, “That’s not fair! And boy! I’m thankful!” “Thank You, God! Thank You! Thank You! Thank You!”
God is good all the time. And all the time God is good. Scripture reminds us over and over again that God is gracious and merciful. Erick Erickson, the afternoon news commentator on WSB radio from Atlanta, is a strong Christian. He will often bring our Christian faith into his comments and analyses. He reminds his listeners often that “mercy is not getting the punishment we deserve, and grace is getting the love we do not deserve.” Amen!
God is full of mercy and grace. He is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. As that Truth is proclaimed to us in the preaching of The Gospel, and as our hearts claim that Truth by the power of The Holy Spirit, we are so moved with gratitude. When we realize again how good and loving our Heavenly Father really is, we can do no other than fall to our knees in profound thanksgiving. Again, Amen!
And back to the little story about the dad and his sons and the boat, it has an ending. Yes, the older son cried, “Not fair!” to his dad, but his dad lovingly took him aside and said, “Oh, son, I love you so much, and I will do exactly as I promised you. I will take you to buy our boat. But I love your little brother just as much as I love you. You wouldn’t want me not to love him as much, would you?”
So the good and loving dad took the sons and they bought that boat. And there was plenty of the dad’s love for both of his sons.
And there is plenty of God’s Love for all of us. Hear it. Claim it. Hold it. In Christ. For such is The Kingdom of God. Amen!
[Kollmeyer is Pastor Emeritus at Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in Fayetteville. Check out Pastor Scott Ness and this congregation at www.princeofpeacefayette.org. Kollmeyer is also Interim Pastor at Word of God Lutheran Church in Sharpsburg, www.woglutheran.org.]