My teenage son sometimes gets upset about the extra demands we, his parents, and others make of him. His chores are sometimes harder; his homework takes longer; his responsibilities are greater; our expectations of him are higher.
“Tough noogies,” we tell him. “You also get more privileges and more opportunities.” Then we throw a little Spiderman-ese at him so he’ll understand, “With great power comes great responsibility.” Or in the words of Jesus,
“… From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.” (Luke 12:48 )
Jesus and Uncle Ben were saying the same thing: Fair doesn’t always mean equal.
In Matthew 20:1-16 Jesus tells a parable that makes the point. Some workers were hired to work in a vineyard. The landowner goes out not just once or twice but five times to hire workers throughout the day. In fact, he hires the last group at five in the evening, when there is just a little daylight left.
Then, he does something even more strange. He has the foreman line all the workers up to pay them. Those hired last are first to get paid, and the landowner generously pays them a full day’s wage. He does the same with the next group and the next. When the group that was hired first comes up for their wages, they receive the same amount: a single day’s wage.
If this seems unfair to you, you’re not alone. Those hired first were feeling a little righteous indignation at having to work all day and receive the same reward. After all, they had been there during the heat of the day. The new guys had barely put hoe to soil before the day was up.
But our reaction is based on a faulty assumption: that the landowner’s generosity needs to be equal to be fair. The landowner was fair with all the workers. He paid the first workers what he had promised them: a full day’s wage. For the other workers, he promised to pay them what was right and actually gave them more than they deserved. To the early workers’ indignation, he replied, “Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?” (Matthew 20:15)
The parable teaches us a lesson about how we are to view God’s grace. We are the workers, and God has called us to go to work in His vineyard. No matter when He allowed us to join the work, we are to keep it up until He returns to reward us. When He does, it would be silly for us to look at our brothers and sisters in Christ and complain, “You have made them equal to us!” …as if we were something special!
We will be standing shoulder-to-shoulder in eternity with Samuel, Elijah, Daniel and others, who presumably gave their entire lives to serving the Lord. But we will also be shoulder-to-shoulder with the thief on the cross, who couldn’t do much serving when he finally and fortunately recognized Jesus for Who He was and is. God’s grace covers us all.
In other teachings, Jesus illustrates that there will be different rewards in Heaven for good works done on earth, but His point in this parable is that salvation is for all who trust in Him. It’s independent of how hard we labor in His service.
God can do whatever He wants with His grace, and we should feel blessed to receive any measure of it. It wouldn’t matter if we were able to trust Christ from inside the womb; we have no claim to any special treatment. That said, if we’ve been privileged to be called to the vineyard early in the day, He expects a full day’s work from us. “From everyone who has been given much…”