Unfair

“When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.’

“The workers who were hired about five in the afternoon came and each received a denarius. So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. ‘These who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’

“But he answered one of them, ‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’

Matthew 20:8-15

In the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard, Jesus is trying to teach us about what the Kingdom of God is like. He’s trying to show us a different understanding of justice, grace and mercy. If Jesus were to stand up and tell this story today, He would surely offend our American sense of justice and righteous indignation.

This is the scandal of grace. The principles of God’s grace and generosity do not operate on principles of justice. Jesus was trying to reorient the people’s definition of “fairness” toward a gospel of grace rather than a gospel of justice.

God desires to be generous with His grace. Those who get saved at the final moments of their life will inherit eternal life just as those who have been faithful followers of Jesus their whole life. We see this with the criminal on the cross who was hanging next to Jesus (Luke 23:42-43). We see this with the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32). God loves to be generous with His grace.

Jesus makes it clear that God is not being “unfair”(verse 13). Everyone got what they agreed to. If we read “injustice” into this parable then we have a different definition of justice than God, and it is we who need to adjust, not Him. The real problem that this parable exposes is not God’s sense of grace or justice, but our sense of righteous indignation.

When you read this parable, who did you identify with? Were you celebrating God’s grace and mercy with the workers who got hired in the last hour of the day and got a full day’s wage? Or were you identifying with the workers who had worked all day and got the same thing as the guy who only worked an hour?

This parable exposes our heart. Who do we think we are? Are we the one who “earned more” and should have gotten more? Or are we the one who has graciously been saved by unmerited mercy and the extreme generosity of God?

Let me give you a hint. We ALL are the workers who only worked an hour. This parable was designed to expose the unhealthy sense of entitlement that rises up in us all. We like to call it “justice” but this parable exposes it for what it is–self-righteousness.

Let this parable sit with you. Let it bother you. And then let it return you to gratitude for the extreme grace the Father has show us through His Son Jesus.

Holiness & Social Justice

Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.

James 1:27

Throughout church history there have been different streams that have all made up the river that is orthodox Christian faith. Richard Foster, in his book Streams of Living Water, names six main streams of the Christian tradition:

  1. The Contemplative Tradition: The Prayer-filled Life
  2. The Holiness Tradition: The Virtuous Life
  3. The Charismatic Tradition: The Spirit-Empowered Life
  4. The Social Justice Tradition: The Compassionate Life
  5. The Evangelical Tradition: The Word-Centered Life
  6. The Incarnational Tradition: The Sacramental Life

As denominations in the Church formed, they usually formed around one or two of these streams. We have also seen different streams wake up to the reality of the other streams and begin to try to rediscover them within their own context. Yet, there also seem to be streams that have a difficult time existing together in the same person or the same denomination.

Two streams that have often had difficulty existing together are the Holiness and Social Justice traditions. The Holiness tradition is interested in a life of purity and a life of obediently resisting temptation. God is holy, and we are to imitate Him. It is a tradition that focuses on decontaminating the life of the Christian from the sinful muck of the world.

Yet, the Social Justice tradition wants to jump straight into the muck of the world as a way of trying to bring hope and life to it. This tradition isn’t as concerned with personal sin as it is with corporate and social sin–systems of evil and injustice.

Where both of these traditions agree is that there is a line to be drawn between good and evil, they just draw them in different places. The Social Justice tradition draws the line between good and evil “out there” in the systems and structures of society. The Holiness tradition, however, draws the line between good and evil “in here,” right down the middle of our own hearts.

The Social Justice tradition says, “We are the problem,” and if it’s not healthy can end up saying, “They are the problem.” The Holiness tradition says, “I am the problem,” and if it’s not healthy can end up saying, “You are the problem.”

Yet, this passage in James 1 doesn’t let us divide these traditions. This passage demands that we hold them together in tension. We must look after orphans and widows, the forgotten and marginalized (Social Justice tradition), and we must also keep ourselves from being polluted by the world (Holiness tradition).

Jesus was a beautiful example of all six traditions flowing together. Jesus touching a person with leprosy is a good metaphor for the Holiness and Social Justice traditions flowing together. Typically this action should have made Jesus unclean, but instead we see Jesus’s own “cleanness” end up “contaminating” the leprosy and healing it. Rather than the illness making Him sick, His divine health made the sick person well.

When Jesus came down from the mountainside, large crowds followed him. A man with leprosy came and knelt before him and said, “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.”

Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” he said. “Be clean!” Immediately he was cleansed of his leprosy.

Matthew 8:1-3

This is what we are called to do ourselves. We are called to enter the messy muck of the world and yet not become “unclean.” The apostle Paul gives good instruction about this very thing to the Galatians:

Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently. But watch yourselves, or you also may be tempted. 

Galatians 6:1

We are to reach out to those being trafficked and prostituted without falling into the sins of lust, manipulation, or paternalism. We are to reach out to the material poor without adopting a poverty mindset, a savior complex, or falling into the kind of materialism that only addresses the physical needs. We are to reach out to LGBTQ community with love and compassion without affirming same-sex romantic relationships. We are to seek and pray for physical healing for those who are facing physical illness and disorders of the body without sending the message that they are somehow “less than” because of the condition that they face.

These are the many tensions we face as we try to hold the Holiness and Social Justice traditions (as well as the Evangelical and Charismatic traditions) in tension together. It would certainly be easier to just pick one stream and try to do that one while ignoring the others. But scripture, and this passage in James in particular, doesn’t give us that option. Jesus embodied all the streams and so must we.