A co-worker receives a promotion the same week you’re laid off. The house you considered “perfect” for your family is sold to another buyer. You labor long hours at your current workplace and volunteer at numerous nonprofits, yet your dream of owning a business is squashed by a bank’s loan refusal.
Are you tempted to say, “It’s not fair”?
Peter’s Thwarted Expectations
Any time our expectations have been thwarted in some way, we’re likely to squawk about it. Complaining about perceived injustices is a natural human reaction—even among those who call themselves Christ-followers. Even among the disciples who followed Jesus for three years.
The twelve disciples were astonished when Jesus once observed that it was “hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 19:23 NIV). Like most Jews of their era, the disciples believed riches were a sign of God’s favor. They also assumed Jesus would establish a kingdom on earth, in which they’d enjoy positions of authority, privilege, and prosperity.
So when Jesus implied that riches may not be part of their future, Peter exclaimed, “We have left everything to follow you! What then will there be for us?” (Matthew 19:27).
Do you hear the unspoken “It’s not fair” in Peter’s tone?
Good ole Peter. He said things to Jesus we’d like to say too: “Look at all I’ve done for You, Lord. When will I start reaping the benefits of my efforts?
The Hired Workers’ Grumblings
Jesus’ answer is a parable about several groups of men who were hired to work in a landowner’s vineyards. The first group arrived early in the morning. According to Matthew 20:2, the landowner “agreed to pay them a denarius for the day” (NIV). The word agreed may suggest the workers asked for that wage—a normal day’s wage—and the landowner agreed to pay it. As the day progressed, more workers came—at 9am, noon, 3pm, and 5pm. The landowner hired them all without indicating a designated wage (Matthew 20:3-7).
At day’s end, all the workers received the same wage—a denarius. That’s when the early morning crew cried, “It’s not fair!” Matthew records, “They expected to receive more…but when they received [the denarius], they began to grumble against the landowner” (v. 11).
The landowner responded, “I am not being unfair to you. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the man 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?” (vv. 13-15).
Three Reminders When God Doesn’t Seem Fair
Through the landowner’s words, Jesus conveyed to Peter, and to us, reminders that can help us squelch the “It’s not fair!” mindset.
First, Jesus reminds us that God never treats his servants unjustly.
The earliest workers were promised a fair wage and received it. In actuality, God has given us much more than a fair wage. He has redeemed us with the precious blood of Jesus, withholding the just punishment we deserve for our sins—eternal separation from God. What’s more, he’s given us the indwelling Spirit here and eternity in heaven after we die. The value of these gracious gifts far exceeds any earthly blessings we may or may not receive.
Second, Jesus reminds us that everything belongs to God.
What right do we have to question the way he uses his resources? Imagine an employee demanding to see his employer’s checkbook, and then saying, “You shouldn’t have purchased a new car for your son. You should’ve increased my wages!”
But is that any different from telling God whom he should and shouldn’t bless? God, why did you give Suzanne that job, but you didn’t give me the job I wanted? Why does Jack have a loving wife and three healthy kids, but I’m struggling as a single parent with a chronically ill child?
Questioning God’s goodness or fairness may be intrinsically human (Adam and Eve did it), but it’s also sinful. It drives a wedge of bitterness between us and God when he longs to draw near us during difficult times (Psalm 34:18; 2 Corinthians 1:3-4).
Third, Jesus reminds us that God is trustworthy.
To the 9am crew, the landowner said: “You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right” (v. 4). Those workers didn’t demand a certain wage; they trusted the landowner’s judgment.
More than anything else, God longs for us to trust him, to rely on his sovereignty and inherent goodness. Do we believe he has our best interest at heart? Do we rely on the promise of Psalm 84:11—“No good thing will he withhold from those that walk uprightly”?
Jesus told Peter, “Everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields for My sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life” (Matthew 19:29). His point was this: Follow me. Your reward in this life and in the next will be greater than you can imagine.
God Does Whatever Is Right
Do we trust God enough to abandon our quest for a “fair wage”? Are we willing instead to count on him to do “whatever is right”?
Let’s replace our “It’s not fair” mindset with affirmations like these:
- Gracious God, thank you for the blessings you’ve already given me and for those you’ve planned for my future.
- Generous God, I believe you will do immeasurably more than I could ask or imagine (Ephesians 3:20).
- Loving God, I trust you to do “whatever is right.”
Peter must have taken this parable to heart. In 1 Peter 1:3-4, he encouraged his suffering readers to praise God for their “new birth into a living hope…and [an] inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade—kept in heaven for you.” He also wrote that God had “given us everything we need for life and godliness” (2 Peter 1:3).
Will we choose to embrace those truths too?