The Evensong, from Matthew’s gospel: Part 1: Fairness and the Kingdom of God

I have always liked the concept of the Evensong: a song of prayers at the end of the day. I like to call the end of the Gospel narrative, Jesus’ Evensong. Those days and hours before the culmination of His sacrifice on the cross were precious. They were the last moments He would get to spend with His disciples in person. They were His last chance to tell them everything He needed to tell them to prepare them for what was to come… and for the mission that they would then have to undertake from then on.

In the last post I started a conversation about fairness and Faith.

To determine whether something is fair or not, we need all the information. But the fact is that we will never have it all. And even if we did, what makes us think we could understand it? We understand enough of this Universe to understand that whoever made it (God) must transcend it. The Creator of the Laws of Nature is not bound by them. The inventor of time is not limited by time. That means that God’s wisdom is on an entirely different category than human wisdom. And yet, how often we find ourselves arguing with Him!

The fact that God made us in His image means that we understand what Justice is. We understand what Fairness is. He created our conscience; He put that knowledge in our hearts. But why did He give us this knowledge?

I think He gave us this knowledge so that we could apply it in our lives: so that we could choose to act justly toward our fellow man, so that I could love my neighbor as myself because that is only fair; we are both human.

But I don’t think he gave it to us so that we could try to judge Him. That would be a losing proposition. Our brains are far too small to come even close to rightly judging His purposes.

No. To understand His purposes, to know His will, He gave us something else: our spirit. It is that spirit that hears the Spirit of God. It is with that spirit that our heart understands that God Loves us. Even when our minds and our reason cannot marshal all the facts to begin to comprehend His ways, our spirit can find the way, in His Word..

Fairness from God’s viewpoint

In Matthew, chapter 20 and forward, as part of His Evensong, Jesus teaches lesson after lesson in the form of Parables. This is one of them:

Matthew 20:1-15 For the kingdom of the heavens is like a householder who went out with the early morn to hire workmen for his vineyard. And having agreed with the workmen for a denarius the day, he sent them into his vineyard.

And having gone out about [the] third hour, he saw others standing in the market-place idle; and to them he said, Go also ye into the vineyard, and whatsoever may be just I will give you. And they went their way. Again, having gone out about the sixth and ninth hour, he did likewise. But about the eleventh [hour], having gone out, he found others standing, and says to them, Why stand ye here all the day idle? They say to him, Because no man has hired us. He says to them, Go also ye into the vineyard [and whatsoever may be just ye shall receive].

But when the evening was come, the lord of the vineyard says to his steward, Call the workmen and pay [them] their wages, beginning from the last even to the first.

And when they [who came to work] about the eleventh hour came, they received each a denarius. And when the first came, they supposed that they would receive more, and they received also themselves each a denarius. And on receiving it they murmured against the master of the house, saying, These last have worked one hour, and thou hast made them equal to us, who have borne the burden of the day and the heat.

But he answering said to one of them, [My] friend, I do not wrong thee. Didst thou not agree with me for a denarius? Take what is thine and go. But it is my will to give to this last even as to thee: is it not lawful for me to do what I will in my own affairs? Is thine eye evil because *I* am good?

How does this parable make you feel?

Don’t you feel a tinge of sympathy for the workers that labored all day in the sun? I mean, if this were not a parable about the kingdom of heaven, I think many of us would openly agree with those laborers that murmured against the master. Isn’t it unfair that we who worked so much longer got treated the same as the ones that worked hardly one hour?

Sometimes, when we read this parable, we avoid the controversy of those thoughts by telling ourselves that the parable was really about the people of Jesus’ day. We tell ourselves that the late comers, the people that joined in the work at the last minute, represent the Gentiles who didn’t have the Law, who were deluded by their false gods until they saw the light. And the people who were working all day represent the Jewish nation, holding to the Law for thousands of years. And the fact that they murmured represents the many people of that nation, His nation, who ended up murmuring and rejecting Jesus.

When we look at it that way, we are glad that the parable ended the way it did. Otherwise, what chance would we Gentiles have had? So, maybe, it’s all about who gets to enter into the Kingdom of Heaven. That’s enough… why worry about the minute details of the setting of the parable?

But is the parable only about the Jews and the Gentiles?

I don’t think so; because Jesus Christ is the same, yesterday, today, and forever. And it is not that easy to escape asking the question about the fairness of the business deal when the master himself said “whatsoever may be just I will give you“.

Jesus doesn’t shy away from this issue. He engages this theme of fairness from God’s viewpoint on more than one occasion. In Luke, the parable of the lost son raises up a similar question. There, the lost son, who at the end realizes how sin had destroyed his life and, therefore, returns in repentance to his father, is the late comer. And his brother, who never strayed from his father’s will is the one who has been working all day in the heat of the sun. He too murmured:

Luke 15:25-32 And his elder son was in the field; and as, coming [up], he drew nigh to the house, he heard music and dancing. And having called one of the servants, he inquired what these things might be. And he said to him, Thy brother is come, and thy father has killed the fatted calf because he has received him safe and well.

But he became angry and would not go in. And his father went out and besought him. But he answering said to his father, Behold, so many years I serve thee, and never have I transgressed a commandment of thine; and to me hast thou never given a kid that I might make merry with my friends: but when this thy son, who has devoured thy substance with harlots, is come, thou hast killed for him the fatted calf.

But he said to him, Child, *thou* art ever with me, and all that is mine is thine. But it was right to make merry and rejoice, because this thy brother was dead and has come to life again, and was lost and has been found.

Again, I think many of us would sympathize with the elder son and agree with him that this whole situation is unfair. Except that this is a parable of Jesus.

It is the crowning parable of a trio of parables that emphasize how important the lost children of God are to Him. And if we look at all the Gospels together, we realize that Jesus’ telling of these parables was motivated by a real event: He went to have dinner with Matthew Levi, the Tax collector, and with all his friends: all tax collectors and sinners. And the religious leaders were scandalized (offended) at Him for keeping such company.

Once we realize that, does it change the way we feel about the elder brother?

Ok, let’s bring it closer to home.

Luke 10:38-42 As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”

“Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”

Are you a Martha or a Mary? I think all of us can recognize two different personalities in these sisters. And if you are “Type A”, you sympathize with Martha. And you can think of lots of occasions where your Mary left you in a lurch. It’s not fair. Things need to get done. Why am I the only one ever doing them?

Many sermons and lessons have been taken from this passage. And many of them go out of their way to make sure the Marthas don’t get offended or discouraged by this passage. For, heaven knows, we need “Marthas” in our families, and in our volunteer teams, to get things done.

But if that is the way we respond to this passage, feeling that Mary was at least to some extent being lazy and Martha, at least to some extent, justified in being upset, then aren’t we disagreeing with Jesus? Because He clearly chided Martha when He said: “you are worried and upset about many things.” After all, Martha too murmured (out loud) against Jesus: “Lord, don’t you care…?”

What are we missing?

I think, if we are honest, most of us will admit that there is something in all these scenarios that grates on us, that indeed seems to us unfair. And there are two natural reactions to that.

One is to try to explain it away – because we can’t let Jesus look bad. In other words, we accept that we may not understand everything that is going on but, regardless, we are going to defend Jesus. However, I believe, as Kierkegaard did, that Jesus needs no one to defend Him. He can manage that all on His own.

The other reaction is to seize on these scenarios and add our voice to those in them that murmur against Jesus. “Yes, He is unfair.” And as soon as we say that, it is easier to say it again this way, “he is unfair… because he is not God.” You see, ultimately, the people that reject the reality of God can only do it – and satisfy their own conscience at the same time – by saying “the God of the Bible is unjust.”

I am sure you have heard the arguments: How could a loving God send people to Hell? How can a just God let the innocent suffer?

What are we missing?

Clearly, we are missing something. And I have alluded to it above. I pointed out that If God IS, and He is the creator of our reality, then He must stand outside of it. He is not constrained by the Laws of the Universe because He created them. He is transcendent.

But that doesn’t mean that He is arbitrary; that He gave us Laws to obey that hold no value to Him.

Why can I say this with certainty? Because all the evidence we have points to the fact that Nature itself is a witness to His Presence and His character. Nature has yet to contradict the Revelation contained in the Word of God.

When someone who rejects the existence of God claims that the violence of humanity indicts Him, all they prove is that they have not read the Word of God. The answer is given at the very beginning, in the book of Genesis, and summarized for us by Paul in his letter to the Romans:

Because we – humanity – sinned against God, we condemned ourselves to a life ruled by sin and to eternal death. But we humans have trouble with believing that there is such a thing as eternal death… we have never seen it. Therefore, God chose to paint an undeniable picture for all of us to see, a picture in our time-bound reality that none of us could deny: physical death.

Sickness and death, and the violence of Nature all stand as unimpeachable witnesses that testify, to all who would open their eyes and see, that something is terribly wrong with this world. And that something is called sin.

When sin is finally defeated and humanity restored to fellowship with God, then and only then will Nature return to its original intended perfection:

Romans 8:19-21 For the Creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the Creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the Creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.

Therefore, I believe that if we read the Word and observe the universe we live in — in the light of that Word — we can understand all we need to understand about this Infinite Transcendent God in order to decide whether or not we want a relationship with Him.

God is not arbitrary.

There is only one way to make water: Two Hydrogen atoms and one Oxygen atom. Not two and a half H and three quarters O, not three H and two O. There is only one way. The absorption and emission spectral lines of the gases that make up stars are the same everywhere in this universe as they are in our Solar system. That is a fundamental axiom of astronomy.

Science accepts this universal consistency. Then why would we entertain the thought that the God who invented Justice could be unfair?

What are we missing?

Fairness is not God’s deepest concern.

That is easy to prove: Was it fair that God let His Son, Jesus, who was sinless and guiltless, die on the cross for the sins of humanity?

And the reality is worse than that question suggests because Scripture tells us that Jesus did not simply suffer and die a horrible human death…

Isaiah 53:1-9

Who has believed our message and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?

He grew up before him like a tender shoot, and like a root out of dry ground. He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain. Like one from whom people hide their faces he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.

Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed.

We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.

He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth. By oppression and judgment he was taken away. Yet who of his generation protested?

For he was cut off from the land of the living; for the transgression of my people he was punished. He was assigned a grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death, though he had done no violence, nor was any deceit in his mouth.

Jesus died the collective death deserved by all humanity, for all the sins of everyone born and ever to be born. We cannot imagine what that kind of separation from God will feel like… but we have a word for it: Hell.

How could a loving God do that to His Son? Why would He do it?

Isaiah 53:10-11

Yet it was the Lord’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer.

And though the Lord makes his life an offering for sin, he will see his offspring and prolong his days, and the will of the Lord will prosper in his hand. After he has suffered, he will see the light of life and be satisfied.

By his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many, and he will bear their iniquities.

Why did God do it? Because there was something more important to Him at stake.

It was the only way to save the rest of us.

No, it is not fair that Jesus had to die for me. But God the Father wanted so much to share Eternity with me, that He was willing to abide that injustice for my sake. And Jesus agreed.

I believe that in every one of the scenarios we went through above there is a measure of unfairness, humanly speaking; but something else “trumped” fairness: the salvation of a human being. This is true even in that dinner at Martha’s house. Even if she or Mary didn’t get it, that is precisely what Jesus was talking about when He said: One thing alone is needful and it will not be taken away from anyone who clings to it:

For God so loved (every one of us in) the world that He (willingly) gave His One and only Son, that whosoever believes in Him may not perish (in eternal death) but have (instead) everlasting life (John 3:16).

It is a matter of perspective… from God’s viewpoint

Does all this mean that God is indeed unfair? What we have to understand is that we interpret each of those scenarios as unfair because we try to balance the scales on our terms, with our human heart. Each of those cases bother us because we compare human to human: The laborers that worked all day, truly worked longer hours than the late comers. The elder son was truly more faithful to his father’s wishes than the prodigal son. Martha truly took on more of the responsibilities of that dinner than Mary did.

But Jesus’ reaction to it all is: “So what?”

Does this offend you? Blessed is he who is not offended in Me (Matthew 11:6.)

There is an illustration I heard a pastor use many many years ago that helps us understand what is going on. Suppose God were to say, “We are going to decide who gets into Heaven by a test of physical prowess: the high jump. Now, whoever gets closest to the goal, wins.”

Would you stand a chance? Maybe you are a basketball player. Maybe you are an Olympic athlete. How do you feel about your chances when you compare yourself to all the other competitors around you? Maybe you look around the room and think, “I know I am a lot better than that guy and that guy…” Except you haven’t heard yet what the goal is.

And then God says: “Ok, whoever gets closest to the Moon, gets a free pass to Heaven.”

Now does any one of us stand a chance? Do you think even the Olympic high jump record of over 8 feet compares to the distance to the Moon (1.26 billion feet)?

That is the problem we face when we compare ourselves to each other. In God’s eyes, each one of those scenarios we talked about had nothing to do with whether or not I am better than someone else. They have everything to do with the choice each individual character in the story made in the face of the Invitation:

God calls us to come out of our unprofitable lives and work in His field. Do we say, Yes?

God calls us back home unconditionally, even after we have squandered every gift he ever gave us. Do we come to our senses and return to Him?

God calls us to sit at His feet to learn what life is truly about. Do we stop, get off the hamster wheel, and say, Ok?

If instead of hearing these questions when we read those stories, what we do is notice the unfairness of the situation, it is because we are still obsessed with comparing ourselves to each other. To us, that is the definition of fairness, human fairness… “I deserve the same advantages that he or she has… It’s only fair. If we are all the same in God’s eyes, why can’t I have what he has?”

And I think Jesus would just shake His head and say: “Really? In the light of Eternity, with all that is at stake, that’s all you can think of?”

Share this on:


Sign up to receive new stories in your email as they’re published.

Your privacy is important. We won’t send spam or share your email address. Privacy Policy

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *