Jesus told many provocative, uncomfortable, and even infuriating stories. One of the most infuriating can be found in Matthew 20: Jesus’ parable of the workers in the vineyard. In it, Jesus describes a landowner who, early in the morning, hired day laborers and promised them standard payment. At four other points throughout the day—midmorning, midday, early afternoon, and evening—he hired additional workers. And here’s the kicker: At the end of the day, he paid them all the same. Those who’d worked only a bit in the cool of dusk were paid the same as those who labored hard “all day in the scorching heat” (verse 12).
And suddenly I find myself, alongside those grumbling and tired workers, facing Jesus’ piercing question: “Do you begrudge my generosity?” (20:15, ESV).
To us, as to the grumbling workers, this “doesn’t seem fair,” notes New Testament scholar Craig L. Blomberg. “But we are fools if we appeal to God for justice rather than grace, for in that case we’d all be damned.” As the psalmist expressed, “If you, LORD, kept a record of sins, Lord, who could stand?” (Psalm 130:3, NIV).
This is the reality: God’s generous and lavish grace doesn’t square with human “fairness.” Thanks be to God. While our God is just, his grace is “unfair”—and we sinners each desperately need it.
We see this same stunning, ridiculous grace illustrated in another of Jesus’ stories: the parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15). In point after point, detail after detail, this story utterly defies the accepted norms of Jesus’ day: A son profoundly insults his patriarch father, leaves his home, and indulges in a life that is wasteful and wild (verse 13). His foil, the other son, is good and obedient—yet, like the workers in the vineyard, most certainly begrudges the radical generosity of the third and most important figure in the parable: the father.