Often I have heard the response to the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard being that God may do anything he wishes and fairness isn’t something God is concerned with, rather he is sovereign, thus, he is justified. If you are not sure about the parable, it is the one where those who came last received the same pay as those who started working early to which the early workers respond with an indignant,
Matthew 20:12 (NIV):
‘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.’
I have never been real satisfied, actually quite dissatisfied, with the divine sovereignty response. Likely, my distaste comes from divine sovereignty not being the point of the story, rather it being inserted as the issue.
The Point of the Parable
The point of the parable was a lesson to the Jews about the Kingdom of God. They were expecting an exceptional status in the Kingdom of God. Their view that as the people of God, with nationalistic and genetic identification, they were superior in all categories. Thus, those Gentiles who joined them, while receiving the promise of redemption, were not full partakers and recipients of all of the Kingdom of God.
Christ is revealing that the misunderstanding of the many of the Israelites was with regard to God’s plan of redemption which was about to go from Israel as the light to the world into all the world, with God's people becoming believer priests, a people of God with no national identification and boundaries and certainly no genetic identification.
They were to receive, equally, the inheritance of the Jew in salvation and participation in the Kingdom of God. The point isn’t divine sovereignty and the right of the divine to do as he pleases, though all the divine pleases is good, just and right. God need not make such a point unless it is being argued (and here it is not), it is an assumed property of the divine. The point is the generosity of God in his redemptive plan and its eternal inheritance.
But He was Fair
In the parable the owner of the vineyard replied to the complainants by bringing to their recall the agreement he made with them and that he did not break that agreement. He did keep his agreement, with all parties.
What is Fairness?
In Colossians 4:1 God gives a warning to “masters”, or as we may apply more broadly, to those who have subordinates employed/dependent upon them for work and pay. He states (NIV):
Masters, provide your slaves with what is right and fair, because you know that you also have a Master in heaven.
The word fair, here is ἰσότης (isotés) which refers to that which is proportional. The Scriptures are quite clear on proportionalism. Proverbs 11:1 states about God’s viewpoint on the matter (NASB):
A false balance is an abomination to the LORD, But a just weight is His delight.
God expects us to understand things in proportion. Exaggerations and minimization of the value of something so that you may profit in some manner is offensive to God and subject to his intervention. The only way to delight God with respect to this issue is to be fair, to be proportional.
How May We Apply This?
Obviously the passage in Colossians deals directly with selfish masters/employers. God has promised to judge mistreatment by masters/employers as well as vindicate the righteous subordinate in Colossians 3:25, the preceding verse (not necessarily immediate or temporal judgment or one we will get to see in this life time, maybe we will maybe we won’t but ultimately, that person will be judged and for the Christian it is loss of reward and gain of reward for the believing subordinate if we serve righteously), but the passage in Proverbs is far more broad.
In Proverbs it simply refers to an “unjust weight”. That which is disproportional. This can be regarding any category in life.
- Social infractions by friends
- Social infractions by those we dislike
- Co-workers who are less than ideal
- Moral failures by friends, even Pastors or Bible Teachers
- Moral failures by those we dislike, maybe hate (though we tell ourselves it isn’t hate because, after all, we aren’t like that)
How do we respond to these? Do we engage in over-the-top disproportional warfare or do we measure ourselves and make sure we are proportional?
How about the legal system. With regard to establishment principles in the Bible for governments? Consider the “three strikes and you’re out” method in California. Californians found that it could be disproportional in sentencing people to life without parole for crimes which did not warrant such burdensome sentences and certainly gave no room for social redemption.
We are this way sometimes with law enforcement but then, there are no easy and unimpeachable answers. Sometimes the nature of society simply does not allow for detailed and very time consuming deliberations in all matters.
The Ultimate Take Away
Fairness is not always a matter upon which everyone may agree. That is to say, some see greater value in one thing and others in something else. What we must take from this, however, is the imperative of God of a good conscience, a biblical conscience for the believer, in the matter. This is not to say strong or heavy push-back is never warranted but it must be proportional.
God wants us to be fair and to be just in our dealings with people. Being offended by one person you dislike but then excusing that behavior in a friend is called an unjust weight, it is hypocrisy.
Whatever standard you know is righteous, must always be righteous in the application of your thinking and treatment of a matter. It is true, life isn’t fair in and of itself but people can be and Christian are called to be.