An Incorrect Premise


There are some teachings in the Bible, often straight from Jesus himself, that I do not like. The problem is that I am expecting God to make decisions and judgments that parallel those that I would make in a similar situation. I am using an incorrect starting point.

Students complain. Not all of them complain and not all the time, but they do complain. Some of their complaints are legitimate and the problem needs rectifying. Sometimes, the complaint is simply the student’s opinion.

There are common themes to their complaints. “The test was too hard.” “I did not have time to finish.” “I did not understand the assignment.” However, by far the most frequent complaint suggests that I, as the composer of the test or assignment and the grader of the submission, was not “fair.” The student may feel that sufficient time for the test was not available, but if other students had more time, that is a big problem. 

Fairness is the number one issue with students, and it is completely reasonable to raise the issue; I agree with them. You and I do this all the time. When we encounter unfairness, it seems fundamentally wrong. When we encounter stories in the Bible that involve unfairness, it strikes us (at least me) as fundamentally wrong. Again, perhaps this is because I am beginning from an incorrect premise.

In chapter 20 of Matthew there is a story of a landowner hiring laborers for his vineyard. He hires some early in the morning and offers them a certain wage to be paid at the end of the day. Seeing the work that needs to be done, about every two to three hours he hires an additional set of workers. By the end of the day, five sets of workers have been employed, each starting at separate times. The landowner pays every individual the same amount—the amount agreed upon by the first set. 

The workers cry “UNFAIR! Those guys only worked a couple of hours, and we worked all day.”

The landowner seems quite gentle but clear in his rebuttal. He effectively tells them to take their money and go home; he paid them according to the agreement and it is his to deal out. Then he says something worth quoting: “Are you envious because I am generous?”

In Luke 15 an extended story appears. In my Bible it is titled “The Lost Son;” others refer to it as “The Prodigal Son.” Here the story has a smaller cast, just a father and his two sons plus a few unnamed bit players. The two sons split when the younger son leaves home and leads what most would describe as a profligate life. After coming to his senses, he returns home and is lavishly welcomed by his father. The older son is outraged by this welcome, explaining in angry and extended terms that “This is not fair!”

We have each heard these stories used in sermon illustrations and there are valid explanations that smooth them a bit. Still, they bother us, do they not? From our earliest child days, we have been taught that “being fair” to one another is of prime importance. Observe a primary school classroom and note that a dominant emphasis is on learning to share and being fair with others.

Here is the dilemma: as humans we are taught and expected to be fair, but God does not seem to act as 100 percent fair. Is it possible that there are two types of “fairness”—a human type and a God type?

Because that is where we live, we have a relatively clear understanding of what human fairness should include. We may not participate in it every time, but we do know the basic idea. What does God’s fairness include that is different? Is there anything for us to learn here?

The first story above about the multiple work-starting times gives us a lead. The landowner had a different view of fairness because of his generosity. That quality overruled what would appear to be human fairness. The teaching is that God’s generosity and love supersede human values.

A friend asked, “Do I really want God to be fair with me? To give me what I deserve? Or would I rather live in his grace?

 Jim Nichols is a retired Abilene Christian University biology professor and current hospice chaplain

One comment

  • Your questions are so relevant to the world today. Is it fair that as an American woman I am free to dress the way I want but an Iranian woman must conform to a strict dress code or be arrested by the morality police? Of course not. I certainly cannot understand the ways of God, but I wish I could.


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