Septuagesima I Corinthians 9:24-27 / Matthew 20:1-16

It doesn’t seem fair – those laborers who worked all day in the hot sun received only as much as those who came in the last hour. The owner of the vineyard is too generous, and for one reason or the other, he is grossly unfair. In fact, he is unfair because he is too fair. Should he not be just? Where is the justice in giving everyone the same reward? We ought to object to this blatantly unfair fairness on principle – it cannot be just.

It is easy to sympathize with the laborers who worked all day for a penny, even though they agreed to work for no more than that standard day’s wage. It is easy also to sympathize with the elder brother in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, or with the priest who walked on the other side of the road rather than risk touching a man who may, for all he could see, have been dead. A Levitical priest needed to avoid uncleanness as he went to Jerusalem from Jericho, to the temple. Perhaps a Samaritan – even maybe, if it could be imagined, a good one – might come along to help the man. But, the priest has to remain ritually clean (or else allow one of his fellow priests to perform a service on this one occasion, giving it up due to the higher commandment: love of neighbor).

It is all too easy to sympathize with all the wrong people in the Lord’s parables, sometimes to agree with the wrong people on principle, on the basis of deeply felt religious scruple. The father was too weak to make his son face the errors of his ways, so he lacked what they call “tough love.” The priest needed to walk by on the other side of the road; it was in accord with their “rubrics’ so to speak. And, the owner of the vineyard clearly lacked a sense of justice, at least of the kind valued by the world.

We see the unfairness of the owner of the vineyard reflected in God Himself. That is, if we really notice what goes on in His Church. Some people give themselves to the church for years, even for decades, and some give their money in large amounts. Along comes some new member, perhaps a convert who has lived in notorious sin, or maybe even a (dare I say it?) liberal. This new person, once he becomes a full member, is suddenly equal to the people who have given their money to build the church, have given their time and effort, and done everything they could to make the church what it is. And, in case you thought it was a man-made system of unfair fairness (that great leveler that makes the brand new convert equal to all the people who have served and been on the vestry, or sung in the choir for thirty years) what makes the new convert equal is the Lord’s very own sacraments! Once this new person is baptized, and confirmed (or ready and willing to be confirmed), he is receiving not only the same absolution (and to the same degree) as the long faithful members; he even receives the Body and Blood of Christ in the sacrament. His reward is the same, and if he truly believes, his joy is full.

It just isn’t fair.

We may look at the way St. Paul mastered himself, exercising discipline with fasting and prayer. In other places he tells of his sufferings and his life of hardship, with constant persecution. He endured three shipwrecks, beatings, stoning and imprisonment. He did all this because he saw himself as a debtor to every man alive, saying “woe is me if I preach not the Gospel.” Surely, though he saw himself as an unprofitable servant who needed no thanks, and though he did all for the love of Christ simply for one reward and none other, namely to know Christ and the power of his resurrection (see Phil. 3); nonetheless, if we may offer a brief on his behalf as friends of the court, he deserves more. After all his years of labor, why did he always express gratitude and joy? Did he not have anything to say about getting a special reward equal to what he earned?

Ah! Yes, and that’s the point. He did say a lot about that very thing, most notably, “For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” (Romans 6:23) In many places in his epistles, even though he suffered much for the kingdom of God out of his love for Christ, he expresses his gratitude for being spared the special reward equal to his labor.

“For I am the least of the apostles, that am not meet to be called an apostle, because I persecuted thechurch of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am: and his grace which was bestowed upon me was not in vain; but I laboured more abundantly than they all: yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me.” (I Corinthians 15:9, 10)

St. Paul was very grateful indeed that Jesus Christ is not fair; and though he is just, that justice was satisfied by “his one oblation of himself once offered- a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world.” He crossed mercy with justice, and hung under the place where the two meet as one. Henceforth, there is one reward for all, and the great joy of laboring for the one who loved us, and proved it when He gave Himself on the cross for our redemption.

What more could we ask?

I trust that everyone here knows that we cannot earn our salvation, and that we cannot earn anything extra. We were already disqualified by our own sins. Look at Article XIV:

Of Works of Supererogation.

Voluntary Works besides, over and above, God’s Commandments, which they call Works of Supererogation, cannot be taught without arrogancy and impiety: for by them men do declare, that they do not only render unto God as much as they are bound to do, but that they do more for his sake, than of bounden duty is required: whereas Christ saith plainly When ye have done all that are commanded to you, say, We are unprofitable servants.

That last part comes from a parable:

“But which of you, having a servant plowing or feeding cattle, will say unto him by and by, when he is come from the field, Go and sit down to meat? And will not rather say unto him, Make ready wherewith I may sup, and gird thyself, and serve me, till I have eaten and drunken; and afterward thou shalt eat and drink? Doth he thank that servant because he did the things that were commanded him? I trow not. So likewise ye, when ye shall have done all those things which are commanded you, say, We are unprofitable servants: we have done that which was our duty to do.” (Luke 17:7-10)

As we approach the season of Lent it is time to remind ourselves that we do not want God to be fair; and we want His justice to be merciful, that is, to come to us by way of the cross of Christ. It is not an entitlement, but rather it is mercy, that allows you to sit alongside that new convert who has just entered the Church joyfully, glad that his portion is no less than yours. Consider what has been given to the one who has arrived in this late hour. He has been buried with Christ by baptism into death, and then raised with the Lord to the newness of life. He has been confirmed by the laying on of the bishop’s hands, and thus shares in the full power and gifts of the Holy Spirit who was poured out on the Day of Pentecost. His confession of sin is answered by God’s gift of absolution. And, he receives the Body and Blood of Christ, the food and drink of eternal life, when he kneels beside you at the altar rail. Rejoice and thank God that you are able to kneel down beside that new member at the rail, and that you are granted the same grace.


Fr. Robert Hart

Fr. Robert Hart is the Rector of Saint Benedict's Anglican Catholic Church in Chapel Hill, NC, a contributing editor of Touchstone, A Journal of Mere Christianity, and frequent contributor to The Continuum blog.


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