Our sense of fairness develops early in life. Children sometimes carry it to an extreme, I think. When our 5-year-old grandson is told that it’s time to turn off The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and go to bed, more times than not he will declare, “That’s not fair!”
We carry some idea of fairness into adolescence and adulthood. In high school sports, all we want is for the ref to “keep it fair.” And what more can we ask of our boss than to simply treat us fairly. Don’t show favoritism or partiality. Treat everybody the same. That’s fair.
American culture defines fairness as equal opportunity—that if we’re willing to roll up our sleeves and work hard, we can go as far as we want. Work hard and you’ll get what you deserve. And if we don’t, well, that’s just not fair.
But things operate differently inside God’s Kingdom. His Kingdom is not based on fairness and hard work at all. Jesus came to proclaim the arrival of this Kingdom and that anybody can be part of it. He preached the Sermon on the Mount to illustrate what Kingdom-living is all about. God’s idea of kingdom is not at all like ours. His is an “upside-down” kingdom where enemies are not hated, but loved; where persecution is not avoided, but is cause for rejoicing.
In Matthew 20, Jesus tells an interesting, but confusing, Kingdom parable. He tells of a landowner who hires some people to pick grapes from sunup to sundown for $150. The pickers agree and head for the vineyard. At 9am, noon, and 3pm, the landowner sends more pickers into his vineyard. He even sends some at 5pm with only one hour of daylight left! At 6pm, the landowner tells his foreman to bring in the workers to get paid—the last ones first.
Amazingly, those who picked for only one hour got $150! In fact, every worker, regardless of when they went to the vineyard was paid $150. Those who started picking at sunrise were outraged! “Unfair! Unfair! You’re cheating us of a fair wage when we worked all day long—even in the heat of the day!”
The landowner said to them, “I’m not being unfair. I’m giving you exactly what we agreed to. There’s nothing unfair in that. It’s my money… and I’ll do with it as I please.”
After Jesus finishes the story, he offers a one-sentence commentary: “So the last will be first and the first last.” In other words, when it comes to the Kingdom of God, we can toss our Americanized sense of fairness out the window.
We see this played out over and over in scripture. Instead of hanging out with the “religious people”, Jesus hangs out with sinners—Matthew, Zacchaeus, the woman at the well, the woman caught in adultery, the lame, the blind, the leprous, and the demon-possessed.
Stephen, who is full of the Spirit and wisdom is stoned to death (UNFAIR!) while Saul, the one who guarded the warmup jackets of the stoners, is shown grace and is transformed into Christianity’s greatest missionary (REALLY UNFAIR!).
As I stand before God at the last judgment, I don’t want fairness. I want grace–a grace that’s generous. A grace that’s better than fair.
And what about that criminal next to Jesus on Golgotha—the one who asks Jesus to remember him in the Kingdom? His deathbed confession of faith means an all-expenses-paid trip to paradise. We would scream, “Wait, Jesus! This guy deserves to die! His crucifixion is fair!”
And Jesus says, “The last shall be first and the first last.”
From 1978 to 1991, a serial killer named Jeffrey Dahmer sodomized, killed, and then consumed (ate, cannibalized) 17 men and boys. Jesus says he deserved a millstone necktie instead of swim trunks. Dahmer was arrested, tried, convicted and sentenced to sixteen consecutive life sentences. In the court of public opinion, America said he got off easy. Someone like that deserves to die.
Interestingly, a Church of Christ prison minister named Roy Ratcliff taught Dahmer the gospel and he was baptized in the name of Jesus Christ in May 1994. In November of that year, he was beaten to death at Columbia Correctional Institute in Wisconsin.
Will Jeffrey Dahmer be in heaven? Not if he gets what he deserves. His sins are of such a nature that separation from God, eternal fire, weeping, and gnashing of teeth don’t really seem fair enough. He deserves much worse. But then, so do I. My sins are also of a nature that the fair thing for God to do is sentence me to eternity in hell. That’s what I deserve.
This is why, as I stand before God at the last judgment, I don’t want what I deserve. The last thing I want is fairness. Instead, I want grace. I want God to give me what I don’t deserve—and that’s grace.
A grace that’s generous. A grace that’s better than fair… even for the Jeffrey Dahmers of the world.
“The last shall be first and the first last” (Matthew 20:16).