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September 20, 2020

Matthew 20:1-16

 God’s Fairness and Justice


We frequently hear and talk about the issue of justice. We often say it is not fair when we are disappointed by something or someone. When do you feel things are “unfair”? When do you think things are “unjust”? It might be at times when you feel weak, powerless or helpless. Even though we call the “Holy Community,” we might sometimes experience unfairness and injustice in the church community. However, God’s fairness and justice somehow might be different from our perspective.

I want to share with you one of my experiences regarding “unfairness and injustice.” I have been involved in the Korean-American Young-Adult Leadership Conference as the coordinator for six years. In the first year, when I was learning about the position, I had a coworker, who came to the United States from South Korea, and was a new seminarian. We both were the new workers for the Conference. We had the same contract, such as work times, hourly wages, and responsibilities. However, he did not work as many hours as me. He came in late and left early, saying, “I am sorry I do not know how to work for the Conference because I am a new to the position. You know everything because you have experienced it already. I have to study a lot at school, and so I have to leave early.” I said, “You know, I am a new to this work too. So I am trying to learn the job, and I am a seminarian too who also has to study.” He received the same payment as me every month. I worked with him for six months. It felt unfair and unjust.

When you do experience “unfairness and injustice,” what do you do? You may complain to the person trying to fix his/her behavior. Or you may complain to the manger. For me, at that time, I prayed to God about my feelings of unfairness. I thought I should get more money than him because I worked more hours than he did. God gave me an answer to my prayers through the scripture. That scripture was what we read today. Through this passage, I learned God’s fairness and justice.

Today’s story is about God’s fairness and justice for the weak, the least, and the powerless. Jesus tells a parable story about the Kingdom of heaven. The Kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who has a vineyard and needs laborers for his vineyard. What is interesting is that the Kingdom of heaven is like the landowner, not like the vineyard. So, through the landowner’s acts, we may learn how fairness and justice look like from God’s perspective.

The landowner went out to look for laborers early in the morning, at about 9 o’clock, around noon, and again at three o’clock. Whenever he found those who were idle at the marketplace, he sent them to his vineyard. The landowner did not ask them: “What is your capacity? What is your background? Or bring me your resume.” Instead, he said, “you also go into the vineyard, and I pay you whatever is right.” They must have been so happy to get a job. The landowner seems like a very generous CEO. He hired whomever he found and whoever was idle. If we had a CEO like this landowner in our society, we would have resolved the unemployment issue a long time ago! It could have been the end of the story—many found work, and they were all happy.

However, the real surprise of the story comes next. We hear that the landowner went out again at five o’clock! It was almost the end of the day, yet he still found more people standing around. He asked this last group of laborers, “Why are you standing here idle all day?” They said to him, “Because no one has hired us.” He said to them, “you also go into the vineyard.” At first, it did not seem to make much sense. By the time they arrived at the vineyard, they probably did not have much time to work. We may wonder why this landowner sent them to his vineyard at the last minute.

Well, let’s imagine a bit which people these might have been. They were the last ones who were left in the job market. Perhaps they were not physically active. Perhaps they were older in age. Perhaps they lacked experience. Perhaps they did not have any work permit. Perhaps, they might not have legal status. Whatever the reason was, one thing was clear: they were not wanted! That’s why they were left to be the last ones. It seems, though, that this landowner did not seem to care about any of the qualifications. He merely invited everyone and paid everyone the same wage. It was just impractical, countercultural, and anticapitalistic. No wonder why those who worked from 9 a.m. complained. How does the landowner treat all the laborers in the same way, whether working all day long or working for just less than one hour? We may say, “That’s not fair.”

However, that’s how it is in the Kingdom of heaven, Jesus says. The job marketplace would be the world in which their capabilities and qualifications treat the people. We may call it “fairness and justice” in the world. But, the Kingdom of heaven is like the landowner who treats people according to their needs, not according to their capabilities. All contribute to the work according to their capabilities; all share the wages according to their needs. What a radical idea! The last, the least, and the vulnerable are treated in the same way as the best, the first, and the most productive.

This story has, at times, been used to explain God’s grace: God’s love does not depend on our merits. No matter how many hours, how many days, or how many years we have given to God’s work, ultimately, God’s love does not know any boundaries. The unconditional love of God for all people is a powerful message.

I wonder, though, if this story adds another layer—that God has a special heart for the most vulnerable because they need God’s love and care more. “The last” in the perspective of liberation theology is perhaps poor. “The last” in the view of black theology is perhaps those who have been racially discriminated against. “The last” in the perspective of feminist theology might be women.

My experiences and backgrounds have led me to proclaim that “the last” are the weakest of our world: those who suffer from physical, emotional, and mental pains without knowing whether healing might happen; those who suffer without adequate resources for basic needs of food, shelter, and education; or those who suffer under the unjust systems of discrimination and inequality.

When have you felt most vulnerable in your life? Perhaps it was when your loved one died. Or, perhaps it was when you felt like you were a failure. As such, no one can always be strong. We all go through some weak moments in life. It means that no one has the privilege under the grace of God. God gives us grace and loves freely.

Let us go back to my story. God’s answer through this parable story to me was that he was the last, the least, and the weakest, who was in need at that time. I had received what I agreed to with the Conference. If I thought of myself, it was not unfair or unjust because I worked what I had to work, and I have received what I expected to receive. But, if I compared it with my coworker, I felt unfair and unjust. In appearance, he might be the last in need. But, I was the last in faith. Through the experience, I grew in faith first.

I recognized God’s grace is not comparable because each of us is a unique child to God. God’s fairness and justice are for those in need, the powerless, the weak, the last, and the least. The more we share God’s love, the more the grace of God increases, 30 times, 60 times, or 100 times. Even though we have a small gift like a tiny mustard seed, the seed grows and becomes a big tree that birds may have shelter on when we share with others. May God’s Holy Spirit empower us to share God’s love with the last, the least, and the vulnerable, and guide us to experience the Kingdom of heaven even though we are experiencing the COVID 19 pandemic! Everyone has the equal right to receive the grace of God. Let us be the channel of God’s grace for all God’s people.

Thanks be to God. Amen!