When Life Isnt fair2
When Life Isn't Fair
Matthew 20 : 1-16
Beloved preacher and teacher Fred Craddock tells about being on a flight back when they still had smoking sections on airplanes. Craddock was seated in the no smoking section. He was seated on the aisle. Across from him sat a man who pulled a long black cigar out of his pocket and lit it up. Soon the area was filled with foul-smelling smoke. Craddock stopped the flight attendant, a very attractive young woman, and said, “Am I in the wrong section? I asked for no smoking.” Realizing what he was saying, she said to the man with the big cigar, “Uh, sir, this is no smoking.” He ignored her and kept puffing on his cigar. Craddock complained again. Again she reminded the man he was in the no smoking section. It did no good and Craddock was infuriated.
Later on during the flight, the flight attendant was coming down the aisle with a tray of drinks. She was right between Craddock and the man with the cigar when they hit an air pocket. The sudden turbulence caused her to dump the drinks right into the lap of the man with the big cigar. But that’s not all. Seeking to correct her balance, this very attractive flight attendant fell backward . . . right into Fred Craddock’s lap. Says Craddock with a sly grin, “Now, don’t tell me there’s no God.” (1)
I wish life always turned out so neatly, don’t you so that the wrongdoer got what was coming to him and the guys in white hats always came out on top?
I read about some burglars in Essex, England, who broke into the home of a woman named Dee Blythe. After stealing everything of value from her living room, the burglars discovered a plastic bag of powder marked “Charlie.” “Charlie” is a street term for cocaine. It is also the name of Dee Blythe’s dead dog. In a news report on the crime, Ms. Blythe is quoted as saying, “It was horrible knowing they were in my house, but the idea of them trying to get high on a dead dog’s ashes certainly made me feel a bit better.” (2)
Sometimes things do sort of even out, but, at least it seems that more often than not, they do not.
Former business star and Chrysler Corporation chairman Lee Iacocca tells about an incident that occurred when he was in the sixth grade. The incident involved the election of the captain of the student patrol a job he really wanted. He lost by two votes. The next day one of his classmates pointed out to him that the total number of votes was greater than the number of students in the class. But when Iacocca told his teacher, she simply advised him to let the matter rest. It was, he recalls, his first lesson in the fact that life would not always be fair. (3)
How many times have you and I looked at life and complained, somewhat bitterly, “Life isn’t fair.” Even God doesn’t seem to play fair.
Jesus told a parable about a landowner who went into the market place early in the morning to hire laborers‑‑a common practice in rural communities in some places even today. Those he hired he agreed to pay the standard wage for a day’s work. Three hours later he saw that he was going to need more laborers if the work was going to get done. He returned to the market place and hired some more. About noon he again found it necessary to hire more workers, then again at three o’clock, then again at five. Quitting time was six o’clock. At six o’clock he had his foreman line up the laborers to be paid. He began with those who had worked but an hour. He paid them for a full day.
Watching this were those who had worked since six in the morning. They rubbed their hands in delight. “Wow,” they thought to themselves, “If he pays them a full day’s wage for working just part of a day, think how much he will pay us!” When their time came, however, they also received the standard wage for one day’s work. They were mad. They had worked all day and they were receiving the same amount as those who had worked just one hour. It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t just. But the landowner said, “Didn’t I pay you what we had agreed on? If I want to be more generous with these others is it not my right? Is it not my money to do with as I please?”
Boy, that’s a hard teaching particularly when applied to the subject of salvation. Since most of us in the church feel that we are those who have labored since six o’clock in the morning, this may be one of Jesus’ most difficult teachings to accept. Is it true? Can a person be an absolute scoundrel right up until the moment of his or her death and then repent, confess Christ and receive the gift of eternal life as if he or she had been a saint? That is the way this text is most often interpreted.
Ty Cobb is generally regarded as one of the greatest baseball players of all time. When he was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1936, he received the most votes of any player on the Ballot.
Cobb is widely credited with setting 90 Major League Baseball records during his career. He still holds several records, including the highest career batting average, .366, and the most career batting titles. He retained many other records for almost a half century or more, including most career hits, most career runs, most career games played and at bats, and the modern record for most career stolen bases.
However, as most baseball fans know, Ty Cobb was not a nice man. He was an overt racist, and he was mean and surly on the baseball diamond. He would not be on anyone’s list for preferred role models.
In 1961, Ty Cobb lay dying. Reportedly a pastor came to Ty Cobb’s bedside during this difficult time and urged him to repent of his sins and confess Jesus Christ as his Lord. Cobb looked up from his deathbed and said, “You’re not telling me that a whole life of sin can be done away with by a deathbed repentance, are you?” And the pastor assured Cobb it could. And Ty Cobb invited Jesus into his life. Shortly thereafter he died, and we can assume that he passed comfortably through the pearly gates as if he had been a Sunday School teacher all his adult life.
And all I can say to that is, “That’s wonderful, but it’s not fair.”
I know what some of you are thinking: Why not, then, go ahead and live a life of sin and wait until the last moment to repent? I mean, if you’re going to get the same reward, why not party hearty right up until the last moment?
This, by the way, is not exclusively a Christian teaching. Our Jewish friends wrestle with this same conundrum.
Herman Wouk, in his book, This Is My God: The Jewish Way Of Life tells a story about his grandfather, a learned and pious Jew. His grandfather had in his apartment a lodger less learned than himself, and much fiercer in piety. One day when they were studying the laws of repentance together, the lodger burst from his room. “What!” he said. “The atheist guzzles whiskey and eats pork and wallows with his women all his life long, and then repents the day before he dies and stands guiltless? While I spend a lifetime trying to please God?”
The grandfather pointed to the book. “So it is written,” he said gently.
“Written!” the lodger roared. “There are books and there are books.” And he slammed the door as he strode angrily back into his room.
The lodger’s outrage seemed highly logical, says Wouk. Then his grandfather pointed out that canceling the past does not turn it into a record of achievement. It leaves it blank, a waste of spilled years. A man had better return, he said, while time remains to write a life worth scanning. And since no man knows his death day, the time to get a grip on his life is the first hour when the impulse strikes him.
It’s a fascinating question, and, on the surface, it can be troubling. Why turn to God now? Why not wait?
Rabbi Eliezer said, “Turn to God one day before your death.”
His disciples said, “How can a man know the day of his death?”
He answered them, “Then you should turn to God today perhaps you may die tomorrow thus every day will be employed in returning.” (4)
How would you answer such a question? Why not go ahead and live a life of sin and wait until the last moment to repent? Actually, this question is not as difficult to answer as it seems, not to people who have walked with Christ for any time at all.
THE QUESTION ASSUMES THAT A LIFE OF SIN IS MORE DESIRABLE THAN A LIFE OF FAITH. Why else would we be concerned about waiting until the last moment?
Let me ask you a serious question. What would you change about your life if you knew there were no heaven and no hell? Would you be less loving toward your family? Would you cheat on your wife? Would you be dishonest in your business? I don’t think so. The old saw that “virtue is its own reward” is true. There are other reasons that we maintain our wedding vows, run our businesses in an ethical way, and love our families besides the fear of hell. We seek to live virtuous lives not out of fear, but because we have looked around and seen that the moral life is truly the best way to live in this world. We cannot imagine a world without moral values or family ties. We may joke about the attractiveness of sin, but deep in our hearts we know that a life of sin leads only to dissolution and destruction of everything that is good and lasting and ultimately satisfying in this world. God is not our enemy. Deep in our heart we know that. Satan is the enemy‑‑that which tempts us to be less than the beautiful, whole, healthy, loving children of God, God created us to be.
What would you honestly change about your life if you knew that there was no heaven or no hell? I suspect very little. Some of you are probably thinking that you would not sit through any more boring sermons if you had that knowledge. Did I hear an “Amen” from the back? Actually, if it is the fear of judgment that brings you to church, you probably do not get much out of our worship anyway.
When we come to the mature realization that we seek to do right not to please an angry God, but because it is ultimately in our best interest to do right, then we no longer envy the scoundrel who makes the deathbed confession. Indeed, we pity him for taking so long to see what we have known all along.
“No [one] ever repented on his deathbed of being a Christian,” said writer Hannah Moore, and it’s true. We are not perfect, but we are wise enough to see that there are certain laws‑‑moral laws, spiritual laws, if you will‑‑that govern this universe as surely as does the law of gravity. By the grace of God we do right not because we fear hell, but because in the long run it is in our best interest and in the interest of those we love.
But there is a second question that arrives out of this parable. IF GOD WANTS TO BE GENEROUS WITH OTHERS, THEN SHOULDN’T WE REJOICE? Those who had worked in the vineyard would not have been at all dissatisfied with what they had received if they had not compared their wages with what the others had received. There is something very human about that.
What is there within us that judges our lives not on the basis of what we have received, but on the basis of what we have received in relation to others? Of course, when that gift happens to be the gift of salvation, the principle is even more critical. Shall we who have been saved by grace not rejoice whenever any person receives that grace as well, whether they receive it as a child, as a teenager, or at 98 years of age after a life of total degradation?
Here is the truth that all mature Christians understand: NONE OF US DESERVES THE GIFT OF SALVATION. That’s why we sing with so much joy, “Amazing grace how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me . . .” It is amazing. A righteous God accepts you and me as if we had never done anything wrong in our entire lives. God cleans us up and makes us into a new creation in Christ.
The real question is, WHY WOULD ANYONE WANT TO WAIT TO EXPERIENCE THE JOY OF SALVATION?
William James is usually thought of as the father of American psychology. In his book written in 1902, Varieties of Religious Experience, James defines conversion as “the process, gradual or sudden, whereby a person who is previously unhappy, inferior or wrong, becomes consciously superior, happy and right.” (5)
Who wouldn’t want that? “Superior, happy and right.” We wouldn’t use the same language today, exactly, but here is the powerful little secret that the world simply doesn’t quite get living for Jesus is the best way in this world to live. And the question isn’t, why not wait until the end and enjoy your sin? The question is, wouldn’t it be stupid to live your life in emptiness and despair, when Christ can come into your life and give you meaning and purpose and even joy today?
Dr. Tom Long tells about a young boy many years ago who was a great fan of both Captain Kangaroo and Mister Rogers. The boy faithfully watched both of their television shows, and one day it was announced that Mister Rogers would be paying a visit to the Captain Kangaroo show. The boy was ecstatic. Both of his heroes, together on the same show! Every morning the boy would ask, “Is it today that Mister Rogers will be on Captain Kangaroo?” Finally the great day arrived, and the whole family gathered around the television. There they were, Mister Rogers and Captain Kangaroo together. The boy watched for a minute, but then, surprisingly, got up and wandered from the room.
Puzzled, his father followed him and asked, “What is it, son? Is anything wrong?”
“It’s too good,” the boy replied. “It’s just too good.” (6)
That’s how we ought to feel about the message of God’s grace. Not that it’s unfair, but that it is so incomprehensibly good. It doesn’t matter when we come to God, just come.
1. Craddock Stories (St. Louis, MO: Chalice Press, 2001).
2. Taken from The Sun. By the Bathroom Readers’ Institute. Uncle John’s Ahh-Inspiring Bathroom Reader (Ashland, OR: Bathroom Readers’ Press, 2002), p. 137.
3. Robert Lauer and Jeanette Lauer, Watersheds (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1988), pp. 30-31.
4. (New York: A Touchstone Book, 1970).
5. (London: Long‑mans Green and Co., 1902).6. http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=2166.