Week of November 28

Being Truly Grateful for God’s Justice

Read: Matthew 20-22
“So the last will be first, and the first last.”
Matthew 20:16, ESV


He is foolish indeed who harps about justice when he truly deserves condemnation. This opening sentence sure seems to set a harsh tone! I hope not. Most of my readers will know that this devotional series grew out of a request from my family for something deeper in a daily devotional. They committed to read whatever I pen, and I have been writing for nearly five years. The opening sentence to this edition of the Pathway Devotionals will be a real attention-grabber for them! Let me briefly explain.

We have enjoyed numerous family discussions through the years about what is “fair” or “unfair.” How about your homes? I must tell you, even though I taught graduate-level ethics, I never “discipled” my little ones about justice, so I must conclude that this basic core moral principle is in their God-created DNA. It is in yours too, as we will see today!

Our focal passage helps us clearly to understand this principle and spiritual truth, and it will help us to formulate a fresh perspective on equality in our socially charged culture, with its passionate demands for justice. We must keep in mind that the primary focus in the parable is on spiritual truths, so we need not press the details in the story.

Let's See What the Bible Says

Understanding the Context
Parents, pastors, and teachers, we should notice that Jesus, the master teacher, often uses a parable to explain further a dialogue or controversy that He has had, which is characteristic rabbinic practice (cf. Matthew 21:28-32; 22:1-14; NAC). Our parable includes workers that have been hired at harvest time, and the day’s wage is a fair one for that period, so, notwithstanding contemporary liberation theologies, there is no minimum wage controversy or migrant worker oppression for us to overlay on the text. Our setting is a vineyard, which often stands for Israel in Jewish thought (see Isaiah 5:1-7).
Big Truth: God is Just and Merciful
A cycle recurs within the overall account where workers, who are without work (not lazy), are hired to contribute to the task at hand (20:3-5a, 5b-7). They and their families will go hungry if they do not find work. Once employed, the employer gives them the same assignment as those who had been hired at the beginning of the day. He simply promises to pay them what is right (i.e., “fair”). They may have expected a pro-rated salary for the day, but the employer never states how much they would be compensated for their work. Everything proceeds according to plan, until the plot thickens when the work ends, and the payment period begins!

Notice that the master begins by paying those that he had hired last in the day. This certainly would send shock waves through any work crew, but the real shocker lay within the theological truths on the nature of God. The pay scale is certainly out of the ordinary because the bonuses decrease the longer a group had worked, and the first group received no bonus at all! The workers who had labored the longest period throw up the loudest protest (20:12). Their notion of justice had been violated because they could see no reason to treat equally those who were unequal (cf. Exodus 16:7-12; Numbers 14:27; Deuteronomy 1:27; NAC)! Call to mind, by way of comparison, the Greek philosopher Aristotle’s concept of justice that called for people not to treat as equal those things that were unequal. So, why would anyone want to follow such a God?
Big Confession: Our Human Ways are Often Not God’s Way
I believe that undiscerning and undeserving people may choose not to follow our loving and just Creator, but those that hunger and thirst after true justice and righteousness are all in (Matthew 5:6)! They have a proper assessment of the ultimate value at work in their circumstances. Here is an explanation.

C. S. Lewis once said, “My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust.” Perhaps we feel the same way about our circumstances, and we lay the blame ultimately at God’s feet. Lewis continues, “But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust?” Lewis discovered that he was longing for and reaching out to God. Instead of rejecting God’s way of justice, let’s follow Mr. Lewis’s example and reach out to the Heavenly Father today.

Let's Deepen Our Walk

I find it fitting that this passage of scripture falls on Thanksgiving Day in America. The underlying principle in this passage is practiced on this day and every day of the year at Mission Arlington in Arlington, Texas. A team from the Baptist Center for Global Concerns volunteers each year (along with about 6000 others!) to distribute Thanksgiving turkeys and meals to families across the area. The price of turkeys this year will gobble up any person’s budget, so this gift will be a huge blessing. One might ask, “Are such generosities deserved?” After all, most of those people who will be distributing the turkeys volunteer at the Mission and sacrifice well. Many of them have served at the Mission throughout its 35-year existence. Shouldn’t they benefit more from their labor? The question is about justice!

I have noticed on this day, as is true for every day, that the Mission Arlington team says, “It is our privilege to serve you.” They truly mean it and practice this basic principle of equality. The richest of the rich and the poorest of the poor are treated in the same way that the Heavenly Father treats you and me. They have a proper view of God’s nature. Their Christology is spot on, as well. They demonstrate the same sacrifice that Jesus showed on the cross. The thief on the cross received the same grace as His followers who had labored with Him for three-plus years. Hmm. Let’s apply the passage to our lives.

Here are some thoughts for our spiritual growth. First, God is just. When we look at our parable without human bias, we see that God has been fair with all His people (cf. 20:4, “whatever is right,” 13-16, “I am not being unfair”). He has kept the agreed upon agreement! Secondly, God is a God of marvelous grace as is evident with the way He deals with the last group. It’s God’s vineyard, and He may hire and pay as He chooses. He also may spend His own money as He determines. Thirdly, we are fond of saying that all the ground is level at the foot of the cross, but, in practice, we love to inch a little higher than those around us (cf. 20:20-28!). God will have none of this. All true disciples are equal in God’s eyes, which demonstrates God’s justice and righteousness (cf. 19:30). I believe the point is that we are indeed fools to harp about justice when we all deserve condemnation. We need to be singing about God’s grace!

Let's Think and Discuss

1. It is easy for me to blame God for drawing an uneven line of justice when I use my own crooked ruler. We all have failed miserably and need grace (Romans 3:23; Ephesians 2:1-8). Bow before the just Heavenly Father and be grateful for His amazing grace. Write down and pray a Thanksgiving prayer today.

2. Take time today around the Thanksgiving table to offer specific praise to God for His grace rather than pound Him about injustice. Ask the Heavenly Father to soften your heart and produce within your being a song of thanksgiving for His mercies.

3. For Families: Suggest to your younger family members that you need some help on Thanksgiving Day. Ask them to think of three top things they are thankful for, and to make a picture of these three things secretly. Have them tape their picture under their chair, but to keep this quiet. When the host calls for the time of Thanksgiving sharing around the table, the children can retrieve their picture and share their special thanksgiving praise as they show their picture to the family! Thanks be to God!

May all your paths be straight,
Larry C. Ashlock