Years ago, I knew a man who would call from time to time to tell me about his latest doctrinal ideas. He had attended a congregation I had pastored, but he had left to begin attending with various other, smaller groups. Sometimes I was interested in what was going on in them, so I would listen for a while when he would reach out to me.
He once mentioned that he had enjoyed a sermon that the pastor of one of those little groups had given, which had asked the question Is God unfair? The speaker had concluded that God isn’t fair, but it’s okay that He isn’t fair. The speaker had mentioned the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard as an example of God’s “acceptable unfairness.”
Is God Fair or Unfair?
In fact, the pastor’s conclusion was in error, because—according to the Bible—his question was in error. The Bible presents us with a different question, one that shows us an important lesson that Christ was teaching about the Kingdom of God.
Fairness is a human perception, usually about one person having more than another. Perceptions of fairness can be subjective, and examples of unfairness abound. Kids often complain, “Not fair!” when one gets something that another doesn’t. Politicians often argue about fairness in taxation and distribution of benefits, and fairness can be a major political issue. As life goes on, time and chance just keep happening, so “Life is unfair” is a common expression.
One person may be affluent, while another struggles financially. One may be chronically sick, while another enjoys radiant health. Sometimes it all seems so unfair. But notice that when people point out unfairness, they usually have their personal interests primarily in view.
The Right Question
Since there is so much unfairness in life, people sometimes ask whether God is unfair, and the question of fairness can come up from reading some of Christ’s parables. But the Bible implies a different question: Is God just and is God good? Justice and fairness are not necessarily always the same.
The Bible reveals that “righteousness and justice are the foundation of Your throne; mercy and truth go before Your face” (Psalm 89:14). The foundation of God’s throne, which is the seat of His government, exists that way for a reason. The Bible also notes that “all Your commandments are righteousness” (Psalm 119:172), and God administers His divine law with perfect justice, which upon repentance includes mercy. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is always right and always just, and His word is truth (John 17:17). That is why righteousness and justice constitute the foundation of His throne and mercy and truth go before His face.
Christ said that Satan has a kingdom (Luke 11:16–18) and inspired Paul to write that Satan is “the god of this age” (2 Corinthians 4:4). Currently, the god of this age rules the world with strife, misery, and injustice. God allows this for now, but things will change dramatically when Satan is bound for a thousand years (Revelation 20:2). God’s Kingdom will be established:
Now it shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established on the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills; and all nations shall flow to it. Many people shall come and say, “Come, and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; He will teach us His ways, and we shall walk in His paths.” For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem (Isaiah 2:2–3).
This will be done in righteousness and justice, and all nations will flow to God’s mountain for that reason.
In one parable in particular, Jesus showed us that God, in doing what is just and good, is never unfair. In the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard (Matthew 20:1–16), a landowner hired workers for his vineyard, promising them one denarius a day. But during the day, he hired more workers, some at the third hour, some at the sixth hour, and some at the ninth hour, and said to each that “whatever is right, I will give you (v. 4).
“And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing idle, and said to them, ‘Why have you been standing here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and whatever is right you will receive’” (vv. 6–7).
When the day’s work was done, the landowner gave each man a denarius, and the men who had worked longest thought the equal wage was unfair.
“And when they had received it, they complained against the landowner, saying, ‘These last men have worked only one hour, and you made them equal to us who have borne the burden and the heat of the day.’ But he answered one of them and said, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what is yours and go your way. I wish to give to this last man the same as to you. Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with my own things? Or is your eye evil because I am good?’ So the last will be first, and the first last. For many are called, but few chosen” (vv. 11–16).
Some reading this parable may agree with the workers that the landowner was unfair, but Jesus explains otherwise. All the workers got what they had agreed to work for—which was just. Certainly, even for those who had labored little, the employer had the right to do with his money what he willed. It was not unjust for him to do good with it if he chose to do so.
Each worker needed a full day’s wages to live. One hour prorated to 1/12th of a denarius was not enough to get by on. Those later workers might have gone hungry that night, so the righteous and kind landowner gave each worker what he needed to live. That seemed unfair to some—but, in reality, it was righteous and good. Back to verse 15: “Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with my own things? Or is your eye evil [seeing unfairness] because I am good [being compassionate]?” The just landowner in this parable rightly rejected as self-serving the claims of unfairness by some of the workers. Today, too, some claims of unfairness are self-serving in nature. The landowner was both just and good, but some who didn’t understand his righteous purpose perceived him as acting unfairly. Jesus’ parable reveals the jealous workers as having neither the standing nor the competence to judge this righteous man.
Here Is Jesus’ Point
So it is with our salvation. Just as each worker in the parable needed a full denarius for his livelihood, we all need the gift of eternal life. We don’t earn it or deserve it—and some may work “in the fields” longer than others. Many brethren have labored most of their lives in God’s fields, while some members may have been baptized only recently. But we all need God’s great unearned gift if we are going to live. Whether we work a long or short time, nothing we do can earn that everlasting life.
And remember that besides being just, God is good. His justice is always righteous, and He uses justice to do good!
God reveals this about Himself: “‘For My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways,’ says the Lord. ‘For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts’” (Isaiah 55:8–9). Also, “His understanding is unsearchable” (Isaiah 40:28). Remember that God’s understanding is infinitely higher than ours, and He makes all things work together for the benefit of those who love and obey Him (Romans 8:28).
In summary, those who ask, “Is God unfair?” put themselves in the position of judging God—and self-serving humanity has neither the competence nor the standing to judge God! The Bible responds that God is both just and good. Righteousness and justice are the foundation of His throne.
God is good, and we can all trust in His justice and righteousness.