“He answered one of them, ‘Friend, I haven’t been unfair! Didn’t you agree to work all day for the usual wage? Take your money and go. I wanted to pay this last worker the same as you. Is it against the law for me to do what I want with my money? Should you be jealous because I am kind to others?’ (Matthew 20:13-15)
When I was a child, I was very disturbed by what I saw as injustice. If my sister and I were not treated equally or if I were held to different standards from the rest of my friends, I would protest to my parents, saying, “It’s not fair!” As they can attest, once I had it in my mind that I was being treated unfairly, it was very difficult for me to let it go. In fact, at one point my father jokingly recommended that I become a lawyer because of my tendency to argue the merits of my case. However, from a young age I knew that I could never have a career in law because I would not be able to handle the flaws of our justice system (seeing the innocent wrongly punished and the guilty unpunished). Even to this day, nothing frustrates me more than when something seems unjust or unfair, and I don’t think I’m alone in feeling like this.
I think part of the reason injustice elicits such a strong emotion from us is because we are made in the image of a just God. There is something in us that objects when things are not as they should be. This world is broken and flawed, and when we are confronted with that brokenness our spirits declare, “This should not be!” And we are right. The world that we live in is not the world as it was designed to be. Someday God will restore the world, redeeming creation from the effects of sin, but until that day we must learn to navigate serving a just God in an unjust world.
So what does that look like?
In Matthew Chapter 20, Jesus tells the story of a vineyard owner and some day laborers hired to work in his fields. The vineyard owner goes out at several times during the course of the day to hire more workers and when it comes time to settle up at the end of the day, he gives a full day’s wage even to those who only put in a couple of hours of work. Of course, the laborers that worked all day are incensed, feeling that they should be paid more than the latecomers. The owner’s response is given at the top of this post, but basically he says it’s his money and he can do what he wants with it.
When I first heard this story, I found myself agreeing with the angry workers. It just makes sense that those who work harder and longer deserve a greater reward. However, this story is important in helping us understand that sometimes our idea of justice is lacking something from God’s perspective. What our human understanding of justice leaves out is the dimensions of grace. God, because of his goodness and mercy, desires to give us over and above what we deserve. I am so grateful that this is the case, because I know that I don’t deserve half of the blessings that God has placed in my life!
In light of this fuller understanding of justice, I must change how I interact with others. If my desire is to become more like God, that means I need to shift my conception of justice from giving others what they deserve to extending mercy and grace to them. Sometimes that means withholding consequences they do deserve (mercy) and other times it means giving them what they do not (grace). This can be very hard to do, especially when that very person has wronged you in the past. It’s hard to extend forgiveness when the person is unrepentant and can’t even bring themselves to apologize, but that is exactly what we are called to do.
We may not be able right every wrong or reform our government’s justice system, but we can bring something better than man’s justice into a broken world. If we are obedient, we can bring the light of true healing and redemption! The prophet Micah sums it up so well when he tells God’s people to quit over-thinking everything and, “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.” (6:8) It’s that easy!
Prayer: Father, you have placed a desire for justice in our very being, and through the teaching of Jesus you have shown us what true justice looks like. Though it may not always be easy, help us to be like the vineyard owner in the story. Free us from the trap of unforgiving attitudes and help us to shower mercy and grace on everyone we meet. We pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.