Tilehurst, August 15th 2004

Theme: The Tension Between Justice And Mercy


Job 42:1-6
Matthew 20:1-16


Immortal, invisible, God only wise
Who fathoms the eternal thought
I am not skilled to understand
Spirit of the Living God
There's a wideness in God's mercy


So, who's right? Is the master of the vineyard being fair to the workers? Does his "Look, the money's mine, so I can do what I want with it" answer make his actions right? I must admit, I feel somewhat sorry for those workers who'd been at the vineyard since first thing in the morning. It would seem pretty unfair to me. Yes, he'd given me what he said he'd given me - but but but, it's just wrong, isn't it? Treating everyone the same however much work they've done. It certainly doesn't go along with how things work normally.

I decided to look up "justice" and "fairness" in the dictionary. Understandably, they're sort of "cross-defined". Most of the relevant definitions talk about like cases being treated alike. In that sense, there's no injustice here - like cases are being treated alike, it's just that unlike cases are being treated alike too. There was one definition of "just" which definitely didn't fit though: "rightly applied or given; deserved". Surely those who had only worked for the very last hour didn't deserve as much pay as those who'd been there for the whole day?

Assuming the fairly obvious association of the master of the vineyard with God, what does this say about him? Will he treat people unfairly, unjustly, by the dictionary definition? Or when we talk about God being just, do we exclude this last sense of the word? I think there are three choices. Firstly, we could make this exclusion - accept that God doesn't always treat people how they deserve to be treated, and call him just despite it. Secondly, we could avoid calling him just at all, as it could cause confusion. Thirdly, we could not accept the parable, and believe that God will treat people exactly how they deserve, by our own ideas of fairness.

None of these seem particularly palatable to me, but I'm plumping for the first one. We have an innate idea that a God who is good - and I think we can all accept that one - must also be "just" for some sense of the word. I find it reasonable to accept that God has a better idea of justice - even though it's a manmade word, obviously - than I do. Perhaps it's not even that the earthly idea of justice is wrong as such, as just not applicable to heaven.

The thing is, while we have an idea that God must be just, we also believe God to be merciful - and although one way of defining justice is "giving people what they deserve" surely a way of defining mercy is "giving people better than they deserve". The two ideas are naturally in conflict - or at least in tension. One of them has to give to some extent, even if it's a case of weakening the concept of justice slightly.

Good News

The Good News, of course, is that God really doesn't give us what we deserve, to our earthly way of thinking. If he did, we'd none of us enter his kingdom. Does accepting Christ into our lives really make us deserve heaven? Maybe it does - maybe it's not our idea of justice which is skewed, but only our idea of what we deserve.

I'm struck by the fact that it's Christ's death which sets us free - that great act of injustice, the blameless Son of God dying an agonising death, is what enables us to regain our right relationship with God. Is this the exception to the rule that "two wrongs don't make a right"? Does the wrongness of Christ's death really make us as sinless as he is? It's an idea powerful enough to be almost scary, but perhaps that really is the way of things - we become so "clean" that being in the presence of God in heaven isn't unjust, it's natural.

But then, is that act of cleansing itself a just act? Again, it doesn't seem so to me. How can you deserve to deserve better than you used to deserve?

As you may have noticed, this is the kind of thing you can go round and round on. I'm sure people have gone mad thinking about it too much. Fortunately, Job showed us the way to go. When he was faced with what seemed to him - and me, to be honest - a great injustice, he ranted and raved at God. What was God's answer? "Where were you when I laid the earth's foundation?" Chapters 38 to 41 of the book of Job pretty much boil down to, "Look, I'm God, okay? What I say goes, and is right."

Intellectually, it's not a very satisfying answer. It looks like it's the best one we're going to get though. It's quite similar to the one the master of the vineyard gives, too: "It's my money isn't it? I can spend it however I want to." Being the somewhat inquisitive person I am, I must admit I don't really want to accept it, but as I said, Job shows us the way. He accepted God's answer completely, saying "Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know." If that doesn't apply to us when we're trying to work out how God judges people, I don't know what does.

(Speaking parenthetically, I can't help wondering what Job would have said if God's answer had started with "Well, I had this bet with Satan, you see…" Answers on a postcard, please.)

So, we basically don't understand how God judges, but we do know just enough to avoid getting what we might feel we really deserve: we know that grace comes from Christ's death and resurrection. John wrote that "God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life." Now that may not be something I can understand in an intellectual way, but I can still accept it.

Of course, once I accept it, I have to accept that it can be true for other people too - that if grace is available to me, it's available to everyone. I should also accept that God is going to keep giving people chances. Just as the master in the vineyard kept going out to the market place to look for people, so God is always looking to bring us closer to him. He's not the "picky" God some people might imagine, eager to catch us out on a technicality. If we only had tiny technicalities to worry about, the world would be a much better place! No, he knows that we've all strayed anyway, and he's eager to restore us to our rightful state, so that we can have a proper relationship with him.

If we try to deny this - deny that people have the opportunity to change, to come to Christ - we're like those grumbling servants in the parable. "We deserve better than him, because he's done this that and the other." In fact, we're worse than the grumbling servants who were there from the start - they were only getting what they deserved, whereas we're getting far better! God's love is boundless, so what business is it of ours who he chooses to lavish it on?

How do we treat others?

If we accept that that's how God treats us, what message does this parable have for how we treat each other? Just when we might have thought things would get easier, we're faced with more dilemmas. We are often told to use Jesus as an example for how to live - so should we not love one another in this same generous manner?

The most obvious difficulty I can think of here is that of the criminal justice system. If a judge let off anyone who threw himself on the mercy of the court, I don't think he'd last very long. How can we try to apply to others the same kind of universal grace that God shows to us? If we can't, why can't we, and what can we do? If we were able to design the criminal justice system from scratch, could we come up with something which we were pleased with from a Christian perspective, but which was still acceptable to the non-Christians we share our local community, country and world with?

I'm sure all of us have slightly different answers here. My personal feeling is that we need to be slightly more cautious with mercy than God is, solely because we can't see into people's hearts like he can. We can still temper our justice with mercy, however - and leave real justice to God, only using sentencing as a deterrent and as protection, rather than as punishment per se. We must follow God's example of being eager to bring people "back into the fold", giving people reasons and opportunities to turn away from crime. Even if we don't show criminals the complete mercy God shows us, we can still show them love.

None of us is likely to have much say in the criminal justice system, of course - but everything I've just said applies in our personal relationships as well. As Jesus said, "If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that?" (No offence to anyone working at the tax office, of course!) In many ways, it's easier to accept that God loves those who we think don't deserve it than it is to be an instrument of that love. Doing so is part of building God's kingdom here on earth, a job we're all charged with in our own way.


Obviously what I've said this morning barely scratches the surface of the topics of justice, mercy, and God's overwhelming generosity of love. I've asked more questions than I've answered, and I certainly don't claim to understand all the issues I've raised - but I hope you'll think about them, rejoice in the universal love God shows us, and follow the master's example when it comes to reflecting God's love throughout the world.


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