A Christian website
Jesus' life and words

Life, Love and Law

Life, Love and Law: Chapter 8


The Parables of God's Perceived Unfairness

There are a few parables in which some protagonist considers the ways of God as unfair. The three principal ones are the Prodigual Son, the Vineyard Workers hired at different times of day and the men given money to increase.

1. The Parable of the Prodigual Son

A very rich parable from Jesus on forgiveness is that of the Prodigual Son, found only in Luke's Gospel. It can be cut in four parts, which I will examine one after the other.

The first part is the introduction to the story :

And he said, A certain man had two sons: And the younger of them said to his father, Father, give me the portion of goods that falleth to me. And he divided unto them his living. And not many days after the younger son gathered all together, and took his journey into a far country, and there wasted his substance with riotous living. And when he had spent all, there arose a mighty famine in that land; and he began to be in want. And he went and joined himself to a citizen of that country; and he sent him into his fields to feed swine. And he would fain have filled his belly with the husks that the swine did eat: and no man gave unto him.1

We find the following points:

1) A son asks his father for what he would inherit at his father's death.

2) His father grants his wish and gives him «his» money.

3) The son leaves his family for a far away country

4) where he lives a life of debauchery until ruined.

5) Destitute and hungry, he has to start to work for his living;

6) but the job he manages to find pays below subsistance level and is disgusting for a Jew: looking after swine, unclean animals.

The son is given a lot of money but he manages to spend it quickly and foolishly, living a life of «sin»: wild parties with magnificent food and orgies; the «wine, women and song» routine. This is an expensive life as he has to pay not only for himself but also for his «friends» and the girls. This, of course, is very liberating at first. There he is, being able to be the life and soul of the party, generously and liberally doing all the things that he has not been able to do at home. Great fun was had by all. Unfortunately, the money supply goes quickly with such a life and he finds himself penniless. The girls go away as well as the «friends»: they were only there as long as he could afford them; as long as he was a «somebody». Now he is a nobody, a vagrant, unwanted because useless.

He has to do something if he wants to eat: he finds himself a job. The working conditions are tough and the wages, very low. His boss knows he does not have any choice: either he works for him or he starves to death. So the son takes the job, but finds himself living a life of misery, without enough to get by.

Then follows the second part: the son's decision in the face of his predicament:

And when he came to himself, he said, How many hired servants of my father's have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and will say unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee, And am no more worthy to be called thy son: make me as one of thy hired servants.2

In this short part, we have the son examining his situation and deciding on a new course of action:

1) He reckons his father's servants are better treated than he is by his employer

2) so he decides to go back home to ask his father to hire him as one of his servants.

3) He also recognizes that he has «sinned against heaven and before» his father

4) and thus has no right to be considered his son.

The meanings of the Greek word «èmarton» (ημαρτον) translated as «sin» are «miss the goal», «make a mistake», «have a false opinion», «misjudge», «lapse», «sin». The son acknowledges that he has made a mistake, has gone the wrong way. He was looking for a good life away from his father, doing the things «forbidden», and he did not find happiness: he found himself alone and without being able to fulfil his needs. He did what he should not do: in other words, he sinned.

In what way? «against heaven and before you». He did not do with the money he got what God wanted him to do. He did not use it profitably but dissipated it. He dilapidated his part of the inheritance. By so doing, he reckons that he has forfeited his right to be his father's son: he certainly did not act like his father would have and he lost everything that his father was to give him. He certainly showed that he did not deserve anything other than a «I told you so», «You got what you deserve» and «You made your bed, you lie in it», which is what simple justice would suggest. His reasoning is that of the justice found in this world, among countries with advanced justice systems. He made a mistake; he has to pay for it.

He quits his job and makes his way home. This implies that he is quite sure that his father will take him on as one of his servants. He trusts that he will do that for him. He knows that he can count on that. He has faith that his father will grant him his plea to hire him.

We now get at the third section: the father's reaction and its results:

And he arose, and came to his father. But when he was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him. And the son said unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in thy sight, and am no more worthy to be called thy son. But the father said to his servants, Bring forth the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet: And bring hither the fatted calf, and kill it; and let us eat, and be merry: For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found. And they began to be merry.3

In this third part, we have

1) The father sees his son making his way home from afar (which shows that he was always on the lookout for him)

2) and, noticing the bad state his son is in, is filled with compassion,

3) and runs to meet his son as he cannot wait another second.

4) Reaching him, he hugs and kisses him.

5) He takes no notice of his son's prepared speech, but

6) he gets him properly dressed

7) and throws a big party to celebrate the return of his son.

The father's behaviour is totally against this world's order. He does not see things according to our justice. What he wants is the presence of his son. What his son did is irrelevant. He has come back! He can have him with him again! His love is overwhelming: he lavishes kisses on him, makes sure he is well clothed and gives a big party to celebrate his return. Justice has nothing to do with the Kingdom; love only rules, and a love that knows no limits at that.

This party for the sinner who returns to the fold is something we have already examined in our Chapter 4.4 Here it is again.

The fourth and last part is the reaction of the brother to his father's action:

Now his elder son was in the field: and as he came and drew nigh to the house, he heard musick and dancing. And he called one of the servants, and asked what these things meant. And he said unto him, Thy brother is come; and thy father hath killed the fatted calf, because he hath received him safe and sound. And he was angry, and would not go in: therefore came his father out, and intreated him. And he answering said to his father, Lo, these many years do I serve thee, neither transgressed I at any time thy commandment: and yet thou never gavest me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends: But as soon as this thy son was come, which hath devoured thy living with harlots, thou hast killed for him the fatted calf. And he said unto him, Son, thou art ever with me, and all that I have is thine. It was meet that we should make merry, and be glad: for this thy brother was dead, and is alive again; and was lost, and is found.5

In this section, we have

1) The brother is told by a servant what the party is about.

2) He is angry and refuses to join in.

3) His father has to come out and try to coax him in.

4) The brother takes to task his father's actions: he compares himself to his brother and the way his father reacts to both.

5) The father tells him he is missing the point: the party is because his brother, instead of being «dead» is «alive» again; it has nothing to do with each brother's behaviour.

This is probably the most important section of this parable. In it we see the «good, God-fearing Christian» absolutely scandalized by what he takes as the Father's favouritism for the «sinner» who came back after squandering all he was given. This sinner ruined his life and his father gives a big feast on his return home! How unfair! How unjust! While he, the good, who did nothing wrong, followed the commandments while never getting even an acknowledgment! He never got a kid to share with his friends! Well, did he ever ask? Certainly not. He did not think that his father would be generous towards him. He thinks his father only loves his wayward brother! It is so obvious now. This good Christian burns with envy and resentment. He refuses to join in. He judges his father's actions. He refuses Heaven (the party) as he does not understand what Heaven is all about.

Heaven is rejoicing in the presence of God's total love for all. There is no such thing as deserving God's love. There is only accepting it for all, including self, and rejoicing in it. Comparisons, value judgments, justice are irrelevant concepts when it comes to God's love.

The parable does not say if the «good» son understood his father's actions and joined in. Let us hope so. Let us hope that we will too, rather than burn with envy and resentment at God's perceived unfairness.

2. The Vineyard Laborers' wages

Another parable on God's «unfairness», one with disgruntled workers rather than a disgruntled son, is the one of the Vineyard Labourers:

For the kingdom of heaven is like unto a man that is an householder, which went out early in the morning to hire labourers into his vineyard. And when he had agreed with the labourers for a penny a day, he sent them into his vineyard. And he went out about the third hour, and saw others standing idle in the marketplace, And said unto them; Go ye also into the vineyard, and whatsoever is right I will give you. And they went their way. Again he went out about the sixth and ninth hour, and did likewise. And about the eleventh hour he went out, and found others standing idle, and saith unto them, Why stand ye here all the day idle? They say unto him, Because no man hath hired us. He saith unto them, Go ye also into the vineyard; and whatsoever is right, that shall ye receive. So when even was come, the lord of the vineyard saith unto his steward, Call the labourers, and give them their hire, beginning from the last unto the first. And when they came that were hired about the eleventh hour, they received every man a penny. But when the first came, they supposed that they should have received more; and they likewise received every man a penny. And when they had received it, they murmured against the goodman of the house, Saying, These last have wrought but one hour, and thou hast made them equal unto us, which have borne the burden and heat of the day. But he answered one of them, and said, Friend, I do thee no wrong: didst not thou agree with me for a penny? Take that thine is, and go thy way: I will give unto this last, even as unto thee. Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own? Is thine eye evil, because I am good? So the last shall be first, and the first last: for many be called, but few chosen.6

The main points of this parable are :

1) At dawn, a man hires workers for his vineyard after agreement on the day's wages.

2) He hires more workers as the day goes on, without specifying what he would pay them.

3) He pays them all the amount agreed to by the workers hired at dawn.

4) These are unhappy at this «injustice»: they consider they deserve more than the ones who worked less though it is the amount they settled for.

5) The complainers are sent away with their originally agreed wages being told:«Is thine eye evil, because I am good?»

This parable makes it clear that God treats everyone the same: He loves everyone the same. But those who consider themselves more deserving of His love are furious at God's perceived injustice. This shows that they are really evil and full of resentment because they insist on «justice», draw comparaisons and make value judgments. These people are the ones who end up excluded as they are the ones who burn with rage and jealousy against the Kingdom's ways: they insist on this world's order being followed. This is why Jesus insists on the fact that the rules of this world are the opposite of the ways of the Kingdom and why He takes so much time to point this out.

Jesus again makes it clear that the Kingdom is not about «deserving»; it is about love, a love which is the same for all. The grumbling workers should have been glad that their collegues got paid the same as they instead of demanding more for themselves. The Kingdom is about loving others, about being of service to them, about rejoicing with them, about putting them first. If you put yourself first, you end up last and in fact, out. If you put yourself last, you end up first in the Kingdom, as your joy in the happiness for others is so great.

3. The Parable of the Talents

Another parable on God's perceived unfairness is a «strike» by a servant who considers as unfair his master's demands. This is found in the parable of the servants each given some money to look after:

For the kingdom of heaven is as a man travelling into a far country, who called his own servants, and delivered unto them his goods. And unto one he gave five talents, to another two, and to another one; to every man according to his several ability; and straightway took his journey. Then he that had received the five talents went and traded with the same, and made them other five talents. And likewise he that had received two, he also gained other two. But he that had received one went and digged in the earth, and hid his lord's money. After a long time the lord of those servants cometh, and reckoneth with them. And so he that had received five talents came and brought other five talents, saying, Lord, thou deliveredst unto me five talents: behold, I have gained beside them five talents more. His lord said unto him, Well done, thou good and faithful servant: thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy lord. He also that had received two talents came and said, Lord, thou deliveredst unto me two talents: behold, I have gained two other talents beside them. His lord said unto him, Well done, good and faithful servant; thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy lord. Then he which had received the one talent came and said, Lord, I knew thee that thou art an hard man, reaping where thou hast not sown, and gathering where thou hast not strawed: And I was afraid, and went and hid thy talent in the earth: lo, there thou hast that is thine. His lord answered and said unto him, Thou wicked and slothful servant, thou knewest that I reap where I sowed not, and gather where I have not strawed: Thou oughtest therefore to have put my money to the exchangers, and then at my coming I should have received mine own with usury. Take therefore the talent from him, and give it unto him which hath ten talents. For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath. And cast ye the unprofitable servant into outer darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.7

The main points of this parable are:

1) Someone leaves on a long journey, giving to each of his servants the mission to increase some of his money. The sum he gives to each is in accordance to his ability.

2) Two of them - those who were considered the most able by the way - double the amount given them by their business transactions.

3) The one considered less able, unwilling to risk the money entrusted to him by a master he considers a hard businessman, puts the money in a safe instead of really trying to fulfil his duty.

4) Then comes the time of reckoning: the first two come to their boss and give him back his money and what they earned from it. They are both told that they did their job well, that they are «good and faithful» servants; they are both promoted to more responsible jobs and a bonus: to «enter into the joy of thy lord»

5) The one who put the money in the safe gives it back to his boss with this excuse: I was scared of you, a hard businessman, so I decided not to take any risk and did nothing. The master is indignant: you could at least have put it in the bank!

6) For his refusal to do his job, to try to increase the amount entrusted to him, he is called a «wicked and slothful servant» and is thrown out in the darkness where «there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth» and the money entrusted to this last employee is given to the one who was the most successful.

I think it is fair to say that the businessman is God; He entrusts each human with some work to do when He brings her into the world. It is then to her to do her best to make something of her talents and of the occasions that present themselves to her. Part of her life is thus the time of the businessman's journey. The reckoning takes place at special moments in the life of each human. This is when the employees meet their employer after a long absence. This is when each gives an account of her life's performance so far.

The last employee is most indignant of his treatment. He considers his excuse perfectly legitimate; that his master had no right to demand such a job of him. He considers it unjust that his most successful colleague should get the money he «saved». He considers his employer to be a Big Bully, one who steals the fruit of the work of others. In fact, this is what he tells him to his face. You can feel the hate this man has for his master and his mission. He wants out. He cannot stand to be with him and his colleagues; he ends up in the darkness where he continues to rage and weep against all and sundry.

The other two did the job they were told to do. They took risks, and fulfilled the mandate they were given. For that they are promoted and rewarded. And they are happy. God gives them more to do, while He leaves the «unprofitable» servant to the Hell he made for himself. The ones who do well are given more to do, and for this they are joyful as they love to work for their master, while the one who is on strike and hates to work for him is given nothing to do.

In fact, his resentment and anger at God is such that he exiles himself, cuts himself from Him, and so makes his bed in Hell instead of accepting the Kingdom. No one is forced to love; hate is an available option. For those, «l'enfer, c'est les autres.»8

4. God and the unproductive fig tree

The last employee was derelict in his duties, on «strike». Even then not all should be lost for him. Jesus wants all to be saved. The following parable shows His readiness to try His hardest to make someone «come to fruition» while leaving him to choose to be what he is meant to be or not:

He spake also this parable; A certain man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came and sought fruit thereon, and found none. Then said he unto the dresser of his vineyard, Behold, these three years I come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and find none: cut it down; why cumbereth it the ground? And he answering said unto him, Lord, let it alone this year also, till I shall dig about it, and dung it: And if it bear fruit, well: and if not, then after that thou shalt cut it down.9

The owner of a vineyard finds that one of his fig trees has not given fruit in season for three years in a row and is loosing patience with it: he wants it cut down. But the one in charge pleads to give the tree a last chance. More than that, he will work the soil around it and fertilise it. He will improve the soil to make sure the fig tree has all the nourishment it needs. But if after all that the tree does not produce the fruit it should, then there will be no point leaving it there: it will be cut down, removed from the vineyard.

God expects every fig tree to produce figs in season; this is what a fig tree is all about. If one does not, Jesus (God) is willing to go the extra mile to help it become the fruit bearing tree it was meant to be. If it still does not, there is no choice but to remove it, to give up on it. A fig tree that refuses to be such excludes itself from the others; its chopping down just makes evident what is already. Just like God has no choice but to accept that some consider His presence Hell instead of Heaven. He does not refuse us, we refuse Him.

1 Luke 15:11-16

2 Luke 15:17-19

3 Luke 15:20-23

4 in the verses that just precede this parable: «Rejoice with me; for I have found my sheep which was lost. I say unto you, that likewise joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than over ninety and nine just persons, which need no repentance» (Luke 15:6-7)

5 Luke 15:24-32

6 Matthew 20:1-16

7 Matthew 25:14-30

8 «Hell is others» from Sartre' play «Huis Clos» («No Exit»)

9 Luke 13:6-9

To Top

To Next Chapter

Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity, June 6th, 2004

© 2004 Jacques Beaulieu - property of Jacques Beaulieu - All rights reserved:
Any text on this website can be freely copied if then freely distributed

«freely ye have received, freely give.» (Matthew 10:8b)

Comment via e-mail to the author