I’ll Take Mercy Over Fairness

I grew up in what seemed to be a very ordinary neighborhood. We didn’t have a lot of money. In fact most of us were just getting by.


Down the street lived my friend. I thought that his dad just had to be wealthy. After all, he often wore chocolate brown and white wing tips (I am describing his shoes), a golf outfit, a hat, and regularly smoked a big cigar. He drove a Cadillac convertible. One day my friend let it be known that his daddy needed some help putting down some new grass in his yard. That week, a dump truck came to their house and left a large mound of sand.  That Friday afternoon, another truck came and unloaded squares of St. Augustine grass.

The next day, several from our neighborhood went over to their house to help spread the sand and then lay down the grass. We began working early that morning. We understood that later in the day, after we had finished, we were all going to get ice cream.

We worked all day—some of us. That afternoon some latecomers came and worked a few hours and then went with us to get ice cream. These kids came at 3 o’clock! At 5 o’clock, we were finished. We all got in several cars to go get ice cream. I couldn’t believe it. These two kids who had only been working for two hours came with us. We got to the ice cream store and stood in line for our ice cream. Our friend’s dad was buying each one of us a quart of ice cream. (That seemed unbelievable at the time.) The two latecomers got ice cream too. I resented that.

“I just want everything to be fair. Just give each one of us what we deserve.”


Jesus told a story regarding people who were hired at different times of the day to come work in a vineyard. At the end of the day, the owner of the vineyard paid each one the same — one denarius, or a day’s wage. Some who had been hired first and had agreed to work for a denarius thought it was unfair that everyone should be paid the same (Matthew 20:1-16). This rather shocking parable is bracketed by “the first shall be last and the last first” (19:30, 20:16).I suppose that if a summary of the payroll for that day had been posted, it might have looked like the following:   

Vineyard Payroll Summary

            6:00 a.m. – 6:00 p.m. = one denarius

            9:00 a.m. – 6:00 p.m. = one denarius

            12:00 p.m. – 6:00 p.m. = one denarius

            3:00 p.m. – 6:00 p.m. = one denarius

            5:00 p.m. – 6:00 p.m. = one denarius

What kind of business is this where the person who works just one hour makes the same amount of money as the person who worked all day?

What kind of grace is this?

This is a grace that lifts up those of us who are last. This is a grace that lifts up those of us who feel as if we are “less than.”  Less effective people. Less faithful people. Spiritual latecomers.

This is a grace that lifts up those of us who just don’t seem to be “pulling our weight.” Those of us who are not as productive as others. Those of us who don’t feel important or worthwhile. Those of us who wonder just how much we really are contributing to the kingdom of God.

This is a grace that lifts up those of us who feel as if we failed. Maybe you feel as if you failed in your marriage. Perhaps you think you failed as a parent.

At the end of the day:

1. Thank God for his sweet mercy. Don’t get too caught up in how hard you have been working for the Lord. (I need to hear this one. I have found it very easy to look at other believers who seem to be contributing little in the congregation and just get frustrated at them. Some of this may be rooted in resentment at how little they are doing compared to how I perceive myself.)

2. Never think that you are entitled. Never think you are entitled to a little immorality on the side. Maybe you know the temptation. Night and day you try to do the right thing. Maybe you have worked hard for many years (often with little appreciation or recognition). You find yourself feeling entitled to do what you know is wrong.

3. We really are all on equal ground when it comes to the grace of God. Before I get too jealous of someone else or before I condemn another, I need to remember that I am indebted to God for his grace.


Why is it that many of us often want mercy for ourselves and want fairness for others?

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4 thoughts on “I’ll Take Mercy Over Fairness

  1. Jim- Great explanation of Grace shown in the story of the vineyard workers. It is one of my favorite stories. I actually restarted my blog recently and the first post is a description of the Vineyard story by Philip Yancey. He calls the Vineyard story — “the Scandalous Mathematics of Grace.” That is what I titled my blog.

    Here are Philip’s words: http://scandalousmath.blogspot.com/2010/03/scandalous-mathematics-of-grace.html

    Your post wonderfully sets out the per hour rate for all of us.

    I appreciate your blog appreciate and the time you spend on it. By the way, when I e-mail something to my church in Alabama that you wrote, I always state this is by Jim Martin of Crestview Church of Christ in Texas…. but formerly of Florence, Alabama.

    • Bob,
      Thanks for the link to your blog. I plan to go there. Glad to know this regarding Yancy. I really like him and have not read the “Vineyard Story.” Thanks also for the very, very kind words regarding the blog. Those years in Florence were very special years. Some of the best people I have known live in Florence.

  2. Hello Margaret– I have never forgotten that ice cream story. I think of it every time I read the story of the vineyard. Hope you are having a good week.