“…Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous? So the last will be first and the first will be last.” (Matthew 20:1-16, NRSV)

We humans are in love with justice. It is probably one of the most recurring themes in cultural expression since the Stone Age. Today, it’s not just that we have our Judge Judy and Law & Order courtroom obsessions—we also just love the narrative of justice served. This is Quentin Tarantino’s shtick (Kill Bill and, more recently, Django Unchained), and this is why his movies are so critically successful. They playfully enter into a long line of comeuppances and vengeance stories that people have loved since their dawn-of-time inception.

More than just the retributive brand of justice—of bad guys getting what’s coming to them—we are also fascinated with the restorative form. Politicians, policy-makers, and administrators all use words like “social justice” and “the common good” and “equality” to talk about defending the defenseless and bringing up the lowly. This is a very good and true thing—the Bible itself speaks highly of advocacy for the poor.

But it seems that we only want this kind of advocacy for others so long as it is expressed in terms of “deserving.” One of the most glaring examples of this is the feel-good era of reality television, like Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. We’ve all seen it: Ty Pennington yells aloud, “Move that bus!” and a disadvantaged family is captured, mouths agape, before their brand new house, their excessively nice cars, their new full-size basketball court. For a moment, it feels like the cosmos has been generously righted, but in truth, this kind of generosity is only warranted for the “right” kind of poor. These programs—and people in general—are comfortable with generosity only as a leg up for the hardworking, stand-up variety of unfortunates. Generosity for us does not mean blind “handouts,” but trustworthy “investments” with reimbursements. (I wonder how long these shows would last if the same generosity landed upon chronic gamblers, crooks, and sexual deviants?)

This is what Jesus is saying about the human brand of justice in relation to God’s. As Feist sang, “There’s a limit to your love.” The kind of deep generosity we may accept for ourselves runs counter to the deep judgment we hope others get. This parable gives a new—and too-often revolting—take on equality: everyone gets this generosity, without repayment plans, starting with those who deserve it least.