The First Shall Be Last and the Last Shall Be First- Sermon for September 20, 2020 from Pastor John
Sermon for September 20, 2020
Someone has said that one of the first sentences children learn to say or scream is “It’s not fair!” Children seem to perceive injustice whenever they do not get what they want. Siblings can eye one another closely ever envious with mathematical precision if a sister or brother is thought to have more. In a story attributed to Abraham Lincoln a father was observed carrying his two small sons, one in each arm, as they hollered and howled in protest. A passer-by asked just what the matter was. The exasperated father replied “What is the matter? What’s the matter is the problem of the whole world: I have three pieces of candy and each boy wants two. Some years ago I was teaching confirmation, and the students were in their second and final year. Two new students joined the class and they were of the same age. I decided to confirm the new students along with the rest of the class. Those who already put in a year of class protested that it was not fair: why should they be confirmed only after one year of class while they have had to endure two years of me? I explained that the new students had extra instruction through several weekend retreats at Fortune Lake Bible Camp. That did not seem to make any difference. There was grumbling in the class and I felt like telling them “The decision was mine and not theirs….were they envious of the new students?”
In today’s gospel Jesus told a parable with an outcome that had people screaming in so many words “It is not fair!” There was a wage dispute that resulted in a lot of grumbling. Before the parable there was an exchange between a rich young man and Jesus. The rich man asked Jesus what good deed he must do to have eternal life. Surely by ‘good deed’ he did not mean one solitary act, but a way of life. The man seemed to have a good life: wealth and active faith. But Jesus said to be perfect sell your possessions and give the proceeds to the poor. Then come and follow me. That did not go over well. The man left Jesus not disgusted but terribly sad, the text said he departed grieving because he had so many possessions. Then Jesus made his famous “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” The disciples heard this and were astounded wondering “Then who can be saved?” It all sounded so contrary to the culture of the world which dreams of getting rich. It all sounded so unfair as well, how can someone be expected to give up their possession, so is salvation impossible? Jesus said “Yes, for mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible”.
Then Peter came to have a chat with Jesus and he did not sound all that happy with what he had heard. It sounded like he was ready to rumble with a grumble, “Look, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?” Jesus assured him that those who follow him will inherit eternal life. Eternal life means life in the Kingdom of heaven with all the family of God. But Jesus told Peter, “Don’t forget this: in the kingdom of heaven “many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.” We have heard that before from Jesus, one of those enigmatic statements we may wonder just what exactly does that mean?
Jesus continued the conversation by saying “The Kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard.” It is 6:00 a.m. and he went to the marketplace to hire day-laborers. These were very poor men of no trade or skill but still had families to look after. So they agreed to work for the usual daily rate—I guess we could call it the minimum wage of the time. It was not a living wage and the study Bible says their existence was precarious, and the usual daily wage sustained a subsistence existence. Just think of the poor who struggle to make ends meet with a minimum wage job today….what is fair for them?
Then we heard that the landowner showed up in the marketplace four more times, at nine o’clock, noon, 3:00 p.m. and then one hour before quitting time at 5:00 p.m. He found people and hired them for the usual daily wage. At five o’clock he found men standing around and asked them why they were idle and they replied “Because no one has hired us.” Why was that, and why were they hanging around the marketplace all day? They probably were not hired because they did not look all that strong or capable for the demanding work in the vineyard; some may have even had a physical disability which would be visible to landowners who wanted their hires strong and give them the best bang for their buck.
An interesting thing about the landowner is his persistence: he kept coming out into the market place to hire people. According to the custom of the time, this was not what was usually done. Landowners, people wealthy and elite, had managers who would do the hiring. But the landowner did the hiring, even those considered unwanted and incapable. He must have done so because of a sense of compassion. True, he was a rich man and did not associate with the poor, but yet he knew they were human beings living ever so close to starvation. He hired them throughout the day, so they could get a day’s pay and buy something for their families to eat.
When it was 6:00 p.m. it was time to pay the laborers. The law of the Jewish faith made it clear that wages were to be paid immediately without any delay so the poor would have money to buy bread for the evening meal. This time the landowner’s manager accompanies him with the cashbox. The instructions were given: pay the ones who were hired last, who worked one hour. Continue to pay those hired throughout the day with the first who were hired, those who worked a full 12 hours, paid last. To the astonishment of everyone who saw what went on, each received the same wage, it did not matter how many hours anyone worked.
Now the grumbling began from those who claimed “It is not fair!” Their argument: “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.” Grumble, grumble, grumble; maybe we would join the chorus “not fair!” The Landowner replied to one of them “Friend—a term not of friendship but with the English equivalent of “Look here, buddy”—I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?” And here comes the warning: “Or are you envious because I am generous?” The word ‘envious” actually translates the phrase ‘is your eye evil because I am good?” Earlier in the Gospel of Matthew Jesus said “The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness.” Jesus calls us to be the light that shines in darkness. But if our eyes look upon others with envy, if we eye others as inferior and not keeping to their place, indeed there is the darkness of division and disunity.
Jesus concluded the parable with what he previously said to Peter who had wondered ‘what was in it for him’ as a disciple. Jesus said in conclusion “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” The parable has troubled people because the men who had worked 12 hours in the hot sun seem to come off as the bad guys in the story. But the parable is about the Kingdom of Heaven. Do we not see the scandal of amazing grace? A high-ranking politician recently said there is something good about the Covid-19 pandemic: I don’t have to shake hands with disgusting people.” We could probably think the same about some people: we find some people disgusting for whatever reasons and they are far down on the list of what we think as likeable folks. But the gospel of the Kingdom of Heaven reveals Jesus who persistently made it his mission to reach out to those judged disgusting by many who considered themselves praiseworthy and prominent. Later in the gospel of Matthew Jesus told the chief priests and elders that the “tax collectors and prostitutes believed the gospel and repented and you would not so they are going into the Kingdom of God ahead of you.” Notice Jesus did not deny the Kingdom of God for the chief priests and other religious elite, but the ones they judged disgusting will be in the Kingdom of God ahead of them: in the wonderful procession of eternal life the last shall be first and the first will be last.