So the last will be first, and the first will be last. —Matt. 20:16
I still remember the unfairness of it decades later. I was a senior in high school and I was taking physics. I hated all math and science, but I was still a pretty decent student. At the end of the third grading period I was one point short of an A, but I expected to get an A-minus, because—as far as I knew—I had no problems with the physics teacher. But when I got my report card, I got a B-plus.
That was in 1978, and I’m sure I’d have forgotten about it by now, except that a friend of mine, who I knew was a point or two below me, ended up with the A-minus I had expected. Unlike me, he never clowned around in class, and all the teachers thought he was perfect. Believe me, he wasn’t. His behavior in front of teachers was worthy of an honor student. His behavior outside of class was anything but honorable.
And so, 36 years later, I still remember his A-minus… and my B-plus. I remember it not so much because it galls me. I’m over it… I suppose. But it’s the perfect sermon illustration for today’s gospel lesson.
- Equal Pay for Unequal Work
In Matthew, chapter 20, Jesus tells a parable about a landowner who needed some workers to harvest grapes. And so early in the morning, he hires some laborers, promising them a fair wage for a day’s work. Later that morning, he hires a few more workers, and at noon, when he sees how much work there is left to do, he hires a few more. The same thing happened at 3 pm, and finally, not long before dark, he did the same.
At the end of the day, the workers lined up to get paid. First in line were the last hired, and they were surprised to get a full day’s wage, even though they’d only worked about an hour. If they were surprised, you can imagine how the workers felt who’d been working all day long. They must’ve had great expectations, but then they began to notice that everybody was getting a day’s wage—no more and no less.
And when they finally got the same, they protested. “Wait! We worked hard all day, and these guys just worked an hour! It’s not fair that they’re getting paid the same thing we are!”
“You’re getting what I promised you,” the landowner told them. “It’s not hurting you if I choose to give the same salary to somebody else. After all, it’s my money.” And I suppose, had I confronted my high school physics teacher about my B-plus back in the day, he might’ve told me the same thing: “You got the grade you earned. What’s it to you if I gave a different grade to somebody else?”
IIa. The Human condition vs. the Nature of God
I don’t think any passage from the gospels better places the human condition up against the nature of God than this one. For even those of us who hate math are constantly calculating, when it comes to fairness. Am I or am I not getting what’s coming to me? And that guy over there—did he just get more than me, even though he didn’t deserve it? I may not be good with numbers, but I’m very adept at counting the people ahead of me and behind me when there’s a line. And though I may not protest out loud if somebody gets waited on that came in after me, boy will I fume silently. You’ll never get me to admit that I’m the only one who’s afflicted with this hyper sense of fairness—It’s all part of being human.
The nature of God, on the other hand, isn’t really compatible with the human sense of fairness. Nobody’s ever received less than they’ve earned from God. The problem lies in the fact that some people get more than they deserve. This’s what grace is: An unearned gift; love given with no strings attached.
The parable Jesus tells about the landowner and the grape harvest is a good description of what grace is like… at least from the human point of view. But even more succinct is the final two lines of this story: “’Are you jealous because I’m generous?’ The first will be last, and the last will be first.”
IIb. Poetry, Not Doctrine
It should be noted here that parables are parables. They’re not intended to be taken literally. Parables speak to the heart, not to the mind. They might inspire poetry, but they shouldn’t be used as doctrine. Maybe that ought to tell us something else about the nature of God:
When God came to us in the flesh, Jesus didn’t stand behind a pulpit teaching unassailable truths. Instead, he wandered about the countryside, and a large percentage of his words that have come down to us are stories that seem to raise more questions than give answers.
So go with the questions. Live the parables by living the questions. When I do that, I have to admit that my middle-aged self is no different than my teenaged self when it comes to a sense of personal injury and perceived fairness: I’d be asking the exact same questions that the laborers asked who worked all day and got what they were promised, even though those who only worked an hour got the same amount.
And when Jesus finally gives the solution to the problem that was raised in the parable, his answer really isn’t that much more satisfying. And so even then, we need to live the question of what it means that the first will be last and the last will be first.
III. The First Shall Be Last
As you know, I was visiting my mother in Kentucky last week, and, as you might imagine, I experienced many of the sights and smells of home while I was there. The sights included the verdant foothills of the Appalachians, dual bridges over the Ohio River—one painted green and one blue—and lots of maroon and white (the local high school colors). The smells included bacon and the world’s greasiest pizza and early autumn rain.
But there are also sounds, and one that is unique to my mother’s house is an old clock. It belonged to my grandmother, and it plays the Westminster chimes… you know how it goes: four notes on the quarter hour, eight on the half hour, twelve at three quarters, and sixteen notes on the hour, followed by a number of chimes that corresponds with whatever o’clock it is. Except this clock is a little off. I don’t mean it doesn’t tell the right time. I mean that it doesn’t chime properly. For some reason, it doesn’t play the first note when it ought to, but waits until the end. And so, at, say 3:15 PM, you hear this:
The first note of the chimes in my grandmother’s clock becomes the last note. It’s not the normal order. You might even say it’s not the accepted order. But I have to admit that when I hear it chimes out of order, they always seem incomplete until I hear that first one come at the end. And so “out of order” doesn’t mean incomplete. The first note’s absence is glaring, until it’s finally played at the end.
This tells me something else I need to know about God: Just as in the Realm of God, it doesn’t matter how long you’ve been in the vineyard, so it doesn’t matter what order you are in line. The first in line is no more beloved than the last, and the last in line is no more beloved than the first. We’re so obsessed with a linear world, that we have trouble accepting the possibility that the Realm of God might be circular in nature. It doesn’t matter whether you’re the first or the last—until everybody has chimed in, the circle is incomplete.
Conclusion: A & Ω
If this describes the nature of God’s Realm, then it must describe the church of God as well. Here we don’t stand in line, but live out our common life in a circle. There is no first person and there is no last person.
But there is a Person who is both First and Last, Alpha and Omega—the One whose arms outstretched on the cross embrace us all, and whose grace includes all who look to him. In his love there can be no hierarchy, for the object of perfect love is made whole in the eyes of the Creator—no one more complete (or less complete) than anyone else
First, last, or somewhere in between we are not our own, but belong to God. When we feel self-important and believe we’ve earned the grace of God, then it’s time for a reality check; it’s time to move to the back of the line that we might learn humility from those in front of us. But when we feel like we’re the last person on earth anyone would love, then we should read the words of Christ, and know that we are the first in God’s embrace.
—©2014 Sam L. Greening, Jr.