As you know I describe myself as an adult convert. One of the privileges of being an adult convert is that I get to think about and preach upon certain biblical texts for the first time from an adult perspective. Now in the interest of honest, upright, and full disclosure here I am not a one-hundred percent pure adult convert; by that I mean I did spend a few short year in my very early life in Sunday school and then fell away from the church for many years. I mention this because the story we hear today from the Gospel of Matthew is one story I do remember from my youth. I remember what I thought the first time I came across the parable of the vineyard workers. When I got to the end of it, I though to myself, “what is this? This is just unfair. The workers who toiled all day get paid the same as those who worked only an hour”? I assumed the point Jesus was making here is that one should watch out for unscrupulous employers particularly I assumed, employers who grow grapes. But, in looking at it again, from my adult perspective and a theological education, Jesus makes it quite clear that this is what the kingdom of heaven is like. And just in case we missed the point, both at the beginning and at the end of this parable comes the clear statement that, “the last will be first and the first will be last”. One of the most valuable things you learn in biblical studies is that if a word or statement is repeated it is important, and this statement is not only repeated, it frames the whole parable, “the last will be the first and the first will be the last”. I can tell you that as someone holding a role of leadership in the church, this declaration has raised my eyebrows on more than one occasion. It is in fact somewhat shocking.
What I have found upon further reflection and study is that Matthew, and it is interesting to note that this parable is only found in Matthew’s gospel, that Matthew here is really talking about God’s world and not so much about our own human world. What I mean by that is this story shows how God relates to us and, should we take up the challenge, how God would like us to relate to each other. Parables are symbolic and symbols stand for other things. In this parable the landowner who hires the workers represents God and the workers of course represent all of us. The message here is that it does not matter when we come to God and accept God’s grace of love, but it is important that we just do it. It does not matter if you are a cradle Anglican or an adult convert, God’s unbelievable, unimaginable, never-ending love for us all is there, no matter when we sign on for it; all we have to do is accept it.
Now for me, this brings up a very interesting and I think important question. If this is true, if God loves us all beyond measure and without exception, and I do believe this to be so, what does this say about the nature of God and what does this say about our own human nature? We should note that the workers hired last in this parable were not lazy; they wanted to work but for whatever reason had not yet been employed. The landowner asks them, “Why have you been standing here all day?” and they reply, “Because nobody has hired us”. They were the rejected ones, the ones nobody wanted to pick, the ones nobody wanted to work for them or work with them. But God chose them, and gave them the same grace as those who appeared to be more favored. To reiterate, what then does this say about the nature of our God and what message is God sending to us?
In our world we all know these phrases: might is right, the strong will prevail, survival of the fittest. We all know these aphorisms and in many ways, and through many experiences in our lives, we see, at least on some level, that this is indeed the way it seems to work in our world. Earthly success does not come easily or at all to the faint of heart or the wounded soul trampled upon by the fierce footsteps of competition, materialism and the seeming human need to define, construct and maintain a social pecking order. In the story of the vineyard workers, the gospel writer here is saying that God takes this human construct and turns it upside down and inside out. The last will be first and the first will be last. The poor, the marginalized, the oppressed, the wrongdoers, the sick of body, mind, and spirit are clearly told in terms that all can understand that they are equal and are abundantly loved members of God’s family. They are, after all, the very people who our Lord invited to His banquet table. They are, one could say, first in the loving arms of God. The notion of survival of the fittest among God’s children is turned on it’s head in God’s world.
But if we accept this to be true, and I am suggesting that it is, for most of us a small but perhaps not unimportant thought comes into our brain and it goes like this… “ Well, if they are first…then who exactly is last”? We think this because in general this is how we have been conditioned to think. If there are to be winners, there must logically be losers. In the parable the workers hired first are what we might call the bargainers. They make a deal with the landowner to labour for a set amount of time and in the end they get exactly what they bargained for, a daily wage. But they are upset because the same wage goes to those who only worked an hour. Now let’s put the symbolic aside and deal with reality. What is the daily wage in God’s kingdom? The daily wage here is God’s grace, and that wage, that grace is so extravagant, so valuable, so lavish and indeed infinite that no one could ever spend it all. God’s love is as wide and as deep as the universe that has no end. In this sense it becomes ridiculous to ask for more than our fair share because our fair share of God’s grace is endless; no matter when we show up and ask for it there will be more of God’s love than we could ever drink up – our cup is always overflowing.
So who are the losers here? I would say that there are none. But then what do you do with the line, “The last will be first, and the first will be last”? As I suggested before, the line jumps out at you and I think it is meant to do just that, to shock us out of our complacency. With some jest, I liken it to this image. It is a cold morning and the heat in your place has yet to come on. You trudge half asleep into the bathroom and turn on the shower. You ever so carefully adjust the water temperature and step into the shower. In just a few seconds you are surrounded with beautiful warm water and steam, and you feel like you are in a cocoon of sheer delight. Just then, during this precious moment of morning bliss, someone, downstairs, turns on the dishwasher thus immediately robbing you of all the hot water. It gives you a jolt, and you think to yourself, “How inconsiderate”. While I am being a bit facetious here I believe the line “The last will be first and the first will be last”, acts in a similar way. It is meant to surprise us, to take us aback, to make us think, to shock us into God’s reality.
I have a little story for you, a true one. In the year 1885 a small farming family in southern California was struck with tragedy. A husband and wife lost their only child, a son, to typhoid fever. After laying their son to rest, they decided they wanted to do something significant in his memory. They knew that he had always dreamed of going to Harvard University, so they decided to leave some memorial gift to that acclaimed institution. They traveled to Boston and after much delay finally got to meet the President of the university.
As they walked into his office the President noted their humble attire. They were dressed as who they were, that is as farmers in jeans and such. They sat down and explained to the president that they wanted to build a building at the university and name is after their son. Looking at the couple, dressed as they were, the President said to them that perhaps they were not aware of how much a new building for the university would cost and perhaps they should think of something less expensive. As the coupled recalled later this was done in a rather condescending manner. They then asked the president how much a new building would cost and he gave them the figure. There was a moment of silence, then the wife turned to her husband and said, “Well, if that is all it costs to build one building why don’t we go back home and build our own university”? And they did just that, and named the new university after their son. Their son’s name was Stanford.
There certainly is more than one lesson to learn from that story, but chief among them would be do not judge people and always be appreciative and thankful and gracious for any act of grace offered to you. The same could be said for the parable of the vineyard workers. God’s grace is meant for everyone no matter who they are, no matter what they are, and no matter their station or lot in life. The scandal of God’s grace is that there are no losers, and those who need it the most are loved abundantly. We are all loved abundantly without condition, without prerequisites and without limitation.
Yes, I think the line “The last will be first and the first will be last” is meant to shock us. But it is meant to shock us for a purpose and that purpose is to drive home the message that there is no ranking in the kingdom of God and that God calls us to do the best that we can to create the kingdom of God here on earth. What we need to realize is what God already knows; that we are all broken individuals in need of God’s help and love, and that our reward comes with the knowledge that we are all loved equally and immeasurably by God. I don’t think I like the saying, “There but for the grace of God go I” - rather, think it should be said this way - “There, for the grace of God, am I”. At one point or other in our lives we are all the workers hired first, and the workers hired in the middle, and the workers hired last. I don’t think it matters if you are the Sultan of Brunei or an inner city child being bullied in the schoolyard, life can be hard, and we get knocked down and our bodies and souls get whacked about and it hurts. But never, never doubt that God is there for you when you are in need. That is the nature of our God. And I believe the parable of the vineyard workers also calls us to help each other when we fall and when others are cast aside and to do so because we love each other because in the end we are all the same.
As a child I thought this parable was unfair and illogical. I now realize that it is an open invitation to be held and guided and transformed by God’s love. In Jesus’ eyes we are all first because we are all God’s children, and for that we can give our thanks and praise. Amen.