(Exodus 16: 2-15; Matthew 20: 1-16)
Scripture tells us that the first shall be last, and the last shall be first. I rather like this scripture. I find it particularly useful as a Wake Forest fan. There have been numerous times when I have evoked it to ward off the friendly jabs of those who do not happen to be affiliated with a school who, in one particularly dismal basketball season, lost to national powerhouses Winthrop, Presbyterian, UNC Wilmington, and Stetson. Stetson, people! But hey, it’s alright, because the first shall be last and the last shall be first. You know, it never feels as good as you think it will when you say it. Truth be told, I’d rather just win the ball game.
Scripture tells us the first shall be last, and the last first, and when you look at the Biblical story in its entirety, you see many places where this theme plays out. It’s the story, we think, of the underdog who comes out on top, renewed, restored, revitalized. David, the youngest son, crowned King of Israel. Joseph, a forgotten brother, second in Egypt’s command. Even Jesus himself, a lowly carpenter’s son, Savior of the world. See? The first shall be last and the last shall be first.
The thing is, none of these are where this scripture comes from. Its origins may surprise us a little; this 20th chapter of the gospel of Matthew; a parable Jesus tells that is at its heart downright confounding and, yes, even scandalous.
Jesus is describing to his disciples what the kingdom of heaven is like – a concept and idea certainly difficult to verbalize to a motley crew of Jewish women and men living in a Roman-ruled world. And so what else would Jesus do than tell a story.
There is this landowner, Jesus begins, and early in the morning he hires a group of workers to work in his vineyard for the day. “Early in the morning” is ancient Biblical lingo for around 6am. They agree on a fee of one denarius – the typical daily wage for this kind of work. They head into the fields as the sun begins to rise.
9am rolls around and we now find our landowner in town at the marketplace, where he happens upon a group of people just “standing around.” That’s the phrase Jesus uses. So he hires them on the spot and sends them into the vineyard with the others. Three hours later, he finds more people “standing around” and puts them to work as well. Same thing at 3:00 and at 5:00.
And I find it interesting that Jesus makes a point of describing all those workers after the 6am group as just “standing around” before they get hired. I mean, it gives us, the listener, the distinct impression that they weren’t really interested in working that day. Just chilling out. It’s not like they were pursuing employment; not like they were busy filling out a resume or going through career counseling or anything. It just happened to them, standing around; and they did it because they didn’t have anything better to do.
Anyway, the vineyard now is full of a cadre of workers, arriving at all different times throughout the day. So that when evening comes – let’s assume 6:00 – when evening comes, the landowner calls them all in, and he thanks them for their work and divvies out paychecks. And this is where the plot thickens! Because it’s very curious, first of all, how he pays them: in reverse order. The 5:00 crew first, the early morning people last. You would think he’d pay the first group first since they’d been there the longest.
But what’s even more curious than that is what he pays them. Because the 5:00 crew – those who had been there for only one hour – he pays them one denarius. Which, as we recall, was a typical wage for a full day’s work.
Now, I read this and I try to imagine myself as someone in that 6am crew standing at the very back of the line waiting to get paid. I imagine myself back there when the whispers start to make their way down the line: Pssst! Did you hear? Those yahoos who showed up an hour ago are getting a whole denarius! I imagine hearing this and thinking to myself that maybe someone misheard – you know that game when you whisper something and they whisper it to the next person and that person whispers it to the next person, and it keeps on going down the line; and when it gets to the end it’s totally different than what was said at first. That’s probably what’s going on here.
And then I think, whoa, waitaminute; maybe this landowner guy has had a much more profitable day than expected; so if those one hour people are getting a whole denarius, there’s no telling how much we’re going to get! Yes! I’m feeling pretty good about things.
I’m feeling good until I start hearing what the others are getting as the line moves forward: one denarius for the three-hour people. One denarius for the six-hour people. One denarius for the nine-hour people. There’s a pattern developing here, and I don’t like it. I hear some grumbling now. I sense some confusion. And it’s not just others. It’s me, too.
Ah, but it’s going to be different for us, right? Us twelve-hour folks? I mean, we’re the 6am crew; we’ve got the t-shirt and the secret handshake, people! We’ve been here the longest. We’ve worked the hardest. Those others may have gotten the same amount, but it’ll be different for us. We were here first. We deserve more!
And then they call our names. And they hand us one denarius. The same thing the one-hour people got, and the three-hour people, and the six-hour people, and the nine-hour people. One lousy denarius. And it doesn’t matter that we agreed to that amount when the day started. Things have changed now. And you know what I’m thinking? I’m thinking this stinks. I’m thinking I’ve just been gipped. I’m thinking this is not fair.
The first shall be last and the last shall be first.
Those are the words Jesus uses to wrap up this parable. And it feels different now, doesn’t it? See, here’s the rub. We usually hear this verse and instinctively view ourselves as part of the last. My Demon Deacons. David, Joseph, Jesus. The underdog. It’s a great place to be. Because guess what? We’re getting bumped up to first. We’re getting a full day’s wage for one hour of work!
But Jesus isn’t telling this little vineyard parable to the underdog. He’s telling it to his disciples and to us: the twelve-hour laborer, the ones who were there first. He’s telling us that we are getting the same wage as everyone after, because that is what he promised us he would do. Even though we worked harder and longer. Even though we feel we deserve more. He’s telling us that the first shall be last and the last shall be first. And we don’t like it, because from our vantage point it’s just not fair.
We know what that’s like, don’t we? We know what it’s like being the older sibling when the parents dispense the same privilege at the same time to the younger brother. Not fair! We know what it’s like being the employee when the boss doesn’t grant us a reasonable benefit after our special efforts on the project. Not fair! We know what it’s like being the student whose “C” English paper is obviously so much better than our best friend’s “B” paper. Not fair!
It wasn’t fair thousands of years ago when God led God’s people into the wilderness on their way to the Promised Land. True, they had the cloud and pillar of fire to guide their way, but really, what good does that do if they die of starvation first? They had been begging God for food, and what does God finally give them? Some flaky substance that appears on the ground every morning, once the dew burns off. Here’s the kicker: they had no idea what this was. Even the writer of Exodus seems to struggle with how to pen this particular wilderness story. Manna, is what they wound up calling it. You know what “manna” means? It’s a Hebrew word that literally means, “What is it?” Think about this! They were so clueless and apathetic about this strange food substance that the name they gave it was in the form of a question!
I don’t know about you, but this doesn’t exactly feel like a ringing endorsement! They didn’t name it, “Awesome!” They didn’t call it, “Best Food Ever.” No, it’s just “What Is It??” Another day; another breakfast, lunch, and dinner of “What Is It.” Hey Johnny, can you pass some more “What Is It?” I’d like to sprinkle it on some of my “What Is It.”
It’s not fair! God has dragged us into this God-forsaken wilderness on the way to some Promised Land. And all along the way, every day we have to get up, go out, scrape this manna stuff off the ground and “eat” it all day long. Tastes like mushy tree bark. This is not what we signed up for, God. If we are really your “chosen people,” you have a funny way of showing how chosen we are. This stinks, God. We deserve better than this. It is not fair.
What do we do with a God who provides for our needs, even when we have no idea what it is? What do we do with a God who showers us with promised grace, while also showering others with the same – others who are just “standing around;” others who, if we’re totally honest, we don’t feel are worthy of it? What do we do with this manna-feeding, denarius-paying God of ours?
You know, part of me wonders if those Israelites experienced their manna-fest for a reason; part of me wonders if Jesus shared this vineyard parable with a larger agenda in mind. Because in our pursuit of truth, it is often our human tendency that, upon finding that truth, we assume that we now possess something others do not. So we become entitled. We are “blessed.” We are the first. And because we are these things, we assume we deserve more and deserve better. Manna is too beneath us. A denarius is way below our pay grade.
And, you know, the real tragedy in this is not just the spirit-draining effect it has on our soul. The real tragedy is the effect it has on those around us who see us and our skewed sense of spiritual entitlement and privilege.
A customer is waiting for his lunch in a restaurant one day and, in the process, being a total nuisance to his waiter. That’s because no matter what his waiter did, he kept complaining about the temperature inside the restaurant. He complained that it was too hot and demanded that the air conditioning be turned up. The waiter would apologize and tell him he’d take care of it. Minutes later, he’d gripe that it was freezing now and must be turned back down. Again, the waiter said he was sorry and promised to make it right. This cycle happened two more times, back and forth; until finally the customer declared his comfort. And through it all, the waiter never lost patience. He never once got angry. This did not go unnoticed by another customer in the restaurant; so when the temperature-guy left, that other customer called the waiter over and commended him for his patience and professionalism. And he asked the waiter how in the world he managed to keep his cool with such a jerk of a patron. And the waiter just smiled and said, “Oh, I really don’t mind. It’s not that big of a deal. Besides, we don’t have an air conditioner anyway.”
This is what we run the risk of looking like to the world outside our doors when we grumble about our manna-feeding, denarius-paying God. When we feel like we are entitled to more, just because we were first. Except we’re not first. That’s the hard truth of it all. Call it God’s Economy, if you will. Whatever you call it, it is an investment that cannot be measured in a stock market exchange; it cannot grow in a mutual fund managed by a financial advisor. This is the scandal of grace. Manna day in and day out, because it’s all we need. A denarius for a day in the vineyard, because that is what God promises us, promises everyone.
And it is only human that this bothers us. It is only human that, despite our best intentions, we find ourselves confounded by God’s grace. And maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe it’s good that grace confounds us, because in its confounding we are reminded in stark fashion that this kingdom and God’s kingdom are world’s apart; this economy and God’s economy share little in common. It is good that the first wind up last and the last first, because nothing could be a greater testimony to the presence of God actively engaged and working in our world. Even the last one to make it into the fields is paid in full. Even the last one to arrive at the table is given a full-course meal.
As one New Testament professor put it:
In the kingdom of God all people are already equal. In the kingdom, every person should receive “what is right” – regardless of the work they do. In the kingdom, all people are equal – rich and poor, wealthy and destitute, righteous and sinners, powerful and powerless – all people are equal because all people are loved by God.
And that is what it always comes down to, right – the love? Nothing could be more loving than some “What Is It” for mealtime. Nothing could be more loving than a single denarius as promised. Love and grace for all. Love and grace for the kingdom. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. On earth, my friends! In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, thanks be to God; and may all of God’s people say, AMEN.
 http://www.homileticsonline.com/subscriber/illustrations_for_installment.asp?installment_id=93040843, visited on 8.25.2014.