(Exodus 16: 2-15; Matthew 20: 1-16)
Scripture tells us that “the first shall be last and the last shall be first.” I, for one, am all-in on this. I find it particularly helpful as a sports fan, given my current affiliations. There have been times I’ve lifted up these words to ward off friendly jabs from those who did not have the pleasure of attending a university who, in their most recent basketball season, lost to St. Joseph’s, Gardner-Webb, and Houston Baptist. Houston Baptist, people! But hey, it’s all good, because the first shall be last and the last shall be first! It never feels as good as you think it will when you actually say it. Truth be told, I’d rather just win the game.
But hey, this isn’t about sports, is it? No, this is about the Bible! And it’s in the Bible where we find the story of David, a runt of a kid, defeating the mighty Goliath. Or Joseph, a forgotten brother, becoming second in command in Egypt. Or Mary, a young woman in a male-ruled world, giving birth to God’s son. We find the first-last/last-first thing all over the Bible!
But the thing is, none of those are where we find this actual scripture. Instead, we find it in today’s passage, a parable Jesus tells that is more than a little confounding and in some ways downright scandalous.
Jesus is describing to his disciples what the kingdom of heaven is like, which he does a whole lot of in the gospel of Matthew, but here it’s a landowner. And we’re told that this landowner goes out “early in the morning” – that’s ancient Biblical lingo for 6am – goes out and hires a group of workers to work in his vineyard for the day. Now they agree in advance on payment of one denarius – which was the typical full day’s wage for this kind of work. They head into the fields as the sun begins to rise and get crackin’.
9am rolls around and now we find our landowner in town at the marketplace, where he happens upon a group of people just “standing around.” So he hires them and sends them into the vineyard with the others. Three hours later, he finds more people just “standing around”- it’s interesting that Matthew describes them this way, as if they don’t have anything to do and aren’t overly concerned about it – anyway, the landowner puts them to work as well. Same thing happens at 3 and at 5.
So now the vineyard is full of all these workers, all starting at different times throughout the day, working until evening comes – for the sake of argument, let’s say 6:00. 6:00 rolls around and the landowner calls them all in and thanks them for their efforts. And now it’s paycheck time.
And this, this is where things get a little squirrely.
Because it’s odd enough, first of all, howhe pays them: in reverse order. The 5:00 crew first, the early morning people last. I mean, you’d think the natural thing would be to go ahead and pay those who’d been there the longest, but that’s not what he does.
Strange as that is, though, it is nothing compared to what he pays them. Starting with the 5pm folks, who get a denarius – again, a typical fullday’s wage – for their one hour of work. The same amount the people who arrived at 6 in the morning were told they’d get.
Now, I try to imagine myself as someone in that 6am crew – because it’s pretty obvious that’s what Jesus wants us to go, the way he tells his parable and how he positions us as the listener. I imagine myself in that 6am crew – which means, first of all, I’m standing at the backof the line, because for some reason this landowner is paying folks in reverse order. I’m a little perturbed by that, but whatever.
Then I start hearing some of the whispers making their way down the line: Pssst! Hey, did you hear? Those yahoos who showed up an hour ago are getting a whole day’s wage!
I imagine thinking they probably just misheard – you know that game you play where you whisper something to someone, and they whisper it to the next person, and that person to the next, and it goes down the line; and when it gets to the end it’s something entirely different from what was said at first, and everybody has a good laugh about it? That’s probably what happened.
And then, then I think, whoa, waitaminute; maybe this landowner guy had an incredibly good day, an exceedingly profitable day; and if those one-hour people are getting a whole denarius, can you imagine what we’re gonna get! I’m calling my wife, telling her to book our dream vacation, making plans to install that pool in the backyard.
I’m feeling pretty good – until the line gets shorter and I realize that the folks who started at 3 are also getting a denarius, as are those who joined up at noon, as are those who came on board at 9 that morning. All of them, getting the same thing.
Ah, but surely it’ll be different for us, right? Us twelve-hour folks? I mean, we’re the 6am crew, people; we’ve got the t-shirt and the secret handshake! We’ve been here the longest. We’ve worked the hardest. It’s going to be different for us. We deserve more!
And then it’s my turn in line, and there’s the landowner standing in front of me, holding out in his hand a single denarius for my twelve hours of work, he’s holding it out for me with a big ol’ smile on his face.
I’ll tell you what I’m thinking now. I’m thinking a denarius is a lousy amount of money. I know it’s what I agreed two twelve hours ago, but things have changed. What am I thinking? I’m thinking I’ve been gipped. I’m thinking this stinks. I’m thinking it is not fair.
The first shall be last and the last shall be first.
That’s how Jesus wraps up his little parable here: the first shall be last and the last shall be first. That’s where this comes from – not David defeating Goliath, not Joseph lording over his brothers, not Mary birthing Jesus.
The story of workers working different hours but getting paid the same thing – this is how Jesus describes the kingdom of heaven to his disciples – those who’d given their lives to him, who’d given up everything for him, those who were card-carrying members of the 6am crew. They showed up early, they got their work done. Jesus is telling them they will receive exactly what they’ve been promised, which also happens to be exactly what everyone else has been promised. Even though they worked harder and longer. Even though they might have felt they deserved more. Even though they might think it’s not fair.
You ever felt that way before? You ever been the older sibling when the parents simultaneously grant the same privilege to you and a younger sibling. Not fair! Or the employee when the boss doesn’t bestow on you a reasonable perk after your extra effort on the project. Not fair! Or the student whose “C” English paper is obviously better than their 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. They’d been begging God for food, and what does God finally give them? Some flaky substance that appeared on the ground every morning, once the dew burned off. Here’s the kicker: they had no idea what it was. “Manna” is what they wound up calling it. You know what the word “manna” means? In Hebrew it literally means, “What is it?” I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t exactly sound like a ringing endorsement! They didn’t call it, “Awesome!” They didn’t name it, “Best Food Ever.” No, they named it in the form of a question, because they didn’t know what it was.
It’s not fair! God has dragged us into this God-forsaken wilderness on the way to some Promised Land we keep hearing about. And all along the way, every day we have to get up, go out, scrape this whatever-it-is 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 really are your “chosen people,” you’ve got a funny way of showing it. This stinks. We deserve better than this. It’s not fair!
What do we do with a God who provides for our needs, even if we feel we deserve better? What do we do with a God who fulfills God’s promises to us, but also does the same for others who are just “standing around;” others who, if we’re totally honest, haven’t earned it? What do we do with this manna-making, denarius-paying God of ours?
You know, part of me wonders if the manna years in the wilderness were by design; if Jesus shared his vineyard parable with a larger agenda in mind. Because in our pursuit of faithful living, it is often our tendency to assume that we possess something that others do not. So we are entitled, we are first, we are “blessed.” And because we are these things, we start to look at things differently. Manna is too beneath us. A denarius is way below our pay grade. We may not give voice to any of that, but in the depths of our soul, it’s there.
A customer is waiting for his lunch in a restaurant one day and, in the process, being a total nuisance to his waiter. No matter what his waiter does, this customer keeps complaining about the temperature in the restaurant. He complains that it’s too hot and demands the air conditioning be turned higher. The waiter assures him he’ll take care of it. Minutes later, he gripes that it’s freezing. Again, the waiter says he’s sorry and promises to make it right.
This cycle happens two more times, until finally the customer declares that his comfort has been achieved. And through it all, the waiter never loses his cool. He never gets angry. Which does not go unnoticed by another patron – so when temperature-finicky guy leaves, this other customer commends the waiter for his patience and professionalism. And the waiter smiles and says, “Thanks, but it’s really not that big of a deal. Besides, we don’t even have an air conditioner.”
I wonder if this is the way the world sees us when we grumble about our manna-making, denarius-paying God. When we get so bent out of shape over what God is doing for others that we fail to see anymore what God has already done for us. When we feel like we deserve more, because we worked harder and longer, because we were first.
Except we never were first. That’s the thing, right? Call it God’s Economy, if you will. Whatever you call it, it is an investment that cannot be measured in a stock exchange; it cannot grow in a mutual fund managed by a financial advisor.
It is the scandal of grace, my friends; a term we throw around in Christian circles because it sounds so nice and lovely. Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me. 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 has promised.
And it is only human nature, I imagine, that the very essence of grace would bother us; this whole idea that God loves every person unconditionally and equally. It is only human nature that, despite our best intentions, we would push back on that. Grace sounds great when you sing about it in a hymn, or when you talk about in reference to yourself. But it’s a whole different ball of wax when you’re talking about it for the other.
And maybe, in the end, it is good that grace confounds us, even offends us; because in its confounding and in its offensiveness we see in stark fashion how this kingdom and God’s kingdom are not at all the same thing; how this economy and God’s economy operate on an entirely different set of priorities and principles. It is good that the first wind up last and the last first, because nothing else could be a greater testimony to the presence of God actively engaged and working in our world. Even the last one to make it to the fields is paid in full. Even the most unrecognizable source of nourishment is a four-course meal.
As one New Testament professor puts 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.
Still, we think: it’s not fair – it’s not fair! No. No, it’s not. God’s economy, God’s grace is not at all fair. It’s not about fairness. It’s about something much more profound than that. It is about love. It’s always been about love. And nothing could be more loving than some “What Is It” for dinner. Nothing could be more loving than a single promised denarius.
Love and grace for everyone in the kingdom. And you know what they say: Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. On earth, my friends. On earth!
In the name of God the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!
* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.