Steve Lindsley

Exodus 16: 2-15, Matthew 20: 1-16

Scripture tells us that “the first shall be last and the last shall be first.”  Where you are in any given situation plays a large role in determining how you feel about that.  As a Panthers, Hornets and Wake Forest fan, I can tell you that I’m all-in on this idea.  As the next in line buying tickets to see my favorite band in concert that’s about to sell out, though, not so much.  We find this first-last/last-first motif reflected throughout the narrative of our faith.  There’s David, a runt of a kid, defeating the mighty Goliath.  There’s Joseph, a forgotten brother, becoming second in command in Egypt.  And of course there is Mary, a young woman in a highly-patriarchal world, giving birth to God’s son.

But the actual verbiage comes from 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 to it.

9am rolls around and 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 after that, 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 – and so the landowner puts these folks to work as well.  The 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 – let’s say 6.  6pm rolls around and the landowner calls them all in from the fields so they can get paid.

And this is where things get a little squirrely.

Because first off, it’s odd how he pays them: in reverse order.  The 5:00 crew first, the early morning people last.  You’d think the courteous thing would be to pay those who’d been there the longest, so they can be the first to leave; but that’s not what he does.

Even so, as strange as it is how he pays them, it’s nothing compared to what he pays them.  Starting with the 5pm folks, who get a denarius – a full day’s wage – for their one hour of work.  The same amount the people who arrived at 6 in the morning were told that they would get.


Now, I try to imagine myself as someone in that 6am crew – which means, first of all, I’m standing at the back of the line, because for some reason this landowner is paying folks in reverse order.  I’m a little annoyed by that, but whatever.

Then I start hearing some 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 a couple of things.  I’m thinking maybe the folks up front just misheard, because really, it doesn’t make sense.  Then I’m thinking hey, this landowner probably had a pretty profitable day here; and if those one-hour people are getting a whole denarius, can you imagine what we’re gonna get! 

I’m feeling pretty good – until the line gets shorter and I realize that the folks who started at 3 also got a denarius, as well as those who joined up at noon, as well as 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 been here the longest.  We’ve worked the hardest.  It’s got to be different for us.  Because 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.

Now I cannot quite tell you exactly what I’m thinking because there are some words in there that I probably shouldn’t say.  But what I can tell you I’m thinking is that a denarius is a lousy amount of money.  Even though it’s what I agreed to twelve hours before.  I’m thinking now that I’ve been jipped.  I’m thinking this stinks.  I’m thinking this is not fair.

And in wrapping up his little parable of workers working different hours and getting paid the same thing, Jesus drops the line we know well: the first shall be last and the last shall be first.  This is how Jesus describes the kingdom of heaven to his disciples – those 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 were there first.  Even though they worked harder and longer.  Even though they most assuredly thought that this is 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” essay.  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” actually means In Hebrew?  It means, “What is it?”  They literally named this food substance in the form of a question.  I got to say, I find that kind of funny – although I don’t get the sense that it was meant to be funny, or a ringing endorsement.  They didn’t call it, “Awesome!” They didn’t name it, “Best Food Ever.”  No, they called it, “I have no idea what this is.”

God has dragged us into this God-forsaken wilderness on the way to some Promised Land we keep hearing about but haven’t seen yet.  Not fair!  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.  Not fair!  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.  We deserve better than this.  It’s not fair!

What do we do, people of God, 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, we feel haven’t earned it?  What do we do when grace doesn’t feel all that graceful?

It’s a question worth asking, because let’s face it, we’ve all asked it at some point.  And questions like this are important to ask.  Not easy, but important.  I said much the same thing to our three confirmands – Eliza, Izzy, and Brannon, when their journey began earlier this year.  Ask questions, dive into what you don’t understand, dig deep – because that is the way our faith grows, whether you’re just starting that journey or well into it.

What do we do when grace doesn’t feel graceful?

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, we sometimes have a tendency to think that we possess something others do not.  So  manna becomes 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, he 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 tells him he’ll take care of it.  Minutes later, he gripes that it’s now freezing.  Again, the waiter says he’s sorry and promises to make it right.

This cycle happens two more times, until finally the customer pompously declares that his comfort has been achieved.  And through it all, the waiter never loses their cool.  Which does not go unnoticed by another patron – so when temperature-finicky guy leaves, this other customer commends the waiter for their 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?  It is the scandal of grace, beloved; a term we throw around in Christian circles because it sounds 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 promised.

And it is only human nature, I guess, that the very essence of grace would bother us so; 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 – everything from conversations about theology and forgiveness to current dialogue in our culture around whichever hot button topic is at the top of the news cycle that day.  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 offensiveness we see in stark fashion how this kingdom and God’s kingdom are not anywhere close to 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 could be a greater testimony to the presence of God actively engaged and working in our world than that.  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.

I rather like the way that three noted theologians have put it:

It is essential (that we) ask God for any forgiveness or help, and (know that) God always gives us another chance. Our God is perfect but doesn’t expect (us) to be perfect.  (Through this, we can be) a proud Follower of the Christian faith through all light, and all darkness, for the rest of (our lives).

Those theologians, by the way, are, in order, Brannon Tappy, Eliza Sistrunk, and Izzy Tappy, excerpts from their statements of faith that they wrote with their mentors and shared with session.  Excerpts that, in a moment, they will lead all of us in for our Affirmation of Faith.  Our newest church members reminding us that, while grace may not always be fair or graceful, it is always at the heart of the kingdom of God we are called to live into, minute by minute, hour by hour, day by day.  Like we pray every Sunday, Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

On earth, my friends.  On earth!  May it be so.

In the name of 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