September 21, 2014

So the Last Will be First, and the First Will be Last

Passage: Exodus 16:2-15, Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45, Philippians 1:21-30, Matthew 20:1-16
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Note: There is no audio for this week's Sermon.

So the last will be first, and the first will be last.

Marilyn Mach vos Savant is, among other achievements, a columnist and author. She is listed in Guinness World Records under a category for “Highest IQ; in one of her columns she answers difficult and often bewildering questions from readers. In one of these columns she decided to share questions she found difficult to answer, not because they were too tough, but because—well—here a couple of those questions:

“I notice you have the same first name as Marilyn Monroe. Are you related?”
“Do you think daylight-saving time could be contributing to global warming? The longer we have sunlight, the more it heats the atmosphere.”
“I just observed a flock of geese flying in a ‘V’ formation. Is that the only letter they know?”

I wonder sometimes if our questions of God are like these. In trying to explain what the kingdom of God was like Jesus said to his disciples, “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” It was a way of saying that in the kingdom it often looks like our typical ways of valuing things get reversed, the get turned upside down, they don’t apply. What we consider first is last.

Our tendency is to hear this as a kind of formulae. We live in a world of calculation; of how to get the most; of how to be in first place. So we hear Jesus’s teaching and plug it into that world. SO, Jesus, if I understand you correctly, then when I go and stand at the back of the line that’s how I will get picked to be first? If I make sure I am last in the door then I will in fact find myself at the front of the line. That’s not it. We are ever calculating. Jesus was not giving us a formulae. In a paraphrase of what he said it is more like this, “the kind of calculations you typically use don’t apply when it comes to God and his love for you.”

1. The parable that Jesus told about a landowner who hired day labourers to work in his vineyard depicts an event typical of first century life in Israel. The parable begins with a typical scene of workers milling about in the marketplace and a landowner hiring them to work in his vineyard for what was a customary daily wage. But as the parable progress atypical elements are added by Jesus—things that surprise and cause hearers to wonder—as he makes his point with the hearers. Take for example that some labourers were hired to work only one hour (a typical work day was 12 hours), those hired last were paid first by the manager, and all labourers received the same amount.

Some theologians, in reading this parable, have thought that Jesus was advocating for an economic agenda; casting a vision for some system of a guaranteed living wage in which all are paid the same. Economic reform, however, is not the context for the telling of this parable. Further, to read it that way is to import our mindset of calculation into the parable. The mindset that, in many respects, I believe Jesus was challenging.

The article was titled The Ten Best-Paying Jobs of 2014. According to the, using average annual salary as the measurement, seven of the ten most lucrative positions are in the health-care industry. The article appeared in mid-August suggesting that there is still a link between higher education—at least in some fields—and future earning potential. Is it unchristian to consider economics in decision making? No. The gospel isn’t anti-wealth but it does warn of the dangers of wealth as a god. Jesus spoke of how you use wealth—treasure up treasures in heaven. I am of John Wesley’s conviction with respect to wealth; earn all you can, save all you can, give all you can.

But we live in a world so dominated by calculation it is hard for us to break out of it to hear what Jesus is saying in this parable. It is why Jesus’s landowner parable sound so strange to us. Alexis de Tocqueville, a French political thinker and historian, observed that “the desire of acquiring the comforts of the world haunts the imagination of the poor, and the dread of losing them that of the rich.” It is hard for us to set aside our calculation mindset and believe that the kingdom of God is not similarly so.

2. The context of this parable in Matthew’s gospel are the events surrounding the story of the rich young man who came to Jesus and asked “what good deed must I do to have eternal life? Jesus said, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” The man went away grieving because he had many possessions. Turning to his disciples, it is here Jesus said that “it is hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven.” This astonished the disciples prompting Peter to ask, “Look, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?” (Matthew 19:27) In response to this is our Lord’s promise “everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold, and will inherit eternal life.” (Matthew 19:29)

Our ears, along with the disciples, perk up when we hear “will receive a hundredfold”. Is Jesus promising the most lucrative jobs to his followers? With our calculation mindset that is what we tend to hear. Instead of studying in the health care field perhaps I should take up theology? Jesus anticipates our hearing his words this way because he concludes by saying, “But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.” (Matthew 19:30)

What follows is this parable of the land owner that further explores this “first will be last and last will be first” idea of the kingdom. Our calculating does not apply in the way we think it does when it comes to God and his love for us.

3. The parable of the landowner in his vineyard is about the landowner. A key to understanding the point Jesus is making, I believe, is in the landowner’s question to the workers he hired at the first of the day—are you envious because I am generous? As we already noted, Jesus’s parable begins typically enough but as the story progresses he adds things we don’t expect; things that puzzle; things that are just plain upside-down. We can easily see why the first grumbled when paid the same as the last who worked only one hour. When the first, who worked 12 hours saw that the last, who worked an hour, were paid a denarii they were likely pulling out their phones and texting their wives to check out the prices on that holiday trip to Rome they always wanted to take. They were anticipating a great payday. Who wouldn’t? Calculating what we are owed is what we do well.

In his book The Prodigal God, pastor Timothy Keller offers the following story that illustrates our pension for calculation.
Once upon a time there was a gardener who grew an enormous carrot. So he took it to his king and said, "My Lord, this is the greatest carrot I've ever grown or ever will grow. Therefore I want to present it to you as a token of my love and respect for you." The king was touched and discerned the man's heart, so as [the gardener] turned to go the king said, "Wait! You are clearly a good steward of the earth. I own a plot of land right next to yours. I want to give it to you freely as a gift so you can garden it all." And the gardener was amazed and delighted and went home rejoicing. But there was a nobleman at the king's court who overheard all this. And he said, "My! If that is what you get for a carrot—what if you gave the king something better?" So the next day the nobleman came before the king and he was leading a handsome black stallion. He bowed low and said, "My lord, I breed horses and this is the greatest horse I have ever bred or ever will. Therefore I want to present it to you as a token of my love and respect for you." But the king discerned his heart and said thank you, and took the horse and merely dismissed him. The nobleman was perplexed. So the king said, "Let me explain. That gardener was giving me the carrot, but you were giving yourself the horse."

In the parable of the landowner Jesus wants to tell his disciples something about God. He leads them along adding surprising and disturbing details so that that they might understand something of God’s generosity—the generosity Jesus spoke about in his promise of the hundredfold and eternal life. Through this parable, Jesus tells his followers that if God’s generosity was to be represented by a man, such a man would be different from any other man we have ever encountered. He would be like this landowner who makes no sense to us.

The kingdom is about a generosity on a scale and of a kind the world has never seen and can't understand. The world's generosity is always about earning. It's always tied to a bonus system. Lurking behind all forms of worldly generosity is the idea that I actually have this coming to me. I put in extra effort on the project, I expect to reap more of the profits. But God is not like that—the last will be first, and the first will be last. God’s generosity can’t be calculated. It is beyond what the human mind can conceive. Recall that Jesus said of our human needs, “But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” (Matthew 6:33) You cannot out-give God.

This parable is a radically owner-centered story. It is a story, not about us, the work we do, but about the owner and his nature. Our tendency is to make the kingdom about us, our rights, what we're owed. The story isn't about us, whether we showed up late or early, worked a lot or worked a little. The story is about the owner. The story is about the owner's generosity that flows, not in response to what we've done, but out of his nature.

4. It wasn’t just the way the landowner paid the workers that was unusual; it was also the way he is depicted as personally going to the marketplace to gather labourers. Typically landowners sent their managers to the marketplace to secure labourers. This owner goes himself. Not only that but he keeps going back to the marketplace even to the last hour seemingly to make sure he misses no one. He takes whoever is there and whoever will go to his vineyard. These would not be hiring practises recommended by any reputable staffing organization. He doesn’t ask for resumes or conduct interviews to screen candidates. He sends them to his vineyard and promises to pat whatever is right.

AS the gospel declares our Saviour is ever seeking us out; ever calling people to himself so that we might know the wonders of his kingdom; the joys of his rule of our lives. God himself encounters us—this is the essence of what the scripture means by faith. Faith is to say yes to his encounter of us—to go into his vineyard to work and there to discover a generosity not known in humanity.

It is here, in his kingdom, that we discover that this God who saves us is the One who made us. Consider his great generosity over our lives generally—what has sometimes been called common grace. Common only in the sense that these marvellous graces are everywhere. Our Lord put it this way, “he (Father in heaven) makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. (Matthew 5:45) The Psalmist declares that “The Lord is good to all, and his compassion is over all that he has made.” (Psalm 145:9)

None of us got life for ourselves; it was sheer gift of God. The world God made in which we live our lives is suited for such habitation. The life in plants that is our food is sustained by his hand. The air we breathe is maintained by his grace. The sun that lights the day and the lesser lights the night.

And when we stand before the cross it is clear that we do not know what sin means to God. What he suffered for ours sakes is of eternal proportions beyond our imagining and grasp. I am staggered and silenced as I consider that such love is for me. The generosity of God towards us is so staggering that we must put all out tiny calculators away. The last will be first, and the first will be last..

5. Arthur Brooks writes for The New York Times. In a July 2014 article titled "Love People, Not Pleasure," he begins this way: “ABD AL-RAHMAN III was an emir and caliph of Córdoba in 10th-century Spain. He was an absolute ruler who lived in complete luxury. Here’s how he assessed his life: “I have now reigned above 50 years in victory or peace; beloved by my subjects, dreaded by my enemies, and respected by my allies. Riches and honors, power and pleasure, have waited on my call, nor does any earthly blessing appear to have been wanting to my felicity.”
Fame, riches and pleasure beyond imagination. Sound great? He went on to write: “I have diligently numbered the days of pure and genuine happiness which have fallen to my lot: They amount to 14.”

Brooks went on the say that "[W]hen people say, 'I am an unhappy person, they are really doing sums, whether they realize it or not. They are saying, 'My unhappiness is x, my happiness is y, and x > y.'" But that arithmetic doesn't tell the whole story, as is proved by the rich and famous still grasping for ever-elusive happiness. Brooks offers this solution—rather than loving things and using people, happiness is found when we love people and use things, letting go of our materialism, and leading lives of generosity and charity.

Brooks is on to something. I would not say that living a generous life will lead to happiness. This is still calculating; live generously get happiness. The gospel calls us to live generously because God has been generous with us; as our Saviour has loved us we are to love one another; and the promise of our Saviour as we trust in his love—so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. (John 15:10-11)