I got in trouble once preaching this story. It was at a preaching station and the three ladies who attended did not like the idea that they were graced in equal measure with the rest of the world. It was the only time someone in that congregation commented on one of my sermons and it was not complimentary!
Every three years, though, as I study this text, I still hear Jesus telling us that when we come to believe in him matters not at all, this the believing is all that is necessary. I am liberal enough to think that grace comes *before* belief but that's another discussion for another time.
So here's my sermon from three years ago, cleaned up slightly. Parts of it will likely show up in my sermon tomorrow morning.
Proper 20A RCL
The drive into work in New Orleans took us right by a temporary work agency. By 7:00, many folks had already been hired on for the day. But all day long, more would arrive and some of those who arrived very early weren’t always hired early. Kind of like being picked last for the team. Even when we drove home at 4:30, there were still people hanging out. Whether they were still hoping to be hired, I don’t know.
Now the word slave is not politically correct and it is jarring when we hear it in the context of Scripture. Today’s parable does not talk about slaves, though, and that gives us all the information we have about these workers. You see, slaves have guaranteed employment.
If you recall the parable of the prodigal son, he planned to ask his father to make him one of the slaves for slaves were treated relatively well and had job security. Some of them even got paid for their work.
Not so laborers. If you found work, you ate. And finding work was chancy unless it was harvest time when more workers were needed.
So the landowner goes out early to the marketplace and hires laborers at the going rate. Jesus does not tell us whether all the available workers are hired, but hiring of at least some happens. At nine, the landowner hires more folks and tells them he will pay what is right. Naturally, they assume it will be less than a full day’s wage. Three more times, he hires laborers
and the last time, he asks why they aren’t already working somewhere. "No one has hired us,"
Now, the usual interpretation here is that these people arrived late, maybe partied too long the night before, or that they are known to be poor workers so no one wants to hire them. But Jesus doesn’t tell us that. He simply says that at 5 o’clock, there are still workers waiting to be hired.
Already, this story is departing from the normal. It was common to hire laborers and it would be done early in order to get a full day’s work done. So going out again and again is a little strange and the hearers must have wondered why the landowner is so anxious to get the harvest done quickly. While there are lots of possible reasons, Jesus doesn’t tell us why. Our speculation is interesting but not overly useful.
But the command to pay the last first is really out of the ordinary. At this point, Jesus’ audience is on the alert. And they are right to be so for the landowner pays every single laborer the full day’s wage. I guarantee you there was murmuring going on!
Even in the early church, the listeners were deeply shocked by this turn of events. We know this because there are five endings to this parable plus Matthew’s own saying about the last and first. The original ending was “friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage?” This is a bitter pill to swallow but it does make sense. The first got what they had agreed to.
After that, the endings get more and more bizarre as the church tries to explain what happened.
“Take what belongs to you and go” is not the least bit helpful. “I choose to give to this last the same as I give you” really just restates what Jesus said. “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me” is beginning to get the point. But “are you envious because I am generous” seems a very odd thing to say especially if it really means “is your eye evil because
I am good?” which is a literal translation of the Greek.
And then we have Matthew’s own end to the parable. To understand it, we have to go back to the end of the previous chapter.
The rich young man has just been to see Jesus and learned that all his good works won’t get him into heaven. In fact, Jesus tells the disciples that it will be harder for the wealthy to enter the kingdom than it is for the poor. He doesn’t say they won’t enter but that possessions shift our focus from the kingdom of God to our own kingdoms. The disciples ask, “who then can be saved?” and Jesus tells them “for mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible.”
And Peter once again puts his foot wrong and says, “we have left everything for you so what will be our reward; what will we have?”
Jesus does not rebuke him this time. He tells Peter that the disciples will sit on thrones around him and pass judgment on the tribes of Israel. Then he says that anyone who has left their old life behind to follow him will receive a hundredfold and have eternal life. And he ends by saying,
“But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”
It is quite possible that today’s parable is aimed directly at the disciples who, still thinking in earthly terms, expect to receive a greater reward than those who have only come to believe
in the last few days or weeks. To emphasize the point of the parable, Matthew returns to the words of the last teaching about the kingdom. “The last will be first, and the first will be last”
he ends this parable.
I’d love to say that settled it for the disciples but the very next scene in the Gospel of Matthew
is where James and John – in Matthew’s telling, it’s their mother who does the talking – ask if they can have the seats on Jesus’ left and right. It is hard to think in heavenly terms when all we know are earthly ones.
Okay, what does this mean for us as well as for the rest of the household of God?
Grace, like forgiveness, comes in one size only and is available to all. No matter how long we have been followers of the Christ, we receive the same amount of grace as everyone else. We can’t work for it. We can’t stockpile it. Grace belongs to God and God seems to bestow it freely without any evidence that the bestowee ought to get it. Apparently, God does not see
with our eyes or judge with our kind of judgment. And that's good news for all of us, isn't it?
You and I actively work for the kingdom of God. Saying our prayers, attending services regularly, sharing in the Eucharist, helping out whenever and wherever we can, giving part of our wealth to the church in thanksgiving for God’s grace and love. There are myriad other ways
that we work for the kingdom. But we do that work because it is what God’s people do not because it earns us points or a better seat at the banquet.
Jesus has racked up all the points. He has done the hardest work for us.
Does it really matter if the last are first or the first are first? Not at all. We are given our invitation to the banquet at birth. Some begin their labor in the vineyard as soon as they can walk and talk. Others come and go or choose to wait until the last minute and there are lots of people who don’t even know they have labored until they see God.
God loves each and every one of us and God blesses us all with grace in exactly the same measure, just enough.