Matthew 20:1-16 Listen!
September 21, 2015 The 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Roy W. Howard
I’ve run enough long distances races to take joy in this passage – not the first shall be last; that has never been my burden, but the last shall be first. Now that gives me hope! As well it should even though I’m confident this parable has absolutely nothing to do with running or any other athletic endeavor, unless you consider gardening to be such. It should be noted too, for the sake of honesty, that I may well be miss-reading the parable by taking hope instead of judgment from it. After all, it’s a cautionary tale aimed to remind those who arrive first that the permanency of their status is illusionary, and nothing in which to take pride. In fact, it’s a warning for those who take umbrage at the ones who arrive late and do less work, and thus, deserve less than the hard working early-to-rise, late-to-bed crowd.
The first shall be last and the last shall be first is a cautionary reminder indeed; but just what is that Jesus wants us always to remember? There are those who suggest that the parable is another example of the generous grace of the landowner (God) overwhelming the expectations of the laborers. Perhaps.
Saint Paul would certainly approve of such a reading since he himself reminds us that it is by grace that we are made whole and it not in our works that we earn our status before a loving God. (Ephesians 2) In a mostly workaholic culture one might think that his is the greatest news of all even though it overturns the notion all the best things in life comes to us by hard work. The greatest thing in our life actually comes as a gift from God, not as a reward for our work. Now that is an occasion for joy! But before we wrap up that package, we should note that there is no mention of the word grace in this parable and there is certainly no denunciation of work implied, as if the hard work of the early risers were held against them in favor of those who worked less and received a reward. That would be a common misreading of the value of hard work over against the abundance of grace. Binary thinking that divides reality into good vs. bad creates a division never gets us into the deeper truth.
Some suggest, and I am one of them, that the way to enter the parable is through the door in the opening phrase. The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner. That little phrase tips us off that this story is pointing us toward the reign of God on earth. The way God arranges things turns out to be quite a bit different than our normal ways of social arrangement. In the parable, those laborers who receive exactly what was promised them at the beginning of the day turn resentful at the end of the day when the last chosen get precisely as they did because the landowner chooses to be generous toward them. It’s not fair! They cry. What is it about those of us who are privileged to be at the top of the social rung? From our position of privilege we see life so differently than those who barely get by, whose lives are a struggle every waking hour. But it’s not fair, we cry when the ones we’ve labeled undeserving actually get a place at the table. (We miss the irony of calling our fellow laborers undeserving because we live under the illusion that we deserve all the privileges we have accrued by our hard work, social pedigree and well-mannered living.) From this place of privilege – which is first place – it’s impossible to see the way God arranges the world. No wonder the first shall be last: it appears to be the best position to see the generosity of God.
Take the border for instance.
There are men and women who risk life and limb, even break the law, putting their lives in the hands of coyotes to carry them across a border in order that they may find work to support their families, most of whom are desperately poor. It’s not fair! Send them back. They are taking our jobs. They are breaking the law. Build a bigger, better fence. We built this country; they are freeloaders.
Several congregations of Christians along the border of Texas have decided there is a different calculus to measure virtue. They began to view life from the perspective of those who are last and lost and lonely. They began to imagine what it might be like to be desperate enough to send your children to a better life than your own. And from that perspective that is impossible gain from a place of privilege, they began acting like Christians who know God is the landowner who is generous beyond all our calculations of fairness, whose justice is always shaped by mercy. The cry It’s not fair was overcome by the glad sounds of the faithful singing Welcome Home, there is a place at table. Here is your water and here is your bed.
There is a different kind of calculus at work in the world when we begin to see life from the perspective of the landowner who chooses generosity and goodness toward all people.
The world of merit-based living teaches one thing – you get what you deserve as a result of your hard work. Of course hard work is a good thing. Of course there are rewards that come with hard work. Trust me, when you arrive at the finish line of a marathon you know you earned it by your training. We know all of this; but that’s not the whole story. The privileged usually stop there with a great round of applause for our hard work. It’s an illusion. You receive a great deal you didn’t earn by hard work or can’t by with enough money. These are gifts of love, of friendship, of family and friends. Above all: the gift of abundant life in God. These are not earned or bought. They are given from the bounty of a generous God. The perspective of privilege can actually blind us from seeing such generosity.
When the labor pool operated not that far from here, men would stand for hours all day in the open air waiting in hope for someone to select them for job. A truck would drive up and the men would scramble with hands raised, pleading to be selected. Each time a man climbs into the truck there is joy spread across his face, along with relief. On the opposite of the street, stood people dressed as though they need not worry about such things, with cameras focused in expectant hope that one of them men might be arrested and send back across the border. They scream hateful things, their faces distorted by anger and hatred. “You get what you deserve” produces life with a hard edge. It creates an angry people without mercy or compassion. The generosity of the landowner is constantly question or rejected. But have you noticed that the perspective of those who come last, who are welcomed home when they least expect it, are often filled with a sense of joy and gratitude?
Jonah cries: Lord, you can’t save those people – those worthless, no good, undeserving, godless Ninevites! It’s not fair. Why send me there to those people? God has a different plan for our lives.
The parable offers different way than fairness and just desserts. God freely gives to all the riches of love. When we turn our attention away from ourselves toward God, we gaze upon one who is always making a place at the table, always widening the space for community, always giving without regard to earning.
Knowing ourselves as receivers of God’s astonishing mercy is what opens wide our hearts to be merciful to others. Because God is generous to us we can be generous with others.