We all like things to be fair, I think – at least if we consider ourselves kind, good, fair-minded people. And certainly as Americans fairness and equity are part of what we say we believe and have built our democracy and our legal system upon: “Equal Justice Under Law” are the words inscribed over the front entrance of the Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C.
Of course, we know that over time and our history we have had to widen our vision and understanding of whom that equality and justice applied to. That has been and continues to be an important work of civic, legislative, and legal conversation that is often hard and messy. But at root, we want to be fair.
And then we have this morning’s Gospel, and the parable that Jesus tells the disciples – the punchline of which is “the last will be first, and the first will be last.” Despite the fact that we may have heard or said those words many times, they probably don’t sit too well with us. Or maybe you are hearing them for the first time and wonder what the heck Jesus is trying to say, because “the last will be first, and the first will be last” is not some truism.
The setting for this parable, this open-ended story, is the scene of a vineyard owner hiring day-laborers to work for him tending vines and picking grapes – a very well-known and common experience in Jesus’ day. The laborers who gather in a spot in the center of town and anyone who had work would come and hire workers for the day; and it wasn’t like taking a number at the deli counter and moving to the front of the line for the next job. An employer would choose whoever he wished. If he didn’t like the looks of you for whatever good or capricious reason, you did not get work.
In the parable Jesus tells us that the landowner hired a crew bright and early in the morning for the going rate. We might assume that he would have had a good sense of the manpower he needed for the work, and so that day’s task would have been done. But we hear that the landowner when back to the public square for more times – at 9, at noon, at 3, and finally at 5 pm, with only an hour left in the workday. We don’t know what motivated the landowner to do this, but all the workers seemed to be glad for the chance to work.
At the five o’clock hour, when the employer asks those left in the hiring place why they are still there they say it’s because no one has hired them. We don’t know why – too young, too old, maybe didn’t seem strong enough, maybe some of them had a reputation for causing trouble, maybe they were new in town and unknown to the employers. The landowner hires all the remaining laborers. They must have felt that even an hour’s wages would be better than nothing.
And yet when the workday is over the owner tells the manager to pay the one-hour workers a full day’s wage. I’m pretty certain those who worked the full day then expected that they would get more than what they contracted for because it looks like the boss is felling really generous today. But that is not, of course, what happens. The landowner pays all the workers the same amount, regardless of the time they worked. And when the twelve-hour workers find out, they are upset, feel that this arrangement is not fair. The employer tells them that he did not go back on his agreement with them; they have not been short-changed from what they have been promised. And Jesus ends the parable by saying “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
This does not seem fair to us; and if our own employer did this, we would probably be angry and upset. So, what is going on here? Jesus begins the parable with these words: “The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner…” He’s telling this story to provide a window into God’s nature and expectations for living as disciples in the Kingdom of God, in God’s realm.
It’s important to know that just prior to relating this parable, Jesus had been hearing from the disciples about the things they had sacrificed to follow him, to be on mission with him, that they had been with Jesus since the beginning of his public ministry. They wondered what their standing with him and with God would be as the result of all of that.
What he said to them then, and in this parable that followed, is really about God’s generous grace. God’s love and mercy and compassion, and our ability to know and experience the love of God is not based on our own striving, nor on what we think we deserve, nor on how much we may have done or how much we may have sacrificed for the cause of Christ.
God’s love and grace are offered to us whether we have gone the whole day with Jesus, or just one hour; an entire lifetime, or just at the last minute. God’s love is not contractual; it is generous beyond measure, and we would be foolish to try to compare God’s mercy given to us to God’s mercy given to another person.
So the parable describes the surprising generosity of God – to all people, even to others we may not think deserve it, even to us when we know in our heart of hearts we don’t deserve it. Because God’s love and grace are not about our worthiness, but about God’s goodness.
And then one of the ways that we can return thanks to God for his grace and mercy is by offering it to others, in real time, in real life; to dig below the level of good-but-mere fairness, to dig into the deep well of justice, and mercy, and abundantly generous love that is a hallmark of the kingdom of God. These parables that Jesus tells are here for us to be formed and shaped by them; to fit us and strengthen us to be God’s fellow workers; to make us to be more Christ-like. We live and move and have our being in God’s world, and we show forth God’s praise by living our lives as beacons of generous justice, mercy, and abundant love.
Let us pray.
O God, by whom the meek are guided in judgment, and
light riseth up in darkness for the godly: Grant us, in all
our doubts and uncertainties, the grace to ask what thou
wouldest have us to do, that the Spirit of wisdom may save
us from all false choices, and that in thy light we may see
light, and in thy straight path may not stumble; through
Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Victoria Geer McGrath
All Saints’ Church, Millington, NJ
Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 20, 2020