The first shall be last and the last shall be first
The first will be last and the last will be first.
In our Gospel reading today, the landowner hires some labourers and then pays those who have only been around for about an hour the same total wage as those who had been working all day.
Do you consider that fair? Let’s do a show of hands. Who thinks that is fair payment for the workers? Who thinks that this this is totally unfair and should be challenged?
It is easy to sit back and say yes but God’s ways are different from our ways, so just get over it. Well, the trouble with that is that we don’t learn anything and there is a real risk that we just harbour a slowly growing sense that God is a harsh taskmaster who just does what he wants, because we are just the paid hands after all. I think that is a shame because we then get a warped image of what God is wanting for us from the relationship, and it doesn’t tie with other areas of scripture where God seems to be saying he wants to embrace us in an intimacy that is to a lot of people frightening.
So why do we find the story difficult, why do we jump to conclusions when we face difficult stories, and why don’t we trust God enough to teach us something about Heaven and what God is like. After all I think that is what Jesus was trying to do here.
First off, the landowner story is a story; it is total fiction, made up by Jesus himself, and the purpose of the story if we take the reading to be truthful is to show is what the Kingdom of Heaven is like. It in in this particular piece of detail because he has just said to his disciples that the first will be last and the last will be first. So it is worth going back to that discussion to see why Jesus felt the need to explain this at all. In fact in Chapter 19 we have a rather unsavoury set of interactions. First of all there is the Pharisees question about marriage, and Jesus’ response upsets the disciples who clearly think he is asking for way too much. “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry” is their response. Clearly they are unhappy that Jesus is suggesting that the Moses given tradition of being able to dispose of a wife is the husband is unhappy is wrong. He takes them back to the original purpose of relationship, where two people become one flesh – a relationship where the needs of the other are as important as the needs of the one. The children are then brought to Jesus and the disciples are rebuked by Jesus for trying to keep them away. Then we have the tale of the rich young man. Jesus is asked what good deed must be accomplished to enter eternal life. Jesus’ response is wistful at best; Why do you ask me what is good? Jesus could have been just being awkward of course, but we don’t see from the scripture who the questioner is; what is likely though is that Jesus is fully aware that any young Jew would know the Torah so this is the manner of his reply, he reminds the young man of the primal need to worship God and follow the commandments. That sounds reasonable, then the young man responds with “I do all this. What do I still lack?”
This tells us a lot about this young man, he is not just some random young bloke of the hills, he is a learned intense person, perhaps a young Pharisee or Sadducee, who knows but certainly one who has been well versed in the law and has possibly had access to more education than most – he is seeking perfection- is he an Essene perhaps. Jesus response is interesting is that he picks up that this person is seeking perfection, so he tells him to cut all ties with the world and to follow Jesus; he invites him to be one of his disciples the close ones who have been travelling with him for 2 years or more. The seeker rejects the invite and goes away disappointed. Matthew states he had many possessions; but doesn’t stipulate what type of possession. We don’t actually know what they are, but we have assumed down the ages that the man is rich materially. It could be that he was ties to status as a learned person in society, so the possessions could be emotional, we just don’t know.
Jesus commentary that it is going to be really tough for anyone with any sense of their own importance to enter the Kingdom of God, then seems to touch a nerve in his own disciples who perhaps are still smarting following the discussions on marriage, the importance of children and now this? So much so that Peter comes forward, who else? And we see a touch of frustration in his tone. Look Jesus, we have given up everything. I mean everything to follow you so far, What will we have? You can hear the following if is not actually reported in print, “Only it’s not going well at the moment is it?
And so Jesus explains that when things come to their fruition they will receive payment, though he couches it in rather oblique terms. He then gives the warning that the first will be last and the last will be first. It is on the back of this then that Jesus feels the need to try and put some light into what he means.
In the story it all looks pretty straightforward God is the landowner, the vineyard is of course Israel and the workers presumably are the disciples. Yes this parable is aimed at the disciples. The early workers perhaps those whom Jesus called first, the later ones followers who have decided to come along later on, perhaps even including those whom the group think are just perhaps part timers? Was Jesus being open to too many people for the disciples liking. Was this also part of a rebuke going back to the issue with the children, where the disciples were trying to keep Jesus to themselves?
The payment, the reward for the disciples is actually going to be the same whatever time they turned and however much they have done. The reward is the same because it is free and open relationship with God. The first will be last and the last will be first – they will be equal. Though the last will feel better than the first IF those who are first feel hard done by and are still attached to their own needs and wants. You see it is not about a reward or payment, and if we are to understand Jesus here we need to get that bit right. God isn’t going to reward us for being loyal. God has already agreed with us the deal if you like. We are welcomed into the Trinity, but to enjoy that, we need to make sure we put aside any needs or wants for anything more. After all, what can be worth more than an intimate relationship with God. We know this is true, but so often we forget it and walk away because we demand a prize for us. This story in fact echoes the prodigal son, I will let you look that up and read at your leisure. The basic teaching however is the same.
Not surprisingly immediately after the parable, what does Jesus say to his disciples? He reminds them that he is going up to Jerusalem and is going to be killed, this leads directly to the next row among the disciples about who is more important. So in the end, Jesus has to virtually repeat his teaching by calling his disciples together and telling them in straight terms that he is not teaching a hierarchy that is recognisable in Roman civilisation or Judaic life. He is showing them how the Kingdom of Heaven works and he will demonstrate this to them in person in Jerusalem when he adopts the role of a slave to wash their feet, and then of course literally becomes a slave and allows the leaders to kill him in the manner of a slave; crucifixion – a sentence for terrorists and slaves.
Let us as a modern group of disciples reflect on these words, may we follow Jesus in his model of servant leadership avoiding the temptations of status or being, and letting go of the behaviours of lording it over others.
In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.