first shall be last
Septuagesima Feb. 12, 2017
Joshua 1:1-9, Psalm 20, 1 Corinthians 9:24-27, St. Matthew 20:1-16
At a party, Dr. Smith and Lawyer Jones are exchanging lofty thoughts when the widow McGillicuddy barges in. She reports that her lumbago is dealing her the very deuce of a time, especially in the right side of her lower back. She demands advice from Dr. Smith.
Now, if my paternal grandmother, Jennie Clementine Mooney Fowler, late of County Offaly, Ireland, had been on the scene, she would not have hesitated to prescribe: a double shot of Dr. Porter’s Healing Oil, half to be rubbed vigorously into the complaining region of the anatomy and half to be swallowed.
Ingrown toenail, bubonic plague, it was all the same. Dr. Porter’s magic elixir was the remedy.
But Mammy never went to parties.
We have no record of what Dr. Smith advised but, whatever it was, it satisfied the widow McGillicuddy, who pressed on.
Dr. Smith was annoyed at this intrusion on his private time. Didn’t he keep office hours? Hadn’t he studied long and hard to learn skills for which he should by rights be compensated?
He asked Lawyer Jones, “Can I send her a bill?” Lawyer Jones assured him he could.
The next day, Dr. Smith mailed a bill to the widow McGillicuddy for $50.
The day after, he received a bill . . . for legal services from Lawyer Jones for $100. What’s good for the goose . . .
Justice rocks. We all adore justice . . . some of the time.
In our parable from the 20th chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, a number of workers hire on to harvest grapes in a certain vineyard at dawn, about 6 a.m. As the day progresses and they toil under a broiling sun, the owner of the vineyard takes on more workers at various hours.
Some even go to work a short time before sundown. We are not to understand that those who went to work later rather than sooner were idlers. In first-century Palestine, such laborers occupied the bottom rung of the social ladder.
Servants and even slaves were attached to households and enjoyed a measure of security. Day laborers gathered at the town’s marketplace each day at sunrise, hoping for employment. The scene is not that far removed from what we find in many large cities in our country today:
Latin American men assembling at various sites along major roadways, making themselves available for hire by any passer-by in need of their labor for the day.
Back in Palestine, men who failed to find a job for the day might well go to bed hungry that night – and their families as well. These men were not shirking; they were merely passed over.
This time, the master of the vineyard adds to his crew throughout the day. Perhaps he has an eye on the weather. If he does not complete the harvest before the rains set in he’ll lose his crop. Whatever the reason, he continues to hire.
He does not promise the added workers a denarius, as he had those hired at sunrise; instead he will pay them “whatever is right.”
At the end of the day, he settles up: a denarius for each worker. Now, if he had paid first those he hired first, they would have gone on their way with no complaint. A denarius was the standard wage for a day’s work and the pay he had promised at the start.
Instead, he pays first those he hired last, giving a denarius to each of these who had started work when the day was far spent. The early birds, seeing this, anticipate a greater sum for their greater toil. But when their turn comes they each receive a denarius, and they chafe.
Where’s the fairness, where’s the justice? Would you want to be treated like that?
“But he answered one of them and said, `Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? `Take what is yours and go your way. I wish to give to this last man the same as to you. Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with my own things? Or is your eye evil because I am good?’”
Is that fair?
Our Lord Jesus, the teller of the parable, is neither politician nor sociologist. He is not wading into a minimum-wage controversy.
As always when we study the parables, we endeavor to tease out the one main point. We must avoid getting sidetracked by cultural issues that strike us as strange but should not distract us from that central idea.
That point in this story is God’s grace. Jesus wants us to see that man’s notions of justice cannot bind God’s grace. He will confer it on whom He pleases, when He pleases, how He pleases. If we dwell long on the matter we might even wonder how distant we are from the Pharisees, those all-star legalists of Jesus’ day.
If we are saved by God’s grace, will we complain that others got a better shake by laboring less in this earthly vineyard? Who among us would begrudge our mother or father, brother or sister, admission into the kingdom following a tardy confession of Christ as Savior?
Would we say, “No, slam the door on her; she only came round to the gospel truth in the last year of her life”?
I think not. Would we not be delighted by such a turn of events? I know I was when my father came to saving faith on his death bed. He didn’t leave his awakening quite as late as did the thief on the cross . . . but he cut things far too close for my liking.
It seems possible, even likely, that Matthew – writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit – is putting the balance right. In the previous episode in his gospel, we have seen Peter demanding of his Lord with his usual brashness:
“See, we have left all and followed You. Therefore what shall we have?”
Jesus replies: “Assuredly I say to you, that in the regeneration, when the Son of Man sits on the throne of His glory, you who have followed Me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.
“And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or lands, for My name’s sake, shall receive a hundredfold, and inherit eternal life.”
This is a pledge that is clearly not meant to be taken literally. Still it is a promise of rich blessing in return for faithful service to the Lord.
Jesus closes this part of the narrative with, “But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.” He then proceeds directly into our parable, at the end closing the brackets: “So the last will be first, and the first last. For many are called, but few chosen.”
Matthew, I think, is arranging his material to dash any reader’s inkling that salvation can be earned. In this chapter as throughout the Scriptures we find the ideas of kingdom work and kingdom reward held in tension. Perhaps the best way to think of it is this: Those who love the Lord will remain with Him into eternity.
And they will, of course, have performed good deeds that their love for Him generated. And that’s all we need to know.
The reward is not something separate from the activity conferred as payment but the activity itself in consummation. An apple farmer reaps his reward when he and his family eat their apples. In the same way, the reward for a life lived out according to kingdom standards is life in the consummated kingdom.
Living for Christ in the acceptance of God’s grace is its own reward.
In heaven there was once a great debate as to who was the greatest monument to God’s grace. All breasts were bared and all secrets revealed as the redeemed sought to pay tribute to the grace of God.
One after another related the crippling sin out of which Christ had delivered him. After some time, the consensus appeared to be settling upon one man who, it seemed, had committed every sin. He related iniquity upon black iniquity as he flipped through the pages of his autobiography.
And then he told of how on his deathbed Christ came and saved him.
He must be the winner, hands down. But just before the vote was called, another stepped up to tell his story. He had come to know and love Christ as a child and had followed him all the days of his life, and by his Lord’s grace he had been kept from the sins the others confessed.
And so when the vote was taken it was not the drunkard or the junkie, not the adulterer or the perjurer, not the murderer or the blasphemer who was selected as the greatest monument to God’s grace. It was the man who had followed Christ all his days and been kept from so much sin by that grace.
Yet even so: “. . . the last will be first, and the first last.” It is not a man’s good deeds in this life — or the absence of bad ones — that justify him but the acceptance of God’s grace by the faith God supplies.
In truth, grace rocks. He is a fool indeed who would plead with God for justice rather than grace, a fool staring into a black hole with no bottom. Our Father denies none of His children their just desserts . . . and lavishes more on us than any of us merit – though not in equal measure.
We leap with that fool into the hole when we try to measure grace and compare portions of it: I got a bigger helping than you did, nyaa, nyaa, nyaa.
If you can measure your reward, it has no eternal value. If you can’t put a price on it, it might be priceless. God doesn’t want you to try to earn what He offers; He wants you to fall to your knees and admit that you can’t.
A trophy wife marries for money and itemizes her reward in furs, jewels and cars. A woman who marries for love can never weigh her husband’s reciprocated love – but she is the far richer of the two.
The former wants what she wants when she wants it. The latter wants what her husband wants – as he wants what she wants. Loving as the Scriptures tell of it is the hardest thing. Loving demands that we set ourselves aside and put another first . . . as our Lord Jesus did.
But don’t you see how two people in a relationship each putting the other first own their own little bliss machine? And so it should be for each of us in relationship with our Lord, who has given and goes on giving far more than we can ever offer in return.
Those who dwell on how much they have and compare their account balance to those of others are less concerned with grace than with earthly rewards.
Here is the clear and present danger for us who live in an affluent, increasingly secularized culture. What is secularism but an attachment to the things of this world and a search for meaning in them? What but a rejection of the supernatural?
Christ erected His church to teach the world, not to take lessons from it. Yet that is the story we hear over and again. At the “Mere Anglicanism” conference in Charleston, S.C., a year ago, the author Os Guinness told the audience:
“Our generation in the West can live by bread alone better than any other generation in history. There is such prosperity we don’t need religion. Atheism says that the impulse towards the transcendent must be resolutely resisted. Yet life points beyond itself. When you take away God, everything dissolves.” So said Os Guinness.
A week ago, many of us fired up the television to take in the Super Bowl. A succession of pricey and sometimes clever commercials informed us ad infinitum of what we deserve . . . when what we deserve, God’s word tells us, is death.
Somebody’s way off base here. And I don’t think it’s God.
Death is our wage according to our sin, and Dr. Porter’s potion won’t heal us of our sin. The only remedy for that is God’s grace. He bestows it where, when, how and on whom He chooses, some rather early and some quite late . . . as these matters seem to us.
Each time, another soul is added to the kingdom and, each time, we should rejoice with the angels in heaven. In God’s world, as long as we draw breath it is never too late to confess, to repent, to receive blessing. God’s grace is ever on offer to the wise. Only the fool seeks justice. Grace rocks. Amen.