Monday, September 18, 2017

First and Last

When I read the Gospel lesson for this coming Sunday (Matthew 20:1-16), I felt both the excitement of having a rich parable to unpack and the terror of having a rich parable to unpack. Jesus' glimpses of the kingdom are rarely things that make churchgoers like me and our congregation feel better about ourselves and our relationship with God. Instead, they are usually messages of welcome and inclusion for the kind of people who aren't in church, which means that those of us who think we have a reserved place may need to step out of the way. Sunday's parable is no exception.

To a white, middle-class American, I don't think there are any more threatening words than "you have made them equal to us." This is the parable of the laborers in the vineyard. The owner hires different laborers at 6am, 9am, noon, 3pm, and 5pm. When it is time to pay them, he starts with those who only worked an hour and paid them a full day's wage. Expecting to receive more, the ones who worked all day were angry to discover that they, too, only received a full day's wage. They grumble to their master, saying, "These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat." Our work is unequal. Our effort is unequal. Our deservedness is unequal Yet the pay, the compensation, the reward is equal. That's not good enough, the laborers think.

Jesus tells this parable to illustrate an important concept in the Gospel: "The last will be first, and the first will be last." That's Jesus' way of saying that in God's kingdom, when the reign of God is fully established, when the ways of God become a reality on earth, those who are at the end of the earthly receiving line will find themselves at the head of God's receiving line. Like it or not, that's how it is in God's kingdom. When God is in charge, those who have nothing are those who receive, and those who have are those who get nothing. When God is in control, people are not rewarded in proportion to their effort. When describing the reign of God, preachers like me use phrases like "the poor shall become rich" and "the weak shall become strong," but saying those words doesn't really show what the kingdom will look and feel like. Nothing gets that across as completely as this parable. Nothing helps God's people see what the reversal of God's kingdom means like lining them up and paying them all the same amount no matter how long they worked.

At the end of Matthew 19, Jesus says to the rich young man that he must give up all of his possessions in order to receive eternal life. The man walks away grieving "for he had great possessions." When the disciples ask about this, Jesus tells them that it is easier for a camel to fit through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich person to enter the kingdom. Confused, the disciples asked whether it was possible for anyone to enter the kingdom, and Jesus replied, "With God all things are possible." Peter, perhaps in an attempt of self-justification, asks whether the disciples, who have left everything to follow Jesus, will receive a reward in heaven. Jesus confirms this by introducing this important kingdom concept: "And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands for my sake will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last first,"

This concept of first becoming last and last becoming first is not just a catch-phrase for Jesus' ministry. These were real concepts in his day. People understood what it meant to be among the first or among the last. In today's financial terms, we might use labels like "the one percent" or "welfare recipients." In today's cultural terms, we might use labels like "society's leaders" and "society's dregs." In other words, this reversal of first and last is not merely about letting others go ahead of us. It's about status and access and privilege and resources. If you want to get into the kingdom, you need to do more than let other people go in front of you. You have to yield everything that comes with being at or near the front of the earthly line. Sunday's parable, therefore, is a reality check. If your concept of yielding looks more like a check in the offering plate or a self-righteous prayer for the needy than it does a socialist system of universal wages, you may still be riding on the camel that's trying to fit through the needle's eye. The kingdom of God is good news for the poor and difficult news for the rich. It stings. It hurts. It takes away that which is precious to us: our deserts. Actually, that's good news for all of us, but most of us have to become poor to see it.

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