The First and the Last

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The full readings for today can be found here.

Or are you envious because I am generous?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last.

In the name of the Living God, who binds all of us together: Creator, Redeemer, Sanctifier.

Good morning, good morning. It is a great pleasure to be with you again at St. Paul’s and I want to thank your rector for inviting me and you for your wonderful hospitality.

You know, I grew up out in West Texas, and was the eldest of four boys. And although my parents never said so, I’m sure they were terribly grateful for my finely attuned sense of fairness. Because whenever they made a mistake in the allocation of resources (whether it was Christmas presents, dolling out allowances or apportioning dessert), they could count on my keen sense of justice and willingness to speak up and tell them: “That’s not fair.”

I had a profound sense of justice and of the urgency to get my fair share, to get what’s coming to me. And so, for a long time, the story in today’s Gospel bothered me. But as I’ve gotten older and my focus has turned to the spiritual life and perhaps a broader awareness of just how lucky I’ve been, I have come to realize that the very last thing in the world I want from God is for God to give me what’s coming to me.

So, let’s take a look at this parable, this story that Jesus tells to his listeners. First, we need to note that the whole story is set in the context of Jesus trying to explain what the kingdom of God is like. And I don’t think Jesus was necessarily trying to give them a description of heaven, because elsewhere, he tells them, “The Kingdom of God is within you now.” So, Jesus is trying to explain how we can live into, how we can bring about the kingdom, here and now. This story isn’t about some rarefied, ethereal event that will happen in the sweet by and by: it’s about how we live our lives right here and right now.

So, the parable itself is not that complicated. It’s not a hard story to follow. Then again, as Mark Twain once said, “Most people are bothered by those passages of Scripture they do not understand, but the passages that bother me are those I do understand.”
A landowner needed people to work in his vineyards. He hires workers early in the morning, and again at nine, and noon, at three in the afternoon and again at five o’clock. And when it comes time to pay the workers, he pays those who showed up last first, and to compound things he pays those who only worked for an hour the same wage as those who worked all day. When the day ends, all of them (those who showed up early and those who showed up late) are all paid the same wage. And the workers who worked all day in the hot sun begin to do exactly what we would expect—exactly what most of us would do—they engage in one of the most ancient practices of Christians everywhere; they grumble.

Now, I love that word: grumble. It sounds like a cross between a grunt, a groan and mumble. We think it comes from the Middle French or Middle Dutch, and meant to “mutter between the teeth.” And if we look at the Old Testament lesson today from Exodus, that’s exactly what we find God’s people doing in the desert: they are grumbling, they are complaining. So, we have been doing this for a very long time, and have gotten pretty good at it by now.

If we think about Jesus’ parable, it’s probably helpful to think about those laborers. Day laborers probably weren’t all that different in the first century than they are today. The men who would have been hired first, early in the morning, would most likely be those who were young, strong, healthy and looked like they could do a hard day’s work. By five o’clock in the afternoon, the men left would probably have been the old, the weak and perhaps those who were lame. And yet, they had the same needs as those who were strong and healthy: they needed to feed themselves and those they cared for. So, maybe, part of what Jesus is trying to tell us is that God is far more concerned with our needs than with our abilities. In other words, God’s economy may have a great deal more to do with generosity than with merit.

I know that will come as a great disappointment to many of us; our culture insists upon the importance of merit. Whether it’s athletic ability, intellectual capability, holiness and piety, wealth or beauty, we crave success: it’s the addiction of our age. So, whatever this kingdom of God is, I’m not sure it looks very much like our society today.

You see, it looks like God is much more concerned with mercy than with justice. Or at least, God’s justice looks a lot more like peace and mercy than some courtroom drama where the criminals get what’s coming to them. Which is kind of a shame, because we Americans really love justice. We love it when the billionaire is sent to prison for insider trading, or when the politician is caught perjuring himself before a senate committee, or when the sanctimonious preacher is exposed in a torrid sexual affair. Schadenfreude—the delight at watching another’s misfortune—may well be the emotion most characteristic of our age. As the Canadian songwriter Bruce Cogburn said, “Everybody loves to see justice done . . . on somebody else.”

But I’m beginning to think that God’s justice looks a lot more like what most of us would call mercy. And so, most of us can breathe a collective sigh of relief. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu has observed, we may be quite surprised by the people who end up in heaven. “God has a soft spot in his heart for sinners. His standards are really quite low.”

In the parable, Jesus points out something else that I think is really important for us today. It’s a curious phrase: “Or are you envious because I am generous?” In the original Greek it reads: “Is your eye evil because I am good?” I think Jesus is pointing out one of the greatest spiritual dangers most of us face, the danger of envy, of thinking we deserve what someone else has. In the final analysis, when we feel that, we are saying God or the fates or life has treated us poorly, that we deserve what others have. And as Shakespeare once observed, “Comparisons are odious.” But they’re worse than smelly; they are dangerous in that they encourage us to continue the practice of keeping score. And in the spiritual life, that is a sure road to Nowheresville, a long, rocky path to unhappiness and bitterness.

Jesus talked about the same thing in the Gospel reading last week, when he spoke about forgiveness. If you’ll remember, Peter asked if he would need to extend forgiveness as many as seven times. Jesus answered, “Not seven times, but seventy-seven times.” In other words, you’re going to have to do it so often that you lose count, that you give up the practice of keeping score. You see, when I’m looking at whether someone else deserved an award, or a raise, or a new car, I’m avoiding examining at my own life and the choices that I’ve made and the kind of person that I’ve become.

Jesus contrasts that kind of life with a life of radical generosity and a life full of grace. Grace doesn’t have anything to do with what we deserve; it is by its very nature an undeserved gift, a gift given out of love rather than obligation or merit. When we learn to trust in the Lord of heaven, we find a God who will rain down bread on us, who sets a table for us as we wander through the desert. What does it mean for us if God’s love, God’s grace, God’s mercy, doesn’t depend at all on our effort, our achievement, or our merit? I think following Jesus may mean that we have to give up keeping score and recognize that we have enough for today, enough for this day’s journey. And enough, as my parents told me so often, is enough.

So, I’m wondering what this passage might mean for us in really practical everyday terms. It might mean that we give a coworker a second, or even a third chance. It might mean that we give something to a street person, regardless of whether we think they deserve it or not. Or it might mean that we forgive someone who hasn’t really shown they’re sorry, or that we are kind to those who have been unkind to us in the past. It may not change them, it may not change them at all, but maybe if we’re really lucky and God rains down his mercy on us, it just might change us. Amen.

James R. Dennis, O.P. © 2017

3 responses to “The First and the Last

  1. Thanks – it reads as well as it sounded. Flows well, with good insights and the end is very strong and brings it home – and back to our own experience which you tapped into at the beginning.

    Well done, Brother!

    >

  2. Okay. I never liked that parable either, early riser and hard worker that I am. I still maintain I’d be happier if it had ended with a more graduated payscale. But you explanation illuminates some key ideas… so thank you.

    ❤️ L

    Sent from my iPhone

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  3. Fabulous reading. Thank you

    Sent from my iPad

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