Sermon Proper 20 A
“The First shall be Last and the Last shall be First.” These words are important for this gospel and are found in many of the Gospels. This reversal, this idea, this spark, is in our outlook and thinking as Christians. In some cases, it may turn the world on its head, but it also opens more to explore here: Expectation, Envy and Generosity.
There are many views and understandings of this parable from Matthew; it important to know it is the continuation of the theme in the previous chapter, chapter 19, just before our Gospel text, which ends with this: “But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.” Today’s Gospel continues this theme and the careful arrangement of this switch, first/last and last/first creates the dilemma in this parable. If those hired first had received their pay first, and then gone home, there would be no problem, no misunderstanding; but also no parable to learn from and ponder. So this is a key in this parable and in the Gospels, but I would like to deal also with what it unlocks.
The first is expectation. Expectation is a part of life; everywhere we go, with everything we do, we act and react many times with expectation. Where we wake up in the morning, when we can stumble to the bathroom in the dark in the middle of the night without turning on the light: we deal with expectation. When we pull out of the drive way and then come to the signal lights on Lower Sacramento Road to get here; that we can go when the light is green and others stop (we hope) when they get a red light: expectation. Certainly we see expectation play a part in our first lesson, about the prophet Jonah. He calls on the great city of Ninevah to repent and they do, but they repent not up to Jonah’s expectations, but certainly to Gods, so they are spared. However, Jonah is not satisfied and it shows. He would rather go away and die than see things not live up to his expectations. So God sends him a bush to shade his final, hot days and he laments it’s early death more than he does the possible loss of thousands of people in Ninevah. His expectations are in the wrong pace and are dashed. Expectation, however are not bad or good, just a part of life we should see and know about; something we have to be aware of, how they mold and shape our lives and our behavior.
Expectation can lead us to delight, disappointment, surprise and even envy. In our parable, the A team, the early bird workers were ready in the right spot to be hired for a days work, a hard days work, for a normal days pay.
Of all the people gathered to hear this word of God, I can think of none better equipped than people living in Lodi in September to easily identify with the landowner who had to hire whom he could, to get in the harvest from the vineyard on time; to know how crucial this would be. You either know or understand the problem from living here. And from our friends and neighbors who work in the grape industry, we understand the pressure, the all out effort from everyone at harvest time. So to harvest everything that needed to be done, our owner returned to the hiring place again and again, to get more people to work in the fields. Now, to people who don’t live where they harvest grapes, this parable sounds like a set up, but to us, it makes perfect sense. If things look like they need to be harvested, soon, then the more hands in the fields, the better. First you hire the A team, then others who show up later, the B team, then on and on until late in the day, when you can’t harvest any more. It is then we see the problem paying the last hired people first. The owner decides to pay everyone the same, starting with the people who he just hired, but this creates a problem. Since the ones who worked just a little got a full days wage, those working longer hours expected they would be getting more, not the original sum they agreed to, but they do get the same thing, so now, they were displeased. Why? Envy.
Yes, I would say that envy is the next part of this parable. As much as the expectations of the first hires, the A team, changed, seeing what others were paid, they were suddenly disappointed and envious of what had just happened. We hear it in this quote ‘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.’etc. They were suddenly envious of those who worked less and received the same as they. They were suddenly feeling taken advantage of, cheated. Things weren’t right. But these feelings are not only built by expectation, but by envy. By looking over the fence and seeing what your neighbor has, what they received, suddenly expectation is moved to envy. And we should realize we live in a world full of envy.
Much of the advertising we see everyday is built around first expectation and then envy. Have you heard these words in an ad? “You deserve it.” “Why settle for second best?” “Move up to the next level.” Envy sells. We are always just this close to envy of what others seem to have that we don’t. It works. But I think we have to know how this works and how much it is all around us. It is built into the human condition; it is built into who we are. But I also believe we have moved into a time when we are so surrounded by envy, not just A is better than B, but “Don’t you deserve the new and improved A?” It is in front of us in so many ways everyday. We need to guard against the subtle way we are moved from expectation to envy. We will see it even with our last element: Generosity.
How can you argue with generosity? It is what ends this parable and when I think about it, unlike expectation or envy, there is little to argue against generosity. It is a very good thing, something to be encouraged. We need to be careful; perhaps being generous beyond our means could be a down side. But how thankful have we all been when someone is generous to us! How blessed a gift has it been when, by the grace of God, some extra money, an extension on a debt or a due date has been given to us? How thankful we are for generous people! And yet, and yet, if I had think of something that bothered me about generosity it would be: “They were generous with this person, but not with me; that’s not right!” Hmm; that sound like….Envy. There it is again! I compare myself with others, even when someone has been generous, and it is envy that shows up. So there is this dark side of generosity; especially when it doesn’t involve us! Beyond that, I think we can see how generosity is a very good virtue. But be careful; it is also too easy to rush to the idea that this parable is only about the grace of God, who we see as the landowner. If we just treat everyone equally, like the land owner in the parable, how generous we would be. But some of the generosity we have experienced in life, that we have felt ourselves or seen, is not just about wages or money. It is the careful giving of help when we needed it; of a kind word that moved us to tears, when we least expected it. It is being generous with our love for others, being generous with how we are and how God directs our lives to others. Perhaps this is the most difficult generosity to come to experience and to know, that comes as grace, because it can not be measured. One commentary I found said:
“Grace is always amazing grace. Grace that can be calculated and ‘expected’ (v.10) is no longer grace.” (cf.22:11-14)
So this reversal of first/last and last/first serves a great purpose in the Kingdom of God, the Reign of God, to help expose to us how we can see expectation and not be moved to envy, to know the power offered in Generosity, both as only God can offer it and as we can as well. It is a power we can know from our own experiences, something we need to remember to offer to others; to reach outside ourselves and our busy lives to come to that spirit of generosity. And it is much more than just a financial guide. It can include so much more. It can be experienced is so many other parts of life and our relationships with others.
It can also sometimes be described as a great banquet, offered by God to all. It is a meal of generosity, of acceptance, of grace, that we experience and we will offer here soon around this table. It is Gods promise of generosity, of acceptance, offered in the midst of community. John Chrysostom, fourth century bishop, whose name Chrysotom means “golden-mouthed”, that is, eloquent, expressed the example of God’s generosity found in this parable this way:
“Let those who have toiled since the first hour, let them now receive their due reward; let any who came after the third hour be grateful to join the feast, and those who may have come after the sixth, let them not be afraid of being too late, for the Lord is gracious and he receives the last even as the first. He gives rest to those who come on the eleventh hour as well as to those who have toiled since the first: yes, he has pity on the last and he serves the first; he rewards the one and is generous to the other; he repays the deed and praises the effort.”
“Come you all: enter into the joy of your Lord. You the first and you the last, receive alike your reward; you rich and you poor, dance together; you sober and you weaklings, celebrate the day; you who have kept the fast and you who have not, rejoice today. The table is richly loaded: enjoy its royal banquet. The calf is a fatted one; let no one go away hungry. All of you enjoy the banquet of faith; all of you receive the riches of God’s goodness.” Amen.