September 20, 2020

Pentecost 16A

The First Shall be Last and the Last First

Jesus said, “The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 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.’ But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” Matthew 20:1-16


I am sure we could all tell our own version and experience of this parable. We all know people who, in our not so humble opinion, neither earned not deserved what they got; a job, a promotion, a raise, recognition, happiness, or success. That we worked longer or tried harder seemed to make no difference. More often than not we view the world, ourselves and others through the lens of fairness rather than grace. And to do so is to view the world and ourself exactly opposite to how God regards these.

We were taught at an early age that fairness matters. Watch a bunch of children play and it won’t be long before you hear someone cry out, “That’s not fair.” My six year old grandson, Luke gives voice to this protest at least twice an hour.

And it’s not just children. Adults want fairness too. Sometimes with some sense of an offense being made against what might be considered just, and sometimes with the most, obscene impunity. For example, how many times in the last three and a half years has the man-child housed in the 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue Day Care Center, cried or tweeted “unfair” in reaction to his treatment by congress or the legitimate press.

Getting back to the real world, too often fairness rather than love, acceptance, mercy, forgiveness, or generosity is the measure by which we act and judge another person or life circumstances.

I think we like fairness because it gives us some measure of order, predictability, control, and hierarchy; even if it is a false assurance. Fairness is based on what you deserve, how hard you work, what you achieve, the way you behave. Sometimes it is fair to give a reward and other times to give a punishment. We live in and promote what can be called a wage-based society in which it is the spoken and unspoken assumption that you must earn what you get. A person deserves the consequences, good or bad, of their actions.

The exploitive economic sea in which we swim is most definitely wage-based. It takes its animus from the Calvinist work ethic. You must earn what you have, and if you don’t have, then you have clearly not worked hard enough. This, it would seem, is the philosophical foundation of capitalism. It allows many to blame the poor for their poverty. You know, everyone can lift themselves up from their bootstraps if they just engage the effort. Everyone can achieve the American dream if you apply yourself and work hard enough. If your dream is a nightmare you have obviously failed yourself. The economic system cannot be blamed. The fact that some don’t have straps on their boots, and many don’t even have boots, does not factor into this worldview. Hard work discipline and frugality come with their appropriate rewards and if you are not prosperous it is undoubtedly because you haven’t worked hard enough.

But what happens when divine goodness trumps our very limited understanding and grasp of fairness? Well, you get today’s parable. Today’s parable suggests that wages and grace stand in stark opposition to each other. They are two opposing worldviews. The degree to which this parable strikes us as unfair is the degree to which our life and our world view is wage-based. A wage-based world view leaves little room for grace, both In our own lives and in the lives of others.

Grace, after all, is dangerous. It upends and reverses business as usual. “So, the last will be first and the first will be last.” “What nonsense,” the fairness gene cries out from deep within us. That is not how a wage-based society works. The world says that the last are last and the first are first because they deserve it. After all, this is what is fair.

Our understanding of fairness, however, does not seem to have much priority in the kingdom of God, where grace is the rule and not the exception to the rule. Grace looks beyond our productivity, our appearance, our dress, our race or ethnicity, our accomplishments, and yes even our failures. Grace recognizes that there is more to you and who you are than what you have done or left undone.

Grace reveals the goodness of God. Wages reveal human effort. Grace seeks unity and inclusion. Wages makes distinctions and separate. Grace just happens. Wages are based on merit. The only precondition of grace is that we show up and open ourselves up to receive what God is giving. When we do, we begin to see our lives, the world and our neighbors very differently. We begin to know a peace and a joy that a wage-based world simply cannot give.

In many ways, in the marketplace, asking to be paid what we are actually worth is probably the dumbest idea we could have. For most of us, it would probably mean taking a pay cut.

Grace reminds us that we are not nearly as self-sufficient, deserving, or independent as a wage-based society would like us to believe. Neither is our worth determined by our productivity or usefulness to another.

Grace, however, does not justify or excuse discrimination, unfairness, or oppression. Quite to the contrary it holds before us the truth that each person is more than their behavior, their looks, their accomplishments, or their failures.

The tragedy of a wage-based life is that it blinds us to the presence of grace, the life of God, in our own life. It can make us resentful of grace, goodness and beauty in the life of another. It separates and isolates us from others. Eventually we set us standards and expectations not only for ourselves, and others, but even for God.

That’s what happened to those first hired in today’s parable. They saw themselves as different from and more deserving than those hired later in the day. They grumbled against the landowner saying, “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us.”

The truth is that they are not that different from each other. Neither group owned the vineyard. Both groups needed a job and both groups were chosen, invited in, by no effort of their own doing. There is, however, something that distinguishes the first hired from the later hired.

The distinction is not what time they showed up for work. The real distinction between the first hired and all the later hired is the terms under which they entered the vineyard. The first hired entered the vineyard only after agreeing to the usual daily wage. They settled for too little. They shortchanged themselves. That is often what happens in a wage-based society. Apparently, the landowner is willing to pay more than the usual daily wage. A full day’s wage for less than a full day’s work. “That not fair,” we might say. No, it’s not. That’s grace.

The first hired got what they bargained for. The latter hired workers, those who come at 9AM, noon, 3PM and even 5PM, did not, however, negotiate for the usual daily wage. They entered the vineyard trusting they would be paid “what is right.” Whatever is right is not determined by the first hired or by a wage-based society, but by the goodness of the landowner. These later hired workers received more than they earned, more than they deserved, more than they had a right to ask or hope for. That is just what God does. “Whatever is right” is not about fairness but about grace.

Stop comparing yourself or your life to others and you will create room for grace to emerge. Refuse to compete in such a way that someone must lose for you to win. Trust that in God’s world there is indeed enough for everyone. Let go of expectations based on what you think you or others deserve. Give God the freedom to pay whatever is right knowing that God’s ways are not our ways. Make no judgements of yourself or others. That is the way of grace, the way of God.

Imagine if we let go of those four things: comparison, competition, expectation and judgement. Our life would be God-filled, we would make space for the life of another to be God-filled, and our otherwise wage-based world would, as the parable assures us, look a lot more like the kingdom of God.

The Rev. Frank J. Alagna
September 20, 2020