The First Shall Be Last

Sunday, 20 September 2020 09:30

Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. (Matthew 20:14)

There was a report published in The Times yesterday saying that the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, is finding the finances a bit tight on his £150 000 salary. Apparently he’s not sure if he’ll be able to afford a nanny for his recently born child. Now maybe your heart bleeds for him. Maybe you think he should try living on minimum wage for a while. There’s the argument, though, that Prime Minister is a very responsible job and there are people earning way more than that for presenting TV shows or kicking a football. On the other hand there are people earning way less than that keeping people alive in our hospitals. It can be very difficult to decide, on a moral basis, what people are worth financially.

The situation in the vineyard should be more straightforward. You’ve got different groups of people who’ve worked there for different amounts of time but they’re dong the same job. It should, surely, be possible to pay them on a pro-rata basis for hours worked. I’m guessing that the folk who were listening to this parable when Jesus first preached it were expecting exactly that when they heard they heard that the last group of workers got the full daily wage. They’ll have been thinking that the guys who’d arrived first would be in for a windfall. 

We can imagine the folk listening to this parable going, “Wait! What? when that doesn’t happen” The parables are often like that. They often contain a kind of twist that’s meant to make us think, “Wait! What?”. They’re supposed to pull us up short and make us think. If they didn’t do that I’d be out of a job because they wouldn’t have been able to fuel sermons for the last two thousand years.

So let’s put some context on this parable. The owner of the vineyard goes out early in the morning to hire people to work in his vineyard. That’s telling us something about the employment practices of the time. It’s what’s called casual labour. Folk were hired on a daily basis. They’d gather somewhere - probably the market place - and employers would go , “You, you, you and you come and work for me”. They’d be employed for that day and they’d earn just enough to buy food and the other essentials for one day. That’s what the text means by “the usual daily wage”. It was a terribly hand-to-mouth existence. If you didn’t work you didn’t eat that day; your family didn’t eat. No wonder men were still hanging around looking for work hours later - even if they didn’t get the full daily wage, maybe they could earn enough to feed their kids even if they went hungry. 

So here’s the thing. The vineyard owner in the parable is God. I don’t know of any interpretation of this parable that doesn’t run with that. If God were a vineyard owner can we imagine him not paying at least enough for people to eat and stay warm and clothed? This is the God who has given us a world to live in that provides enough food and water, enough energy resources, enough building resources; has provided us with intelligence, creativity and skills enough to provide food, shelter, warmth for everyone - especially in a wealthy country like this one.

So why are there people going hungry, homeless and cold? Maybe because we think that care for others should be limited; that there should be some kind of ‘priority list’ - that those more ‘deserving’ should get more than others, whatever ‘deserving’ might mean.

Let me give you an example. You’ll have heard of Gary Lineker - a very well-paid football commentator and enjoyer of crisps. On Twitter he’d written some stuff supporting asylum seekers so a whole bunch of folk were on saying, “If you care so much for asylum seekers, why don’t you put one up in that big house you’ve got?” So he did. A humane, decent thing to do, you’d think. What did he get for his pains? “How dare you put up an asylum seeker when there are homeless veterans our streets!”

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that there should be homeless veterans on our streets so that asylum seekers can be housed. I’m saying that it would be just peachy keen if no one had to go hungry, had to go cold without a roof over their heads.

As I’m writing this a thought strikes me. Several times, in the parables, Christ uses the phrase “the first shall be last and the last shall be first”. Over the centuries that’s been interpreted as a reversal of the social order so that the first become last and the last become first. In other words there’s still a pecking order. What if it means that there is no first or last because first is last and last is first? 

That’s what this parable of is all about - the care of God is for all his people equally. He doesn’t set limits on his care for this group over here because he cares more for that group over there - that’s what the last part of the story of Jonah is all about. Read again that story of Jonah going to Ninevah - the people who had plundered the northern state of Israel - in the full knowledge that God would, out of his love and mercy, forgive them because they, too, were his children. Now imagine going to God and praying “Please Lord, house our veterans but don’t bother with asylum seekers”. 

While we so often limit our compassion and care for others to our group, our family, our tribe, our people or folk who ‘deserve’ it, the compassion and care of God is for all his children, whatever the colour of the skin, the circumstances they find themselves in or the flag they wrap themselves in. Compassion and care, though, are just other words for love and there are no limits to the love of God.

The vineyard owner hands over the daily wage to all his employees regardless of how long they’d laboured - of how much they ‘deserved’ because the daily wage was the ‘living wage’; it was life. In Christ God offers his children life - life eternal. There are no limits on that. There’s no “You, you, you and you - you can have it but the rest of you can’t.” Why not? Because the first shall be last and the last shall be first and there are no limits on the love of God.

And there’s no pecking order there. There’s no suggestion that in the life to come some will be driving around Heaven in winged Rolls Royces while others will be pushing themselves along on skateboards or whatever for the first shall be last and the last shall be first. There will be no ‘in-crowd or ‘hoi polloi’. Why not? Because there are no limits on the love of God.

So why are we here? What is the Church for? What are we meant to do with this parable? Here and now we are meant to offer a counter-narrative to an ever more mean-spirited society. We are meant to bear witness to the love of God - a love that has no limits. A love that would have all his children fed and housed; a love that doesn’t distinguish between those who deem themselves worthy and those who do not. A love that gave his own son for the least ‘worthy’ in the world on the Cross of Calvary; a love that doesn’t care where you come from or where you are but offers eternal life.

A love that we are meant to bear witness to in all we say and do. Why? Because whether we are the first workers in the vineyard or the last we are loved by God without limit. And that is our triumph and our challenge - to go forth and do likewise in the world we live in. 

Lord, the first shall be last and the last shall be first. Save us from creating a sliding scale for our compassion. Teach us to love as you love and to be workers in your vineyard

Preaches at Gretna: St Andrews