First in Line

Broad Brook Congregational Church

Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost

September 21, 2014

 

Matthew 20:1-16

First in Line

 

Being first in line is terrific! Remember in school when you were picked to be line leader? It made you feel important—set you apart from the other children. Being first in line—Yes it was really special.

 

I wonder what the persons were feeling the ones who were first in the many lines waiting for the new iPhone. I am thinking they were excited but also tired since they had to get there so early. What was it like having to keep their position and not let someone try to edge them out of first place. Line cutter! Line cutter!

 

And heaven forbid, what would have happened if the store mangers had decided to reverse the order and invite the last in first and made the first last? Unfair! Unfair!

 

It can also be unsettling to be first in line, if you don’t know what to expect. Having a position down the line lets you get a different view—lets you see what is expected of you when you get up to the front.

 

Can you also remember what it was like when you had to be last in line? It just didn’t seem fait did it?

 

In the paragraph just before our lectionary reading in Matthew for this morning, Jesus turns the normal order of things upside down. He says: “ Many who are first will be last and the last will be first. He repeats that to his disciples at the end of this morning’s parable also; Matt. 20:16 “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” That doesn’t seem fair!

 

There is something else, something more unjust in our parable. Let’s see what you think.

A paraphrase of Matt 20:1-16

            It is early morning—about 6 am and I have traveled to the town square. I am a landowner and I want to hire a few good workers to harvest my vineyard. There are a lot of people in the square hoping to be hired for the day. Let’s see how would you….like to work for me? I am willing to pay you the going rate for a day’s labor—ten dollars. That is enough for you to feed your family. What do you say—are you willing to work.

 

            It is now 9am and things are going well but I still see people in the square that are available for hire. I choose you…If you are willing?

 

            It is now high noon, the heat of the day, is upon us, and still there are those who are looing for work. I will hire you….

 

            It is 3 pm and the day is over half done and still there is work to do and people who are capable of labor. I will hire you…

 

            Oh my! The day is almost done. It is about 5 pm. One hour remains before the Jewish law requires that the work day is finished. Yet there remain a few people in the square. “Why are you standing here idle all day? Is it because no one hired you? You also go into the vineyard.

 

            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 gave to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?

 

YOU BET WE ARE!! Our standard of justice is equal pay for equal work. We have an innate sense of what is fair and what isn’t fair. It is fair to reward those who do the most work. Rewarding those who do the least work is unfair plain and simple.

 

Life is unfair at times. A worker does a superlative job everyday. She is the go to person for everything. She knows what is going on at all times. However when the time comes for bonuses the CEO says that there will be no bonuses. There will be an increase in pay across the board with everyone receive the same percentage of increase. After all that is what is fair for morale. It is NOT fair.

 

Life is not fair, after all we were not promised a rose garden. It is more like a bowl of cherries with all the pits. So if life isn’t fair shouldn’t God be fair! Isn’t God the one who knows everything about us, who writes our names in the book of life, whom we can count on to reward us fairly. God doesn’t let people cut in line! Life may not be fair but God should be.

 

But that is not the case according to today’s parable. God rewards each of the workers with equal pay despite unequal labor times. There is grumbling at the head of the line and jubilation at the end. Those who got more than they thought they deserved rejoice. Those that felt they got less than they deserve are furious.

 

Where do we locate ourselves in the line as we hear the story? Most of us, if we are honest are front of the line people. We are the ones cheated. How dare the landowner not pay us more than the people who only worked an hour?

 

What if we are wrong about our placement in the line? How does God see our location? What if God sees us as mid way in the line—people ahead of us and people behind us? Aren’t there more people who are deserving of God’s love than we are?

 

Suppose we are even further back than we think; perhaps nearer the end. It is possible for all sorts of reasons: illness, failed relationships, failed businesses. Even when we try our hardest life happens and something gets in our way. God knows where we are though and treats us with the same love and care as those who are ahead of us. That is great news!

 

Sometimes it is difficult for us to see God’s goodness to ourselves. But from the back of the line we get to see God’s generosity to others. It is precisely because they are other than us that we come to recognize the generosity of God. When we see God’s goodness given to others our eyes are opened to the miracle that God’s generosity is.

 

God is not fair; God is GENEROUS! This parable addresses those of us who have trouble rejoicing over the gift someone else receives. When we begrudge God’s generosity it is because we have forgotten where we are located in the line. If we can look at the world through the parable of the Workers in the Vineyard, we will recognize the truth of God’s generosity: all of us are God’s beloved children. Whether we are first in line or last in line is not as important as knowing in our heart of hearts that we are loved by a gracious, loving, generous God.