Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The First Shall be Last...

by Brian Kirk

Here we go again with one of Jesus' wacky parables. It never fails that when I preach this text someone comes up to me afterwards and insists that I just don't seem to see the inherent unfairness in paying everyone the same wage for different amounts of work! My reply: Of course it's unfair. Nobody ever claimed the Kingdom of God was fair. And lucky for us that it isn't. It isn't fair. But it is full of grace and compassion and a love that doesn't keep a record of wrongs and rights.

This pable in Matthew is best read within its context. Before this passage we have several related teachings from Jesus. He tells the rich young man that, since he has done all the other things on his "I'm a good person" checklist, all that is left is to go and sell his possessions and give the proceeds to the poor. And the young man goes away in sorrow. This was apparently not the answer he wanted to hear. Then we have Jesus' teachings about how difficult it will be for the rich to enter the Kingdom. The disciples are perplexed by this teaching and Jesus assures them that those who are willing to give up all to follow him will inherit eternal life. Following this Sunday's text from Matthew, we have Jesus being approached by the mother of the Zebedee boys, wanting a parent-teacher conference to ask Jesus to make them the leads in the school play (so to speak). Jesus' eventual response: "Whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant. . . just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve." All this brackets our parable of the workers in the vineyard.

Though much could be said about this parable being about grace and justice to the poor and sharing God's resources extravagantly, at its core this text seems to be saying, "Stop worrying about what you have or don't have or what you still need to earn or whether you are good enough or worthy enough. Everything good that God has to give you is already yours. Stop looking at the other guy's possessions/status/opportunities and wondering whether or not he deserves them and see what God has already given to YOU: grace, forgiveness, compassion, love." This is the message Jesus is trying to pass on to the rich young man, but he knows the fellow will never see the truth of it until he gets rid of the stuff in his life that is blocking his view of God's good gifts. It's the message Jesus imparts to the Zebedee boys who are worried about their status and "getting to be first in the line" and Jesus knows they will never see the truth until they stop worrying about who deserves to be first and who deserves to be last. Just as WE can't see the radical truth of this parable until we are able to let go of our shouts of "But it's unfair!" and see that God's love and grace for all of us is completely and extravagantly and abundantly unfair.

As a side note, the Exodus reading for this Sunday provides a nice parallel to Matthew's teaching. The Israelites have been liberated from bondage and oppression . . . and all they can do is complain. "We're hungry! We'd have been better off if we stayed in Egypt." Are they suddenly unable to see the gift of freedom that God has placed before them. Instead of rejoicing in what they have, they despair over what they lack. And despite the fact this ungrateful bunch doesn't deserve it, God provides for them manna from Heaven. Was it fair for God to provide so much for those who complained? No, but God's love has nothing to do with being fair.

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