SUNDAY SERMON: The last shall be first

Rev. Stephen Baldwin

NT: Matthew 20.1-16

Our family is very competitive. We try to hide it outside the family, because it’s not very polite or kind to make everything a competition which you want to win, but that’s the reality. 

When I was around ten years old, we had an Easter Egg hunt at my grandparent’s house here in Ronceverte. The kids were out looking for eggs behind trees, under bushes, and everywhere in between. But there weren’t that many of us kids and there were only a few eggs left when my grandmother and I spotted one at the same time. 

Time seemed to stand still as we both looked at each other at the same time, me at first thinking she would be happy for me to get the egg…then slowly realizing she was sizing me up to see if she could beat me to it. 

We both took off as fast as our feet could take us towards the egg sitting behind a rock! I was ten years old and I was in a footrace with my almost-70-year-old grandma for an Easter egg! So in my mind, I was already celebrating. I had this in the bag. I was already wondering what was inside–chocolate bar, skittles, maybe even $1 bill! Whatever it was, it was all mine. 

Then before I knew it, out of the corner of my eye, I saw her catching up with me, then pushing me aside, then taking the lead! What I’ll never forget is the look of sheer joy on her face, smiling like the sun, laughing like it was going out of style, as she reached the Easter egg first and won the race. 

I must’ve looked like my dog had gotten run over, because she gave me the egg and tried to console me. But when you’re a ten year old boy who loses a footrace to your grandma, there is no consolation. She beat me fair and square. And I learned what today’s Bible lesson means–the last shall be first and the first shall be last. I thought I was first, and I was actually last. 

In today’s passage, God is the landowner, and we are the laborers.  God chooses us, and the selection criteria can be baffling.  To prove the point, let’s be clear about the timeline in the parable.  A landowner goes to the marketplace at daylight and hires a group of laborers.  At 9am, he hires another group of laborers.  At noon, another group.  At 3pm, another.  And at 5pm, when the working day is nearly done, he hires a fifth and final group of laborers to work his vineyards.  You might expect him to pay the guys who started at 6am first, but instead he pays the guys who just started an hour ago at 5pm first.  You might expect him to pay them only an hour’s wage, but he pays them a full day’s wage.   Why?  What reason does the landowner give?  Because who has a gripe if he is generous.  Because he says so.  Because it’s his money.  Because who can fault him for being too gracious.

Folks sometimes are upset by this passage, because they say it’s not fair!  Why should someone who works one hour and someone who works a whole day receive the same pay?  That’s not equal!  That’s not just!  

Perhaps we need to rethink what Jesus is saying in the parable. If you were to pick teams for a footrace, for example, would you pick the young, spry athlete or the 70-year old grandma? Previous examples notwithstanding, if you wanted to win the race, you’d pick the young athlete, right? 

Maybe God uses different criteria. Maybe God gives more to those who need more. Maybe God gives all of us more than we earned. 

The first shall be last, and the last shall be first. Which is just another way of saying, God will decide as God chooses. All the criteria we think matters about who deserves how much of God’s grace is worth about as much as that egg I lost to grandma thirty years ago. 

The last shall be first, and the first shall be last. God is the gracious landowner, who provides justice based not on merit or hard work or deservitude…but solely on grace.  Because who belongs to the kingdom is God’s decision; not ours.  Because we cannot earn God’s grace.  Let me say that again.  We cannot earn God’s grace.  We cannot earn God’s grace.  

If that bothers you, then maybe you’re missing the point. God gives us all more than we deserve. That is good news for sinners like us. It is the best news we could ever hear!  

As the laborers, who cannot earn God’s grace, we do still have a serious responsibility.   Like children waiting to be picked for a team on the playground, we must stand ready…even if it takes all day and everyone else’s turn has come before ours.  The laborers who were hired at 5pm hadn’t been in bed all day.  They had been in the market waiting to get a job since 6am.   And in some ways, their day may have been harder.  Sure, they hadn’t grown weary from a hard day’s work.  But they did have to endure the shame of not being picked to work.  And they did have to be patient enough to wait their turn instead of calling it a day.  They had to be ready at a moment’s notice.  Our responsibility is the same.  

We are not to judge our fellow laborers, we are not to try and earn God’s favor, we are to be always ready to serve when called upon.  As John Milton said so well in a poem from the 17th century, “They also serve who only stand and wait.”  

Friends, today’s parable is a call to grace.  Remember that justice comes from God, and God is abundantly gracious. Shouldn’t we be as well? Amen. 

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