September 24, 2017 - The Last Will Be First, and The First Will Be Last

Jesus told his disciples this parable: "The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out at dawn to hire laborers for his vineyard.  After agreeing with them for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard.  Going out about nine o'clock, the landowner saw others standing idle in the marketplace, and he said to them, 'You too go into my vineyard, and I will give you what is just.' So, they went off.  And he went out again around noon, and around three o'clock, and did likewise.  Going out about five o'clock, the landowner found others standing around, and said to them, 'Why do you stand here idle all day? They answered, 'Because no one has hired us.' He said to them, 'You too go into my vineyard.' When it was evening the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, 'Summon the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and ending with the first.' When those who had started about five o'clock came, each received the usual daily wage.  So, when the first came, they thought that they would receive more, but each of them also got the usual wage.  And on receiving it they grumbled against the landowner, saying, 'These last ones worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us, who bore the day's burden and the heat.' He said to one of them in reply, 'My friend, I am not cheating you.  Did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage?  Take what is yours and go.  What if I wish to give this last one the same as you?  Or am I not free to do as I wish with my own money?  Are you envious because I am generous?' Thus, the last will be first, and the first will be last."

Matthew 20:1-16

This is not a parable about the importance of repenting before the final whistle blows. 

In Jesus’s time, it was thought that being poor or sick was a curse from God in retaliation for something you or your parents did (See John 9).  Being wealthy and healthy indicated you had been blessed by God as reward for your good behavior.  Jesus spends more time debunking this idea than any other, and asserts over and over again that those who expect to be last will be first.  Unfortunately, all the parables directed to this purpose are usually misinterpreted to be a command to repent or face the music. 

In the Beatitudes, Jesus states that the poor are blessed and says the rich are to be left out, in contradiction of the theology of the time.  In the story of Lazarus and the rich man, Jesus mocks the idea that the rich man was blessed in his lifetime and says he has used up all his good fortune by the time he dies and winds up in (Greek) Hades.  In the parable of the prodigal son, the elder, obedient son is shocked that his jerk brother gets rewarded.  And, of course, we are shocked that the shepherd leaves the ninety-nine sheep for the one that wandered off.  The story of Job is often assumed to be a story about heroic faith in the face of calamity, but it is really a vociferous rejection of the idea that God rewards and punishes behavior – Job’s three friends who advance that theology are cursed by God.  Finally, the story of Jonah is often assumed to be a story about a resistant prophet who needed to be swallowed by a fish to be brought to heel, but that’s just the opening, and it is really a story about how much Jonah resents God’s regard for the Ninevites.  Job, the first-arriving vineyard workers, the elder son; each stand for the people who insist God is a moral scorekeeper.