Last will be first

In our Gospel reading we are told the parable of the workers in the vineyard in which Jesus seeks to explain the nature of the Kingdom of Heaven. In this parable, a landowner goes into the marketplace throughout the day, and hires groups of workers to work in his vineyard. Only the workers employed at the very beginning of the day agree to work for a specific amount.  The others were given an assurance that they would be paid “whatever is right”; it seems that they were quite simply grateful to have found employment.

It is likely that all of the workers would have been surprised when the time came to be paid for their efforts, and perhaps most of all the workers employed at the very beginning of the day.  This is what happened; the workers employed last came along first and were each paid a denarius even though they had only worked for a very short time.  This would have built up expectations in the other workers – you can imagine it can’t you – “If they have been paid a denarius and have only worked for such a short time, surely I will get paid more because I’ve worked longer”.  However, as each successive group came forward, with the workers first employed coming last of all, they too were each paid a denarius.  Immediately the group employed first began to grumble.

We all tend to have our own nuanced views don’t we, on what is right and fair?  In light of this the first group employed couldn’t understand why those employed later in the day, who would have done much less work, should also receive a denarius, even though they had agreed to do a whole day’s work for that same sum.  In 1 Corinthians 4:5 we are told: “Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time; wait till the LORD comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of people’s hearts. At that time each will receive their praise from God.” That is what happened here with the dissatisfied workers; the state of their heart was made clear.  Similarly, our encounters with God often shine light on the state of our heart. Romans 2:4 tells us “do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, forbearance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance?”  The dissatisfied workers could have rejoiced that their fellow workers who could only find employment towards the end of the day not only had managed to find employment, but also had been rewarded so generously.  They could have been amazed and humbled by the abundant generosity of the landowner.

We should avoid trying to let the ways of the world shape and define our understanding of God and the nature of the Kingdom of Heaven.  Instead we should seek to let our understanding of the Kingdom shape and define our understanding of the world.  The landowner hits the nail on the head and responded to the grumbles with a declaration of truth: “‘Friend, I am not being unfair to you. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’

I think at the heart of this is grace – sometimes explained as being God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense.  Thank God that his favour and blessing is not based on individual merit.  We are reminded in Romans 3:23 that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” and yet the salvation and redemption that Jesus offers is offered freely and to all.  The dissatisfied workers were jealous and complained. The goodness and generosity of the owner did not lead them to repentance and even though they encountered grace, they were unwilling to show it themselves and the true character of their heart was revealed.  In this context if we are secure about the reward that we might get, we are able to rejoice that others might also get that reward as well.  Jesus shows us time and time again that for those who believe in him, there is no hierarchy.

In Franciscan spirituality and their way of life, even the most mundane of tasks can be an act of worship.  We can perhaps understand that with an analogy:

“A man came across three masons who were working at chipping chunks of granite from large blocks. The first seemed unhappy at his job, chipping away and frequently looking at his watch. When the man asked what it was that he was doing, the first mason responded, rather curtly, “I’m hammering this stupid rock, and I can’t wait ’til 5 when I can go home.”

“A second mason, seemingly more interested in his work, was hammering diligently and when asked what it was that he was doing, answered, “Well, I’m moulding this block of rock so that it can be used with others to construct a wall. It’s not bad work, but I’ll sure be glad when it’s done.”

“A third mason was hammering at his block fervently, taking time to stand back and admire his work. He chipped off small pieces until he was satisfied that it was the best he could do. When he was questioned about his work he stopped, gazed skyward and proudly proclaimed, “I…am building a cathedral!”

“Three men, three different attitudes, all doing the same job.”

Whenever we find a complaining and ungracious servant, we know they have not fully yielded to the master’s will and have failed to grasp the nature of the Kingdom of Heaven.  We can be the same in how we use our time and talents – you may well have encountered times when you’ve heard people say “I spent hours doing that and this is all the thanks I get…” It is important to understand the reasons and motives that are behind what we do, and for us to have a right attitude – full of grace.  If we have been Christians for many year’s standing, do we think that we are better Christians than someone who came to faith yesterday?  It can be all too easy to have unrealistic expectations and a sense of entitlement.  Where are we in our heart?  What is our motive?  Have we been awakened by the superabundance of God’s grace with our eyes firmly fixed on the Kingdom of Heaven?  Those who come last will still be rewarded as if they were first; we can rejoice that they too have been welcomed in to the Kingdom.  At the end of the day we do what we do because it is a privilege to be about our master’s work – our Lord, Saviour and Redeemer Jesus Christ.  There will likely be 3 surprises in heaven: the people that are there, the people that are not there and in God’s grace that we might be there!

Let me close by reminding you of the words from a verse of that great song by Graham Kendrick ‘From Heaven You Came (the Servant King)’:

So let us learn how to serve

Each other’s needs to prefer

And in our lives enthrone Him

For it is Christ we’re serving.

“So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”  Amen

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