Surprise Endings

Matthew 20:1-16
David A. Davis
March 27, 2016
Easter Sunday

Talk about a surprise ending. When evening came, the owner of the vineyard told his manager to gather all the day laborers so they could get paid. “Begin with the last and then go to the first,” he said. It all would have been fine if he paid them in the right order. If the all-day workers were paid first, they never would have known how much the owner gave to the end of the day folks. But the line was messed up. So when the people who were hired at 5:00 stepped up and were given a full day’s pay, everyone else saw it. The workers at the end of the line, the 10-, 12-hour-day guys at the end of the line, they could see how much was being paid. At the end of the line, when it was they’re turn, of course they expected to be paid more. They figured something had changed that day. Maybe the market price spiked or the minimum wage went up or the job was finished and it was a harvest time bonus. Whatever happened, the all-day-long laborers still expected the owner to pay them what was right, which would, of course, be more than the last-minute workers who barely broke a sweat.

But no. When it was their turn, when those at the end of the line who just had to watch everyone else get paid finally stood before the manager, they received the same amount. A day’s wage, no more, no less. And in an understatement of biblical proportion, Jesus the parable teller said they “grumbled against the landowner.” Grumbled. Grumbled? Really. Can you imagine? “We have been out here all day long busting our butts for you in the heat of the day and these johnnys-come-lately, entitled, coddled, like to sleep in, don’t want to get their hands dirty, millennial workers show up when the sun is going down and you pay them the same thing you pay us?” Grumbling wouldn’t begin to describe it.

The owner of the vineyard turned to one of them, one of the grumblers, and said, “You know this isn’t about you. It doesn’t always have to be about you. It isn’t just about you!” Well, in the parable what he said was, “I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage?… Are you envious because I am generous?” Envious of generosity? It wasn’t about them. It’s not supposed to be about them. It’s about the owner’s generosity. It’s about generosity. It’s about the vineyard owner’s disruptive generosity. It was his generosity that messed everything up.

Right at the end, with the parable now finished, Jesus said, “So the last will be first and the first will be last.” It’s what Jesus said right before the parable too. “Many who are first will be last and the last will be first.” He frames the parable, right before, right after, “The last will be first, the first will be last.” That’s messed up. That’s how the line was messed up. First last, last first. It’s such a familiar phrase, “the first last, the last first”. It has that familiar, Bible sound to it, as if Jesus said it all the time. At least in Matthew’s Gospel, it is only here. Before and after the parable. Matthew’s Jesus only said it twice. Both right here.

“So the last will be first and the first will be last.” It’s so much more than a description of the parable’s payroll line. It’s more than a verse to quote in your head when a new line opens at the grocery store and you push your cart from last to first. “The last will be first and the first will be last.” Here in Matthew it’s not even a takeaway from Jesus’s teaching on leadership and servanthood. “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” That’s Mark. The first and the last in Matthew is all wrapped around this parable with the messed up line.

“The Laborers in the Vineyard.” Don’t call it that if the whole point is that it is not all about them. It’s about the owner and his generosity. His disruptive generosity. It’s “The Parable of Disruptive Generosity.” Jesus finishes the parable and turns to the disciples, to the church, to you, and to me, and says, “So the last will be first and the first will be last.” It’s Jesus’ exclamation point on God’s disruptive generosity. A lasting reminder about how that outrageous, disruptive generosity messes things up. Messes things up when it comes to our inflated sense of self and humankind’s innate expectation about how the line is supposed to work. God’s generosity so completely baffles the world’s way of doing things, thinking things, understanding things. “The last shall be first and the first shall be last.” It’s Jesus shaking his head at the world, sticking his finger in the world’s chest, standing toe to toe with the world, and saying, “You have no idea.”

When it comes to the world’s way of lining up, the world’s way of doing things, the world’s order to things, there is not much more certain and sure than death. The reminders of that come all too often. Death has this way of defining the end of the line. So when God set about raising Jesus from the dead, God was messing things up in a big way. It’s why one preacher called the resurrection “God’s great disruption.” In Matthew that disruption comes with an earthquake and a stone-moving angel. The angel transforms the rock that guards death’s door into a throne. And from that throne the angel proclaims to the women, “He is not here, for he has been raised, as he said.” From the throne there at the empty tomb, the angel says, “the line now starts here.” It is the very voice of God announcing to the women and to the world, “You have no idea”. God’s life-giving power, shattering death’s stranglehold. God’s steadfast love, giving birth to an earthshaking hope. God’s generosity unleashing a resurrection promise that forever transforms. Light out of darkness. Love out of hate. Life out of death. The Risen Jesus shaking his head at the world, sticking his finger in the world’s chest, standing toe to toe with the world and saying, “You have no idea.”

Matthew’s Easter morning earthquake. No other gospel tells of the earthquake. Just Matthew. Yes, a sign of God’s great disruption. A shaking of cosmic proportion. A reminder that this resurrection power is bigger than one thinks. You never really wrap your head or your heart around it. The earthquake. It’s Matthew’s way of reminding you that this Easter stuff isn’t just about you. It’s about God and God’s generosity, love, and power. It is the promise of an abundant life beyond what can be seen or heard or touched. The promise of life eternal where death rules no more and Christ himself is first and last and the inevitable march of time is drawn into the very heart of God. Resurrection life unchained. It is the affirmation that God is at work here and now to bring about a kingdom where goodness is stronger than hate, and peace can overwhelm the force of violence, and righteousness can rise even as chaos and destruction seem to rule. It’s not just about you, this resurrection life and power. It is about the Living God’s salvation movement — for creation, for humanity, for the world. The Easter morning earthquake. You get the divine irony, right? It is so not about you and it is so for you. God for you.

This morning marks the twenty-ninth Easter morning I have stood before a congregation and proclaimed, “Christ is risen!” But I long ago lost track of how many times I have stood in a cemetery and announced, “Behold I tell you a mystery, we shall not all die but we all shall be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye.” I can’t tell you how many times I have stood in funeral homes, sanctuaries, and hospital rooms, and affirmed, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” Today it might sound loud and victorious around here all morning, but the strongest Easter shout I know comes when you are turning away from the grave with a broken heart and mud on your shoes. The view from up here on Easter morning is awesome for a pastor, but when it comes to being a part of God’s movement of resurrection life, nothing compares with standing back in the line, back amid all that sorrow and grief, and watching people lean on the generous grace of God as love and strength and comfort and hope and life rise up again and again and again refusing to let death win.

Christ is risen! To proclaim it is to affirm so much more than one dead man rising. It is to testify to God’s intent and desire for the kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven. It is to confess with amusement that God is not done messing with the world. Christ is risen! To shout it is to announce to all that war and terror and hatred and bigotry and religious violence and hostile exclusion will never conquer the light of God. It is to stand toe-to-toe with the world and say, “You have no idea.” Christ is risen! To sing it strong is to place yourself squarely in God’s resurrection choir, working to make this world a new one, serving a kingdom that is surely coming where the hungry will be fed, and the thirsty will have something to drink, strangers will be welcomed, and the naked clothed, and the sick cared for, and the prisoners visited. Christ is risen! To tell it to our children is to shape godly imaginations so they can dream of, work toward, live in classrooms and workplaces and homes where bullying is no more and social media only serves the common good and people who are different aren’t demonized because that death-rattling cosmic Easter morning shake is at work, one heart, one life, one child at a time.

Christ is risen! To boldly whisper it is to exhort yourself to know and believe that the sin that holds you back, the demons that try to pull you down every day, the voices that clamor at your joy, your assurance, your peacefulness, that they cannot and will not ever separate you from God’s life-giving love. Christ is risen! To join your voice with the great cloud of witnesses, this communion of saints, is to set aside your own intellectual arrogance that you think you have to understand “all this.” It is to lay down that stubbornness that tries to convince you that God’s presence, God’s power, and God’s future somehow depends on whether you believe “all this.” It is to join with all those who have gone before and those who come after, forever acknowledging that the chief and highest end of humanity is to glorify God and enjoy God forever, because of “all this.” Christ is risen! To live it is to find yourself fully immersed in a great cosmic symphony of praise that is offered in response to the outrageous, disruptive, generosity of God. The One who raised Jesus from the dead.

© 2016 Nassau Presbyterian Church
Contact the church to obtain reprint permission.