September 24, 2017
If we jump back to the second half of Matthew chapter 19 for a moment, we hear a wealthy young man ask how he may inherit eternal life. Being told by Jesus, “go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me,” the young man goes “away grieving, for he had many possessions.” Peter interjects as Jesus debriefs the interaction with the disciples, with what sounds to me like a tone of exasperation, saying, “Look, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?” Jesus replies and reveals the disciples’ place of honor at the “renewal of all things.” But before moving into the parable I read from Matthew chapter 20, Jesus continues the conversation with a line echoed in our reading this morning, “many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”
The first will be last, the last will be first. These words, this parable of the generous landowner, the generosity of God, can be difficult to hear. They can rub us the wrong way.
Perhaps we question the economic wisdom of the Landowner. Will he have workers in the early hours of the tomorrow? Will they sleep in and meander to marketplace at noon the next day? Maybe we feel indignant, identifying with those who labored throughout the heat of the day and were paid the same as those who only worked the last hour of the day. Are you feeling fear or loss, realizing what you produce will not earn you God’s grace? If you find yourself taken aback by the seeming unfairness of it all, you are not alone.
“It is an old story,” acknowledges the Texts for Preaching commentary. “Jonah sat on the brow of the hill outside of Nineveh and pouted when God spared the city. The elder brother thought his father a doting old fool when his father invited him to join the celebrating at the prodigal’s return. The Pharisee at prayer thanks God that he is not like the sinful publican. Divine grace is a great equalizer which rips away presumed privilege and puts all recipients on par.”
For others, who know what is is to be one down—to struggle to meet their bills, who never feel on equal footing with those on the other side of the boardroom or classroom, or perhaps, even feel shut out of the business or institution altogether—maybe they hear this passage with a sense of hope. They know the sweet relief that an unexpected gift can bring—no longer wondering if it is the grocery bill or the electric bill that will be met this month. This too can be a liberating story; it simply depends with which character you empathize.
However we identify with this story, we are reminded of God’s generosity. Perhaps we do find ourselves reacting with indignation, anger, envy, jealousy, frustration, as the first laborers who complain react. Hear the words of the landowner again, “Friend… Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?”
Jesus came to turn over the status quo. Jesus teaches us to pray, “may God’s will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.” There must be a discrepancy between earth and heaven of which Jesus speaks. Because on earth we have: earthquakes, dams breaking, flood waters rising, the need for hunger strikes, the increased fear by those who are disabled because their humanity keeps being called into question, the lack of resources of so many when so few have more than enough, warring regimes and rumors of war, violence in our streets and in our institutions, the comparison that drives us away from our best selves and our communities. And in the kingdom of heaven—there is the healing of the nations.
So I don’t know why we are surprised when Jesus turns tables over, goes to dinner with those who are cast out of society, heals the perpetually wounded, and calls forth workers who are happy to receive a living wage, whether they worked all day or only for an hour.
But, really, I do know. It is because we are humans who separate ourselves from the love, beauty, and grace of God. Yet, God still comes for us, in the dawn of life, in late morning, in the early afternoon, and again at twilight, and calls us to work, to serve, to bear witness to a God that is gracious enough to seek us out. And gracious enough to give us what we need.
It is the character of the landowner, it is God, that takes center stage in this story—dolling out grace to all who come, providing a usual day’s wage to all, offering enough for thriving today, calling a community to wholeness. God chooses to give the Kingdom.
God chooses to give the Kingdom and we have the honor, the privilege to witness God’s generosity.
Sometimes we may react similarly to the laborer who hustles all day in the vineyard—maybe I, you, we do feel cheated sometimes by the “great equalizer” of God’s grace.
It is in our best interest, and in the interest of participating in the Kingdom of God, to acknowledge those feelings and continue to stay engaged in the work God has called us. To come back the next day and the next to labor in the life-giving work of cultivating the Kingdom of God on earth.
October brings the beginning of fall small groups at Nassau Presbyterian Church. Through the preaching life of this congregation, I have felt moved to gather a group to read and discuss Debbie Irving’s Waking Up White.
I think Irving has her own story to offer us in light of today’s parable of the generous landowner, especially if we find ourselves in someway offended, confused, or discomforted by this story. Irving is a white upper-middle class woman from the Northeast United States, so a WASP by all accounts, including her own. She worked for 25 years to cultivate programs with the arts in Cambridge that were intended to “help” those less fortunate. Irving’s book is her account of coming to terms with her own white privilege.
Irving shares about the first time she attended a conference by and for professionals of color. After the first workshop, Irving inserts her opinion “trying to help” the workshop leaders and other 150 people in the room. Striking a nerve for several, Irving faces feedback from which she reels, wondering if she should just reserve a seat on the next plane home. But several gracious strangers spend the next hour with her, processing the experience, and encouraging her to remain engaged, even, especially, when it is uncomfortable.
I realized in this moment that thinking about and dealing with the emotionally fraught subject of racism is a choice for me. I could walk away. I could retreat to my white world, where racism would be off my radar. But five of the people standing around me, and any person of color who has ever lived in America, must think about and deal with racism on a daily basis. For me to have walked away in this intensely uncomfortable moment would have been invoking my white privilege. Though I wanted more than anything to leave, I stayed.
So I invite you to stay, to sit for a while with this story. To feel the discomfort or the relief. To work through your reactions to this parable of the kingdom of heaven. To acknowledge God’s grace turns our world upside down. And instead of comparing your hours worked or production with your neighbor, to pause and remember that God offers you enough too. That God freely gives salvation to all whom God calls, irrespective of what time of day you showed up to hear the call. It is a costly grace which is offered, for which Christ has already paid for in full.
For it is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for the usual daily wage, who went out again to the marketplace at 9:00 a.m. to hire more workers, and again at noon, and again at 3:00 p.m., and again at 5:00 p.m. And after the day was over, she called the last forward and had them paid a full day’s wage, and eventually the first were called and too paid a full day’s wage.
Friends, the landowner is doing no wrong. Friends, it is God who chooses to give the kingdom. Friends, it is a generous God who calls us. Friends, it is the same God who says, “The last will be first, and the first will be last.”
 Matthew 19:21-22
 Matthew 19:27
 Matthew 19:28
 Matthew 19:30
 Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV—Year A (Westminster John Knox Press, 1995) p.495.
 Matthew 20:13, 15
 Irving, Debby. Waking Up White: and Finding Myself in the Story of Race (Elephant Room Press, 2014), p.163-164.
 Matthew 20:16
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