Surprise Endings

Luke 5:36-39
David A. Davis
April 23, 2023
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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 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 he intentionally messed up the line. 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 folks at the end of the line, saw how much was being paid. At the end of the line, when it was their 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 and just and fair 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 watched 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 johnny 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, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?” Are you envious because I am generous? Envious of generosity. It was 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 as well at a the end of chapter 19.  “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. Surprisingly, in Matthew’s gospel it is only here. First last, last first. 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 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 about 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, it’s all wrapped around this parable with the messed up payroll line and the owner’s disruptive generosity.

“The Laborers in the Vineyard”. Whoever in the tradition gets to title, name, label parables should not be allowed to call it that. Because the parable isn’t really about the laborers in the vineyard. It’s about the owner and his generosity. Sort of the whole point of the parable is that it is NOT about them. It’s about 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.”

The last time I preached a sermon on the parable of disruptive generosity, I told you the story of a good friend of mine here in Princeton who sold his company in 2019 to a private equity group. The complex deal involved multiple lawyers with negotiations right to the last minute that almost broke off several times. Sometime before the deal was done, the owner had a meeting with his senior leadership team. He told them that once the transaction took place, once all the funds related to the sale were received, he wanted to give a monetary gift to every employee. It was something like $1,500 or $2,000 for everyone from the CFO, to the head of HR, to the truck driver, the warehouse staff, the custodians. He knew it had to go through payroll and be taxed so he wanted to gross up the gift so employees would pocket the intended amount of the gift.

The executive team had trouble wrapping their head around his request. One kept using the word bonus. “It’s not a bonus. It’s gift” my friend responded. Another suggested it should be an amount proportional to salary or hourly wage. “No, it’s the same for everyone. It’s a gift.” “Some employees have been here a lot longer. We just hired someone last week.  “I know. The point is that is the same for everyone. No matter what”. The frustration of the senior staff kept rising and they wouldn’t let it drop. Finally, my friend said with some volume and authority announcing the end of the conversation, “Look, if you want me to read the Gospel of Matthew to you right now, I will. It is a gift for everyone. The same for everyone.” Months after the sale went through and the gifts were given, one employee who had been with the company several years with a relatively high salary filed a lawsuit about the gift because it wasn’t fair. Last fall, my friend and I were on the golf course together. It was three years after the company was sold. “Whatever happened to that person who filed the lawsuit over your gift?’ I asked. “You won’t believe it”, he said, “my lawyers told me to settle because it would cost too much in legal fees to keep going. The employee who still works for the company received tens of thousands of dollars.”  Because of course, in the world we live in the first will be…well, first.

There are several conversations that every parent has to have at some point with their child. I will not presume to offer a list of the conversations nor will I prioritize the list. You can use your own imagination, experience, or memory as well as I can. One of those inevitable conversations comes when you have to try to explain to a 4-year-old, a 14-year-old, a 24-year-old, a 40-year-old, and an 80-year-old, after you hear them shout out in sadness, frustration, exhaustion, or grief that “it is not fair”. At some point, somewhere, sometime, the parent, the friend, the partner, the boss, the pastor has to be honest and respond “You are so right. Life is not fair.”

When it comes to this morning’s parable from the 20th chapter of Matthew, if Nassau’s Lenten small group conversations are any indication, not many people like this parable. Folks have a problem with this parable. We don’t like this parable because the parable is messed up. God’s disruptive generosity shatters any illusion you and I have about the promise of fair. There is little to nothing in the gospel about fairness. When it comes to the experience, the understanding, the proclamation of the generosity of God? How quickly the world creeps in. The world where first is…first. Little defines the human condition more than the desire among the pious, the religious, the powerful, and the wealthy to horde the generosity of God. God can be generous to me just not to you. God can be generous but only to people who look like me. God can be generous to Christians but not to people of other faiths. God can forgive this sinner but not that sinner. Yes, like the day-long workers, many in the church grumble at God’s disruptive generosity. If we’re honest, you and I grumble sometimes too. God’s boundless love. God’s unending forgiveness. God’s embrace. God’s welcome. God’s grace. The boundary-shattering, death conquering, grace of God always reaches further than the people of God want it to. It’s disruptive. It’s not fair and it’s messed up. Grace-FULLY messed up. “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?”

I found myself inside a parable last Wednesday afternoon in a meeting room full of Presbyterian clergy and elders from all around the country. Two governing boards of national agencies of the church were together to learn about each other’s work and responsibility and to get know to each other bit. There were about 35 people sitting at tables of 3 and 4 and at one point we were invited to do one of those dreaded team-building exercises. The convener told us we were to build a structure made out of only newspaper and tape. She pointed to a stack of newspapers and rolls of tape there in the front of the room. We were challenged to build a newspaper bridge big enough for a gallon jug of water to pass under and strong enough to hold two hymnbooks on top. We were given 8 minutes to plan and 10 minutes to build. Once the building began we would not be allowed to talk to each other. Those were the only directions and rules given.

After the planning time, the leader invited us to begin the building process. At this point, one person from one of the groups bolted to the table in the front of the room and took every piece of newspaper and every roll of tape, and ran back to their table. As one group began to build hoarding all the resources, the rest of us were stunned, and frustrated, and a few were angry. To be fair, there was no rule expressed about not taking everything for your group. I actually thought maybe it was a setup and the convener was going to make a point about how many resources in the world are held by so few. But the convener was just as stunned as everyone else. She told me later she has led a newspaper bridge building game with youth groups and in a public high school and something like this had never happened before. One group taking everything. Yay, church leaders!

Group #1 never apologized but pointed to the lack of rules and admitted to being overly competitive. Their bridge did collapse under the weight of the hymnbooks. So that was good. We didn’t really debrief the experience. We didn’t have to. The takeaway was obvious to elders and clergy alike. The takeaway was like a heavy stone pulling the whole room down.

In the world we live in and in the church we serve, the first is still….well, first. And somewhere in the kingdom of God, Jesus is shaking his head and saying to himself and to anyone who still listens, “they really have no idea.”