Reflection for 24th September 2023
The Sixteenth Sunday After Trinity
Jonah 3.10 - 4.11, Philippians 1.21-30, Matthew 20.1-16
"The first shall be last, and the last shall be first" I said this phrase as I was walking through the door to someone last Sunday at Grafton Flyford. Of course, like most people, I was trying to be humorous, and the person did giggle, albeit slightly. Perhaps you yourself have said this phase or heard it yourself, but what does it really mean? Today, in the passage from Matthew, Jesus utters this phrase after ‘The parable of the workers in the vineyard’. In fact, Jesus had just previously said the same line, which we can read at the end of chapter nineteen. His following parable seeks to explain the phrases’ meaning.
The parable story is very Jewish, as the vineyard from time immemorial had been an image of Israel. Isaiah 5 has a moving passage in which God is likened to a vineyard owner who is distressed to see that, despite all the effort made over Israel's vineyard, wild grapes instead of cultivated ones are being produced. This parable from Matthew would have been, in so many ways, familiar to Jewish ears, and yet, in other ways, totally astounding. The hearers would have known about the unemployed waiting around to be hired in the market. So too were the working hours correct, and the wage, albeit a tad on the generous side, paid at the end of the day was all perfectly reasonable. However, despite its familiarity, the parable is a total reversal of normal values and not one to be followed if a business hopes to peacefully exist!
First off, this vineyard owner goes out himself to hire the workers when he could have sent one of his employees. Not only that, but he goes out repeatedly throughout the day, seeking out the downs and outs, who, as the day wears on, become increasingly hopeless. The owner cares for them by giving them work and pay.
Secondly, the parable shocks the hearer when the owner gives the same wage to those who did one hour of work as those who had worked all day. The caring owner is generous too!
Thirdly, when one of the workers complains of the seemingly unfairness of the owner’s action, he is met with the answer, ‘Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius?" A contract had been made and agreed upon between the worker and the owner. So, the worker was in fact in the wrong by demanding, in the name of justice, that the owner break the contract he so willingly entered and that had been utterly fulfilled. Far from being unfair, the owner totally fulfils his contract and then displays uncalled-for generosity to latecomers.
God doesn't owe anyone anything for how long they have served or how hard they have worked in the heat of the day. This is also not a reason why God shouldn't be generous to people who have done less. All the good things people do pale in comparison to his burning, self-giving love. This is the beauty of God’s grace. There is no ranking system in God’s kingdom based on human merit. No one can earn their salvation by doing good works for point scoring in the afterlife. Good works are performed as an expression of gratitude and as a response to the life that God, in his generosity, has given us. Faith in Jesus is what truly matters.
This is why Jesus said, "The first will be last, and the last will be first." Many Christians who have worked hard for God for a long time will have a low place in the kingdom because their goals were not free of the idea of merit and reward. People who become Christians later in life will be at the top of the kingdom because they knew they had done nothing to brag about and never thought about awards. They just said "yes" to the unexpected love that sought them and accepted them. That is the attitude that brings joy to the heart of God, the great lover.
This week, examine your conscience and think about your motives for doing the things you do. Are they for your glory, or God’s? Then in prayer, go to our merciful God in contrition and gratitude for the wonders of His love for you. As the church father, Saint Augustine, once said, "He who has God has everything; he who has everything but God has nothing."
Blessings and prayers,