The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
18 September 2011
A Sermon Preached by Philip H. Towner, Ph.D., Diocesan Intern
Think with me for a moment about change? We face it every day. There is a Chinese classic devoted to it; David Bowie sang about it. I don’t mean changing a toothbrush or a water filter, but real system-change, paradigm shift. A new work environment counts here. But I think back to the day I stepped off a plane in Taipei, was driven to a small seminary building, led to an apartment, and for the next year or so learned to do almost everything in ways completely opposite to what I had known. In some ways, the language was the easy part. My world had tilted just enough that many of the old rules no longer applied, and the new ones came in a completely different language.
The climax of the Gospel reading today comes in the closing line, “So, the last will be first and the first will be last.” But that same line, turned end to end, is also the cause of the parable in Matt 20: “the first will be last and the last will be first.” That line is more like a refrain, occurring in several places, sometimes rather enigmatically, in Jesus’ teaching, and echoed in similar statements that speak of reversals: it’s like that tune you can’t get out of your head. In our text, the theme reaches a stage of culmination, and reversal is not just an added reflection; it is now the central theme itself. A change of perspective coming into effect. “The last will be first and the first will be last.”
Jesus sends this signal of change in a parable. Often compared with allegory, it is said that Jesus’ parables had the kingdom (of God, of heaven) as the core message; and some have said that parables only make a single point. In fact, he used parables in a variety of ways. They allowed him to take the very familiar props of life (seeds, trees, planting, vineyards, landowners, workers, priests, slaves, status, power, position) and combine them into familiar scenarios that his listeners could readily imagine. And as the stories developed and the listeners were drawn in, Jesus used the familiar to defamiliarize normal life with its values, expectations, and goals. In the chapters leading up to our story today, mainly in parables, Jesus systematically exposes the shallowness of “orthodox” life as defined by Jewish Torah experts: he said, you want to understand “greatness” in the kingdom, then consider this child; Forgiveness? It has no limits; Wealth? It is not what you think it is. And the values and aspirations of human life on earth, which Judaism had so carefully accommodated in its rendition of piety and Yahweh worship—cultural fixtures like status, wealth, privilege, vindictiveness, property, acquisitiveness, power, all designed to protect a status-quo and allow the rich to prosper at the expense of the poor—all of this, Jesus brings under a single, puzzling pronouncement of reversal: in the kingdom of heaven, “the last will be first and the first will be last.”
The parable of the workers in the vineyard, our text today, is actually prompted by the first reversal pronouncement. The disciples have just been told of the great honors and rewards that await them and any who do what the rich young man would not do. Then Jesus throws a monkey wrench into this neat machinery of honor and reward by saying, “But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.” The presence of the kingdom has introduced new standards, new measurements, new values; and “Toto, I've a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore."
So our parable about workers in a vineyard explores this reversal of values. The story is simple and immediately grasped. Again the props are drawn right out of everyday Judean life: a wealthy landowner, day-workers who’ve agreed to do a day’s work for a denarius. It may be slightly unusual that the owner of the vineyard would pop out to the market place periodically through the day, even at the eleventh hour, and add to his work force, promising to the newcomers “whatever is fair (or right).” But it is at the end of the day—when the master calls the workers and, beginning with the last, pays out their wages—that the story does its work of destabilizing the worldly value system. And it does so in two ways. First, and most obviously, to give the same denarius to each worker, whether they worked an hour or they bore the full heat and labor of the whole day, is not only completely opposite to common experience, it also verges on being unfair. But secondly this outcome reaches back to that earlier promise to the latecomers, to be paid “whatever is fair,” and as it reaches back, it completely redefines values and fairness in a way that removes human merit from the equation. Fairness, the value of “just” and the meaning of “right” are all the domain of the landowner who is “good.” And for the landowner, “the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
It is easy to see how this parable can be read as depicting salvation: the landowner is God, the offer of work is the gospel, acceptance of work for wages is response to the gospel, and payday is the final reward. And God’s offer is extended equally even to those who come at the last hour. But “the last will be first, and the first will be last” is a broader declaration of kingdom reversal. It reaches back for definition to the disciples’ question, “Who is greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”; and how did Jesus answer? He summoned a child, in that culture more a piece of property than a human being, described in the original language as an “it”; and he declared that in the kingdom the unvalued (indeed, the often cast-off, disregarded, marginalized and exploited) is the greatest. Social, human, even conventional religious values turned on their head: “the last shall be first, the first shall be last; the least among you shall be the greatest; the greatest among you will be your servant.” In Jesus, the long-awaited kingdom of God made its appearance, an environment defined by God’s dynamic presence and power and where forgiveness and reconciliation begin to reshape human life. The kingdom’s perspective on all those things by which people make life meaningful (status, power, wealth, honor) was latent in the Torah, as Jesus showed, but suppressed and conveniently ignored because of the threat to position and power this divine value system presented. So, the reversal, the change that Jesus announces, is an invitation to see things with new eyes from God’s perspective.
What are we to do with that invitation to change? The readings from Jonah and Philippians give us two opposite responses to the God who reorders priorities. Jonah, like the workers who spent the day in that vineyard, is appalled that God would show surprising grace to repentant Gentiles. Paul, on the other hand, has become an agent of God’s surprising grace.“The last will be first, and the first will be last” is the frame around the parable, and it is a frame around our lives. The kingdom of God is a matter of power not place, of performance not passivity. But instruments of grace, power and performance were transformed in Christ and directed to serving the least, empowering the last. What will it mean if we consciously adopt this perspective in the relationships and activities that shape life for us? How does this kingdom reversal of values challenge my thinking about those I manage? How can this reversal test our priorities, and revise our commitments to community, neighbors, family, and stranger?
© 2011 Philip H. Towner