September 20, 2020
16th Sunday after Pentecost; Proper 20
Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45
Before we get to the meat of today’s scripture reading, I’d like to set the stage a bit: Jesus is getting near the end of his public ministry. After traveling outside of their home territory to share the good news of God’s love for everyone, they have returned to Judaea and soon will begin their final journey to Jerusalem and Jesus’ death.
Just prior to telling this parable of the land owner, Jesus has an encounter with a rich man who asks “what good deeds must I do to have eternal life?” And their conversation and what the disciples say in response are key to understanding the message of today’s parable.
So, let me tell you the story before the story: This man comes to Jesus with the question of how to possess, how to “have,” eternal life, to live forever. Remember that in most Jewish understanding of the day, there wasn’t life after death. To have eternal life would mean to never die.
Jesus responds by telling the man, “if you wish to enter into life – not eternal life, but just life, the life God intends for us here and now, living on earth as it is in heaven – If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.
And the man, in the spirit of Abraham, tries to negotiate – Which commandments, he asks. Jesus summarizes the Commandments that have to do with our relationships with each other, leaving out the parts about having no other gods but The God.
This isn’t an error on Jesus’ part, he isn’t being forgetful or absent minded or trying to soften the message in any way. He knows the true obstacle for this man is his ego that has lead him to attempt to build his own eternal kingdom through earthly riches.
Jesus instructs this man, in very concrete action, to keep the first commandment: to have no other gods but God. He tells him to sell all he has and to distribute his wealth for the greater good of all, living for the benefit of others. And this grieves the man deeply, because as Jesus responds, “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.”
This encounter prompts the disciples to ask in astonishment, “who then can be saved?” Jesus looks at them and says, “for mortals it is impossible but for God all things are possible.” In other words, we cannot save ourselves but God can.
Jesus comforts his astounded disciples with assurance that by following him, they will receive a gift greater and more glorious than any human idea of reward – they will discover the real purpose of the life God gives us.
And then he says, “but many who are first will be last, and the last will be first” before introducing the parable we read today with “The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner….” which he ends with the same “first shall be last, last shall be first” phrase to set our worldview straight.
The word translated as “landowner” would have carried the connotation of “a wise and generous authority” for Matthew’s listeners, in stark contrast to the man with whom Jesus had just had a live conversation.
This landowner hires day laborers for a fair and proper wage. As the day progresses, he hires more and more people, enabling them to care for their families as well and paying them “what is right.”
This wise and generous landowner isn’t thinking about what’s the least he can get away with in paying these laborers, he’s helping them care for their families in the best way possible, to do his best for them.
When the day ends and their wages are distributed, they all get what they were promised, a day’s wage, and still not everyone is happy. Those who arrived to work first grumble, not because they didn’t receive more than they were promised but because they felt the “late comers” should have been paid less, saying “you have made them equal to us.”
There is a work-reward ethos expressed in their grumbling that still is with us today – you get what you put in. Life is about earning and deserving, in our work and in our relationships. We live in a transactional world.
This goes far beyond the illustrated employer/employee relationship. It is about every human interaction we have – work, family, friends, business, how we see every human being who Jesus would call our neighbor. This story is about changing the worldview that says we enter into relationship with others because of what’s in it for us, that teaches us we should feel threatened when others who we perceive as not working as hard as us get anything for their efforts.
Jesus’ story of the wise and generous landowner turns the work-reward worldview upside down, or better yet, right side up. The kingdom of heaven isn’t about earning and deserving, it isn’t transactional, it is relational. The kingdom of heaven is about gifts and gratitude.
God’s gifts of unconditional love and forgiveness have nothing to do with our earning or deserving but about the divine and generous will of the one who created us.
In God’s kingdom we learn to live by the ethos of gift-gratitude. And this ethos eliminates any possibility of an “us” versus “them” mentality. It reframes our worldview to one of relationship and camaraderie, not competition.
Eternal life – life as God intends for us to live it here and now – isn’t about competing for all we can get but about lifting each other up so we all have what we need. Each and every one of us is the recipient of God’s gracious generosity and we are called to be graciously generous to others in return.
There is no reason to hold contempt for what anyone else has. We are all equal beneficiaries of God’s merciful gifts. We are all equally un-entitled and un-worthy of what God does for us. Our life in the Kingdom is a gift and not a reward.
Instead of grumbling “you have made them equal to us,” the early arrivers should be celebrating the ever growing, ever widening circle of “we” – children of God living in the image of the one who created us in abundant and generous love.
Changing our worldview isn’t easy nor is it comfortable. It can grieve us deeply. It can feel like death.
The good news, the gospel message, in Jesus’ statement the first shall be last and the last first is that EVERYONE is “first” in God’s Kingdom. There is no one who deserves less or more. We are all God’s beloved children. God loves each of us as if there were only one of us.
If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments – Love God with all of your heart, soul, and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself. To enter into life, we must let go of the obstacles that keep us from seeing everything with a kingdom worldview. To enter into life, we must surrender our power to build our own kingdom and work along side each other with God’s help to build God’s kingdom, following Jesus as we learn to live a life worthy of the Gospel. Amen.