Respecting the rights of God
When I thought about today’s lesson from Matthew, I recalled one of my own experiences as a day labourer. I didn’t stand in the marketplace or on a street corner, but I do remember how it felt while I was waiting to be chosen. We would arrive at the office and sign in. First in would be first out. The dispatcher would look over the list of jobs for the day and then start calling names. We had no cell phones and you couldn’t wait at home for a call. You had to be there. Once chosen, you went where you told, and the job could last anywhere from 2-10 hours. That was how moving companies hired extra helpers. If you were not successful, though, you went home for the day. The dispatcher may have asked for people to come back late in the day in case there was a night office move but that was rare.
My second experience was a little different. I worked for the railway but was on a spare list. You only had work if somebody called in sick. You had to be home at three separate times of the day every day. If they called and you weren’t there, your name fell to the bottom of the list. You were paid only when you worked. The goal was to get off the spare list and land a regular job. Imagine trying to plan your life!
In the time of Jesus and still in many places in the world today, the day labourer is a common sight. And while more and more employers seek for steady employees, there are still places where people come in the morning and wait to get chosen for work.
The owner of the vineyard in our parable is one of those employers who had to wait until the harvest was ready in order to employ people. He could not afford the luxury of having people on staff and so when the harvest is ready, he comes and hires people for the day. Being chosen first in the day was best as you would naturally expect to get the most money. After all, you would be working the longest and it would only be fair. Getting hired later in the day would bring less but people would hang around even to the end of the day in the faint hope that someone would come along who could use them and so they would earn even a small amount.
Now we know that the owner of the vineyard didn’t give out wages according to the normal pattern. He called them forward group by group and proceeded to pay them what they were owed. Those in the first group noticed that those who worked later than them received the same amount. And while this rankled them, the ones they have the most trouble with were those who only worked one hour. Somehow this was a miscarriage of justice! Why should those who worked so little receive the same wages as those who worked all day? Sounds like a case for organizing a labour union! The employees complained to the employer. But the employer reminded the first employees that he had given them exactly what he had promised them. The fact that he chose to give the same to the last group was his own decision. Whether or not the first group felt it was fair or not, he had done nothing wrong by them.
Jesus turns people’s expectations of what is fair upside down. But his point is that the expectation of what is fair in the eyes of the world is different in the eyes of God and the kingdom.
When we are born into a family, some of us are born first and some of us are born last; yet each of us has an expectation that we will be loved and nurtured as much as the other one. Now I know that that doesn’t always happen, but the hope is that our parents will care as much about each of us and treat each of us fairly and equally. In a family there may be favourites, but the expectation is that we will share together and not count one more important than the other simply because they arrived first.
The people of Israel, who were the first group of people to learn about the God we know and worship, believed that he was their God alone. He was not the god of any other nation or people. They all had their own god or gods and the people of Israel had theirs. The idea that anyone else could even come to believe in their God seemed foreign to them. Even more than that, they had come to believe in themselves as the chosen people and as such the only people worthy to be accepted by God.
Even though the prophets had many times declared that the people had been chosen to be a light to the other nations, to be a beacon in the world to draw other people and nations to God, they continued to insist that they were the only true believers. Others might believe in God, but they could never be accepted by God.
Jesus was telling them that God had other ideas. God was inviting not just those people who for centuries had been part of the kingdom, he was inviting others. And everyone who was invited into the kingdom of God – regardless of when they were invited – would receive the same measure of God’s love, grace, and mercy as those who had believed for much longer.
The time had come, Jesus was saying, for the people of Israel to acknowledge that just because they had believed in God for generations that did not give them special privilege within the kingdom of God. God could and would invite anyone he chose to be part of the kingdom. And whether that person worked for God and the kingdom for a day, a year or their whole life, there would be no distinction between them. And God would even go so far as to make the last first and the first last!
Now why would Jesus throw that last bit in? Well, many times He speaks about the first being last and the last first. It may seem that He is not just turning our world upside down; it is more than that. When we let the last go ahead of us, we are affirming their decision to be part of God’s kingdom and we are showing them that it is not about how long you have been part of us that counts but the fact that they are there. It is about recognizing that being part of God’s kingdom is not about status or pride but that it is about servant hood.
In every organization that we are a part of in this world, we are rewarded and recognized for long service. Such accomplishments are revered. We expect to be paid more the longer we stay; we expect to be honoured for our long service and commitment. Now I am not suggesting that such things should be forgotten; but in the kingdom of God, it is different. Long service simply means that we have spent more time with God! The expectation may be that we have learned more about what God expects of us as His people and that we are more attuned to the ways of God and better able to handle life as believers in God but that does not mean that we will be first past the doors of the kingdom. We need to look around us and see those in our fellowship who have recently come to faith or even think of those who may yet come and be willing to acknowledge them and support them in their journey of faith realizing that we are all equal in the eyes of God. Those whom the Christian community have honoured as saints among us never thought of themselves as persons who should be revered above others. They lived their lives in true devotion to God and in service of others.
I believe that when people come into any community, it is God who has brought them. Our task is to welcome them and ensure that they find a place in our community and in God’s kingdom. They may be with us for a short time or a long time, but they are as much a part of God’s kingdom and deserve as much of our care as we would give to anyone else.
Remember it is God’s kingdom to which we belong. It is God’s gifts that we receive and that each of us receives the measure that God desires to give. So, let us not judge the time one person may have spent as part of God’s kingdom but give thanks that they have come!