“First or Last?”
Focus: God showers all of his children with blessings because of his grace, not merit
Function: That the hearers rejoice that God has given to them out of his grace, not what they’ve
Structure: Lowry Loop
My dear friends in Christ, the popular reality TV show called “The Simple Life” features two well-known young ladies, Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie. The show shows us these very wealthy debutantes who are infamous for their irreverent, rude, crass, and sexually suggestive antics as they wander around America interacting with the “common folk”.
The little bit that I’ve seen of the show has shocked me with what they are allowed to get away with and how they treat the people that they encounter. But, there is something else that bothers me that may not be as obvious. What I see is that these two girls have had their fame and fortune handed to them. Paris Hilton is an heiress to the Hilton hotel fortune. Nichole Richie is the adopted daughter of 80’s pop-star, Lionel Richie. That’s it! Besides their extravagant life style and outrageous behavior, they have no carefully trained talent. These girls did not spend years perfecting their craft and climbing their way to the top of their profession. They are where they are, as stars of a popular TV show, magnets for cameras and reporters every time they step on the red carpet and in the public eye, because they are rich, outrageous, and have a pretty face.
Having worked in the entertainment field, I saw great artists; masters of their craft struggle to get by as they followed their dreams and love of an art form. In the performing arts, I saw what happens in so many professions in this world. People with a dream and talent spend years perfecting their skills as an actor, musician, or dancer. Spending countless hours in rehearsal and practice, by the sweat of their brow, they pay their dues and slowly rise to the top. These artists who spend years sacrificing and doing the grunt work to reach their highest potential count themselves lucky just to get by. Then, they turn around and see a pretty face that is getting all of the acclaim and attention. Another popular show, “American Idol”, which I must confess I am a fan of, has this as a fundamental problem, the winners are handed their fame, their big bucks contract without all of the years of paying their dues. Why should some lucky person get handed their fame and fortune when so many others spend their lifetime working their hardest and barely get by with little or no recognition?
Unfortunately, it’s not limited to the entertainment industry. In our own, daily lives, we see others getting the praise, the promotion, or the spot on the team or the troop because of something besides hard work and time sacrificed. You’ve seen it like I have. Someone who is better looking or taller is chosen. How many of us have been passed over because someone else knew the right people or was just in the right place at the right time. Maybe you have lost out to someone didn’t try that hard or practice that much because they just had natural talent? It’s frustrating, demoralizing, and unfair.
This isn’t what we’re taught. This is not how it should work. We hear, over and over again that people should receive what they earn. “Equal pay for equal work,” we hear in the work place. We’re told by parents, teachers, and coaches, “You’ve got to earn it.” My dad always told me, “Nothing is ever given to you. If you really want something, you have to work hard for it.”
Scripture echoes this idea. There are numerous proverbs that tell us, “All hard work brings a profit, but mere talk leads only to poverty.” “Give her the reward she has earned, and let her works bring her praise at the city gate.” Even Paul, in his second letter to the Thessalonians, tells his readers that "If a man will not work, he shall not eat."
That’s why today’s parable is so confusing. This landowner is not making any sense. You get what you earn. Those workers wanted what they deserved. Employers don’t pay for work that hasn’t been done. It’s not good business. You get what you deserve, no more. Yet, here the landowner is paying a full day’s wage to someone who’s only worked an hour. He’s not paying those people what they’ve earned. It’s whatever he wants.
This landowner, had gone out himself, not sending someone else, and hired workers early in the morning, at nine, noon, three, and even as late as five, just an hour before quitting time and pay time. They should have been paid accordingly. That’s what those who began work for this man at the beginning of the day thought and who could blame them. They’re the ones who had worked through the heat of the day and worked for eight hours, not one. How dare he give someone who had just started to work the same as them! It’s just not right! What was he thinking?!
But, wait a minute. Hadn’t they agreed to this amount? Weren’t they being paid what they agreed to? The landowner had promised them a full day’s wage and that is what he was giving them. He was holding to his promise. He had told the workers that were hired later in the day, “Whatever is just I will give you.” What was just? That’s decided by the Landowner. His “just”-ness was to be generous to those who started later.
For the workers, things have been turned upside down. The landowner, the Lord of the Vineyard has, even in the order that he paid them, made the last, first and the first, last. Just as another who was first would come last. Christ, the true Lord of the Vineyard, who is the first and last, the alpha and the omega, came into our world to become the last among us, his creation. As a helpless infant, he came into the least of the nations, Israel, into the least of its towns, Bethlehem, this Christ who was before all of creation. In Philippians, Paul tells us that Jesus “made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death-- even death on a cross!” Up on that cross, he took upon himself, what we had really earned, suffering death for our sins. For again Paul tells us in his letter to the Romans, “the wages of sin is death.”
Three days later, he would conquer death, leaving the grave behind. Now, Christ is the firstborn from the dead so that we may follow him. Having been the least, Christ reigns on high, over all creation, for all eternity. This life that does not end, he offers to us. Not for anything that we have done, but simply out of his generosity, his grace, his mercy. And in turn, we receive “the gift of God (that) is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” We, who were once slaves to sin, having earned death and suffering, have been graciously given the kingdom of heaven. We are now fellow heirs, brothers and sisters in Christ. God’s word tells us, “Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.”
This is of no merit of ours. We’ve done nothing to earn it, thankfully. For if God asked of us for so much effort, so many years of hard work, where would we be? How could we find peace and assurance, not knowing if we had worked hard enough or long enough? No. Just as the last workers in this story received what is just to the Lord of the Vineyard, so do we. Look at the thief on the cross. Coming to faith as he was dying, Christ even assured him that very day, he would be with him in paradise. So, too with us, we need not worry if we’ve believed long enough or whether we’ve worked hard enough. Instead of worry, now we rejoice. Out of God’s goodness, we have thankfully not received what we’ve earned, but what he desires to give us. Though deserving of death, through God’s grace and mercy, we are given life in Christ Jesus. “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith-- and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God-- not by works, so that no one can boast”, Paul tells us.
And now, though once last in our sin and now first in Christ’s forgiveness, we begin to see the world differently. We can see the world through this upside-down, last then first view of Christ. As we look at our brothers and sisters in Christ, we can stop the comparisons, stop the judgments based off of merit and instead, see God’s goodness. We see the wonderful work he is doing in his children as he has done in us. They, too, are his children, offered and given the gifts of forgiveness and life. All of us have been given according to God’s goodness and grace, not according to what any of us have done. The world may look at each of us and rank us according to our degree, our position, our talent, our beauty, or our hard work. Yet, God sees us and we can see each other as redeemed by Christ, his children.
Others may still get picked before us for that job or that place on the team, but remember that God has chosen you. He cares for you and has a plan for you. Rejoice in the opportunity that God has provided for you to rejoice with others, in their success. And when it is you who is chosen, you can humbly thank God for his blessing. In each day, we can rejoice that God has come into this world and turned its scales upside down. Though we may be last in line here, we are first before our Father.