United Presbyterian Church of West Orange

"Last and First"
by Rev. Rebecca Migliore
Sunday, September 20, 2020 


        *Another kingdom parable.  Last week we talked about how the parable of the unforgiving slave challenged us to be as forgiving in our own lives as God is in forgiving us.  Today, Jesus returns to the subject of fairness in God’s realm of grace.

As it is situated in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus has just told the *story of the rich young man (which Dr. Migliore, Dad, preached on over the summer).  In that story, Jesus answers the young man’s question, “What more can I do?” with the difficult suggestion, “Go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor…then come, follow me.”  And the young man went away sorrowful, for he had many possessions.

        And feeling pretty good about himself after that exchange, Peter says, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.  *What then will we have?”  Or, more plainly, we’ve done what you asked; we’ve given up so much.  Tell us how much more we’re going to get in the kingdom.  And Jesus tells this parable of the laborers in the vineyard.

        *I thought it interesting that the commentator in Seasons of the Spirit summarized our story as being “about the wilderness of unemployment and the landowner who acts in surprising ways, which reminds us that God’s generosity does not follow human reasoning.  God’s generosity is unlimited and reveals God’s justice.”  (p. 52, Sept. 20, 2020)  And that startled me, *because I have rarely thought about this story as one of justice.  Certainly a parable pointing toward the “wideness of God’s mercy.”  Certainly a caution to those of us who think we can force God into behaving as we might.  Certainly a poke at the idea of getting what we deserve if we feel we have been in the vineyard for much of the day, and outrageously good news if we align ourselves with those who were late to be hired.  But a story of justice? 

        *But then I thought, is it justice that some work a forty-hour week in our world, slaving in front of fryers, or with mops and vacuum cleaners, and can’t make a living wage?  Is it justice that we have created a system where we value some jobs so much more over others, and some tasks that need to get done—such as taking care of young children, providing meals for the family, taking care of the things that make life run (laundry and cleaning and so much more)—aren’t paid work, and don’t factor into our economic considerations?  Is it justice that we take advantage of people who are desperate for work, and create sweatshops and pay pennies on the dollar in our ever growing need for goods that are cheap?  Is it even justice that this parable depicts a world where the landowner gets to make many workers feel bad by rubbing their noses in his power by lavishly paying the last in front of everyone?

        *We often use the punch line of the parable “But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first” as a comfort when trying to follow Jesus seems to make us “less than” in the world’s eyes.  Or maybe we hear it as a rebuke for any of us who stand only on our pedigree, thinking that because we have worked hard, because we were the “early worm,” because we have had luck, or money, or whatever has allowed us to succeed, we deserve everything we have, we deserve more than others, we deserve, even from God.  Last and first.  First and last.  A kaleidoscope of positioning.

        *The landowner gives what was due, what was agreed upon, to those who had worked all day.  They had thought it a fair wage—until others got the same for a different output.  It might have been “fair” but would it have been just for those not hired until late to go home to families without any way to feed them, or clothe them, or provide shelter?  It seems to me that this story is not just a wake-up call for us individually—that we are to rethink our definitions of first and last and where we fall *on the last to first spectrum.  It is not just a reminder that God’s grace is God’s, not predicated on our terms, maybe not even understandable by us.  This story is an indictment of the way we have constructed the world—where there are firsts and lasts, *where there are those who (for many, myriad reasons) do not negotiate the wilderness of unemployment (or even employment) well, where justice is thought of in terms of a skewed deserving rather than a gift of grace. 

        *Jesus is trying to imagine a different world—a kingdom world.  God’s world.  What does that mean for us?


        *Break out rooms—

        --Do you think you are one of the first or one of the last? 

        --Is there some place in our world where we might begin to

put last first and first last?


I struggled with how to end this sermon.  So let me share what I found as helpful words from Karl Jacobson, pastor of the Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd. 

*      “…this scandalous reversal of expectation, of our sense of justice, and even of our hopes, is a central piece of the New Testament. Whoever wants to be first must be last, and servant of all ([found in] Mark 9:35); so much for human ideas of greatness. Who is worthy to climb the holy hill, and enter the gate of God's kingdom? Some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last ([so says Jesus in] Luke 13:30). [First or Last even *appears in the book of Revelation where] … it is Jesus, who is first and last (Revelation 1:17), who tells us that we need not fear;

for in the one who is both first and last, [all of us] the first and the last are brought together when we are called to lay down the burdens of our days and find our home with God.  (Karl Jacobson, pastor Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd, Sept. 18, 2011, workingpreacher.com)


*May it be that we are convicted to struggle for God’s brand of justice.

*May it be that we are compelled to act following God’s

wideness of mercy.

        *May it be that we lose sight of firsts and lasts as we truly become one, the body of Christ ministering to our wounded and groaning world.       

                                Alleluia, Amen.