Sermon Title: Latecomers! God love ‘em. And God does!
Scriptures: Jonah 3:10-4:11 & Matthew 20:1-16
“Thus the last shall be first and the first shall be last.” It’s one of those familiar scriptures. How many of us have jokingly said these words as we lined-up downstairs for pot-luck (remember pre-covid-19 pot-luck!) Someone in line steps to the side to let another go first and is heard to say with a smile, “Oh you know ‘the last shall be first.’” Giving up our place in line is good manners and kind and biblical! How can we go wrong?
But who among us readily connects these familiar words with the parable we just heard? This is another one of Jesus’ baffling parables. It doesn’t fit with what we know about equal pay for equal work. One-hour workers receive the same pay as the all-day workers. A surprise? I guess so. The subsequent complaining? No surprise! We heard the all-day workers say to the owner of the estate
“You have made the ones who worked only one hour equal to us who worked all day in the scorching heat!” Of course, there is dismay and disbelief!
If we go back to the beginning of our gospel reading we will hear again these words:
“The kindom of heaven is like the owner of an estate who went out at dawn to hire workers for the vineyard. The kindom of heaven is unlike our expectations. The kindom of heaven is unlike our understanding of how things work?
Like Jonah, we look for outcomes to coincide with our understanding of what is right and fair.
(As an aside: Let me repeat from the background commentary. The story of Jonah is neither historical nor biographical. In this parable we look for truths, perhaps truths we’d rather not see.)
As a child in Sunday School hearing the Jonah story, I imagined a very big fish with a very big mouth. In my mind, Jonah was a little man so he could easily slide down the fish’s throat to land in the fish’s very big stomach. It was like a fairy tale that had a happy-ever-after ending. Whatever God was doing or not doing wasn’t apparent to me. Whatever Jonah had done or not done was of no concern to me. I was the older well-behaved sister. Surely God was pleased with me and probably loved me a little more than my younger brother and the other rowdy, misbehaving kids. And I rested in that confident naiveté! When God lets the city of Nineveh off the hook, Jonah is enraged. The people of Nineveh were supposed to suffer for their less than godly ways. After all Jonah had gone through to be there
to give them God’s message of gloom and doom! He may have been slow to be obedient but after his miserable adventure of running away, he did comply! So now, from his point of view, these wayward people do not deserve God’s mercy. Scripture says: “God saw their efforts to renounce their evil behaviour. And God relented by not inflicting on them the disaster that threatened them.” A happy ending. But not what Jonah preached. Not the outcome he had in mind. Jonah’s circumstances are similar to the workers in Matthew who began at dawn and worked until sunset only to receive the same pay as those who worked just one hour. Young, older, whatever our age, we have these well-formed expectations when it comes to who gets what, how much and when. These expectations are then transplanted into God’s kin-dom.
A couple of weeks ago there was a story in our Canadian news regarding an apology from a Quebec judge. It took 5 years. He had refused to allow a woman to appear in his court. The reason? She was wearing a hijab. Five years later he apologizes! Yes he was slow and yes he was late but according to our parable, according to the kindom of heaven, he’s been made equal to those who have borne the heat of the day. He’s a latecomer but under God’s reign he’s counted as equal to the long-time workers for equal rights. In the parable, late in the afternoon, the owner of the estate finds some folks standing around and says to them, “Why have you been standing here idle all day?” Their answer is haunting. They replied, “No one has hired us.” Did anyone even see them? Really see them? See them with their hearts the way God sees?
Or were they noticed but because they dressed differently they were judged as outsiders and then ignored?
I recently came across a wisdom-saying from Islam: “A person who has put a foot to the holy path must be content to travel like a turtle.” I’m comforted by this. On the holy path I do indeed travel like a turtle. Thanks be to God that Jesus has good news for turtles! When we are among the latecomers, in God’s realm, we are made equal to those who arrived before us. When we’re as late as the last hour we are made equal to those who were there at dawn. In Jesus’ parable, I hear an invitation to see ourselves as latecomers in various ways and throughout our entire life. Kids, teenagers, young adults, older adults – no one is exempt from the latecomer experience. I now know why my grandparents were the way they were. I remember looking at my grandma’s varicose veins with a kind of horror.
And now – my legs clearly resemble hers. When my grandad got up off his knees he’d grunt – why I wondered. Now I know.
The story is told of two grandmothers sharing grandchildren stories. One said to the other: My young grandson called the other day to wish me Happy Birthday. He asked me how old I was, and I told him, 80. My grandson was quiet for a moment. Then he asked, “Did you start at 1?”
When we started out in life we had no idea how much we’d need to learn and how slow we’d be. We had no idea how many mistakes we’d make. And how many regrets we’d face. We hadn’t a clue as to the number of times we’d be the recipients of God’s extravagant love with its patience and generosity and forgiveness. The psalmist says: Great you are, Yahweh, and greatly to be praised;
Your greatness is unfathomable. (Psalm 145:3)
Isn’t this what Jesus is pointing out to us in this morning’s parable? How many of us have made the same mistakes more than once? How about again and again! And every time what is God’s payment? Generous patience. Generous love. Generous forgiveness. How great is that! In accepting God’s boundless grace we are set free to smile at ourselves. Ah yes, that was me! We can also smile at others who are making the same mistakes, especially those who are younger. Ah yes, we remember. As turtles we can extend to others’ patience and forgiveness.
“Thus the last shall be first and the first shall be last” – and we know! Along with many others we know we are latecomers and that is very good news.