Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago
“So, the last will be first and the first last” (Matthew 20:16). These words of Jesus spark either outrage or rejoicing depending upon your place in line. I know I’ve had both reactions.
From the end of the line, the back of the bus, the wrong side of the tracks, or the double-x side of the chromosomal divide, Jesus’ words sound like unbelievable good news. Finally, the last will be first. The put down, pushed aside, beaten, dismissed, and abused may take their rightful place of honor as befits all children of God. It’s probably easy for most of us to cheer for heroes who have advanced the cause of justice and equality for those stuck at the back of the line.
Today, we celebrate civil rights trailblazer, popular cultural icon, and Supreme Court Justice, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, who died this Friday at 87, as tireless fighter for gender equality. She was a leading sex-discrimination litigator and strategist in the 1970s. She argued six pioneering sex discrimination cases before the then all-male U.S. Supreme Court, winning five.
In 1970 a woman was not entitled to have her own credit card. She could not serve on a jury. She was not allowed to enroll in an Ivy-league college or attend a military academy. She could not deny sex to her husband. Another way of saying this is that she could not charge him with rape, nor could she get a no-fault divorce, nor could she end an unwanted pregnancy in every State. She had no right to complain about sexual harassment on the job or to work if she became pregnant. A woman could not be a lawyer, an astronaut, run in the Boston Marathon, or be a boxer in the Olympic games. Today, #MeToo and #Equalpay continue to inform us of how far we have yet to go. The last will be first and the first last.
So, what’s the problem? The problem is it’s not fair. Years ago, I joined a line stretching out the building and down the block for the midnight premiere of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, part 2. It was the last in the series of eight films. People waited all day. Many were dressed in costume. People of all ages excitedly hoped to buy a ticket, to sit with friends, or at least, to get a seat. I can only imagine what would have happened if the theater manager came out and reversed the order of that line! There would have been much weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Yet Jesus says that the Kingdom of Heaven may be compared to an owner of a vineyard who hired day-laborers to take in the harvest. Some worked twelve hours, some worked nine, others worked for six hours; while others only worked three; and some for only one hour! And yet, he paid them all the same, beginning with the last ones hired to the first. What’s more he paid the workers in reverse order. Wouldn’t it be easier to pay the all-day laborers first, sending them home before they could see what their “less deserving” counterparts received? But no, the landowner wanted them to see what kind of vineyard he ran. He wanted them to experience radical generosity. He wanted them to surrender their envy and join the party.
You can predict what happened. Hey, no fair! Those who worked 12 hours enduring the heat of the day were paid the same as those who only worked one hour. It’s not fair when those who show up late, or didn’t get the best grades, or who come from bad schools, or the wrong zip codes, or who just don’t match our expectations, should get to move to the front of the line and be treated like those at the head of the line.
Honestly, it would be hard to run a school or a business or a church for that matter following the example of the generous vineyard owner. We want people to be responsible. We want people to be qualified. We want hard workers. We want people who know how to be successful, who know how to win. That’s true. Yet we also want people who care about people. We want people who know how to be friend. Most important, we want people who know they need people and remember how many other people helped them become what and who they are.
I don’t think Jesus intends for us to create a world of shirkers and slackers. Rather I think Jesus’ parable is a reminder of what all our striving and hard labor must ultimately be for—the betterment of humankind and not merely myself. Jesus parable reminds us how we all got our start at the back of the line, with no way to redeem ourselves, locked out of the Kingdom of Heaven, until God’s grace broke through our prison and showed us mercy. When it comes to God’s love, we all stand at the back of the line.
This is something heroes like Ruth Bader Ginsburg seem to implicitly understand. Their success is connected to the success of others. Although she graduated at the top of her class no law firm would hire her. Instead, her work became the only work available to her, the work for justice. It is the true work of us all.
God’s grace is our daily wage. God’s mercy is our daily bread. The righteousness God reckons to us for faith comes in only one size. It can’t be cut up and parsed out in smaller or larger increments to the more or lesser deserving. We all work for the same amount, the same reward. This redemption is sufficient for us, no matter how long we’ve been working in the vineyard, because it is all we can hold. It is all we need. It is all we take with us when we die.
Whatever else it may be, the Kingdom of Heaven is not a meritocracy. The Jesus Way is a world of grace and not merit, status reversal instead of status reverence, underserved generosity rather than pay for services rendered.
I’m told infants as young as 18 months know when they’re not getting a fair shake. We humans seem to be hard-wired for fairness. It gets short-circuited when fairness becomes only about protecting ourselves. Instead, fairness must be what compels us always to be respectful of human dignity. Fairness is God’s ever-present grace shining a light revealing the gap between the world as it is, and the world as it should be. Fairness provides the true yardstick against which to measure our progress as Christian disciples. God’s fairness has given us our marching orders.
As I offered myself, Jesus says, so you must now offer yourselves to others. Faithfulness to God meant life didn’t play fair with Jesus. The depth of human evil and selfishness is too great. Faithfulness may mean life won’t play fair with us either.
Yet by God’s grace, we shall be changed, and along with us, the world. “The love of God is broader than the measures of our mind; and the heart of the Eternal is most wonderfully kind. But we make this love too narrow by the false limits of our own; and we magnify its strictness with a zeal God will not own.” (ELW # 587)
There is a big difference between the natural human heart and the Divine heart. The heart of God is giving, self-sacrificing and forgiving. It takes an infusion of the Divine heart to turn us into people who rejoice over another person’s good fortune –no matter our own circumstances, no matter whether we are standing at the front or the back of the line.