Isaiah 55:6-9, Philippians 1:20-24, 27a
1“The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out at dawn to hire laborers for his vineyard.2After agreeing with them for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard.3Going out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace,4 and he said to them, ‘You too go into my vineyard, and I will give you what is just.’5So they went off. [And] he went out again around noon, and around three o’clock, and did likewise.6Going out about five o’clock, he found others standing around, and said to them, ‘Why do you stand here idle all day?’7They answered, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You too go into my vineyard.’
8 When it was evening the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Summon the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and ending with the first.’9When those who had started about five o’clock came, each received the usual daily wage.10So when the first came, they thought that they would receive more, but each of them also got the usual wage.11And on receiving it they grumbled against the landowner,12saying, ‘These last ones worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us, who bore the day’s burden and the heat.’13He said to one of them in reply, ‘My friend, I am not cheating you. Did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage?14 Take what is yours and go. What if I wish to give this last one the same as you?15[Or] am I not free to do as I wish with my own money? Are you envious because I am generous?’
16 Thus, the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
The literary context for this parable is the passage just before it begins (Matthew 19:27-30). Jesus has congratulated his disciples for leaving everything behind to follow him. He warns them though, that the first will be last and the last will be first. Jesus emphasizes that a disciple’s reward of entrance into the kingdom of heaven will be equal for all, regardless of how long they have been a member of the believing community. The disciples should not expect more simply because they have been with Jesus longer. And then we move on to the parable.
In the parable we meet a vineyard owner with a crop of ripe grapes that need to be harvested. We also meet a group of day laborers waiting for work. The landowner hires them at an agreed wage, payable at the end of the day. The story begins innocently enough: The first workers are hired early in the day and enter the vineyard to work. Other workers are discovered throughout the day and are sent in turn into the vineyard with the promise that they will be paid whatever the landowner thinks is right. They all agree and go to work. Some work for a whole day, others for a half day, still others for only four hours. A last group works for barely any time at all.
All this is familiar and typical of Middle Eastern employment practices. While workers in a Western culture usually seek out employment for themselves, Middle Eastern workers make themselves available and trust that a foreman will find them and hire them. Placing themselves in a position of availability allows them to offer the person with work the honor of conferring the gift of employment.
Recall that Jesus’s parables reveal a shock element in the middle of the story. Here the shock comes when it is time to pay the workers. The landowner tells the steward that those hired first—and who had worked in the vineyard the longest—will have to wait at the end of the line before they are paid. Meanwhile, those who have worked for only an hour or two will be paid before them, and paid very well. Each late-arriving worker is paid a full day’s wage! The disgruntled workers at the back of the line console themselves with the hope that because they worked longer than these latecomers, their pay will be much higher than the standard daily wage. They are in for a shock! Their pay for the day is the same given to all the other workers. How can this be? This is not fair. They are envious because the landowner was generous to the latecomers but not to them. This is what Jesus meant when he said the last will be first and the first will be last.
A reference to a vineyard in the Bible is most often a reference back to Isaiah 5. In that chapter, the prophet sings a song for his beloved (God) about God’s vineyard (Israel). We learn that God built a vineyard on a fertile hillside, dug a wine press, and protected it with a wall and a tower, but the vines produced only sour fruit. Isaiah shares this image in relationship to Israel and particularly to Jerusalem. God has done all that can be done to prepare the vineyard for success but discovers bad fruit on the vines.
The original audience who heard this parable would make that connection. Jesus has announced the appearance of a new kingdom. He calls it the kingdom of heaven and he is referring to the prophetic vision of Daniel interpreting the dream of Nebuchadnezzar. In that dream, a rock cut out of a mountain by the hand of God appears and brings a series of four empires (the final empire is Rome) to an end. That rock grows to become a “mountain” that will cover the face of the earth (Daniel 2:34-35, 44-45). That mountain is the kingdom of heaven. This is what Jesus announces at the beginning of his public ministry. Repent, he says, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.
Life will be different in this kingdom. Its subjects will all be equally beloved in the eyes of God and no one will begrudge anyone anything based on status, wealth, position, or years of service. In this kingdom, which is envisioned as the church, the first shall be last and the last shall be first. In the parable, each worker receives the same payment. In the kingdom of God each subject will receive the same—undeserved—gift of eternal life. We cannot be envious because God is generous. We would do well to lean into God’s mercy, love, gentleness, kindness, and compassion. This is kingdom living. This is the kind of life we should be preparing for in anticipation of our heavenly homeland.
The Prayer of St. Francis seems to capture a sense of what we should pray for as we anticipate life in the kingdom of heaven. Pray this prayer in preparation for your participation in worship this week.
Lord make me an instrument of your peace
Where there is hatred let me sow love
Where there is injury, pardon
Where there is doubt, faith
Where there is despair, hope
Where there is darkness, light
And where there is sadness, joy.
O divine master grant that I may
not so much seek to be consoled as to console
to be understood as to understand
To be loved as to love
For it is in giving that we receive
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned
And it’s in dying that we are born to eternal life
We all want to get in on the ground floor. We want to be the first to respond so that we can be first to receive the benefits of our fruitful associations. The latecomers cannot be the first—get to the back of the line! That’s only fair. The world outside the kingdom of heaven works on these principles. In the world you try to get in early and get more than all the others. Sure, you might be willing to share the wealth, but you plan to keep the lion’s share for yourself.
This is not kingdom living. This is not the way we should live our lives in the church. Jesus delights in the late arrivals just as much as he delights in any long-time decision to follow him. The newly minted disciple who makes a decision to follow Jesus today is just as important to the Lord as the disciple who has followed him from childhood. You and I are probably among the “first” and not the “last” if we are praying with Lectio Divina. We need to learn how to be comfortable and rejoice with the “last,” the ones who come late to the dance, and rejoice with Heaven when any one of the lost (or last) sheep has been found and brought home with rejoicing!