16 Pentecost • September 20, 2020
Exodus 16:2-15 • Psalm 105:1- 6, 37-45 • Philippians 1:21-30 • Matthew 20:1-16
In the Name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
A story and a koan we find in today’s Gospel Lesson. The koan is simple—“The last will be first, and the first will be last.” What could this possibly mean? Even though Matthew sticks it onto the end of a story, it is clear that it originally was a stand-alone koan spoken by Jesus to prompt some thinking, some investigation, some inquiry for those of us who are his disciples, something for us to chew on.
So what does this mean, “The last will be first, and the first will be last.” The first time I really heard this koan when I was 14 or 15 years old, standing with other members of my church youth group—the YPF, the Young People’s Fellowship. We were pushing and shoving, jostling each other as we tried to get to the front of the line for dinner. It was all pretty good-natured. We were doing the natural thing—trying to be first. You probably have done this yourself, trying to get into a crowed subway or maybe pushing your cart a little faster to edge out another shopper in the grocery store.
Our rector came up behind us, said “The last will be first, and the first will be last,” and led the head of the line to the back, reversing the order we had made. It was a shock. It was unfair. It was incomprehensible that he should do such a thing! But … I never forgot what he said, what I later learned was a koan from Jesus.
What does it mean? Well, perhaps it has to do with our misperception of what it means to be first! Maybe we got it all wrong, our striving and jostling, competing with our fellow humans to be first, when we thought that bigger is better, more powerful is more desirable, and richer is best.
Perhaps this is another version of another koan from Jesus—“Except you become as a little child, you cannot enter the kingdom of heaven.” Infants are charming and cute, but they certainly are not big and strong and smart. What they are good at is listening, but that is little valued in this world.
I leave it to you to sort out what this means for you—“The last will be first, and the first will be last.”
The story that Jesus told tells another story of unfair behavior on the part of the kingdom of heaven. remember that this is, as always, an attempt by Jesus to help us as we seek the kingdom.
The owner of the vineyard, at about three-hour intervals, hires day laborers to work in his garden. The first group works 15 hours in the hot sun. The last group works only three hours until the work-day is ended. They all then get off work and are paid their agreed-upon wages. And they all got the same pay. Unjust! Unfair! “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat!”
So perhaps the kingdom of heaven is not about getting fairness or equity or justice for ourselves—that would be just more self-centeredness, more about me-me-me.
Perhaps the kingdom of God is not about our hard work or being good. Perhaps entrance into the kingdom is not a matter of what we do. Perhaps it is only about what God does.
Perhaps entering the kingdom is a function of God’s generosity to us. Perhaps it is a free gift, a gift of grace, a gift that only has to be heard and chosen over what the world has to offer. No payment required.
As with the koan, this story is intended to hook us, to engage us in the inquiry. Jesus said, “Seek first the kingdom of God, and everything else shall be given.” Perhaps both story and koan are intended to aid us on our journey, seeking together the kingdom of God.