The gospel pericope this morning is a parable. A parable tells a story that may or may not be relevant to the literal interpretation, but instead is a vehicle to apply an intended message of what the parable is pointing to or addressing, something greater and deeper than the literal interpretation.
The story is about an owner that goes out in the early morning and hires people to work in his field. He continues to hire people throughout the day, and they are all promised the same amount of money, and even the people hired at the end of the day are offered the same pay as the ones that started early in the morning.
This is a crazy story if it’s only about hired workers in someone’s field. Who would do that? The parable is pointing to the Kingdom of God. Jesus is using this analogy to show how the Kingdom of God is different than the kingdom of Rome, or of Israel, a satellite of Rome, with their own customs and ways of doing things. When Jesus invites people to share in the work of what we now call “the church”, the payment is the same, whether you began early in the morning or if you come later. The Good News is that the first will be last and the last will be first.
Many of you have put some mileage on your shoes in your journey with Christ, and others may have just begun. And look at this guy on the cross that says to Jesus: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom”. Jesus answered him with these words: “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:42-43, NIV) I mean, boom, he’s there. Many of these disciples had been serving Jesus for years on long pilgrimage journeys, but here he says to someone at the last hour: “You will also receive the reward. You will be with me in today in paradise”. We’ve all heard or seen death-bed conversions to Jesus, and the family feels peace about it.
When I look at it that context, it does not bother me too much, because, I enjoy seeing people take advantage of the same blessings and excitement about the good news that we “old-timers” maybe take for granted. This rapturous delight of knowing Christ, and the honeymoon period of their life, because they have not experienced this before, to realize that they are hidden in Christ, and Christ is with them and for them. That’s the message here. The parable is pointing to the promises and rewards in the Kingdom of God. It’s not based on how long we have been involved with this thing called Christianity. The reward of spending time in the presence of God, and looking forward to eternity is equal to all. No-one gets more than anyone else when it comes to receiving and experiences the promises of God.
Remember the story about the disciples who were fighting over who was more important than the others? Jesus calls his disciples together and says: “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all. “Jesus brought a child into their midst and said: “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me.” (Mark 9:34-37, NIV)
When Naomi and I were living in Springfield, Missouri, (The Queen City of the Ozarks), I was in my second year at Central Bible College, an Assembly of God school. Naomi and I were the Elders in Residence at a communal house with a ministry known as New Wine Ministries. I’m not sure why we were the elders, other than we were married, and I was a Bible student. Many of the young people we lived among were as old as us or slightly younger. I was also the Assistant Director of New Wine Coffee House, a big two-story building with a stage and auditorium, a coffee-shop deli, and rooms set aside in the basement for Bible studies and prayer, all set with black-lights and colorful walls from the late 60’s and early 70’s. We packed the place out on week-ends with concerts featuring Jesus People bands. Bare feet, long hair and bell-bottoms were signs of the time, and many carried Bibles and walked the streets doing the best they could to share the good news of Jesus.
There came a point in time when the leadership of New Wine Ministries felt that they needed the oversight of an established local church and a local pastor. Most of us were already attending this local church. We were hungry for spiritual direction and pastoral care. We were having quite a success story, adding people to the roles of the Church with a capital C, bringing in big bands and starting Bible and discussion groups with mostly young people. But, we lacked spiritual maturity. We came close to a deal, but the church board decided that they would incorporate the Coffee House into their outreach ministry, because that was a cool ministry that was a hit in the community, but they decided not to accept the Christian Communal house, which was odd, because all the people in the communal home came from the ministry of the Coffee House, and many of these folks were being groomed for future ministries in the church. The deal fell through.
The young people in the Christian communal home were a risk. Some of them were right off the streets, and most of them were new to the Christian faith. The church did not want to take the gamble of working with a bunch of young people living together, even though we had strict house rules. I can understand this better now, at least better than I did at that time.
Instead of providing pastoral leadership and counsel to a group of young Christians, just finding their way into the Christian faith, young people that were hungry for truth and desiring direction from the Church, they rejected as a group and felt abandoned.
Just as in the parable this morning, people made this judgment: “Well, we have been in the Christian thing a long time, and these young kids are a risk, and we just can’t take a risk at the end of the day with our church and our reputation on the line. We can’t gamble with these people that are new to the kingdom. They have not earned the right, and we have no idea what they are going to do. It’s a hippie commune for heaven’s sake”.
So, what does it mean to us, when Jesus says: “The first will be last and the last will be first”? Think about it.
The Reverend Dr. David Madsen