Matthew 20:1-16

See, the kingdom of heaven is like this.

Some day laborers were hired at six-o-clock in the morning to go work in a vineyard. At six-o-clock in the evening, they got paid the usual daily wage (what they had agreed to receive). This was a problem.

See everybody was getting paid the usual daily wage. We started working at six-o-clock this morning! We have worked for twelve hours in the hot sun! These guys showed up an hour ago! Those guys started at three-o-clock, that bunch started at noon. Technically we got paid what we were promised, but anybody can see, this is not fair.

What the six-o-clock workers tell the landowner cuts right to the heart. Look. When you pay the five pm gang the same amount you’re paying us, you are making them equal to us. Come on! You chose us first. We worked for you all day. Nobody wanted to hire those ragamuffins! Then you get to decide they are equal to us? It’s not fair.

The traditional spin on this parable is not so favorable to these grumbling six-o-clock workers. It’s easy to blame them for being ungrateful and ungracefilled. Only problem is, I can relate to them, and I’m guessing you can too. The indignation of the six-o-clock workers rises up and exposes the indignation in me. I know what it is to complain, Hey! This is not fair! And it’s entirely possible that I have issued this complaint against God.

What if it is actually the truth that God loves every person…

In the beginning, when darkness covered the face of the deep, the breath of God moved over the waters, and some people say God spoke, and some people say God sung. The word came forth and there was darkness and there was light, and the word was love, and the world was good. The first word was love.

When each person is born, we remember the time the heavens split open and the spirit came down. We remember when God looked at Jesus and said, “He is mine. I love him.” When each baby is born, God says the same thing, and you can see why. The love of God in their tiny baby ears, on their creased baby knees. The love of God whispered right into the soft spot on their heads. Of course, God looks at every baby born and the word comes forth, and the first word is love.

What if God keeps on loving every person like that. Even when we grow up. Even when we make horrifying choices. What if the LORD our God who sang the world into being is making the choice to love the tyrants, and the terrorists, and the torturers. Imagine if God loves the white supremacists, the predators, the cruelest teacher you’ve ever had, the bully on the bus, the parent who was supposed to protect you who abused you instead. And what if God loves them!

Do you even want God’s love anymore? I mean, if God is making it her priority to love them as much as you and me, do we even want to be saved by this love… It’s like God is saying their lives are worth as much as ours. You can hear how this is a problem.

If you have been up since before dawn working to prove your worth in this world, you can hear how this is not fair. Somewhere along the line, we’ve been taught to work hard to qualify to get into heaven. Here we’ve been building this resume of Christian conduct. Surely, we must be “good” people. We must be impressing God!

Instead, it’s like we come before him ready to prove ourselves, ready to show how we have mastered musical chairs. I will crush this, God! I will live up to your love for me! But here God goes and ruins it. They start adding more chairs to the circle, and the LORD just shakes her head. Oh honey, she says, this is heaven. We’ll just keep putting out more chairs, and here? They never stop the music.

I don’t know if you have ever found yourself working ferociously for something in order to prove your own worth…

My story of this is embarrassingly drenched in privilege, but it’s the truth. When I was in high school, I came to believe, the only way I could be assured of my worth as a person is if I could go to a top college. I wish I could tell you the precise moment I made this deal with the devil, and I can’t. But I made it, and he won, and it was ugly. (Not bribery-scandal ugly, but ugly all the same.)

In addition to AP exams, I took the PSAT, the ACT, three SAT II subject exams, and the SAT I’s on three separate occasions vowing, each time, to get a higher score. On my third try, I found myself on a Saturday morning, lined up in the hallway of some high school in Pottstown, Pennsylvania, armed with a gazillion pencils and two calculators. Another high schooler approached me. He said, I see you have two calculators. I don’t have one. Any chance I could borrow one of yours? I told him no. Which is awful.

What’s worse is that I didn’t say no impulsively. I stood there and thought through the whole scenario which went like this: Surely, I need to get into this top college if I’m going to go on being a person in this world. Surely, I need to get a higher score this time around. Surely, I will be sailing through the math section when my calculator batteries die. So no, I can’t loan you my backup calculator, surely my life depends on it!

Here I was so convinced I could work out my own salvation with fear and trembling! Let me prove it to you, God. I have been here since six-o-clock this morning. Oh honey, says the LORD. This is heaven. Ain’t nobody here impressed with your musical chair prowess! Just stop already. What are you doing? Only reason to be taking chairs away is to make a dance floor.

I see what you’ve done, says God, to each one of us. Your life matters. You matter. And so do they.

If the first thing this parable teaches is that God does not save us on our own terms, the second thing is: maybe don’t trust the ending; it might be the beginning. Look I know it is common to think of salvation as a verdict that gets rendered at the end. What if that idea is missing something… What if God is not waiting for us to die to issue a pronouncement upon our souls, but what if God keeps saving us all the time… The last shall be first and the first shall be last, so you can see how it goes. When the first word is love, the last word is love. Love always gets the last word.

Over the past twenty-five years, I have come to see how the myth I bought in high school is not true. I wish I could tell you the precise moment I got my soul back from the devil, and I can’t, but I can tell you how it happened. It was because of people like you.

There are actual people, who I can name— some are family, friends, mentors, co-workers —they saw something in me that had nothing to do with achievement. I know it was God’s grace that saved me. I know it took these people to see what, initially, I could not, to see my worth and my truth. You do that for another person, you could save their life, no kidding.

I hope you have people in your life who keep on seeing your worth and your truth.

I hope we will be these people for you.

If heaven is waiting for us at the end, then it’s also breaking in at the beginning. What heaven teaches the earth from the very beginning is that we’re all connected. We’re all called into being by the same word sung into our souls. Now we need each other even more than we know, —even those five pm workers, even the villains, even the one who promised to love you who hurt you instead, even them. The grace of God is this: we’re always saving each other.

At six-o-clock in the evening, the sky was turning orangey-pink, the workers who had started at dawn were hungry, and thirsty, and sore down to the bone. When their pay was issued, they looked around at each other and saw that everyone was getting paid the same. This is not fair!

Only thing is, what if their outrage is not the end of the parable? What if our impulse to say “It’s not fair” is the moment our empathy begins…

The problem is the parable ends with the workers grumbling all the way home, but what do you think happens the next day? Do all the workers show up again in the market at dawn? Do the most talented laborers wonder why the others aren’t getting hired? Does the shrewd landowner reassess why he’s choosing to take advantage of a day-labor economy? Is this really the most we can hope for…

The impulse to shout “It’s not fair” makes for a discouraging ending, but when those words get announced at the beginning, well now we can do something. Our indignation can be what provokes our compassion. Our yearning for the reign of God gets us saving each other’s lives. This is grace. This is the grace of God.

When the trumpets sound, and the day is come, and the roll is called up yonder, the LORD our God looks at the world to pronounce the final word… When the last word is love, you know the first word is love, then all the world comes into being. Then we’ll look at around at each other. See, the kingdom of heaven is like this.

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