There’ve been many changes in our society over the years. One thing that has not changed, however, is "waiting in line" or "taking your turn." It is amazing how complicated the rules for waiting in line are. Yet everyone seems to know them. You can't cut in line, but you can save a place for someone in line under the right circumstances. It is amazing that people will quietly wait in line, but if someone breaks the protocol, cries of "Hey! Wait your turn!" erupt from those who have put in their time.
It’s this deep mindset in our culture that makes the words of Jesus in today's Gospel so bizarre. He told a story and then said: So the last will be first, and the first last …, which goes against pretty much everything that our society thinks of as fair.
Today's Gospel relates the story that Jesus told we know as the "Laborers in the Vineyard." The main point of this story is fairly straight forward. The work day represents a life time. We see that some people are born into faithful families who bring them to the Lord while they are still infants.
These people never know a time when Jesus is not a part of their lives. At the other end of the spectrum are people who make death bed confessions - people like the thief on the cross. The Holy Spirit brings these people into the faith just days or even moments before death.
As the master hires people at various times of the day, we are meant to think of the different points in life when the Holy Spirit brings people to faith. The point is - as long as it is day – that is, as long as a person is alive – it’s not too late for the Holy Spirit to bring him or her into God's family.
We also need to remember that first and last are not always related to time or standing in line. In the Scriptures the words: "First and Last" can also have a broader meaning. The verses right before today's Gospel reading are about the rich, young ruler who came to Jesus and wanted to know what he must do to be saved. Jesus first points to the second table of the commandments those forbidding murder, adultery, theft, and so forth. The young man claimed to have kept them all.
Then Jesus went back to the first table of the law and we discover that this young man loved his possessions more than he loved God. The next words Jesus speaks are about the camel and the eye of the needle ending with the words: Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.". And His disciples respond: … Who then can be saved?
You see at that time people thought they were first in God’s sight because of their wealth alone and other people were last or least in God’s sight because of their poverty alone. And we’re no different.
Our culture has many ways of judging people to be a part of the upper crust: wealth, fame, talent, beauty, and while none of these things are bad they certainly aren’t an indication of how much God loves us either. Jesus wants us to remember that many who we judge to be the “least” in our culture may in fact be the first to enter the kingdom of heaven.
And then there’s the, maybe too familiar, attitude of those hired first. Listen to their concern again. '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.'
Now before we consider their complaint, let’s think in general about the experience of life time Christians. They are baptized into God's family as infants. They were brought to church on a weekly basis to receive the forgiveness that Jesus Christ earned on the cross for all. As they grew up, they were taught the basics of the faith. After they demonstrated the ability to examine themselves, they received the gift of Christ's body and blood on a regular basis.
When they encountered difficult times, God's reminds them that He is always with them. The Holy Spirit worked throughout their lives to keep them in the faith so that when their last hour came, they left this valley of the shadow of death and joined our Lord in heaven.
The life time Christian knows that Jesus is always with them. They simply can't see Him while they live in this sin-filled world. Since Jesus is here, the reign of heaven has already begun.
The life time Christian knows that he or she is not trying to earn a place in heaven but simply waiting for the day when God will reveal what we already processes. The life time Christian has from the moment of their baptism possessed forgiveness and life and all the other blessings that come from the cross until we are home with Christ in heaven.
Given all these blessings, why do you think the life-long Christian in our text describe his life as a burden or as scorching heat? Stings a little bit doesn’t it? You see it’s so easy, so natural for us to feel as though we’re doing some great thing for God when by His gracious invitation we become a Christian. It’s so who we are to think that heaven is some sort of reward for those who bear a cross for Jesus.
The person who makes the death bed confession receives the same heaven that a life time Christian receives. On the other hand, this person who received the last-minute reprieve did not experience a life time of forgiveness from Jesus while on earth. They didn’t know the peace that comes from God alone. They never knew what it’s like to always have someone who listens.
Every now and then someone will ask the obvious question. "If God will give me all of heaven whether I become a Christian today or twenty years from now, why not wait? Why not have a little fun, enjoy life and then become a Christian?
And that can work if you see tomorrow but still that’s a person who at that moment has been convinced by satan the world and their own flesh that the life of the Christian is a burden. I mean so many rules: honor your parents, don’t kill or steal from each other not to mention the expectation that you go to church. Who would have time to enjoy life if all you’re doing is being “good” for God.
They of course don’t understand that Jesus carried the burden of being good for God to the cross for each of us a long time ago. They don’t understand the Christian life is a gift from the Holy Spirit. They don’t understand what they’re missing and only the Holy Spirit can explain or open their eyes and minds to … not just know about Jesus but to live their life in Him. They don’t understand … but they can!
this very day God continues to search the market place that is the world looking for workers for His vineyard. Truth is it really doesn’t matter when we receive faith only that we do. You see whether our faith is old or young, we rejoice because no matter when … we all received faith as a gift, a gift that brings with it, life everlasting through the blood Christ shed for you and for all.
In His Name, Amen