25 Ordinary A – September 18, 2011 – Will You Be First or Last?
Isaiah 55:6-9, Psalm 145:2-3,8-9,17-18, Phil 1:20c-24, 27a, Matthew 20:1-16a
The last will be first and the first will be last. This well known one-liner is perplexing. Is it about the last judgement and who will get into heaven? Have you ever worried about getting into heaven? Consider the stories before and after this gospel. A rich man asks Jesus what he must do to get into heaven (Mt. 19:16-30) and a mother begs Jesus to make sure her two sons get in (Mt. 20:20-28). In both cases Jesus gives a warning against boasting about our good works. He cautions about presuming to be favored or to be first to get to eternal paradise. 
These words are thought by some to be a punch line added to the original story. They could have something to do with what it means to be a disciple. Are there any rewards for taking on the work that Jesus did? That is what a disciple is. Apparently, Peter was claiming that, because he and others left everything behind to follow Jesus, they ought to be first in line to reap the rewards of heaven. Jesus, in this story, says, I’ve got news for you! There is no correlation between the amount of work done on earth and divine rewards. Are you now wondering what you are doing here this morning? Although prizes sometime come our way they are not the purpose for advancing the kin-dom of God now. 
Although the parable is not about labor relations it does remind us of the present situation in this country regarding jobs. Who gets a job? Who doesn’t? Who is paid fairly and who is not? We know what is happening. Productive workers, even with seniority, are suddenly fired; people with skills and incentive cannot find work; college graduates see their career dreams postponed if not entirely crushed.
While these commentaries are helpful to us, this parable is really about unexpected generosity. God rewards human beings in surprising ways. Everyone one of us can remember when someone surprised us with an act of kindness. Perhaps there was a time when we acted generously toward someone else on the spot. Can you think of those moments now?
How often have we heard in this country, “There’s more where that came from?” Well, in the time of Jesus people in the Middle East did not expect that there was an endless supply of food or jobs. So, the owner of the vineyard in today’s gospel, like other employers, felt a responsibility to provide work if he could. Throughout the day, he would go to the marketplace to offer jobs to those eager to work. (The same happens today in many cities where you see vans stopping to pick up migrant workers early in the morning.) At the end of the day, out of concern for the workers and their families, this employer decided to pay everyone the same amount, no matter how long they worked. We can imagine the grumbling by some … and the surprise for others.
The teachings of Jesus again turn the tables on us. What else would we expect from God today who is always present but sometimes seems elusive? In the first reading the prophet Isaiah reminds his listeners that, God’s ways are not our ways, God’s thoughts are not our thoughts. So, the less deserving just might receive as much as the more deserving. It’s hard to tell and we should not judge. This teaching certainly clashes with American economic ideas of equal opportunity, contracts and seniority. 
The quizzical line, those who are first will be last and vice versa, will always be a brain teaser for us. Given the different ways to interpret the story there seems to be a prevailing thread — a concern for a common good. There are people all around us who need our help. We ourselves might need assistance. Perhaps a twist on the golden rule is appropriate for us this Sunday morning. Do for others what you would want others to do for you. And … do not worry about getting into heaven!
1 Oxford Bible Commentary on Matthew 20:1-16
2 Reginald H. Fuller and Daniel Westberg. Preaching the Lectionary: The Word of God for the Church Today. Third Edition (Collegeville: Liturgical Press) 2006, 181-183
3 Pilch, John. The Cultural World of Jesus, Sunday by Sunday, Cycle A (Collegeville: Liturgical Press) 1995, 139-141.