16th Sunday after Pentecost
Exodus 16:2-15; Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45; Philippians 1:21-30; Matthew 20:1-16
Matthew’s Gospel bookends the parable of the laborers in the vineyard with a tried and true mantra of Jesus: “the last will be first, and the first will be last.” We could all finished Christ’s sentence for him, it is how he ends the teaching to His disciple, after the rich young man, is unwilling to give away his possessions and follow Jesus, has gone away. Wait a minute … you know the story, right? A young man comes to Jesus and asks “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” “You know the commandments,” Jesus says. “I sure do,” the young man replies, “And I have always kept them.” Jesus then says, “There is only one thing you lack: go, sell all that you own and give the money to the poor; they come back here and follow me.” That’s where we left off; the young man skulks away gloomy, because he had, owned, a lot of stuff. Jesus, with more explanation than I am going to give right now, told his disciples, “Many who are first will be last, and many who are last shall be first.”
Doesn’t seem right, yes? The young man has to give away everything?? The laborers, in the parable for today, the guys who worked from sun up to sun down get paid the SAME as the guys who showed up at 5 and worked an hour? That’s not fair! There’s no justice in that! But it is very important for us to hear this: God does not play by our rules. Life isn’t fair. True statement. God does not, however, think about what is fair but what is true, and holy, and righteous. Paul says to the Philippians, “Only live your life in a manner worthy of Christ.” We are called to live lives of mercy, grace, and humility, a life that has rooms for the people on the margins – the LAST, the people who are last nearly every time, if not every single time – and let them go first, let them be a part of the community of people who are, and maybe always have been, the firsts.
Remember the movie Amadeus? Antonio Salieri, the central character, has promised God, from his youth, if God will give him the talent to be a famous composer, he will dedicate his life and work to God. He is a devout Roman Catholic. He becomes the court composer for Emperor Joseph II of Austria and is very well known in Vienna. He composes music for special occasions, state visits, balls, etc.
Onto the scene swoops Mozart. Though in real life the two men seemed to have been friendly, the play and film depict Mozart as a immature, conceited, alcoholic whose life did not mirror his art. In a pivotal scene, Salieri has composed a march for Mozart’s visit, who the Emperor and Salieri were eager to meet. Mozart comes in, after hearing the Emperor playing the march badly, says he already knows it and sits down and plays it. Mockingly, he makes light of it and begins to add flourishes and notes of his own and now it sounds like a masterpiece. Salieri, not wanting to give away his embarrassment or anger, can only watch. Later, Salieri talks to God.
“Tonight at an inn somewhere in this city stands a giggling child who can put on paper, without actually setting down his billiard cue, casual notes which turn my most considered ones into lifeless scratches. Grazie, Signore! You gave me the desire to serve you - which most men do not have - then saw to it the service was shameful in the ears of the server. Grazie! You gave me the desire to praise you - which most do not feel - then made me mute. Grazie tante! You put into me perception of the Incomparable - which most men never know! - then ensured that I would know myself forever mediocre. (His voice gains power) Why? ... What is my fault? ... Until this day I have pursued virtue with rigour. I have laboured long hours to relieve my fellow men. I have worked and worked the talent you allowed me. (Calling up) You know how hard I've worked! - Solely that in the end, in the practice of the art which alone makes the world comprehensible to me, I might hear Your Voice! And now I do hear it - and it says only one name: MOZART!”
You see, Salieri felt he had done all the right things: dedicated his life and work to God; treated others with respect and humility; he had done his best and still, an unworthy, drinking, philandering boor like Mozart had been given all the talent.
What does this have to do with the Gospel? God, in Jesus Christ, is trying to tell us what justice and mercy look like in the kingdom of God. God does not think as we think and as much as we like to claim that our judicial system, for instance, has been built on Judeo-Christian principles, I find the grace, mercy, and love of God in Christ is so frequently absent from it. Jesus tells us that mercy for the sinner and the righteous, the faithful and the latecomer to the faith, is part of what being first and placing the other first, means. Living a life in a manner that is worthy of the Gospel of Christ implies that we are channelling the grace, mercy, and love of God in life; we are putting the other first and ceasing to constantly try to advance our own position, our own agenda, or assuming that we or our group are in the right and deserving (entitled to) all the good that comes our way.
God’s justice and mercy don’t work, won’t work, in the way that the world’s does. God commands that we follow his laws of love, blessing, obedience, and grace and that means we love our enemies, pray for those who persecute us, and offer hope to each other. God does not intend that we have wealth or poverty, health or sickness, aloneness or community. We make those decisions. We have it within our power to bless each other and be God’s instrument of healing for one another. Life void of mercy, true justice - upholding the marginalized and not seeking only our own ends - and compassionate love cannot truly lay claim to the Gospel of Jesus. May we heed Paul’s call to live lives worthy of the One who gave all for us, knowing that if we do, we may not have a perfect life and certainly not an easy one, but we will know the presence of God which is a treasure of inestimable worth. For it is the grace-filled presence of God in our lives – not what we possess – that makes all the difference in how we live for and to Christ.