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The Last Shall Be First
September 21, 2014
The characters in today’s parable represent a world of hurt. They are laborers—day laborers, to be exact. Their precarious economic plight was as common in Jesus’ day as it is in ours. Jesus didn’t need to invent these characters and their situation, because he knew them well. As Jesus and his disciples passed from town to town, they encountered men gathered in the marketplace hoping to be hired, to earn a day’s wage, to put bread on the table for their families. Jesus takes just such a heart-rending scene and weaves a parable from it.
Now, admittedly, most interpreters of this parable have paid little, if any, attention to the economic plight of the people described in the parable. The workers in the parable, those who are hired at different times during the day, have traditionally been interpreted allegorically. For example, some early Christian interpreters seized upon the parable to explain the inclusion of Gentiles in God’s family. Accordingly, these interpreters viewed those workers hired at different times of the day as representative of different generations of Israel, such as Adam first, then Abraham, later Moses, and in the last hour, Gentiles. In this allegory, the grumbling heard by the long-time laborers would be thought to represent the children of Abraham, who resented the inclusion of Gentiles.
But other scholars have suggested a slightly different interpretation, one that may have addressed an issue in Matthew’s church, that being the reluctance of Christ’s original disciples to accept and share leadership with more recent converts. So now those chosen first in the parable represent Christ’s original disciples, those who had been laboring in his service since the beginning. In the verses just before today’s parable, Peter is concerned that the disciples who have been with Jesus from the beginning will get their just reward. Thus Peter cries out in their behalf: “But Lord, we have left everything and followed you.”
Likewise, the verses following today’s parable tell about the mother of James and John, who asks Jesus to grant the place of honor in God’s Kingdom for her sons. So very likely Matthew sandwiched this parable of Jesus between these two stories in order to send a clear message to the church. Namely, it’s time for the old guard to quit their grumbling and to accept the newcomers as equal recipients of God’s favor, and equal participants in the church.
Who’s to say that these allegorical interpretations aren’t insightful and correct in their own way? But Lewis Donelson, New Testament professor at Austin seminary, suggests another way of thinking about this familiar story. In an essay on the parable, Donelson writes, “Despite the overwhelming dominance of Christian allegorical reading of this parable, some readers wonder whether the parable, prior to its reworking in Matthew, focused not upon the dynamic of salvation but upon the social and economic conflicts in the ancient world. “Jesus,” Donelson concludes, “may have been speaking about real day laborers and the economic terrors of their lives.”
Of course, we can’t be sure about the original intent of the parable, but we can be sure that the people Jesus pictures in this parable are the same kind of struggling, vulnerable folk that we hear about throughout Jesus’ ministry. Recall that Jesus began his ministry in Galilee by saying that he had come to proclaim Good News to the poor. He shocked his hearers by declaring, “Blessed are the poor.” He identified with those whom society considered the least, the last, and the lowest. He had compassion for widows, for children, the sick, the rejected. So when we recall Jesus’ sensitivity to the most vulnerable of his day, we become less likely to brush aside the social and economic conflicts suggested by the parable.
Particularly poignant are the words of those workers who had spent all day waiting to be hired. When the landowner asks, “Why are you standing here idle all day?” They give an answer that surely saddened Jesus, and their reply continues to trouble our collective conscience today. “Because,” they said simply, “no one has hired us.” When we peel back the layers of interpretation that have accompanied this parable, we find at its core Jesus’ concern for those who were the most likely to get passed over, left out, and overlooked. In short, with this parable Jesus once again declares that, in God’s Kingdom, many who are first will be last and those who are last will be first.
It’s impossible for modern ears to hear this parable without its bringing to mind issues of immigration and the numbers of refugees who are fleeing the violence, crimes, gangs and poverty of their home countries, in hopes that they will find opportunity, work, a better life. Our current response to these latecomers is not merely to pass them by, but to lock them up in privately-run correctional facilities.
Currently, the Faith and Life Class is having several educational sessions on the plight of those crossing to our borders, many of them children. Last Sunday after worship, about fifty of us learned more about the T. Don Hutto Detention Center for Women and Children in Taylor.
An essay in Monday’s Austin American Statesman, by U.T. law professor Barbara Hines, told about her experience visiting the Hutto facility. She decried the conditions, writing, “My previous experience working at T. Don Hutto persuaded me that children and their parents should not be detained in secure facilities under any circumstances. The images of sad children and their anxious parents will remain seared in my memory.”
And refugees are not the only ones who are left behind and overlooked. Some of you who volunteer at UPlift may be thinking about various ex-offenders who come seeking help. Typically, ex-offenders are about the last ones employers want to hire. Making it even harder for them to get a job, many are released from prison without being given the basic documentation necessary even to apply for a job.
The cry of the last-called workers in Jesus’ parable continues to be echoed today by refugees, day laborers, ex-offenders and others: “No one has hired us…no one seems to care about us.”
Of course, there is no lack of grumbling from those who resent the late-comers—Let them earn their citizenship…Send them home…It’s not fair for them to have the same rights and privileges as those of us who pay taxes and work hard. Or as seen on a protestors’ sign held up beside a busload or refugee children: “Not our children. Not our problem.”
Granted, issues related to immigration and unemployment are complicated, controversial, and difficult to solve. But as followers of Jesus, we know that God’s ways are not our ways. God sends rain upon the just and the unjust alike. In God’s economy, the last child on the last refugee bus is as valued as any one of us.
Friends, the Table of our Lord has been set. This Table is a sign and a foretaste of the Kingdom of God. Everyone is welcome, and everyone receives the bread and wine in equal measure. There is as much for those who come last as for those who come first. So let there be no grumbling among us. Rather let there be greater resolve to always seek the wellbeing of the most vulnerable.
For to such as these belongs the Kingdom of God.