“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace;and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, ‘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.’ But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
“What’s in it for me?” That’s the question I am asking this morning in response to this morning’s scripture reading. It’s a question that haunts my life, in fact, that I can’t seem to get over, and it’s only human. The workers in the vineyard asked it, in a manner of speaking. The ones who worked all day said, great, you’re being generous to the ones who showed up late, but what’s in it for me? Where’s my reward for working hard, for being faithful?
It is only human, and for as much as I ask it, as we ask it, the workers in the vineyard had good reason to ask it, because the class of workers we are talking about were incredibly poor. I hope that when you picture the people in Jesus’s story in your mind’s eye you are picturing the guys waiting outside the Home Depot on Lawrenceville Highway, because that’s about right. And it just so happens that the wage the workers would have received, what the landowner in the story calls the usual daily wage, wouldn’t have even been enough to feed their families for a day, which meant that the workers were forced to beg the rest of the year, survive on scraps and the goodness of others. And these, these are the people Jesus speaks of when he talks about who is first in the kingdom of Heaven. He doesn’t tell a story about rich people. He doesn’t say that there were ten faithful churchgoers or what have you. He talks about the poorest of the poor, those who I would think have every right to complain when they do backbreaking work all day and are left to try to feed their families with the same amount of money given to those who showed up at the end of the day and hardly lifted a finger.
It’s all got me thinking about some of the people who come by the church during the week needing some sort of assistance, usually some food, maybe a night or two at an extended stay motel while they get their things in order. This is not an uncommon occurrence. Anybody who says we’ve solved the problem of homelessness in Atlanta needs to come sit in the welcome center of North Decatur United Methodist Church and meet some of our neighbors who come looking for something to eat or a place to stay. I wish I had a solution to the problem of homelessness, but I don’t, so we muddle through the best we can, try to do well by our cooperative ministries, advocate for a more holistic approach to dealing with addiction and mental illness, and the like, but we’ll never deny somebody food. It’s why the food pantry needs your help.
And so here I am one day at the church, minding my own business, and this guy comes in who is clearly struggling with alcoholism and needs some help, and I tell him that there isn’t a whole lot we can do for him, but that we’ll pay for a couple of nights at the extended stay motel while we work to find some resources for him to dry out, to get connected with AA, for us to see if there was something we could do for him. And he starts to cry, and you begin to understand the power of this upside-down kingdom of God, in which the last is first, because that kind of grace is rare, it’s just so rare.
In fact, when I stop by the motel to pay the guy’s bill, the manager starts yelling at me. Yelling! The manager wants me to know that he’s seen this particular gentleman walk to the convenience store to buy alcohol, as if it were some great surprise to me that a person with alcoholism would be buying booze! And then the manager says something I will carry with me forever. He says: “You know, I’m just trying to save the church’s money. Helping this guy is a waste, because he is a waste.”
A waste. I hesitate to even speak that kind of profanity from God’s pulpit in God’s church. A waste. As if one of God’s children is expendable, as if the throes of a disease like alcoholism makes you less than human. I hope that’s not the case, because while it’s not the case that I struggle with alcoholism, I’d stack my sins up next to anybody’s. A waste. It’s profane, that kind of speech. It’s sickening.
And yet, church, I want you to know, that it’s a pretty common way of thinking to see those kinds of people as a waste. Drug addicts? They just blow their money on booze and blow. No use helping them. . People dying of ebola? Oh, they were probably going to starve anyway. Poor people? They just don’t work hard enough, as if how hard you work had anything to do with your worth as a child of God.
I know these things sound ridiculous—at least I hope they do—but I’ve heard every one of them come out of the mouth of self-professing Christians! It’s amazing, just how good we are as a society at finding reasons not to like people when they don’t meet our standards. Of course, it’s not really our standards that are the issue. It’s our own inadequacy. It’s our need to lift ourselves by lowering others.
That guy, those people, these workers who showed up at the end of the day and barely lifted a finger, well, the Bible is clear about those people. Those people are first in the kingdom of God. You don’t earn your way to salvation. In fact, it might just be the case that at the end of the day the people with the least capital find themselves closest to God’s heart. You know, those people who aren’t talented enough to get hired the first, second, third times. Those people who some see as a complete waste.
Look, I don’t know who those people are for you, but none of us is completely innocement here, because there are many sins that blind us to the way that the kingdom of Heaven works. Those sins have names like racism and sexism and heterosexism and greed. They are sins that manifest themselves in ways that make us seem holier than thou, overly pious, like workaholics, like holy crusaders. And yet Jesus says to us, time and time again, I am not interested in the crusaders. I am interested in the last. If you want to be first, you need to be last.
This is all well and good, and makes for a nice sermon about lowering yourself, about being less pompous and more generous or whatever, but I’ll be honest, I suspect it is not quite this easy, because if I am not like those people, the poor workers in the vineyard or the folks who wander in during the week, I am left to ask: What’s in it for me? After all, if the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer was right when he called the church the only organization on earth that exists for the benefit of those who aren’t yet its members, what’s in it for those of us who are already here?
But even more than all this: when I read the Bible, when I read stories like the one we heard from the Gospel of Matthew this morning, when I hear Jesus say things like “Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven,” I really wonder, what’s in it for me? Because I can make some sort of half-hearted attempt to look at the Greek and the way the verb is conjugated and the context and that sort of thing to try and say, oh, Jesus didn’t actually mean that the poor will receive the Kingdom of heaven, and if he did, surely somehow he meant to include me in that distinction, but the bottom line is this: I am not poor. I am not subject to racism, or sexism, or heterosexism, or able-ism. I don’t have to worry, when I walk into a room, how people will respond to the color of my skin. At the end of the day, I am really pretty privileged, and while I have my own struggles, while my life hasn’t been a cakewalk, I can’t escape the nagging feeling—confirmed every time I actually open my eyes to the state of the world, to the hunger, the pain, the violence in the world—that even acknowledging my own struggles, there’s no way—no way—to read this story, about the last being first and the first being last, and find myself anywhere other than one of the workers picked at the beginning of the day, one of the people that Jesus ejected from the beginning of the line and sent to the back.
You see, I have my own stuff. My own baggage. We all do. But so often, when I consider how it is that Jesus sees me, when I think about what Jesus is calling me to be and to do, I hide behind that baggage, pull out a bicycle pump and attempt to inflate it until it’s so big that I can say, oh, Jesus must have been talking about me when he said that the last shall be first. He must want to pluck me from the back and put me at the beginning of the line. But I suspect that it may all be a ruse to make me feel better about myself.
If you have been in my office here at the church you may have noticed that I only have one actual photograph hanging on the wall behind my desk. It is a photo of the Rev. Dr. Howard Thurman, who was the spiritual father of the American civil rights movement, a student of Mahatma Gandhi and a teacher of Dr. King. And so much of what Dr. King believed about the movement and did in response stems from Thurman and a little book he wrote called Jesus and the Disinherited. I’ve probably read that little book twenty times. I discovered it in college and it has haunted me ever since.
The reason is this. Thurman says that throughout the centuries, the oppressed have asked some version of the question: What’s in it for me? And so Thurman looks at the life of Jesus, at the things he says, including this business of the last being first and the first being last, and he concludes that the Bible is clear that Jesus is on the side of the oppressed, the disinherited, the people with their backs against the wall. And as I look at the life of Jesus, at the things he actually said, I can’t see how Thurman is wrong. The words are there in black and white. But what haunts me is this: if Jesus was not joking when he said that blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven, well, what’s in it for me?
I will end with this. I have a ministry colleague, a young African-American pastor from Chicago I met at a conference. He spends a lot of his time working with troubled youth, and we bonded over our love of Howard Thurman. I shared with him once that I was getting ready to teach a class on Jesus and the Disinherited to a group of wealthy, white people.
And my friend looked at me for a minute and just busted out laughing. What on earth are you doing teaching Howard Thurman to that group of people? What could Thurman possibly have to say to them?
I want you to know I’ve chewed on that question for several years. I’m going to be chewing on it the rest of my life, I think, because I am not disinherited. I am not oppressed. And if it is the case that the last shall be first and the first shall be last, and I am already near the front of the line, what’s in it for me? I don’t know that that question has the kind of answer you can neatly tie up a sermon with, but I do have a sneaking suspicion that the answer lies somewhere in following the savior, trying to learn from and be like Jesus, the God who set aside the power and the trappings of that particular job and became like one of us. You could spend a lifetime figuring out what that means for you, that the last shall be first and the first shall be last. May you be haunted by this good, faithful question. Amen.