The last shall be first, and the first shall be last

Readings: Philippians 1.21–30, Matthew 20.1–16

Picture the scene.
In a television advertisement
two little girls sit opposite a wealthy businessman in a suit,
who asks them both what in the whole wide world they want.
They can have whatever their hearts desire,
they need only ask.
After some deliberation,
and steeling herself with boldness,
the first little girl asks for a pony.
She is delighted when the businessman reaches into his pocket
and brings out a beautiful toy pony.

The businessman then turns to the second little girl,
who, having had longer to think about it,
and having been inspired by her friend,
quickly answers that she too would like a pony.
The man says OK,
stands up and moves to the door which he opens,
and through it walks a beautiful, real, live pony.
The little girl is overwhelmed with joy and excitement and gratitude
for the generosity of the businessman.
She just can’t believe that she wasn’t also given a plastic pony,
that anyone could be so generous.

The camera pans to the first little girl
whose eyes are wide with wonder,
but whose face is even now beginning to fall,
with questions visibly forming across it,
such as, how come I didn’t get a real live pony too?
We both asked for the exact same thing.
Why did my friend get the real pony,
while I only got the plastic one?
Where before she was over the moon with the plastic pony,
full of gratitude and excitement,
now there is a shadow of resentment and anger on her face.

I suspect that you, like me, really feel for the first little girl,
with her plastic pony.
Perhaps the thought arises that this isn’t fair.
Perhaps it occurs to you that it is even cruel
to treat her this way.

But perhaps you were keeping in mind the Gospel reading for today,
and you know that it is the businessman’s right
to do with his money whatever he wants.
He gave different gifts to each girl,
but he wasn’t obligated to give identical gifts.
There’s no rule anywhere that says all gifts given must be equal.
The experience is an opportunity for the first little girl
to learn how to be grateful for what does have,
and not resentful for what she doesn’t.

I have found it quite easy to dig up from memory
a roughly equivalent personal experience
that brings this dynamic to life for me even more.

In fact the way to find a good example
is simply to follow the bread crumb trail of emotions.
Am I, or have I ever felt, vengeful towards someone?
That’s quite easy to remember,
so I recall that person or experience,
and very often if I go back one step from there I will find resentment.
Beyond that I find bitterness,
and beyond that is suffering.

And suffering, despite what we often tell ourselves,
is not always caused by external factors,
but by our choices in relation to them.
Our response to the inequality of life
can either help us to live in gratitude with a full heart,
or send us down a road of hurt, woundedness,
suffering, bitterness, resentfulness and even vengefulness.

And Jesus, in our Gospel reading,
is using this parable to put his finger on a really common example,
of how we human beings end up going off track in life.

In the parable of the labourers in the vineyard,
the landowner, representing God,
hires a string of men throughout the day,
each of whom get paid the same at the end of the day,
regardless of how long they worked.

While a big part of the meaning of the parable
is that God’s grace is generous and overflowing,
even toward those who seem to deserve it least,
that’s not the main point being made.

Those who were hired first are angry and resentful,
even though they were paid the agreed amount.
It seems they are not necessarily asking for more pay,
as much as for the others to get paid less.
How dare they get the same pay as us,
when they worked fewer hours?

This, we are told, is what the Kingdom of God is like.
In God’s kingdom, everyone is on the receiving end of the generosity and grace,
everyone is loved by God,
everyone who asks receives the gift of salvation.
But it might often appear to us
that other people receive more of God’s grace than we do,
in various parts of their lives.

This seems to be a universal experience,
regardless of how wealthy, beautiful, healthy and blessed one is.
All are at risk of falling into the temptation of resentment.

The parable it seems to me is a warning about the danger
of letting an attitude of presumption and entitlement take hold in our lives.

And if we are not to be driven out of the Kingdom of God
by virtue of our resentment for the seemingly random nature of God’s grace,
we need to confront our sin at its root,
and dig it out.

It reminds me of the story of Cain and Abel.
Abel was the younger brother,
and the worse off for that because he didn’t inherit the farm,
as is common in farming communities the world over.
But he sets himself up as a shepherd nonetheless,
and in time he is able to do rather well for himself.
I would wager he also had really good abs and dashing good looks.
But that may say more about me
than it does about the Bible.

Cain, by contrast, is the older brother,
and has all the worldly advantages Abel does not,
and yet fails to make the same kind of success of his life as Abel.
Perhaps he says to himself something like this.
It’s not fair, how is it that Abel is doing so well?
All the girls love him,
and his herds of cattle and sheep grow so large and strong,
and he is wealthy and well respected.
Why does God allow him to be successful and not me?
This is an injustice. It’s not fair!

And in this way Cain allows his brother’s success
to become the cause of sin.
As he suffers and nurtures that sense of injustice,
he allows it to grow into bitterness;
and that bitterness flowers into resentment,
which gives way to full blown vengefulness.

And to make matters much worse,
we are told – somehow unsurprisingly,
that God favoured Abel,
and accepted his sacrifice while rejecting Cain’s.
This was the straw that broke the camel’s back, as it were.
For Cain’s sin of resentment eventually bears dreadful fruit,
when he invites Abel out for a walk in the countryside and kills him.

Jesus uses parables, and not lectures,
because he isn’t interested in giving us new information.
He is much more concerned to bring about transformation.
And parables have a way of bypassing the head
and going straight the heart.
They get us involved and engaged in a story.
Remember how you felt for the first little girl with her plastic pony?

Likewise, by the time we get to the part of the parable
where the landowner replies to the resentful labourers,
we have some skin in the game,
– our emotions are aroused, and we feel for them;
that’s when Jesus has you where he wants you.
Faced with the reality of the state of your own heart.
And as with the landowner, he’s not angry or intolerant that we feel that way.
Quite the opposite: it is simply a teachable moment.
“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?”

When I told you the story of the two little girls,
what came up for you in your heart?
Be honest with yourself, because, as the story of Cain and Abel makes clear,
it might make the difference between life and death.
Are you feeling poisoned by resentment this morning?
Are you holding on to a sense of entitlement and injustice?
Follow the breadcrumb trail of your negative emotions back to their source,
and perhaps you will find, as I have on many occasions,
that the sin of bitterness and resentment has taken root.

Uproot that weed from ground of your soul
through the power of praise and thanksgiving,
through gratitude and humility.

Because in the Kingdom of heaven many who are first will be last,
and the last will be first.

The Good news for me in this gospel parable this morning
is that God knows our hearts – no secrets are hid from him;
but more than that, he loves us so much that he cares to free us from the sin
that can lead us and our communities into great pain and destruction.
Even if we don’t end up murdering a beloved brother
the sin of bitterness and resentment is toxic to our souls and bodies,
and by holding onto it we introduce long term, needless suffering into our lives.

May we all know the contentment, the ease of heart, and gratitude,
that God call us to in the Kingdom of Heaven.

AMEN.