“The last will be first and the first will be last.”
Now there’s a phrase that we’ve all heard (misused) before.
It is scriptural, of course: it occurs in one of the gospel passages that will be proclaimed this month.
It is spoken by Jesus during his attempt to explain the Kingdom of Heaven to the disciples.
As is often the case in dealing with the rather dim disciples, Christ invents a parable concerning workers hired for a vineyard at different times during the day to articulate His meaning. (Matthew 20:1-16)
I am sure you know it well and so I will not regurgitate the tale in excruciating detail here.
It suffices to say that the last group of workers was hired late in the day; perhaps they had been put out their previous jobs due to a state-imposed lockdown and were stuck in a Centrelink queue.
The crux of the parable being this: at the end of the working day, when the time comes for all the workers to be paid, everyone was paid the same amount – a single denarius – for their work.
Even though some of the day-labourers had done less work and been there for less time.
This parable, I know, seems jarring to our earthly sense of justice.
It seems to run contrary to our view of common decency.
“A fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay” – this biblical passage would not seem to accord with the various slogans we have all heard concerning ethical business practice.
To us, it seems fundamentally unfair that people who have worked for a longer period of time in the hot sun should be paid the same wage as those who turned up very late in the day.
But as Isaiah says – in the first reading attached to this very Gospel – God’s thoughts are not our thoughts and God’s ways are not our ways. (Isaiah 55:8)
God does not necessarily look at the amount we have achieved or how long we have worked.
He examines our inner willingness to work within the vineyard, to the sacrifices we are willing to undertake, to our fidelity.
After all, when assessed on those points – willingness and fidelity – there does seem to be a clear divergence between the attitudes of the various labourers within the parable.
And it is divergence that casts those who went into the vineyard first in a rather unfavourable light, when compared with those who went in last.
The labourers whom the master first called to work were given firm contractual details concerning their day; one denarius for one day’s work.
And yet when they received precisely that, they complained!
That is not exactly a response indicative of a generous and willing disposition.
By contrast, the workers who came last were simply told: “Go into the vineyard.” (Matthew 20:7)
There was no firm agreement, as compared with the earlier workers, as to what their recompense would be.
Yet they showed greater faith in the master of the vineyard by working without any such specific promise of reward.
Nor did they complain when they received their wages at the end of the day; a further marked contrast to the labourers who appeared earlier on the scene.
Looking at things in this light, perhaps the master should have made a differentiation in the pay scale; perhaps he ought to have paid the more willing workers more.
Perhaps those who turned up last should have been paid more than those who appeared first.
If the owner of the vineyard were to apportion wages on the basis of faithful, willing, trusting effort, then that might well be the appropriate outcome.
God’s thoughts are not our thoughts and God’s ways are not our ways. (Isaiah 55:8)
It is always dangerous for us to apply our terribly earth-bound views of justice and generosity to whatever God chooses to do.
In the estimation of the Almighty, perhaps it is we who should be paid less.
In the context of our spiritual and personal lives, we ought never look askance at the generous mercy that God seems to be bestowing upon those whom we perhaps perceive to be unworthy of it.
For, in reality, are any of us more worthy than any of the others?
When Pope Benedict XVI was elected to the papacy, in the few words he addressed to the crowds from the Balcony of St Peter’s he said that he was, “a simple and humble labourer in the vineyard of the Lord.” (19th April, 2005)
And that is an attitude worthy of emulation – we should all strive to be simple and humble labourers in the vineyard of the Lord; faithful and willing.
We ought neither be shocked when others seem to receive from God more than we think they deserve, nor puffed up with a sense of entitlement as a result of circumstances that were actually beyond our control.
The Kingdom of Heaven, Christ tells us, is like this parable.
Like this parable, the Kingdom of Heaven – at its very core – makes no sense to us.
The Kingdom of Heaven – listening to the words of Jesus Himself – seems to turn our accepted understanding on its head.
Clearly, they do things differently there.
“The last will be first and the first will be last.”
That phrase ought to make us all aware of the fact that, if the door that leads into our homes actually led straight into the Kingdom of Heaven and we were to walk through it – as we do every day – perhaps we might discover that we do not fit in very well on the other side.
Perhaps our current attitudes, language, phrases, ideas and dispositions might not be the stuff of which the Kingdom of Heaven is made.
A profound recognition of how much each and every one of us owes to God is, in all likelihood, the one thing that will prevent us from casting unfavourable aspersions on others, judging them, and even questioning the generosity of God in His dealings with them.
William of St Thierry, the great Cistercian spiritual writer of the twelfth century, wrote a beautiful meditation on this point.
Yearning for the Kingdom of Heaven, and recognising that even as a hard worker in the vineyard of the Lord he was still utterly dependent upon the gracious mercy of God to arrive at that Heavenly Jerusalem, he wrote this prayer.
“We are country folk,” he said, “from the rough country of the world. Teach us, Lord, your city’s ordered ways, the courtesies and gracious manners of your court.”
“Remove from us the likeness of the world, on which we had been modelling ourselves, and make us like your citizens, lest in their midst we seem like people deformed.”
“And teach us too,” he prayed, “the language we do not know, the language we began to hear when we came out of exile (…) teach us the language you speak with your sons and daughters, and they with you.” (Meditation 4(12))
We all need to be taught.
For, God’s thoughts are not our thoughts and God’s ways are not our ways.