Firs Come, First Serve
I really love Taylor Swift. I haven’t always. She wasn’t even on my radar till “Red.” I didn’t buy any of her music till “Lover.” And it wasn’t till the pandemic hit and Folklore came out that I did a deep dive and really began to listen to her whole catalogue. But her music has kept me afloat through these last few years and now, I have to say, I really love Taylor Swift.
Well, I want you to imagine that I have a friend, we’ll call her Tanya. She’s been a fan since 2006. She got in on the ground floor and owns Taylor’s first album on CD and every album since, including all of Taylor’s re-recordings (IYKYK), all her vault releases, the LP’s, and has seen her in concert, twice.
And now, simply for the sake of comparison and with his permission, I present to you my husband, Andrew. Suffice it to say that when it comes to Taylor Swift, his musical tastes run in an entirely different direction. He knows who Taylor is because he lives on planet earth. He’s heard her music because we live in the same house. But any familiarity he has with her work is that of a casual bystander.
Ok. Now I want you to imagine there is one ticket available for the Eras tour this Friday. Who deserves this ticket? Me, the newish fan who would love to go? Tanya, the diehard fan who’s been singing along with Taylor since “Tim McGraw?” Or Andrew, who just happens to be free this Friday?
Who would give the ticket to Andrew? Me either. Sorry.
Who would give it to me? Yeah, I don’t know, maybe. I mean Tanya has seen her twice and I haven’t seen her at all, but honestly at the end of the day, even I would give the ticket to Tanya, because in my mind she deserves it. After all those years of devotion, she’s earned it. And I’m cool with that. That makes sense to me.
If you really devote yourself to something or someone, there should be a reward in there somewhere; right? Some gratification for all the energy expended? A little recompense or recognition for one’s service to the cause? Yeah.
Well, 2000 years before Taylor Swift there was this guy named Jesus who was also on tour and he had quite a following. But the first 12 guys who signed up to follow him were ALL IN. They weren’t just showing up in the front row every time he performed.
They were full on groupies. They had given up everything - their homes, their jobs, their families - to hit the road with Jesus, because they earnestly believed that he was the messiah.
Initially they were convinced that this man who spoke with such wisdom and preformed deeds of such power would bring down Rome and usher in a new age, a new rule, a new kingdom where they would all occupy positions of power. They were betting that following Jesus would lead to good things for them and for their people.
But increasingly, they are getting the message that Jesus is playing the long game here…so long that the rewards they are hoping for may end up being heavenly rather than earthly.
And, as the gospel of Matthew tells it, it’s becoming increasingly clear from their questions that they want to know if their sacrifice will be worth it. If their devotion will pay off. If they will, in the end, get what they deserve.
At the beginning of chapter 18, the disciples ask Jesus “who will be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” They’re probably all thinking it’s a contest between Peter and James or Peter and John. But Jesus surprises them all by calling over a little child and saying, “whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”
He then goes on to talk about forgiveness, reconciliation, and the inherent worth of even the lowest people in society. Basically, he’s teaching them that they can’t write off anyone, but should love and value everybody. And then, out of the blue, a man who was great by earthly standards comes along and asks what he must do to enter the kingdom of heaven and Jesus tells him to go and give all he has to the poor if he wants to become a disciple.
The man goes away sad because he is very rich and he can’t quite do it. But Peter, well, Peter doesn’t miss a beat. He turns to Jesus after the rich guy wanders off and says, “Look, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?”
And weirdly enough - honestly this surprised me - Jesus promises his disciples 12 thrones in heaven from which they will judge their people. He promises that anyone who gives up home or family or jobs the way the disciples have will inherit eternal life. “But,” he says, and this is a really big “but” so we need to pay attention, “But many who are first will be last and the last will be first.”
It’s a warning, a corrective, a reminder that the kingdom of heaven is very different from the kingdoms of this world; a difference we can’t help but notice as he tells them this parable of the laborers in the vineyard. So let’s take a closer look.
Today’s parable begins with a landowner who goes out in the early morning hours to find workers, and I would imagine that the men and women crowding into the town square at dawn are good, honest, hardworking people. They have families to feed and they are responsible individuals who have come out early in hopes of earning a full day’s wage.
That’s actually how it worked back then. If you put in a full day of work you could expect to make just enough money to feed you and your family for a day. Our landowner hires them, promises them each a day’s wage, and they get to work.
So far so good. But then the landowner goes back out to the square a few hours later – about nine o’clock - and again hires everyone he sees waiting for work. Now these people are probably lucky to get hired at this point.
Do we have any farmers here this morning? I did in my last church, and when I asked them what they’d call a farm hand who showed up for work at 9:00, you know what they all said? LAZY! 9:00 is pretty late on the farm, but the landowner hires them anyway and - please note - promises to “pay them what is right.” These folks are happy to take what they can get, so they agree.
Then, as if that is not really pushing it, our man goes out again at noon. Now let’s be realistic here. Anyone still waiting around for work at noon was probably out carousing the night before and just woke up. Or they look so weak and worthless that nobody else thought they would be worth what you would have to pay them. These people are really lucky to get any work at all.
But our landowner hires them, and he doesn’t stop there. He goes out again at three –can’t begin to imagine what their story is - and then again at five, which is just plain banana pants as I kind of doubt the last group was waiting around for work so much as waiting for the pub to open. But they accept his invitation and go anyway.
All in all, the landowner goes to the public square five times in one day in search of workers and each and every time he goes out, he brings back not just any one, but every one. And finally, we know that at the end of the parable he pays them all a full day’s wage regardless of how many hours they actually put in, starting with those hired at the end of the day and working his way down to the dedicated, responsible, hardworking people who have been at it since dawn.
What’s wrong with this picture?
You can just say it out loud. It’s ok.
What’s wrong with this picture?
Think back to those Taylor Swift tickets. If Tanya got one, we’d all be ecstatic for her. My imaginary friend has put in the time and she is getting what she deserves. And hey, if I got one, we’d all be pretty happy for me too, because hello, Taylor Swift! I’d have a great time.
But if Andrew got one too, well, I mean that’s great for him because it would be great for anybody. But he hasn’t exactly earned it. He doesn’t really deserve it. He probably doesn’t even want it and, given that she’s preforming in Florida this Friday, chances are he won’t even use it.
So shouldn’t it go to someone who deserves it more? Like, maybe Tanya should get two tickets and Andrew can stay home this Friday and watch “The Wheel of Time.”
I know this isn’t a perfect analogy, because Taylor Swift is not as vital to our survival as daily bread.
(What? Imaginary Tanya disagrees. I’m telling you, she’s a real diehard.)
But I’m hoping you’re picking up what I’m laying down here. Remember that Jesus is speaking to his disciples who want to know if they are going to get what they deserve, and the answer is “yes, but…”
Yes, you are going to get what you deserve - 12 thrones to be exact - but you know what, the rest of the people out there who aren’t even trying or paying attention or doing any of the good things you’re already doing or making the sort of sacrifices you are making, are also going to get what you deserve.
Jesus is a bit like Oprah here…you get a throne, and you get a throne, and you get a throne…you have a place in the kingdom and you have a place in the kingdom and you have a place in the kingdom….because if the kingdom is like this vineyard and God is at all like its owner, then - newsflash! - we’re all getting in. If God is anything like the landowner, we’re all going to be okay.
I mean, check this guy out. Our landowner may be running a business, but he seems much more interested in helping people than with any sort of bottom line. He isn’t hiring people on the basis of what the workers can do for him, but what he can do for them.
And he is so intent on sharing his wealth with as many people as possible that he goes to the market over and over and over again, right up until the very end of the work day. The landowner is not looking for reasons to keep anyone out or turn them down, but for every last opportunity to invite everyone in.
Please hear that! Our invitation to work in the kingdom has nothing to do with who we are, what we have done, or what we will do. Rather, we are all invited because of who God is - loving, generous, tireless. God desires to include us all.
I believe it was Mark Twain who said that "Heaven goes by favor. If it went by merit, you would stay out and your dog would go in."
And then, as if free admission wasn't enough, we find that at the end of the day the landowner treats all of his workers equally rather than fairly. He provides for each person according to their daily needs rather than in accordance with the yield of their work.
Paying all the workers the same wage at the end of the day was absolutely not fair, but the truth is, fair was never part of the landowner’s bargain. If you’ll remember, the second time the landowner goes out to hire workers, he doesn’t offer to pay them what is fair. Instead he offers to pay them what? Do you remember? He offers to pay them what is right.
Because, my friends, and this is the good news so listen close…. God isn’t fair. God loves and values us all regardless of our gifts or abilities, faults or failings, how long we’ve served on the church council or managed to avoid going to church at all. God loves the first disciples and the worst disciples.
God choses to provide for everyone equally according to their need, and this is a good thing because last I checked we all stand in need of God’s grace, even the best of us. Fair has nothing to do with it, thanks be to God.
Just like last week, Jesus is offering us a vision of two different kinds of kingdoms. Do we want to live in a world that’s fair and everyone gets what they deserve? Or do we want to live in a world that’s right, a world where everyone gets what they need?
Jesus is inviting his disciples, his super-fans, the ones who have given the most because they’ve been with him the longest, to step into world number two and become like the landowner.
He’s inviting us all to step into God’s kingdom right now and become more like God:
step into a world where we stop focusing on what’s fair so we can focus instead on what is right,
step into a world where we worry less about what we stand to receive so we can focus instead on all we have to give;
a world where we put the last first and come to find that once everyone has what they need it doesn’t really matter who is great or who is small, who is last or who is first, because once all are safe, all are fed, and all are well, we’re all ok.
A world where we’re not in this for ourselves alone, but in this for one another and with one another… the way God is for us and with us even now.
Friend, why are you still standing here idle?
It’s not too late. It’s never too late. Come, for there is work to be done. Amen.