If you’re a good teacher, you can change a child’s life forever. And if you are a bad teacher, you can change a child’s life forever.
My family moved around a lot when I was growing up. It seemed that my father, the Baptist preacher, was forever entertaining the idea of a new pulpit and new congregation. And I, for the most part, loved the adventure. My parents used to call me the gypsy child because, they said, I was forever ready to go. So when the announcement came that we were moving from Logansport, Indiana to Richmond, Indiana, I was thrilled (Go figure!). There would be a new house, a new neighborhood and a new school. And I would learn a brand-new lesson: “Be careful what you wish for.”
I had done very well in my schools in Logansport. I was even enrolled in an accelerated math program. But then we moved. My new algebra teacher was an impatient woman, whose teaching methods left a lot to be desired. When I didn’t understand what she was trying to explain, instead of patience and encouragement, she would sigh and roll her eyes. And when that didn’t work, she would yell. In a few short months, I went from being confident in my ability to solve complex problems to being sure that I was deficient in my understanding of numbers and equations. And that conviction has plagued me ever since. I am still apt to say: “Oh, I’m not very good at math.”
This has been a source of shame for me for most of my life. Of course, I learned to compensate. I excelled at other subjects. And I took comfort in meeting other smart, talented, gifted people who also weren’t so good at math.
If I needed yet another ego boost, I got it this week as I re-read this Gospel lesson and was reminded that I’m in very good company because the Lord Almighty is terrible at math! God doesn’t do equations and balance sheets very well. How else can you understand one of the strangest and most illogical things Jesus ever said: ‘the last will be first and the first will be last.’ That statement is about as far from a neat and easy equation as one can get. And in our world so concerned with position and compensation and reward and what is fair, it just doesn’t add up.
The first shall be last and the last first. It’s so counter-intuitive to our understanding of the way things ‘ought’ to be. And it was to the original hearers as well. So Jesus, the master story teller, told them this story to try to help them understand the upside down nature of the Kingdom of Heaven.
“Once upon a time and very early in the morning, a rich landowner went into town to see if there were any day laborers hanging around the Home Depot parking lot, looking for work. He loaded them into the truck and dropped them in the field and promised to pay them the going day rate – one denarius. And then, for whatever reason, this landowner kept going back, again and again, each time picking up more workers. His final trip to the parking lot was only one hour before quitting time, and sure enough there were still people waiting to be hired. When the landowner asked them why they had not gone to work that day, they replied, rather dejectedly, that no one had been willing to hire them. But he was, even if for just an hour. Can you imagine what that did for their sense of hope and self-esteem?
Well, soon enough the 6 o’clock whistle blew and all the workers lined up to get their paychecks. Those who had worked all day were very well aware that others had arrived throughout the day, and some quite late in the day. Those latecomers didn’t have the same sunburns and sore backs. And I suspect, knowing myself, that there was a good deal of pride among those hired first who had worked so much harder than the others.
The business manager called for the workers to line up. And strangely enough, the last ones hired were called to the front of the line, while the first ones hired were told to go to the back of the line. When those who had only worked one hour were given a denarius – a full day’s pay - those in the back of the line, who had worked all day, logically assumed that they would be paid more. That makes sense, right? Perhaps their heads were filled with dreams of buying a really good piece of meat for dinner or some sweets for the kids with all that extra pay. But when they reached the business manager, they too were given a denarius.
Well, this was enough to cause a riot and the intervention of the union. Those who had worked all day began raising Cain. “Those bums only worked an hour and we almost killed ourselves in your fields. They don’t deserve to receive what we were promised. And if they do deserve it, then we deserve more!”
In the midst of that angry mob, the landowner gently replied: “Friends,” he said, “I paid you exactly what I promised. Take it and go home. What difference does it make to you, to your life, to what I promised, if I choose to give more to those hired last? Will my generosity make you angry?”
I have a very good friend who hates this story almost as much as he hates the story of the Prodigal Son. These stories mess with his mind because he understands that they turn traditional concepts of fairness on their heads. And if you’re like him; if you’ve been a good person; and taken your responsibilities seriously; and always done the right thing, then why should those lazy so-and-sos get the same reward that you do? Why indeed.
Well, the answer to that question is grace – amazing grace. And I have learned, sometimes the hard way, that grace, in the end, is always better than fairness.
And if we are honest with ourselves, we should be greatly relieved by that! We might have been out in the field for a long time; we might have sore muscles and a sunburn to prove our commitment to being a good person. But there is more to us than what others see in the fields. We all go home to our secrets and shadows, our resentments and bitterness. And the Divine Landowner knows all that. So, at the end of our days, knowing who we want to be but who we actually are - when its time to get paid, do we really want fairness from God, an exact accounting, or do we want grace?
And here’s the other thing to consider: the landowner also understood the situation of those who came to work so late. Remember that when he asked those hired at 5 pm why they had not gone to work earlier, they replied that no one wanted them. Maybe they had been there most of the day. Maybe they were invisible in the crowd because they were old or sick or the wrong color. Maybe it hurt when others assumed they were lazy. But the landowner understood them for who they really were. And when quitting time came, he didn’t reward them according to what they deserved but according to what they needed. It wasn’t exactly fair, but it sure was generous.
And that, said Jesus, is exactly what the Kingdom of Heaven is like: the last are first and the first are last. It doesn’t really add up. It’s kind of topsy-turvy. It’s not quite fair. But everyone gets what she needs. And it’s enough because God’s amazing grace is always enough.
Thanks be to God. Amen.