Before we do anything else this morning, let’s put this parable in context! Just prior to Jesus telling this parable to his disciples, Jesus had an encounter with a rich young man who asked Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus told the young man to obey the commandments, to which he responded, “I have kept all of them.” However, when Jesus told him to sell his possessions and give the proceeds to those who were impoverished, the young man could not do it and went away with grief in his heart at which point Jesus told his disciples that it was very difficult for a rich person to enter the realm of God. Jesus’ disciples were astounded and asked him, “Who then can be saved?” Jesus’ replied, “For mortals, it is impossible, but for God, all things are possible.” Just to make sure that he wouldn’t be left out, Peter then asked Jesus what would happen to those who had left everything to follow him, to which Jesus replied that everyone who had left everything to follow him would receive a hundredfold and inherit eternal life. Then Jesus reminded his disciples that many who are first will be last, and the last shall be first.
At this point in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells this parable to his disciples, and as you can see, this parable also ends with Jesus’ refrain, “The last will be first, and the first will be last.” I have said it before, and I will say it again that when we hear this refrain about the first and the last, it would helpful if we could envision a circle rather than a straight line because in a circle no one is first or last, and yet, at the same time, everyone is first and last. A circle is the best image to understand the reign of God, and therefore, the salvation of God. So what if the rich young man walked away with grief in his heart because he could not do what Jesus had told him to do! God would still find a way to save him by forgiving him and setting him free from his bondage to sin. Such is the possibility that always exists within God’s framework of justice for all people. Nowhere in all of Scripture is this message of God’s inclusive salvation more clear than in the gospels when Jesus repeatedly states that the first shall be last, and the last first.
Jesus attempts to demonstrate and emphasize this perspective about God’s inclusive and universal salvation by telling his disciples this parable about God’s manner of justice. You see, from a human point of view, the moral of this parable makes no sense to us because, like those who were paid first, we also would have to conclude and complain that equal pay for different amounts of work is not fair. However, the point that Jesus is making from a divine point of view is that when it comes to God’s promise of forgiveness and salvation, God’s justice has absolutely nothing to do with our human perspective about fairness. “Who then can be saved?” Jesus’ disciples had asked him. Well, according to this parable, everyone was saved and inherited eternal life no matter whether they kept most of God’s commandments or only one of them.
You see, a sinner is a sinner is a sinner. It doesn’t matter whether we worked all day or for only one hour. At the end of the day, we all will receive the same generous gift of God’s forgiveness because with God all things are possible. Whereas we might find ourselves in a human situation where we would be asking, “How can you possibly forgive that person for the way that that person has treated you?” God can always find a way to forgive because such is the generous grace of God that was exemplified by Jesus on the cross when he prayed, “God, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.”
All of us are in need of a lot of that forgiveness these days because there is so much going on in this world that reveals that we don’t always know what we are doing. Let’s face it! We really didn’t know what we were doing when we invaded Iraq and Afghanistan. Oh, our fearless leaders knew that they wanted to kill Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden, but once these icons of evil were eliminated, we went right on killing more and more Iraqis and Afghanis and allowing our soldiers to be killed so that today many more U.S. soldiers have been killed in these 2 wars than all of the people who initially were killed on 9/11. We have no one else to blame for this atrocity other than ourselves. And now that we are faced with yet another perplexing situation in Syria that is a matter of life and death, our elected officials clearly are at a loss at what to do. What we do know is that whatever we choose to do, we still will be paid at the end of the day because our God is a gracious and generous God.
Similarly, on the domestic front, we also don’t know what we are doing. While we continue to bolster our military industrial complex with almost 50% of our national budget, we continually cut funding for health and human services that results in 25% of our citizens going to bed hungry every night, thousands upon thousands of mentally ill people living on the streets of our cities, and our country being #17 on the list of industrialized nations in terms of infant mortality. While we continue to pour more and more money into fossil fuel industries with the likes of oil pipelines spanning the continent, mile-long coal trains crisscrossing our nation, and fracking that is decimating our land, we stand by and watch our infrastructure crumble before our very eyes and the levels of the sea continue to rise. Nevertheless, we can count on being paid at the end of the day, because our God is a gracious and generous God and a God whose manner of justice can only be described as being unfair.
Closer to home, we also do not know what we are doing because we perpetuate our aversion to fair taxation in this state that puts an unfair burden on the poorest people of our state and a tremendous burden on our educational system. While the poorest 20% of the people in our state pay up to 18% of their annual income in property and sales taxes, the wealthiest 1% of our people pay only 3% of their income for these two forms of taxation. You and I would probably find ourselves somewhere in the middle of this continuum. Can you imagine what kind of funds would be available for education, health and human services, and repair of our infrastructure if we would tax everyone at 12% of our income and reduce the amount of sales tax in exchange? Although that may seem fair for everyone, justice would not necessarily be served because 12% of $1 million allows a person to live on $880,000 a year while 12% of $50,000 allows a person to live on only $44,000 a year. According to Jesus, from those to whom much has been given, much will be expected, and from those to whom a little has been given, a little will be expected. Nevertheless, at the end of the day, even though we are not living according to Jesus’ way of justice, we all will be paid the same because God desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth about the possibility of God’s justice and universal salvation.
However, no matter how gracious and generous God may be with this gift of forgiveness, any one of us could still refuse to accept this gift and remove ourselves from the circle of God’s realm. God is not going to force any of us to stand in the circle of love, justice, and peace. However, why would any of us ever refuse to accept God’s gift of grace, forgiveness, salvation, or eternal life—whatever we choose to call God’s generous payment at the end of the day? Well at times, we may be too proud to accept God’s gracious gift. At other times, we may be too afraid that if we accept God’s gift of forgiveness we just might have to make some changes in our own lives and treat others as justly as we have been treated by God.
If we accept God’s payment at the end of the day, we might have to make sure that everyone has a livable wage. If we accept God’s payment at the end of the day, we might have to lay down our sword and shield by the riverside, and pursue more constructive ways of making peace in this world. If we accept God’s payment at the end of the day, we might also have to accept single payer universal healthcare which is a matter of justice because there is nothing fair about everyone getting the same treatment based upon whether or not they can pay for the service.
You see, at the end of the day, it did not matter to the landowner how long or even how hard a person worked that day. The final payment was made in spite of what the person had done to earn it, just as God’s forgiveness and salvation are not dependent upon what we do to deserve such a gift. What matters is what we do with the payment once we have received it. How will we move beyond our human perspective of fairness, and live according to God’s way of justice and peace? How will we learn how to love all of our neighbors, including our enemies, instead of killing them and making them pay for their sins against us? How will we put into practice God’s manner of generosity and be willing to sacrifice a little bit of our own financial security for the security of everyone else on this planet? How will we let go of our animosity, our enmity, and our hostility toward one another, and in their place pursue the things that make for peace in this world like respect, reconciliation, and restoration—all of which reflect God’s way of re-creation and salvation?
On this International Day of Peace, we have yet another opportunity to do the impossible, to keep this Sabbath Day holy, and to strive for justice and peace in all the Earth. To be honest, we have not left everything to follow Jesus as Peter thought that he had done. Nevertheless, at the end of the day, we all have been paid equally with God’s generous gift of forgiveness and we have been included in God’s circle of love, justice, and peace. So, how is it that we will go out of this holy place today to do the justice that God requires of us and to make peace with those who have done us wrong? Despite all that we do not know about what we are doing in this life, let’s make sure that we do know when and how to forgive. As we continue to dream this impossible dream, may the love, justice, and peace of God that goes beyond all of our human understanding, keep our hearts and our minds ever faithful unto Jesus, our model of God’s justice and peace in this life. Amen.