The Last Shall be First

January 13th, 2019

Delivered 24-9-17 at Pilgrim Congregational Church, Redding CA

When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it. But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. He prayed to the Lord and said, “O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” And the Lord said, “Is it right for you to be angry?” Then Jonah went out of the city and sat down east of the city, and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, waiting to see what would become of the city. The Lord God appointed a bush, and made it come up over Jonah, to give shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort; so Jonah was very happy about the bush. But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the bush, so that it withered. When the sun rose, God prepared a sultry east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint and asked that he might die. He said, “It is better for me to die than to live.” But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?” And he said, “Yes, angry enough to die.” Then the Lord said, “You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”

  • Jonah 3:10 - 4:11

For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ But he replied to one of them, ‘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?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last.

  • Matthew 20: 1-16

“The Last Shall Be First and the First Shall Be Last”

That phrase is such a paradox that it can mean so many different things. I tried to go in a couple different directions, but I kept getting led back to a certain story that I’ve been learning, based on two other books that I’ve read recently. The other two books can provide a lot of context for the Bible — information which the disciples may not have had, though Yeshua certainly did.

I think when Yeshua tells parables, he is speaking to at least two distinct contexts. One of the contexts is the immediate context, the people and places around Yeshua as he was speaking. The other context is the larger historical context into which Yeshua came. Being divine, Yeshua was uniquely positioned to speak not only to his physical context, but also into the larger world of which he was a part. I’ll discuss a little of what I think Yeshua was saying to his immediate context, but I feel more called to discuss the larger context into which he was speaking.

I must admit that I’m not familiar with Elicott but I like what he has to say when he says “The division of the chapter is here singularly unfortunate, as separating the parable both from the events which gave occasion to it and from the teaching which it illustrates. It is not too much to say that we can scarcely understand it at all unless we connect it with the history of the young ruler who had great possessions, and the claims which the disciples had made for themselves when they contrasted their readiness with his reluctance.”

In the passage immediately preceding this one, we must remember, a rich young ruler comes to Yeshua and asks him what he must do to get eternal life. The way he asks as it is presented suggests that eternal life is yet another possession to be acquired. Totally defeating any selfish intent, Yeshua tells the man “Sell everything you have…it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” Peter exclaims, and I paraphrase, “We have left everything! What are we going to get?”

It’s into this context that Yeshua relates the parable of the workers in the vineyard.

The first thing that stands out to me from examining this context is that both the rich young ruler and the disciples — at least Peter — seem to think of eternal life as a possession to be gained. They act as if there is some sort of cosmic barter at work: I’ll give up everything I have if I get eternal life for it. When Yeshua responds, he says “everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life. [emphasis mine]” Eternal life here is not compensation for leaving everything — it is something in addition to whatever karmic compensation may occur. I think this is what theologians call grace.

So when Yeshua tells this story about the workers in the field, I think he is addressing both the dilemma of the rich young ruler as well as a possible dilemma of the disciples. The reward given by the landowner is neither more nor less per person. We may think also of the disciples bickering among themselves in Luke 9:46 about who will be the greatest. Here again Yeshua uses the paradoxical “he who is least among you all — he is the greatest.” Consistently, whenever someone tries to create some sort of human hierarchy in heaven, Yeshua shuts them down with a kind of paradox.

That word — hierarchy — is a fit occasion for a segue into the historical context of this passage.

I had always been told that Yeshua provided his parables in the context of the Jews’ oppression under Roman rule. Now while Jews were clearly oppressed under Roman rule, this explanation has always seemed somewhat paltry in light of the old testament Jews basically pillaging anyone they didn’t like and justifying it by saying that God had told them to. It also didn’t really feel very applicable for me as a gentile. But, the books that I mentioned earlier have recently have shed some light on the subject and provided some historical context to Yeshua’s ministry that I think gives a broader meaning to his words and is ultimately more hopeful — especially for us non-Jews.

To provide some setting for the parable I’d like to go back a long way — about 30,000 years. Homo sapiens as a species — that’s us — had already been relatively distinct for about 20 millennia. So, for 20,000 years humans had been humans and not “monkeys.” At that time, the earth underwent a significant cooling period — an ice age — in which glaciers formed and sealed off the mountain ranges of Europe, most significantly the Caucasus. The humans in Europe became isolated from those in other regions.

Let’s leave them there for a second — and by a second, I mean 20,000 years. This takes us to the beginning of human civilization — about 10,000 B.C. This is the stone age. About this time our ancestors underwent the revolution of agriculture. They settled down and began to farm, learning the ways of the land, and domesticating cattle.

During this time human culture flourished, especially in the fertile crescent and Anatolia — we developed basic human technologies like weaving and pottery. About 1,500 years into this period, a civilization called Catal Huyuk developed in what is now Turkey. This civilization is one of the few from the stone age from which significant artifacts remain. From these artifacts we can determine a few key points about this civilization, and about other early agricultural civilizations. One significant fact is that these civilizations were matrilineal, but not matriarchal. That means that they traced their descendants through the mother, but that the society was not ruled by women. Rather, as Rianne Eisler writes in “The Chalice and the Blade,”

Both women and men…worked cooperatively for the common good. Greater male physical strength was here not the basis for social oppression, organized warfare, or the concentration of private property in the hands of the strongest men. Neither did it provide the basis for supremacy of females or of ‘masculine’ over ‘feminine’ values. On the contrary, the prevailing ideology was gynocentric, or woman-centered, with he deity represented in female form [the Goddess].

If I may sum up some of Eisler’s earlier points here — doesn’t it seem only natural that the body through which all life must pass to enter the world be given divine status? Contemporary spirituality — religion at least — has certainly lost some of this. Terrence McKenna points out that something like half of the rooms in this civilization were shrines, pointing to an attitude toward spirituality that goes beyond commingling — totally integral to human life. Eisler continues

Symbolized by the feminine Chalice or source of life, the generative, nurturing, and creative powers of nature — not the powers to destroy — were…given highest value. At the same time, the function of priestesses and priests seems to have been not to serve and give religious sanction to a brutal male elite but to benefit all people in the community in the same way that the heads of the clans administered the communally owned and worked lands. But then came the great change — a change so great, indeed, that nothing else in all we know of human cultural evolution is comparable in magnitude. At first it was like the proverbial biblical cloud ‘no bigger than a man’s hand’ — the activities of seemingly insignificant nomadic bands roaming the less desirable fringe areas of our globe seeking pasture for their herds. Over millennia they were apparently out there in the harsh, unwanted, colder sparser territories on the edge of the earth, while the first great agricultural civilizations spread out along the lakes and rivers in the fertile heartlands.

You might have a guess as to who these nomadic bands may be. Some of them perhaps use a lot of shepherd metaphors.

Michael Bradley has written a book called “The Iceman Inheritance” subtitled “Prehistoric Sources of Western Man’s Racism, Sexism and Aggression.” Writing a decade before Eisler, he points out that “The last Würmian cold snap, from about 30,000 to 8,000 years ago, was endured by essentially modern men who were the ancestors of Europeans today.” I can’t say much more without turning this sermon into a lecture so I will sum his argument as this: those humans we left trapped behind the Caucasus mountains (Caucasians) evolved different social and physical characteristics to adapt to the cold weather. One of these is our white skin and hairy features from living in cold caves (I am clearly a descendent), as well as an abnormal level of aggression and sexual repression. Unable to farm, they were mostly pastoral — herding flocks of roving animals like sheep which they could use for sustenance and material like clothing. When the glaciers melted they moved outward in search of greener pastures.

There were other roving bands of similar cultures around this time besides what we now call the Indo-Europeans. Eisler writes “The most famous of these are a Semitic people we call the Hebrews, who came from the deserts of the south and invaded Canaan (later named Palestine for the Philistines…) The moral precepts we associate with both Judaism and Christianity [and Islam] and the stress on peace in many modern churches and synagogues now obscures the historical fact that originally these early Semites were a warring people ruled by a caste of warrior-priests.” Bradley hypothesizes that these religions’ need for peace is because we have become so set against it biologically.

Getting back to the plot: Several thousand years later, some of those Caucasians I mentioned earlier — this time called the Romans — imposed their dominating will on these Hebrews, setting the stage for the historical context of this parable.

So in sum before returning to the parable: Humanity used to be at peace with itself; everyone was equal; they worked in partnership with themselves and the land and did a good job of it. Sounds a lot like the garden of Eden. Eisler supposes as much. Humanity lived like this for about 5,000 years until about 5,000 years ago when roaming bands of violent men imposed their social structure on humanity. That’s where Yeshua was and is generally where we are now.

One of the primary characteristics of the Goddess culture, or “partnership” societies is their egalitarianism. Members of those societies did not rank themselves in a hierarchy, but simply worked together to do what needed to be done to reap the rewards for all. We may note that “first” and “last” when used for anything other than pure chronology designate a hierarchy of value. When Yeshua tells the story of the workers in the vineyard, he’s telling the story of workers who are expecting to be treated as better because they have done more work, whether that is grape-picking, stuff-getting, or even stuff-giving-away, like the disciples. They see themselves as better. But Yeshua is saying that the landowner, the ruler of heaven, wishes to distribute his wealth evenly among the people who work for him. By saying “the first shall be last and the last shall be first,” Yeshua is reversing the cultural expectation that we as humans can gain anything at the expense of someone else. He is essentially saying that the stuff we receive is not earned except that we work together, that we work in partnership. He must use a metaphor rooted in human hierarchy because that is what people can readily understand but we know that the landowner is not Man but God, and gives freely to all. Yeshua is speaking to a culture that has established a hierarchy based on who can dominate others into doing their will, and he is tearing down this system in the minds of those who will listen. Those who seek status will, in the Kingdom of Heaven, be reduced to nothing. Those who work humbly without expectation of reward will be honored. He knew that was how humanity was created and was anticipating a return to that way of working, preparing the way for “those who have ears,” that they may listen.

So, where does this story leave us as we leave it? In other words, how do we put it into practice? How do we put it into work?

I’d like to finally look at this story as a story about the kind of work that we do, because that is the most practical aspect of our lives.

Many people kill time in the marketplace, buying and selling to make a marginal profit. We sell what we got cheaply at a markup to gain the upper hand. But when we are called to do the Lord’s work, it is a life-changing proposition. Consider the possibility that the men who were hired at the 1st and 11th hours went on to work the next day of the harvest, and the next, and the next year, becoming “good and faithful servants.” And who would be more likely to be called back year after year to the vineyard — a man who does his work well, receives the agreed-upon-payment, or a man who may work well but complains that he only receives what he has agreed to receive? Surely the first.

Yeshua says in another parable that the Kingdom of Heaven is also like a rich man who prepared a feast and invited all his friends but one says “I just got married,” and another “I have just bought an ox,” and so the rich man goes out and invites all the poor people from the highways and byways to his feast.

I think these two stories have a lot in common — they run closely parallel in their parablesd. Those called first are those who end up seeming foolish. Those called last are those who gain the most.

I believe that the parallel reveals a truth: that our work is also our feast. Fulfilling work — not the buying and selling of the marketplace but of working, with others, with the fruits of the Earth — is also a feast from God. We are called to this feast and we are called to this work. And all are called, at different times but to the same work and to receive the same feast. What matters is that we respond with joy to the opportunities with others to do God’s work that we are given.

Our circumstances — being in the right place at the right time — may place us in a position of power or significance. That position may seem enviable and we may end up taking pride in it. But Yeshua is clearly saying here that our worth is not determined by random circumstance. Our worth is determined by the fact that when we are called to do the Good Work, we do it. We need not despair nor gloat about when we are called to do it, only give thanks that we are. And when we do it we should not become either overeager to do it or dull in doing it. We are partners with Christ, partners with all, and any work worth doing, any work from God, must be not only for our own good, but for the good of all.