The last will be first, the first will be last

Sermon for Septuagesima

Matthew 20:1-16  +  Exodus 17:1-7  +  1 Corinthians 9:24-10:5

“The last will be first and the first will be last.” Jesus says that over and over again in the Gospels.  And every time he says it, man’s response is, “That doesn’t make sense.  That’s not fair.”

What could be more unfair than the parable of the workers in the vineyard?  The ones who worked only one hour receive the same full day’s wages as those who put in a twelve-hour day under the sun’s blazing heat.  Why should those who only worked one hour get full pay?  And, if those guys are going to get full pay, then why shouldn’t those who worked twelve hours get extra pay?  That doesn’t make sense.  That’s not fair.

And that’s exactly the point that Jesus drives home to us today with this parable that gives both the greatest comfort and the most serious condemnation.  The last will be first, and the first will be last.  What a beautiful saying!  What a terrifying saying!

The rich man who is stingy toward God is one of those who are first, in man’s eyes, but last in God’s eyes.  So Jesus taught his apostles in Matthew chapter 19. But Jesus’ apostles aren’t rich at all. In fact, they’ve left everything earthly behind in order to follow Jesus.  Shouldn’t they be rewarded by Jesus for all the sacrifices they made in order to follow him?  Shouldn’t we be rewarded by Jesus for living good, decent, Christian lives on earth?

No.  No, and if you expect to be rewarded for your work, then you, too, will be last in the eyes of God, that is, sent away from his presence and condemned, like the workers who put in their precious twelve hours of labor in the parable of Matthew chapter 20.

Who are the first who will be last?

They are the roughly 1.5 million member community of Israelites who were chosen by God to be his holy people, who were rescued by God from slavery in Egypt, who were led through the Red Sea on dry ground, who were given water to drink from out of a rock, who were fed by the hand of God with bread from heaven that appeared on six out of every seven days of the week while they journeyed to Mt. Sinai, where God would speak to them and give them his own Word and make a special covenant between him and them, out of all the nations on earth.  Israel was first.

But Israel became last, because they thought they were entitled to all of it.  When they suffered want for even a moment, their entitlement mentality showed itself, and they grumbled and complained against Moses and against God.  “How could you do this to us, make us eat this same bread every single day, let us go thirsty for a few whole hours!  How dare you treat us like this!  What kind of God are you?”  They grumbled and complained because they didn’t think they were getting what they deserved, and, as Paul said in our Epistle reading today, God was not pleased with most of them; their bodies were scattered over the desert.

Who are the first who will be last?

They are the Pharisees who believed that they were closer to God than the average Jew, closer to him because they kept his laws better; they gave bigger offerings at the Temple; they could compare themselves with all the sinners out there in the world and come out smelling pretty sweet. 

But the Pharisees were last in God’s eyes, because they thought they were entitled to a place in his kingdom.  They approached him on the basis of their behavior, and for as good as they thought it was, God said it wasn’t good enough.

Who are the first who will be last?

They are the apostles themselves, if they begin to rely on their own works in order to receive rewards from God.  They are the nation of Israel if they begrudge the Gentiles entrance into God’s kingdom because they haven’t worked hard enough for it, “like we Jews have.”

Who are the first who will be last?

It’s the man who never goes to church because he thinks he already believes in God well enough and figures that he’s entitled to God’s forgiveness, because, well, even though he’s not perfect, he stays away from what he considers to be the “big” sins – at least, most of the time.

It’s the church member who attends church only sporadically, but figures he’s going often enough to earn his heavenly pay.

It’s the life-long, every-Sunday-attending church member who confesses his or her sins, but deep down, doesn’t want the rabble out there to get too close to us in here, because they’re not good, deserving people “like we are.” 

Who are the first who will be last?

They are rich people and poor people. They are regular churchgoers and they are people who haven’t set foot in a church in years.  They are some of the greatest saints and some of the worst sinners. They are all those who seek good things from God because they’ve worked so hard for them. They see God’s grace as income they have earned.  They view the forgiveness of sins and divine blessing as something they’re entitled to.

This entitlement mentality with God shows itself most when we suffer, just like it did with the children of Israel coming out of Egypt. I’ll be honest with you, I ask myself, what if the Lord brought tragedy to my house and to those closest to me?  I’ve thought about that.  What would I do?  I’d like to think that I could be like Job who said, “The Lord gave and the Lord took away. Blessed be the name of the Lord!”  But I know how deep sin runs, and that I would be tempted to grumble against God.  “How could you?  I’ve served you my whole life.  I can count on one hand the number of Sundays I’ve missed church in 37 years.  I pray to you, I preach your Word to your people. And those people over there who don’t serve you nearly as well as I do – you haven’t brought tragedy on them. I deserve better treatment than this.”

But I don’t. And you don’t.  And the one who wants to be paid back by God can’t stand to hear God’s judgment that “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” All of Jesus’ work, all his suffering, his sacrifice of himself on the cross, his coming to earth in humility in the first place – all will be for nothing for you if you claim a place in God’s house as an entitlement, as something God owes you, given the amount of work you’ve put in.

But who are the last who will be first?

They are the workers whom the landowner invited into his vineyard, who regard, not the denarius, but the goodness of the landowner which is the same to high and low, to the one who has labored much and to the one who has labored hardly at all.

Who are the last who will be first?

They are the Gentiles who had lived their whole lives alienated from God, not knowing him, not serving him, not loving him – but who heard and believed the message of Christ, who came to pay for the sin of all people and to do the works that redeem all people and satisfy the demands of God’s law.

Who are the last who will be first? They are the Jews who fell into grave and terrible sins – even theft, murder and prostitution – but were called by Christ back to repentance and faith in him as their advocate before the Father.

Who are the last who will be first? They are the apostles, if they will continue to guard against pride in their own great sacrifices and rely on the goodness of Christ alone for their reward in heaven.

Who are the last who will be first? They are the sinners and the saints, rich and poor, life-long Christians and recent converts who regard, not the denarius, but the goodness of the landowner, who seek all good things from God, even the forgiveness of sins, life and salvation, not because they’ve worked for it, but only because God is good and gracious to us in Christ.  Grace is the goodness of God that gives all things without the slightest bit of worthiness in those who receive it. 

Don’t get caught patting yourself on the back for your labor in God’s vineyard. There is only One whose labor earned anything from God, and in truth, it is his labor that earned everything from God – Jesus Christ, the Righteous One.  These are the four things that factor into your salvation: 1) The grace of God, 2) the merits of Christ, 3) the promise of the Gospel, and 4) faith that receives the mercy promised to you in Christ Jesus. Your labor never factors into the salvation equation.  You must never introduce it.

Spend your time basking in the glow of God’s grace. Spend your time wondering at Christ’s willing labor for you in the vineyard, especially as we are about to step into the season of Lent and turn the magnifying glass on his labor for us. Spend your time hearing the promise of the Gospel in Word and Sacrament. And that will also keep you from looking down your nose at those sitting around you.

The first will be last, Jesus says, a terrifying statement that strips you of every reason to boast in yourself and forbids you to exalt yourself any higher than the worst sinner you can think of.  But Jesus also says, “The last will be first,” a comforting statement that keeps you from falling into doubt and despair. Because even if you are the worst sinner you can think of, God’s grace in Christ exalts you higher than the highest saint.  By human standards, that doesn’t make sense and it isn’t fair.  But the kingdom of heaven isn’t about fairness.  It’s about grace – and that’s what gives us hope. Amen.

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