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Listen to this Sunday's Gospel reading by visiting the website www.sundaygospel.co.uk.
25th Sunday in Ordinary Time (24.09.17)
"But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first”
Almost no tourists and few pilgrims ever witness it. As dawn breaks over the city of Jerusalem, the area just outside the Jaffa Gate becomes a hubbub of activity. As you watch the parable, spoken by Jesus 2,000 yrs. previously, is brought to life in our 21st. century. This is no theatrical presentation, it is real, daily life, except for the Sabbath, in the city of perpetual tension, the meeting place of the three great religions of the world. Matthew recalls Jesus’ teaching for us (20:1-16) on the 25th Sunday of the Year.
Palestinian men, each carrying the tools of their trade, some water and a snack, jostle for position. Jewish landowners and contractors arrive in their pick-up trucks and drive slowly through the expansive area. They haggle briefly with the day-labourers before making their selection. Those hired climb into the open back of the trucks and so begins another day of work. There are no contracts, no union representatives, but the Jerusalem police are present in numbers should they be needed. A careful scrutiny of the archways high above the Jaffa Gate may even reveal some IDF (Israeli Defence Force) soldiers with telescopic rifles. If you substitute mules and donkeys for pickup trucks and clad everyone in the garb of Jesus’ day and nothing much would have changed in two centuries. Instead of the IDF there would have been Roman mercenary soldiers.
People in the UK listening to the parable in 2017 may imagine Jesus describing an imaginary situation. Far from it! In fact, in the post 2nd World War major port cities of the UK, a similar scene was enacted daily at dock gates. Day-labourers queued from before dawn hoping to be picked to discharge cargoes from the endless stream of incoming merchant ships. Often it was a case of a day’s work only ‘if your face fitted’. To be unsuccessful in finding a day’s work in the Jerusalem of Jesus’ day, or the port city of Liverpool in the 20thcentury, meant hardship for all the family.
The truth of this parable goes to the very heart of the Christian Faith. There was a warning for Jesus’ disciples in his parable. It was as if he were saying to them: ‘You have the great privilege of becoming members of the Christian assembly from its inception. Later, others will come and you must not claim any honour because you were Christian before them. Every individual, no matter at what stage of their life they commit to Christ, is equally precious to God.
There are cradle Christians who develop a ‘proprietorial’ attitude towards their faith. Some resent, what they describe as, ‘11th Hour or deathbed converts’. They also resent the intrusion of a new generation whose outlook differs from theirs. In the Christian family seniority does not necessarily infer honour. Jesus’ disciples asked him who was the greatest in the kingdom of heaven: “Jesus called a little child to him, and placed the child among them. And he said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.” (Matt.18:2-5)
The parable also has a warning for the Jews who, conscious of being God’s ‘chosen people’ looked down upon Gentiles. The founding members of the Christian Church were all Jews who attempted to dictate that Gentiles could only become Christians if they first became Jews. “In God’s economy,” someone said, “there is no such thing as a most favoured nation clause.” It may be that long-established Christian communities, in say Western Europe, may well have to learn from younger Christian communities in other parts of the world.
This parable has lessons for today. The ‘comfort of God’ is extended to any person irrespective of at what state or stage of life that person commits them self to Christ. There is a saying: ‘Some enter the Kingdom in an hour; others hardly enter it in a lifetime’.
We live at a time of unprecedented migration often occasioned by dire circumstances of persecution and hunger. Unemployment caused by an absence of opportunity follows the migrants in all their wanderings. In the marketplace described by Jesus men stood waiting because no one had hired them. We do not know whether it was his compassion or the threat of imminent rain that prompted the landlord to take on more workers. Was he personally aware how continuous enforced unemployment can be utterly demoralising? This parable states implicitly two great truths at the very heart of Christianity - everyone has a right to work and the right of every working person is to receive a just and living wage. A ‘wage’ is not necessarily money. It may be a person’s contribution to the running, say, of a home and family or a communal enterprise such as a farm.
The love with which we serve matters more than the amount we give. We are called to give our all. We can neither earn nor merit the grace God gives us. God’s grace is not pay, nor is it a reward, it is pure gift.
This brings us to the supreme lesson of the parable. The spirit in which our work is contributed is more important than the work itself. The landlord, in the parable, entered into a contract with the first workers - a day’s work for a day’s pay. Those who were taken on later - especially the last comers – had no contract. All they wanted was the chance to work that they might feed their family. They trusted themselves to the landlord who knew the circumstances.
A person’s depth of commitment to Christianity maybe questionable if their first concern is material remuneration. Even Peter asked Jesus: “What about us, Lord, who have left everything to follow you?” Jesus’s response was to paint a word-picture of the joy of the Kingdom of Heaven where the first will be last and the last will be first.