9/22/02, P18A

“There's Joy in Finishing Last”
Matthew 20: 1-16

 was sitting idle in the Perimeter Mall market place on the "waiting on the wife and daughters benches;" one July 4th and noticed that the guy next to me had on one of those "Peachtree Road Race" T-shirts that are very selectively reserved for finishers of the annual Independence Day race. As a way to elicit a conversation I asked, "Did you win the race again this year?" His response with a grin was, "I finished last!" My response was, "There are really no losers among the finishers, are they?"

This seems to be kind of what Jesus is saying about the makeup of His "Kingdom of Heaven:" The point is finishing not winning.

This is at the heart of what Jesus is saying in his Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard. Winning and losing is not the point as much as is finishing the race. In the typical way that we pay wages to workers this metaphorical landowner (God) does seem unfair. What was the hidden meaning in paying the last to be hired first, and in paying them a full day's wages for just an hour's work? Naturally, anybody who had worked all day, or a major part of the day, would have been upset. Therefore, the workers who felt themselves treated unfairly came to the landowner and, "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 scorching heat." (v.11-12)

For most of us, the traditional interpretation of this parable still rings true: The Old Testament community represents the day-long workers and the Gentiles represent the latecomers, who are included in a New Covenant, and thus, receive full benefits from this new Kingdom that Jesus was gradually revealing to his followers. Still today this brings about a controversy. The cover story in our "Faith & Values" section of yesterday's "Atlanta Journal-Constitution" dealt with the conflict arising out of the statement by a liberal group who are proposing that it is not necessary to accept Jesus in order to be saved; and thus, we Christians should not attempt to bring Jews to Jesus. This remains an open wound after 2000 years. The Jews have worked in the sun all these years and everybody else comes toward the end of the day and receives full benefits. Christ is still a stumbling block that can cause divisions and there seems to be no easy way out of Jesus' meaning in this simple story.

Looking deeper, there are additional shades of meaning in this metaphor, as there is in all of Jesus' parables. One very practical point is that oftentimes in our local churches we have folks who have been around forever who resent newcomers. One local church leader would often repeat that he had chosen "his" church as a young man because he preferred a "small church." The message to those who had signed on late was clear. One of the most contagious things that visitors feel about Atlanta First is that our longtime motto rings true, "The Folks Are Friendly!" Folks who join with us as laborers in the vineyard tend to feel like they have always belonged on this corner. Our hearts are open.

At one of my first churches I had a fellow who was a decorated veteran of WW I. He had many war tales. His ship was sunk on his first Atlantic crossing, and he almost did not make it into the battle at all. However, his voice would quiver as he told of how he was sent to the front lines, late in the war, and how those who had survived months in the foxholes were so happy to see fresh clean faces reinforcing the old-timers in battle. Not only did they bring fresh rifles, but they came bearing gifts of chocolate and coffee. The new soldiers brought hope that they would be able to finish the battle, to win the war, to prevail. The Church always needs new faces because we are not a static organization; we are constantly moving in new troops and allowing veterans to go Home.

Since the landowner felt that he needed fresh new workers toward the end of the day to harvest his valuable crop before it rotted on the vine, should the attitude of the weary workers not have been one of welcome in that with these fresh recruits they all would be able to win the battle? I am told that the last few hours in the grape harvest are the most important. And this is our situation. Until we rest as the Church Victorious in Heaven, we are in a battle that requires new members in order to save the harvest. Each of us has a place to serve in the harvest. Otherwise we could become a kind of, "Heaven's Waiting Room;" just sitting around reading old magazines until our number is called.

Sears had the right idea when they made "shareholders" out of their employees many years ago. The brilliant, and much copied, concept was to instill a sense of ownership within the hearts of the workers, so that they would work harder and with more faithfulness to "Their Company." That's the reason why Home Depot employees seem to take so much pride in their company: Their badges announce them as "Partners." They are soldiers, united together trying to fulfill their mission. We too are included in as shareholders in God's Great Kingdom. We are fellow workers reaping the harvest before the day is spent. Each of us has a calling that is important in the Kingdom.

Jesus' Parable teaches that we need faithful, trained and committed workers in order to be a true outpost of His Kingdom on Earth, preparing for eventual inclusion in The Kingdom of Heaven. There will be some "standing around idle.." (v.6) Sadly, some never sign on to go to work. But God continues to invite everyone to discover their place to go to work in the vineyard, the Church. This New Covenant is open to everybody. The Good News about Jesus' Kingdom of Heaven is that full participation is open to all who will sign on. You do not have to be of royal blood or of wealth. All who are willing to go to work are included in the workforce, even if it's toward the end of the day.

The point is not necessarily finishing first. We don't have to become the fastest grape picker. God needs faithful Christian workers in His local churches who will do their part in fulfilling our great commission to "Make Disciples of Jesus Christ!"

The text we chose for my mother's funeral bulletin last week quotes the words of St. Paul toward the end of his work on earth: "I have fought a good fight, I have finished my race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown... and not only for me, but also for all who long to see Jesus." (II Tim. 4:7-8)

a sermon synopsis by C. Robert Allred, Th.D., Pastor

9/22/02, P18A