Matthew 20: Jesus said, “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2 After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. 3 When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; 4 and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. 5 When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. 6 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?’ 7 They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ 8 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.’ 9 When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. 10 Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. 11 And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12 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.’ 13 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? 14 Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ 16 So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
As you know, Christianity started as a sect of Judaism. Early Christians continued to meet in the Jewish temple and observe Jewish religious customs, though they were now followers of Jesus. As Christianity spread, more non-Jews came into the church, which caused some dissension. The parable makes it clear that early followers of Jesus (mostly Jews) would not have favored status over those who came later (Gentiles). God the Father confers upon all believers status as children of God and inheritors of eternal life.
At some level, the church faces some of the same dynamics today. It’s not easy being part of the church when you don’t have much of a church background – if any. 25 years ago I was new to the church too. I was drawn to the sense of God’s presence among the people. I was hungry on the inside and, through the church, the Lord was feeding me. But I definitely felt like a fish out of water.
I didn’t know the customs or songs or prayers. It was sometimes painfully awkward. I remember being on retreat where we didn’t have hymn books available – so people sang a few songs a cappella from memory. I wanted to sing along, but I couldn’t because I didn’t know the words. I felt embarrassed, like an outsider, like I didn’t belong. I got over that, but it wasn’t easy.
Then the process repeated itself when I went to seminary. OMG talk about feeling like an outsider! I was so behind the curve I thought about dropping out, but God gave me grace to stay with it. Eventually I came to realize that being an outsider was a gift of sorts. As a pastor I’ve always had empathy for people who are new to church, who don’t know our customs or language or music. Because I was once one of them.
Thank you dear Lord that you continue to draw people to yourself through Jesus Christ. Help those of us who are part of your church to be welcoming to those new to our communities. Remind us that we have no favored status because of our longevity in the church. If fact, as your word says, the first will be last and the last will be first. Amen.