The text is Matthew 20:1-16
Do you remember what it feels like to be picked last for a team in school? Most of us do. The excitement of playing a new game quickly gives way to fear as the number of other kids around you starts to dwindle. Fear then becomes shame as you are left standing alone in the vast emptiness of space in between the two teams while the captains argue over whose turn it is to have the “loser” on his or her team. Your confidence is shot before the starting whistle blows, making it that much more likely that you will mess up at a critical moment, drop the ball, and thus increase your chances of being picked last again next time.
It’s a bitter feeling. And it’s a feeling that each and every one of us carries around inside of us. Whether we admit it or not, whether we even realize it or not, it’s there. And it stays there for most of our lives. Inside each and every one of us is that scared and hurt little kid who just doesn’t want be picked last again. So we do whatever we can to prove our worth to ourselves and everyone else around us. We get up early and work late. We work hard to become the strongest, fastest, smartest, prettiest, wealthiest, most popular, most powerful, or most “successful” (whatever that word means). The saddest cases are those that involve bullies who are only too willing to step on and hurt their fellow human beings in order to reach the “top” and stay there. They might play it tough, but inside each and every one of them is another scared and hurt little kid. We all just want to “be somebody”.
We might fool ourselves into thinking that we’re really beyond all of that nonsense. We might think we’ve grown up and taken on a more mature view of ourselves, the world, life, and reality. But, as I have often observed, the politics of the professional board room and the politics of the high school locker room are one and the same. Here’s a famous example: The Enron Corporation. Enron had a policy of firing the least productive 15% of their employees each year. It didn’t matter how well you did in previous years. Honestly, it didn’t even really matter how well you did that year. What mattered is whether or not you did better than the person in the cubicle next to yours. All you had to do was stay out of the bottom 15%. Rather than fostering a spirit of camaraderie in the pursuit of quality service, this firing policy created an atmosphere of ruthless competition and backstabbing that eventually led to the moral and financial ruin of the company. In a very real sense, none of these professional adults wanted to be picked last for the team!
This phenomenon is hardly unique to 21st century Americans. We can see it the Bible too. Jews and Christians in the first century had a rough time of things. They all lived under the occupation of the Roman Empire, which wasn’t so bad as far as empires go, but it still wasn’t the kind of freedom, prosperity, and security they had longed for. And even these supposedly progressive and tolerant Romans had a nasty side. Those who were accused of inciting a rebellion against Caesar had a way of getting flogged and crucified as a deterrent to others.
Before Rome, the Jews had suffered under the brutal Seleucids, the Babylonians, and Egypt’s genocidal Pharaoh in Exodus. It seemed to them like they were constantly struggling to preserve their culture, faith, and dignity under the thumb of some other oppressive regime. This ongoing fight gave them a sense of national and religious pride. This fight kept them together as a people.
This is why there was so much conflict between Christians and Jews in the early days of the church’s existence. Christians were seen as traitors who abandoned the traditions of the Torah that were preserved by generations of Jews who suffered under the yoke of oppression. As for the Christians themselves, they didn’t know what to think. They saw themselves as faithful Jews whose faith in Jesus as the Messiah fulfilled God’s plan for the salvation of the whole world, Israel included! The fact that their faith was rejected by most mainstream Jews was very painful for the early Christians. They suddenly felt very alone, like the odd one out or the last one picked for the team. How were they supposed to maintain any sense of self-worth and dignity? The temptation would have been to strike back with their own counter-rejection of Judaism. They could have easily come to see themselves as spiritually superior to their Jewish neighbors. After all, didn’t the Jewish religious leaders reject their own heaven-sent Messiah and conspire with the Romans to have him killed?
The author of Matthew’s gospel saw this conflict going on in the hearts and minds of Christians at that time. Their struggle for significance brought to mind something that Jesus had once said.
It all started one day when a well-to-do young man came up to Jesus one day and asked him, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” Jesus told him about following the commandments of the Torah, which is what anyone would expect of a good rabbi. But something inside that young man still felt empty. He intuitively knew that there must be more to life than that. He responded, “I have kept all these [commandments of the Torah]; what do I still lack?” So Jesus upped the ante, saying, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” The rich young man got exactly what he asked for but it was too much. He had found his limit. He didn’t have the strength in him to do something that drastic. It just felt impossible for him.
Meanwhile, Peter and the disciples were watching this exchange take place with smug smiles. After the young man left, Peter walked up to Jesus and said, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.” Yeah, Peter felt pretty sure of himself. That brash young kid just didn’t have what it takes to roll with Jesus and his crew! But Peter and the twelve had already done everything Jesus asked of the young man. They had left their possessions, their jobs, their families, and everything else to go and follow Jesus. Peter figured that put him and his buddies in a class above these other half-hearted people. He thought he had all the right stuff, which is probably why God picked him as part of the Messiah’s entourage.
Jesus picked up on Peter’s smug attitude. In fact, he was able to look past it and see that scared and hurt little kid hiding deep down in Peter’s heart. Maybe there was a time when little Peter got picked last for a team. Maybe somebody once told him that he was a worthless good-for-nothing who would never amount to anything. Maybe that’s why Peter felt the need to puff his chest out and flash his spiritual credentials around for all to see. Just like the rich young man, he thought he had to do something to earn a sense of dignity and self-worth.
So Jesus spoke directly to that little kid inside Peter and told him a story. It’s a story about who God really is and the way life really works. He told him about a vineyard owner who had some pretty inefficient business practices. He didn’t seem to know how many workers he needed for his grape harvest. Most farmers would hit up the day-labor pool just once in the morning during harvest, hire whatever help they needed, and go to work for the day. But this person kept going back to the unemployment line again and again. Every few hours he was going back out to see who was there. He kept on doing this right up until five o’clock, as the workday was coming to an end. The only folks left to hire at that point were the rejects and losers who nobody else wanted to hire. These workers were weak and scrawny. Bored and ashamed, they kicked at the dirt in front of them as the sun got lower and the shadows got longer, wondering how they would put food on the table that night. Then that same old vineyard owner showed up again, wanting to hire them. It didn’t make any sense. There was only an hour left until quitting time, but they figured that a little work was better than no work at all, so they got to it, hoping that somehow the vineyard owner would make it worth their while.
An hour later, as the shift was ending, people started lining up for their pay. The last-picked hires lined up first, expecting maybe half a crust of stale bread. They just wanted to get a little something for their trouble and then shuffle off in shame. The vineyard owner smiled as they walked up and put a full denarius in each of their hands. A denarius was a full-day’s pay. They couldn’t believe their eyes! They looked at each other, then they looked back at their boss. He was either really rich or really stupid, but they weren’t about to complain. They tipped their hats and went off to buy dinner. Before they got too far away, they heard shouting and turned around to see what was the matter. One of the first-picked hires was losing it at the vineyard owner. They heard their own names, followed by all kinds of unrepeatable slurs. Apparently, their boss was giving everyone the usual daily wage. The first-hires didn’t like that one bit. But the boss just looked back at them and calmly said, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? 14Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?” The first-picked workers stormed out in a huff.
Amidst all the shouting, there was one phrase that had stood out to those last-picked workers: “You have made them equal to us”. Equal. Suddenly, something dawned on them. They figured out what their boss was up to all along. He didn’t need extra hands that day. He didn’t even care about turning a profit after that harvest. This boss cared about people more than profits. Their value to this boss wasn’t based on what they could do for him. Because of his graciousness, the social barriers between first-picked and last-picked were momentarily destroyed. The pecking order had been dismantled. Because of the boss’ generosity, the losers and rejects had been made equal to those other “successful” types.
Jesus ended the story there. Peter and the other disciples looked at each other uncomfortably. They understood the story’s meaning: Their sense of dignity and self-worth didn’t come from their ability to keep the commandments of the Torah or even their faith in Jesus. God, like that vineyard owner, is generous to a fault. That hurt and scared kid inside of them can come out to play now, because, from the perspective of eternity, every player gets picked first. Trying to earn your place in the kingdom of heaven is ludicrous and can only end in frustration, because you are trying to earn that which has already been given to you for free. You’ll be a whole lot happier if you can just embrace the gift and be thankful.
The author of Matthew’s gospel wrote this story down in order to remind those Christians in the early church of this incredible truth. The way to overcome that fear and pain of being rejected, outcast, or picked last (for any reason) is to recognize the unconditional grace of God as the great equalizer. Then we can all let go of our constant striving to be the best and beat the best. It doesn’t matter if we get picked last because on God’s team, the only one that really matters, there are no first and last picks. We are free to be ourselves and try our best in life without the urge to be constantly working or productive as if our sense of self-worth depended on it.
You don’t have to try hard to “be somebody” because you already are “somebody”. You matter. God loves you and there’s absolutely nothing you can do about it. So you might as well just accept it.