"The last shall come first, and the first, last."
If we read today's Gospel and think of the parable as we would a business transaction, it is hard not to sympathize with the workers who worked throughout the full extent of the day yet received no greater pay than those who worked but a few hours. Even though the man who owned the field was quite correct that it was his money that was being paid out, and that he had every right to spend it as he saw fit, we tend to think that his generosity is being unfairly distributed. In bureaucratic America there might even be some government agency that would be quick to step in and force him to rectify the situation.
But our Lord is, once again, not talking about agriculture, but about the Kingdom of Heaven. He is not talking about a farmer who distributes wages to his workers in a situation where justice seems to enter into the situation -- rather He is talking about the free gift of salvation offered by His Father to those who will go about becoming His adopted sons and daughters. God owes salvation to no one. It was a gift He offered to the human race in the persons of Adam and Eve, which they rejected. It is the gift that He decided to offer again to individuals who would pattern their lives after His Son, Jesus Christ; to those who would "believe and be baptized"; to those who would keep His commandments; to those who would do the best that frail human ability allows to return the great love that He showed us in the life, death, and resurrection of His only Son.
This does present us with a little bit of a quandary. The Church has us read Saint Paul's epistle this morning -- obviously with the intention of getting us to prepare for a good Lent; a Lent filled with the physical and spiritual discipline necessary for us to "win the race" to our salvation. The metaphor is obviously one of competition, for, as Paul says, "all run in the race but only one wins the prize." How then do we reconcile this idea of competition with the idea that God will distribute the glories of Heaven as He sees fit, in a way not exactly proportional to the effort we put into working in His field? The answer is that this competition Paul describes is more accurately a competition of love -- not just a competition to have God love us, but also, and more importantly, a competition for us to love Him.
We should work assiduously to please our Father in Heaven. And just as a good child works to please his human parents because he loves them and wants to return the love they have shown him, so too does the good Christian strive to please God in any way possible. As children we may have often had an ulterior motive -- we may have pleased our parents with the hope of gaining a reward; a piece of candy, or a toy, or a trip to the movies, or whatever. And as human children we may have felt the competitive need to gain a greater share of our parents attention than they gave to our brothers or sisters. But as adults striving to please God, we should be more altruistic. We should recognize that whatever reward God sees fit to grant us -- on Earth or in Heaven -- that reward will work in everyone's best interest including our own. And we should certainly recognize the great good that is gained by the conversion of sinners -- even if they have lived a long life of pleasing themselves, it should give us great joy to see them begin to love God and please Him, before it is too late. We should never think in terms of what we have done for God -- of how much more we have done for God than the next person -- of how comparatively easy one might have it by repenting in old age -- for that kind of thinking will move us out of the category of adopted sons and daughters, and into the category of hired laborers, where we shall surely be disappointed!
Saint Paul is a little cryptic in the end of his epistle. He is referring, as he does in a few of his epistles, to the journey of God's chosen people out of Egypt, through the desert, and to the promised land. For forty years they wandered in the desert. In human terms, they all experienced pretty much the same conditions -- the same physical difficulties of desert travel, and the same physical assistance provided by God to sustain them with food and water. There was relatively little difference possible between the highest of their leaders and the lowliest traveler -- God expected the same things from all of them, and gave the same gifts to them. But almost immediately, the holy ones distinguished themselves from the unholy "with whom God was not very well pleased." Some grumbled all forty years about how they would have been better off back in Egypt as slaves of the pagans. And many tempted God -- continually looking about for false gods to serve -- idols of their own making, or the demons worshipped by the desert tribes they occasionally encountered -- always looking for a "better deal" from another god who would ask less time of them in the heat of the desert or grant greater rewards. Even in the Old Testament, God was more pleased with those who were faithful family members, rather than grumbling hired helpers ready to serve the highest bidder.
The "Introit" or "Entrance Hymn" this morning is from Psalm 17, and it reflects the spirit of those with whom God was pleased. It is a very beautiful Psalm, one of the most beautiful in the Psalter, and perhaps you will read it in its entirety -- or better yet, pray it daily as part of your Lenten practices. The Psalm reflects the grandeur of God, precisely as the gratuitous Savior of His people; the majestic Father who comes down from Heaven to deliver them, precisely because they are His children and He loves them. We only read a verse or two this morning:
The terrors of death surged round about me,
The competition, then, that Saint Paul urges us to this morning, is to be like the faithful Jews who endured the difficulties of the journey through the desert (the journey of almost a lifetime); to be like them in their fidelity to the one true God without grumbling about the meager rewards of the desert, and without forsaking Him for the illusory attractions of false gods.
We have this opportunity to win the favor of God once again through the keeping of a holy Lent. It will be upon us in two and a half short weeks. Now is the time to prepare for it; to be sure that your schedule and your obligations will allow God ample time in your life. Some will put greater effort into it than others; that is the way we people are. And some may even seem to derive greater benefit through their lesser effort. None of that should disturb us, for we are operating on the level of God's adopted sons and daughters -- not on the level of hired help. We must resolve now that we will spend the time between today and Easter, not counting the difficulties our Lenten regimen brings us, not worrying about those who seem to have an easier time, not pouting over who will get the greatest rewards, but doing it all for the greater love and glory of God, our Father.