Proper 20A 2005 Matthew 20:1-16
An astute, wise, and witty observer once said that there are many basic and lasting truths about life that children learn
on their own. Here are four of them:
No matter how hard you try, you can’t baptize cats.
When your mother is mad at your father, don’t let her brush your hair.
You can’t trust dogs to watch your food.
The best place to be when you’re sad is in your grandmother’s lap. (1)
One of the lessons of today’s parable is one that children of any age have a hard time learning: “So the last
will be first and the first will be last.” Well, Jesus said it so we have to deal with it.
In 1844 Samuel F. B. Morse transmitted the first telegraph message between Baltimore and Washington. As settlement and railroads
spread across the North American continent, the telegraph became the Internet of its day. This remarkable invention was capable
of sending complex, encrypted messages all over the world in fractions of a second. Unlike the Internet, however, the telegraph
was primarily an auditory instrument. Only a finely tuned ear could key into its lightning-fast code of dots and dashes to
accurately interpret the sender's message.
Those who acquired this skill in the late 1800s could make a decent living as a Morse code operator. But the competition
was fierce. The companies that paid well always had long lines of applicants waiting for a chance to prove their skills.
There's a story of one such company that had an opening for a Morse code operator. Because the company was a leader in its
industry, it could afford to find and hire the best.
On the day that the position was announced, about 20 young men showed up at the huge, noisy office to be tested. On top of
all the telegraphs operating in the background, there were several typists banging on their machines. The receptionist practically
had to shout her instructions to the candidates. After filling out their applications, they were told to take a seat and
wait to be called in for an interview.
Several hours passed, and no one was called in. At around noon, a latecomer approached the receptionist for an application.
When he was about halfway through the form, he suddenly got up and told the receptionist that he had to speak to the hiring
manager right away. Surprisingly, she let him in. The other candidates were dumbfounded. They had been there all morning
- why did this man suddenly get an interview - he hadn't even completed his application!
If that wasn't bad enough, five minutes after the receptionist let the latecomer pass, she stood up to say that the position
had been filled, and that they could all go home now. There would be no more interviews that day.
One of the rejected candidates stuck around to find out why this guy got the job when the others didn't even get a chance
to display their skills. "But you did have the chance," replied the receptionist. "All the time you were sitting there,
there was a telegraph behind me sending a message that said 'If you can understand this message, then tell the receptionist
that you need to see the hiring manager right away. The job is yours.'" Only the latecomer had heard and understood the
message. All the other candidates had missed it.
We all know the trials and tribulations of an awkward and unathletic child, how painful and humiliating it can be for them.
One of the worst things that happens is when pickup softball games are being organized. Usually the two best athletes, whether
in gym class or sand lot, would be the two team captains. And they begin taking turns, pointing at the rest and selecting
who they wanted to have on their team. And those several very long minutes, while the teams were being picked, were difficult
and embarrassing for the awkward and unathletic children because they are usually the last ones picked. Nobody wanted them
on their team.
For someone who has the good fortune to be one of the first ones selected, your ego gets a boast and you feel special. But
if you have the misfortune of being picked last, you have to endure the ridicule and shame of being someone who no one really
wanted on their team.
Somehow this business about the last will be first isn’t very comforting.
Farmers of any kind, at least in the days of more labor intensive farming, can relate somewhat better to this business of
the last being first and the first being last. Peach farmers especially. Peaches are very perishable, perhaps even more
so than grapes, certainly more so than apples and oranges and limes and grapefruit. When peaches are ready to be picked,
packed, and sent off in refrigerated cars to market, the window of opportunity for orchard to market is two days at most.
And in areas where there were many other large peach farms, labor was at a premium when those two days began.
Peach growers go around to other orchard operations hoping to hire workers if and when their work was completed for the day.
Hiring workers away was not uncommon, especially the more efficient and productive. Sometimes the workers went from orchard
to orchard, packing shed to packing shed. And peach packing sheds ran into the wee hours of the morning until all the fruit
was packed and loaded for transit. It was not surprising that those laborers late to the harvest or packing were paid more
than the others for their time. Their individual wages were, for good reason, a closely guarded secret. Not a one of them
wanted to upset the apple cart. And it kept the others from complaining, who themselves benefited from the same sort of arrangement
from time to time.
One last story: In her memoir of growing up in rural Arkansas, Wouldn't Take Nothing for My Journey Now, poet Maya Angelou
wrote about her grandmother, Annie Henderson. Annie Henderson ran a store. Any time a known whiner showed up, her grandmother
would call little Maya to come inside. Then Grandmother would ask the customer, "How are you?" and the grumbler would launch
into his or her list of complaints that day, be it the heat of the day or the plowing that needed to be done. As the complainer
went on and on, Grandmother Annie would look at little Maya to make sure she was listening.
Angelou, now an accomplished writer, teacher, producer and director, recalls her grandmother's words after the customers left:
"Sister, there are people who went to sleep last night, poor and rich and white and black, but they will never wake again.
And those dead folks would give anything at all for just five minutes of this weather or ten minutes of plowing. So you
watch yourself about complaining. What you're supposed to do when you don't like a thing is change it. If you can't change
it, change the way you think about it." (3)
The vineyard owner told the complainer, “Take what belongs to you and go.” And we have been given much. The
parable is really mostly about God’s love, grace and mercy. And that is the very much that is always given to us.
1. Sunday Sermons, “Lasting Truth”, 19 September 1999.
2. Proclaim, 22 September 2002
3. As quoted in Wouldn't Take Nothing for My Journey Now, CONNECTIONS, Sept 2002