First and Last

Sophie Backes/Unsplash

Children of the God of Israel

17 Pentecost: Matthew 20:1-16

By Ellen T. Charry

Matthew 20:1-16 is a rich moral allegory. We call it a parable. Parables are pithy tales that warn or scold people indirectly, through fictional characters and objects, so that the criticism is “hearable.” The evangelist knows that Jewish leaders of his and Jesus’ day, being familiar with parables, understand how to decipher them (Matt. 21:45). The Hebrew Bible has five such allegories. The most like our passage is Isaiah’s parable of the vineyard, through which the prophet teaches wealthy Judeans of his day (eighth century B.C.E.) that God threatens to destroy them for unsavory real estate transactions (still practiced) if they do not mend their ways (Isa. 5:1-10). Isaiah explains that the vineyard is the house of Israel, and it belongs to God. Jesus would surely have known it.

Rabbinic parables are plentiful throughout various literatures. One, attributed to Rabbi Yoḥanan ben Zakkai (the same Zacchaeus whom Jesus called down from a tree?), a contemporary of Jesus, told a parable strikingly like that of the wedding banquet, also in Matthew. And today’s parable of the laborers in God’s vineyard appears in the Palestinian Talmud. While the final editing of the Talmud is centuries after ben Zakkai, Jesus, and Matthew, its anecdotes and stories originate long before the text was completed.

Unlike Isaiah, Jesus does not unpack who the characters point to in real life for his readers. But it and other passages give us clues. One is its last sentence, “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” This sentence, stated also as the first will be last, and the last will be first, appears in all the synoptic Gospels. That message of unexpected role reversal also resounds from the story of the generous father welcoming his wastrel son (Luke 15:11-32). On the face of it, both tales are about righteous indignation. Who has not experienced it? Matthew 19:30 and Mark 9:35 apply the last-first teaching to Jesus’ squabbling followers, bringing it right into the pews of fractious parishioners. There’s plenty of sermon fodder here.

While the bottom line of this allegory is widely applicable, each use of it targets real people in real situations. In both the Matthean and Lukan parables, the hard-working laborers and the faithful elder son may be alluding to Jews, or at least Jewish leaders who resent Gentiles, God’s-come-latelies, as being equally or even more lavishly rewarded (with the fatted calf in the Lukan allegory) than themselves, who have been faithful to God since, well, forever.

Given the wide applicability of this scenario to personal or churchly circumstances, it is easy to avoid pointing yet once more to the “bad Jews,” this time for resenting most of the people in the preacher’s audience, who are most probably Gentiles. But it is also an opportunity to recognize and so remediate a bit of the Christian boasting that has damaged Jews since Paul. The Church has not often humbly recognized that it is the great Johnny-come-lately to the God of Israel by his grace, but rather seen itself as the rightful claimant of the reign of God in the first place!

Beginning with Paul’s allegory of the lopped-off olive branches and new ones grafted in (Rom. 11), the Church has confidently taught for centuries that Jews are rejected by God for being Jews (and not Christians), and that Gentile Christians listening to such a hypothetical sermon should think of themselves as first in the kingdom of God. Paul warns his baby Christians not to boast about being grafted in while Jews are cut off from God, but that is as hard to do as avoiding righteous indignation. They are but two sides of the same coin.

The preacher’s choice here is not between taking the high road or the low road. It is between engaging in Christian self-criticism or sustaining business as usual.


Online Archives