When I was a kid, I always wanted to be the first in line. I always knew the first person, was usually the one who got the best gifts, food, treats, and praises. Our society has taught us, to win is everything, and to lose implies a deficiency of effort or character or both. We’ve learned this so well, we approach physical sports and games as though they are tests of will and something to be lifted above all. We send children to coaches to enhance a talent, hopefully to be utilized on a global stage culminating in Olympic dreams. There are those, who spend untold sums of money to find the best coaches, the best facilities, and the best opportunities for their children to train. All of these efforts are utilized to hedge the uncertain paradigm of failure. The benefits of such a long journey to victory, take their toll on familial and personal relationships at times, and when all is said and done, and the athlete competes, there is no guarantee of a win. The hope determinate is if enough effort and energies are placed onto a single goal, then with enough practice a champion can be hewn from the rough exterior of desire. The question is, desire for whom? Desire for the ten year old, who can neither envision nor properly conceptualize the rigorous training nor the fandom which may come from victory. Perhaps it’s the desire for the parent, who loves their child, to realize with effort and hard work a better life can be attained. As a parent, I try to direct my children down a path, which will hopefully enable my children an easier life, but at the very least a life with more opportunities than I had for myself. However, at what cost are we willing to be first, and at what point does our recognition of the line to be first materialize into something contrary to what we thought?
In Matthew’s Gospel (20: 1-16), we see a parable told about workers in a vineyard, arguing about daily wages and work commensurate of those wages. What we find is the designation of the landowner to pay people as he chooses. On the surface, we might all agree, someone being paid the same for doing less is tantamount to prejudicial set of standards. The actual truth is they are paid more for doing less, and yet we are still relegated to the work we do for the pay we agreed upon. However, if we dig a little deeper, we see, the unfairness is melted away, when the landowner clearly describes a paradigm of choice. Which is to say, the landowner, because of his expense and time, is benefitting from the work completed on his crops. However, he limits his benefits by reducing his margin when he pays exorbitant wages for very little work. One would say, he gets a bargain the earlier he can make his workers begin their day. Many employers today are like this, requiring of workers to come in as soon as possible, and restricting movement which isn’t designated to the profitability of their business. For many western cultures, there are now laws to prevent the abuse of employers to the employee, these laws help to restrict the number of hours in a day, where an employer can force an employee to work. There are protections against harassment, prejudice based on race or sexual orientation, and compensation for people willing to work longer under hourly pay compensations. To be clear, it is better to work a manual labor job today, than it was two thousand years ago, but the same ambitions once realized in antiquity still exist now, being first means a win, and being last means destruction. So, what was Matthew trying to explain to us, about the fairness of choice?
In Matthew’s parable, we see the landowner explain to the disgruntled workers about their agreement of acceptance of pay. They agreed to a daily wage and the promise was delivered on upon their complete of the work. The last workers, who were summoned late in the day, and subsequently only worked an hour, were paid first. As the foreman went down the line paying the workers, the ones who worked the longest expected more based on the pay which was given to the first. The disagreement materialized when they realized their pay would be the same as those who by their estimation barely worked. Whereby the parable is summed up with the phrase, “The last will be first and the first will be last”. What this phrase tells all of us, is although we rightly perceive our environment, when applying who we are to anyone else, we run the risk of improperly assessing everything. This is to say, when we worry about everyone else, and we find diminishment in their stature we risk duplicity as a measurable standard.
Much of our culture these days does exactly this, we look at others and we determine they are unworthy of our will, they somehow have not met the standards we set for ourselves and subsequently they are diminished in our eyes. This takes shape in our work, church, family, societal interactions, and in our politics. We are very judgmental, but at the same time we want to be first, and this need to be first, adds to our need for judgement. We measure how far in front of another we are, so we can maintain an air of superiority. Our arrogance begins to lead us in directions which seek to maintain a win and grasp at all those things of non-importance to our lives.
As the Olympic hopefuls and their families grasp at a future where winning becomes a goal tangible enough to taste, they begin to risk a future unrelenting in its avoidance of failure. As a culture, we can see every aspect of our society is touched by a need to win, and failure results in mighty falls by those we once forced on to the pedestal of adulation. The most prominent figure in sports history, who fell from grace was Lance Armstrong. A competitor who won the Tour De France seven times and all the while was creating an advantage for himself, realizing if ever caught, it would throw everything he worked for away. Instead, his arrogance allowed him to cheat, it allowed him to put himself before the purity of why the competition occurred and in doing so, forever stained the perception of what he worked so hard for. His career nose-dived when he admitted his sins of cheating, and he was subsequently dropped from all endorsements and was asked to step down from his company as chairman. “Oh how the might have fallen” (2 Sam 1:27), true words indicating we all face this fate if we fail to recognize what’s actually important.
In my life personally, I’ve been put in my place, embarrassed rightly for my actions, and forced to the end of the proverbial line to find the truth I seek. My journey to find this truth, in all honesty, has been painful for me. I was forced to see life in a very different way, than what I had originally expected; my life was nothing I ever planned for it to be. This is not without a silver lining though. My life is far better than I could have ever expected it to be. I’ve learned so much about who I am, through many of those painful experiences, I’ve humbled myself or been humbled by the atrocious actions I selfishly arbitrated on others, and through my pain I realized when it began to subside I was somehow better. Like the process to enhance steel’s strength, heating it up to a red hotness, and then cooling it down immediately in water, then we heat it up one more time, but in this instance we allow it to cool slowly. The longer it takes the stronger the steel. What this told me, was I was right where I needed to be. I needed to stop making the race about me, I needed to begin to put those things in life and those people in my life first if I ever wanted to make a change and move closer to the love of God. To temper my life through the rough times, I would need to be made strong, and the only way to do this is to humbly accept the will of God.
I once had an opportunity to listen to a priest speak about a bumper sticker he once saw, “God first, you second, me last”. Who would have ever thought so much wisdom could be found in six words? Placing ourselves last helps to ensure we will the good of the other as a matter of priority in life, we no longer are worried about whether we’ll get the best award, best gift, or priority place in the areas we exist in. Instead, we have the opportunity to realize where are place actually is in life. We can see things for what they are, a sense of understanding will wipe over us, and we can appreciate without anger or malice those who are different and still beloved in the eyes of God. Our compassion can now take over and we can choose and feel the effects of true love in our lives. It isn’t to say we’ll always handle this properly, but what we are giving ourselves is the ability to strengthen our resolve to handle those desires for ambition, superiority, and want to replace with faith, hope and love.
In the current state of affairs in our world, once we being to step back from all of the general confusion, we find examples of those who seek the prize, seek to be first at everything they do and although our compassion is exemplified by their presence, we are also reviled at the sin of desire in whatever form it chooses to take. Dietrich Bonhoeffer exemplified the desire to remain last, when as a concentration camp prisoner, he chose to seek to be first in death so his fellow prisoner could embrace life. His desire for the life of another, meant unselfishly, the assuredness of his death. His fear though was infinitesimal to his ultimate goal, the love of Jesus. As we all seek the Love of Christ, what we sometimes fail to realize is, we are all seeking the same thing, and in doing so, Christ wishes to love us in return. Why is there a need to be first, he will love us no matter what, the unconditional love he gives to us is hoped by our willingness to love him in return. We don’t find love when we worry about others getting what we don’t have. We don’t find love in seeking fairness of outcome. Love doesn’t exist in selfishly seeking an ends which isn’t created resplendent by the means. We are welcomed by God, because of our love of all, our willing the good of the other.
If ever there were a time to place others first, it would be now. We have growing populations of the poor in wretched conditions, we have growing populations of those no longer seeking a faith in God, and what seems to be the fastest growing of all is the indifference to life and humanity. The landowner seeks to prove the worker’s position as a matter of choice. The worker could choose to accept he was treated fairly, and in acceptance of his treatment, be happy for the great fortune of those who worked last. However, the worker also has choice to see things as he did, a total unfairness to wages as he worked longer and harder, but was treated like those who barely worked at all. If given the same opportunity, can we be happy for the good fortune of another, or are we so focused on what we don’t have, we’re willing to ruin the fortune of another because we didn’t get it?
Today, I often hear grumblings about more taxes on the rich and more programs for the poor, but if we look at the parable, the landowner walks up to the men standing in the marketplace and asks “You too go into the vineyard and I will give you what is just”, indicating his will to make their lives better by an opportunity to work. What we can all glean from this story is, they will never become rich, by standing in a marketplace and waiting for work, but what the landowner can do is provide something with what he has by his own will. Forcing people to be last out of a sense of moral superiority will get nowhere, but subjecting ourselves to the humility of servitude will gain us the kingdom of heaven. Even Jesus, rebuked for washing the feet of the disciples, maintained the need to serve them, he indicated he would lower himself by his own decision to show how much love was in his heart for them. People who’ve been given graces in this life, and who’ve prospered by their hard work or the hard work of another, are bound to a responsibility because of their prosperity. They are bound by the ability to show forth compassion and the means to do so by the gifts they’ve been given. Though, just as God seeks our love in free will, so to, must this be given of their own free will. Forcing those to meet our subjective standards of first and equal, creates inequity of life and choice. A duplicity occurs when we force another to live by a standard, that if we were placed in the same position, we would neither accept nor understand.
Those families, who create a better life for their children, by creating a willingness to work and recognize failure as a daily possibility, teach only one aspect of life, there must be w desire to seek God, for without God there is the bitter nothingness life has to offer. Being first in anything, without the recognition of God in our lives, becomes an empty exercise of vain pursuits. Placing love at the forefront of our actions, helps ensure we not only seek compassion, but we become a reflection of the very light we seek. No matter your station in life, seek to put others first before yourself, give what talents you have to a choice of compassion. Will the good of the other because they are other, and you are both fashioned by God with love. We all have different paths to walk, but our willingness to stop on our path, and help another, means we both meet the expectations God seeks for us, and not the selfish wanderings of an arrogant fool. May God bless you and your family!!!
God is good, all the time, and all the time, God is good!!!