Ladies First, Ladies First
with Rev. Laura Sherwood
September 24, 2023
Hear how Jesus challenges the disciples and us to change our perspective about rank, status, and earning God’s grace – if we are asking how to achieve those things, we are asking the wrong questions. With illustrations from 1970’s Free to Be You and Me and a true story from recent Florida hurricane.
I will exalt you, my God the King;
I will praise your name for ever and ever.
2 Every day I will praise you
and extol your name for ever and ever.
3 Great is the Lord and most worthy of praise;
his greatness no one can fathom.
4 One generation commends your works to another;
they tell of your mighty acts.
5 They speak of the glorious splendor of your majesty—
and I will meditate on your wonderful works.
6 They tell of the power of your awesome works—
and I will proclaim your great deeds.
7 They celebrate your abundant goodness
and joyfully sing of your righteousness.
8 The Lord is gracious and compassionate,
slow to anger and rich in love.
“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. 2 He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard.
3 “About nine in the morning he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. 4 He told them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ 5 So they went.
“He went out again about noon and about three in the afternoon and did the same thing. 6 About five in the afternoon he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?’
7 “‘Because no one has hired us,’ they answered.
“He said to them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard.’
8 “When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.’
9 “The workers who were hired about five in the afternoon came and each received a denarius. 10 So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. 11 When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. 12 ‘These who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’
13 “But he answered one of them, ‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? 14 Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. 15 Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’
16 “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
Read the Full Text
I grew up in a Presbyterian Church going to Sunday school faithfully every week. I loved hearing the bible stories even if I didn’t always fully understand them. Today’s story in Matthew is definitely a story I heard, but I’m sure did not understand – except for the last line about the first being last and the last being first as a lesson for the Disciples who argued with each other about who would be first or greatest in heaven. My youngest child’s brain got that – because competition to be the best at something, achieve first place, or even just to be first in line was already established.
On my street growing up or at school recess, the kids would always play games with an objective for one person to be the winner over everyone else – and the winner was usually the fastest or strongest kid. Spoiler alert – I was never that kid.
In elementary school, I remember the stress of wanting to be first in line when the teacher would say it’s time to line up to go to lunch, recess, or home at the end of the day. I don’t think she ever said that the first in line was the best, but I could tell by the way the other kids ran and even pushed others aside that being first was the best position. It not only meant you were the best among all the other kids, but that somehow you were also in good favor with the teacher. I always wanted to be liked by my teachers, but I don’t think I ever was first in line – though I did get pushed a lot trying.
Last week, I brought up an old movie from my high school days – The Breakfast Club – to help talk about the normal human condition of judging and labeling each other that we learn even before we become adults. That was in connection with our scripture reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans. Today’s scripture is from Matthew’s gospel – a different book of the Bible written for a different audience and by a different kind of author – and yet it also touches on part of the normal human condition – the desire to be first, best, or greatest. Similar to the judging problem in the Romans letter, Matthew’s description of competing to be first is another human tendency we learn early on and is one that often gets in our way and blocks us from seeing the bigger picture of how God intends for us to live with one another.
Context of Parable and placement within Matthew
In these verses from Matthew’s gospel Jesus describes what God’s Kingdom is supposed to be like with the underlying indication that the disciples, those who believe, are the ones who need to start building it – right now, where they are. His teaching about God’s Kingdom and the believers’ role within it occurs over time as the disciples follow him on his long journey from the beginning of his ministry in Galilee to his arrest and crucifixion in Jerusalem.
Along the way, even as they witness his miracles of healing and teaching, they seem to focus on the power of those events – not on the humility and sacrifice they entail. Like in the other gospels, in this section of Matthew, Jesus teaches with stories and parables to help them think differently and see that being first or great in God’s kingdom does not hold the kind of personal glory, wealth and power which they are used to associating with greatness in the world around them.
He has already told them to welcome children, who were the least in that society, with no power and usually overlooked. He does this because the disciples were actively trying to prevent children from coming close to him. Jesus says, ‘let them come unto me.’
He followed that teaching with the story of the rich young ruler, who had been a faithful believer, literally did everything right, followed the religious laws perfectly, and was still worried about getting into heaven and wanted a guarantee that he had earned his way to eternal life. He was ultimately disappointed when he realized he couldn’t do what Jesus asked him to do – let go of the wealth he had earned in this life.
In the passage right before today’s parable we see normal human tendencies in full force as the disciples react to that story by pointing out that their faith was better, because unlike the rich young ruler they had given up all their material goods and earnings in order to follow Jesus. Their only concern now was what reward they would get when they entered heaven.
Clearly, they were still missing the point. So, Jesus tries again with today’s parable about day laborers in a vineyard.
One More Parable to help the Disciples get Jesus’ point
When the laborers line up at the end of the day to receive their pay, we learn that when those who were first on site very early in the day received the wage they were promised, instead of being happy about it they felt slighted because the workers who started toward the end of the day received the exact same amount. I think we can all understand their anger – it’s not fair. Our first thought might be that if the landowner wanted to pay the later workers that wage, then he should’ve increased what the early workers received. But that is not what happened.
We need to look beyond our initial reaction to this story to listen more deeply to what Jesus is trying to teach us. A recent commentary on this passage suggests that the real fairness issue in this story is about making sure each laborer received enough to get their basic needs met. The laborers were separated by the time when they were able to start working – but they were all equal in their basic level of need. This commentary suggests that the landowner, who represents God, knows this and makes sure each one gets what they need. It’s possible that giving the early workers more would have meant there wasn’t enough left to give the later workers what they needed to survive. We can’t know for sure, but I think this is the greater lesson Jesus is trying to convey.
Changing how I read the story made a dramatic difference
I know when I read this story, I automatically put myself in the shoes of the early workers who work much longer and harder only to get the same pay as the late workers. As I prepared the sermon this week, for the first time, I read the story as if I were one of the later workers. I imagined that I had tried as hard as I could to get to the work site early enough to receive a full day’s wage, which was exactly the amount I needed to support my family. I imagined feeling panicked when I could only get there toward the end of the day and being distraught with the expectation that I would receive a lower wage – fair, but would still leave me with less than I needed to support my family at home.
When I read the scripture the first way – I felt frustrated and angry at the lines, “12 …These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us…” and “16 So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”[b]
When I read the scripture the second way – I felt overjoyed when I read those same lines. More than that, I felt a deep sense of relief because I had been seen and cared for, along with everyone else who had worked alongside me, even though we worked different lengths of time.
Story behind 1970’s “Ladies First!”
Last week’s illustration from the 1980’s movie The Breakfast Club seemed to connect with many of you. I wonder how many of you know the reference that inspired today’s sermon title?
Free to Be You and Me was a favorite of my childhood – it was a book of short stories that became a tv special in the early 70’s narrated by Marlo Thomas and with an amazing original soundtrack. Anyone remember this? The goal of the project was to bring to life those short stories in a way kids could relate to and sought to teach respect, acceptance, and love for one another. That’s the way I experienced it as a kid.
One of those short stories was called “Ladies First, Ladies First!” It features a young girl insisting that she should be first in line because she is better and prettier and more deserving than anyone else in line. So, like those kids in my elementary classroom, she pushed, argued, and yelled until she basically forced herself to the front of the line, all the while repeating her catch phrase, “Ladies First, Ladies First!” The twist comes when she gets to the front of the line and discovers that she has been captured by a cannibalistic tribe and that being first in this case means literally being the first served. A story that made me laugh as a kid and taught a simple lesson that being first isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be.
Jesus’s parable about laborers in the vineyard takes that point and goes deeper to tell us there is always more to understand, more to consider than our own position. God intends for us to live with our eyes and our hearts open to everyone who may be in line with us or around us, open to see who they are, and what they need the most.
True story from Florida Hurricane – letting someone else be first
There’s a true story from one of the many hurricanes that have hit Florida in recent years. It happened in a hardware store that was quickly selling out of backup electricity generators. There were 2 people left in line but only one generator was still available. The man at the front of the line began to pay for what he knew was rightfully his generator, as the woman who was last in line burst into tears as she told someone near her that father was on oxygen and she didn’t know how he’d survive if they lost electricity. The man overheard and instead of completing his payment, stepped aside so that she could move to the front of the line and get the generator.
He changed his perspective from a focus on being first, to opening his eyes and heart to see who else was next to him and what her needs and her struggles were. By changing his focus he was able to understand that while he did have enough to get through the hurricane without the generator, she did not – and what mattered most was making sure everyone had what they needed to survive the storm.
When we focus only on being first, being the greatest, getting what we believe we deserve especially compared to others, we miss the opportunity to really the see the people around us, to look and listen deeply to what’s going on in their lives and care for what they need the most – not instead of what we need the most – but instead of what we may want or feel we deserve on top of that. When we can do that, we start the real work of making God’s Kingdom a reality right now – for all of us.
In the name of our Creator, Christ, and Holy Spirit. Amen.