“…they began to grumble against the landowner. ‘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.’
“But he answered one of them, ‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’”
Matthew 20:11-15 (NIV)
I was surprised to get the call. I barely knew the old couple who lived up on the hill. I’d visited them once or twice, despite people telling me not to waste my time. They’d been described as cold, grouchy, and cantankerous, but I found them pleasant enough. I don’t think they ever learned my name. I was always just “Preacher,” which I discovered happens a lot when you’re the pastor of the only church in a small town.
Granted, I don’t ever remember talking to them about much of anything except the safe pleasantries of rural Iowa conversation between acquaintances. I asked them about their lives and their stories. We drank coffee and enjoyed the quiet majesty of the view from their house, which overlooked the rolling Iowa countryside. I never invited them to church. I don’t recall that Jesus ever came up in our conversations.
The call came late in the afternoon, asking me to come immediately to the ICU unit of the regional hospital about a half-hour’s drive away. The moment I walked into the room and saw the old man who lived up on the hill, I knew the situation. I reached out and took his hand.
“You’re dying, aren’t you?” I asked gently as I took his hand and smiled.
He nodded, wordlessly.
“You don’t know where you’re going when it happens, do you?” I asked.
He shook his head.
I shared about Jesus in the simplest of terms. He listened. I asked if he’d like me to pray with him for Christ to come into heart and life.
“Yes,” he said.
By the time our short, child-like prayer was done, the tears were streaming down his cheeks. He was suddenly filled with an energy that seemed absent in his mind and body just moments before,
“Preacher!? You have to go visit my wife. Right now. Tell her what you told me. Tell her I want her to have Jesus in her heart, too. Go. Now. Right now.”
So I went, and I did as he asked. I shared in the simplest of terms. I offered to lead her in prayer as I had her husband. She prayed. She cried. I told her I would come back and visit to check on them, but I never got the chance.
He died in the ICU unit a few hours later,
A few hours after he passed on, she followed him, dying quietly at home.
I did the funeral in our little Community church with both caskets sitting in front of me. It was a tiny gathering. They hadn’t built many positive relationships in their lives. I got to share about the call, our visit, their prayers, and I talked about it never being too late to give one’s life to Christ.
After the service, I was approached by an elderly couple who told me that they had, for many years, ceaselessly visited the old couple on the hill. They’d loved on them, they’d shared Jesus with them, they’d begged them to ask Jesus into their hearts. They’d been rejected time and time again. And while they seemed glad to hear that the old couple on the hill had finally made the decision, I felt a hint of indignation underneath the surface. They’d done all the work and seemingly experienced no reward for their spiritual labor. I showed up at the last minute to harvest what they’d been sowing for all those years.
That experience came to mind this morning as I read Jesus’ parable of the workers in the vineyard. I find that there are certain parables that mean more to me the further I advance in this life journey, and this is one of them. Each group of workers agrees to work for the same wage, but when the workers who slaved away all day watch those who pitched in for the final hour receiving the same reward, they become indignant. I find it such a human response. It is neither fair nor equitable in human terms.
The economics of God’s Kingdom, however, doesn’t work like the economics of this world. That was Jesus’ point, and He famously pins this epilogue to His parable: “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
In the quiet this morning as I mull over the story of the old couple who lived up on the hill, I find myself asking about the motives of my own heart. Why have I followed Jesus these forty years? I find that reward is not something I think much about. I have been so blessed in this life I just assume that I’ll be among the “the first shall be last” crowd, and that’s okay with me. The reward is not my motivation. It’s gratitude for what I received that I never deserved that fuel’s my journey. It’s Paul’s words of motivation that ring true in my soul: “Christ’s love compels us.”
If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.