18 October 2018 Sermon (Robinson College, Cambridge)

Psalm 139:1-14
Matthew 19:30-20:16

“The last will be first, and the first last”

It sounds good. Deceptively simple. A slogan before its time. I’ve used it like that. When my children are squabbling over who gets to do something first – “Well, the last will be first, and the first last” “Uh? What do you mean, Daddy?”.

“The last will be first, and the first last”

Those little slogans surround a story Jesus tells about workers in a vineyard. A cozy little agricultural metaphor. The narrative stage a single day. Hours ticking by with comforting regularity as the landowner calls more and more into the vineyard. All busying themselves with the vines, the weeding, the pruning, clearing the stones.

Then he pays them. The same pay for everyone – those who worked all day and those called in an hour before sunset. Is this fair? Is this generosity? The grumbling workers, all sunburn and sweat, challenge their master. Is this envy? Is this justice?

“The last will be first, and the first last”

Few things seem more natural in life than to compare ourselves with our fellow human-beings. What sort of qualifications we have, what sort of job we have, how much we earn, what we look like. Who’s first in the race? Who’s last? Who’s deserving? Who’s not?

Comparing ourselves with others is inevitable. But what happens when we compare ourselves with others and we don’t like what we see? That person earns more money than me. That person works less hard and has more free time than me. That person is more successful than me. They’re first in the race, and I’m last.

“The last will be first, and the first last”

In that moment, perhaps we really do wish that were true. Everything turned upside down so that we stood in the other person’s shoes – we had their job, we earned their salary, we looked like them.

I’m sure we all know that feeling of discontentment or resentment when we look at the achievements or possessions of another, and desire to have them for ourselves, or at least to deprive the other person of them.

That feeling we call envy.

“The last will be first, and the first last”, but let *me* be the judge of that.

“Let *me* be first, and the others last”

We succumb to envy so frequently it feels as natural as comparing ourselves with others in the first place.

Maybe we revel in it.

Or maybe we run from it. Out of self-defence we do what we can to avoid comparing ourselves with others. We don’t discuss our salaries with our friends – I never did. We try to make ourselves look as similar to one another as possible – whatever fashion and advertising dictates. We busy ourselves “keeping up with the Joneses”

Protect yourself. Save face.

Our story today could have ended in just that way…

“When evening fell, the owner of the vineyard said to the overseer, “Call the labourers and give them their pay, beginning with those who came first and ending with the last.”

The men who had come first took their full days’ wages and went home tired but happy.

Those who had started work an hour before sunset came forward, and were paid the full day’s wage. As they took it, they marvelled at their employer: “We latecomers did only one hour’s work, yet you have treated us on a level with those who sweated the whole day long in the blazing sun!”

The owner turned to one of them and said, “My friend, I am free to do what I like with my own money. I am generous so that none of you might be jealous.” ”

If only this had happened, nobody would have been provoked to question why someone should receive the same pay for less work, nobody would have been provoked to envy.

But “The last will be first, and the first last”

This blows the lid off all our self-defence mechanisms. It is only the knowledge that everyone has the same amount of pay that leads to envy.

This is something that has fascinated thinkers for yours.

Aristotle talks about envy as pain at the sight of good fortune in others. He also finds envy amongst the ambitious, and amongst those who already have much but are worried others are trying to take it.

Emmanuel Kant talks about envy arising from a refusal to see the intrinsic worth of our own well-being. Rather, we compare our own well-being with that of others, and we don’t like to see our own well-being overshadowed by another’s.

Envy in others reveals our good luck. Envy in ourselves reveals our own ambition and entitlement. Above all, envy reveals our refusal to consider our own intrinsic self worth.

We have to decide whether these are things we are happy delving into, or things we’d rather sweep under the carpet.

Good luck – each one of us is here, yes through hard work, but also through an enormous amount of luck; luck that could quite easily have been against us rather than for us. None of us would be here without at least a little ambition – but it’s hard not to be paranoid when you’re surrounded by other ambitious people.
I wouldn’t accuse anyone here of entitlement. But what do we expect to come out of our time studying in a place like Cambridge? Surely we expect *something* to come of it?
And which one of us really wants to go digging around in their own self-worth?

The kingdom of heaven is like this, Jesus said. It doesn’t feel like a very comfortable place, being confronted with deep truths about who we are and what we’re really like. It feels pretty exposed, our self-defence mechanisms torn away and uprooted.

Nobody – least of all Jesus – ever said we would be comfortable, or find it easy. But he did say he would be with us: we wouldn’t face things alone.

Underlying any Christian view of human self-worth are usually two foundations: that humans have been created in God’s image; and that humanity has not finally been abandoned by God. God’s image in humanity cannot be eradicated, and this is something all humans share in common.

Whether you hold that Christian view or not, I’m sure you’ll still recognise there’s something intrinsic to all humans that gives them value, gives them worth. At that intrinsic level, it doesn’t matter what job you do, how much you earn, or how many hours you’ve been labouring in the vineyard.

“The last will be first, and the first last”

In a recent long read in The Guardian – not exactly a bastion of Christian fundamentalism – exactly this issue was explored. The piece was about Michael Young, a British sociologist involved in setting up the Welfare State in the post-War Labour government.

In 1958 he wrote a dystopian satire set in 2033 called “The Rise of Meritocracy”. In this dystopian world, the ruling class was determined by the formula “IQ + effort = merit”. The book depicts a gradual stratification of society into the worthy and unworthy. The worthy know that success is a just reward for their own efforts. The unworthy know that they have failed every chance they were given.

The formula “IQ + effort = merit” was inherently flawed, inherently dystopian. As those who were cleverer and worked harder got richer, they used their money to gain unfair advantages for their children. Merit was no longer determined by IQ and effort alone, but by money.

Good luck, ambition, entitlement. No wonder the unworthy might envy the worthy in such a society.

In Young’s book, a resistance movement forms and writes a manifesto calling for a society that both possessed and acted upon plural values, including kindliness, courage and sensitivity, so all had a chance to develop their own special capacities for leading a rich life.

We might wonder whether Young’s dystopia has actually come to pass. How does our society measure the value of its citizens?

One way is in terms of efficiency – how well people can get jobs done, what those jobs are worth to society, and how we should allocate resources to make this happen. It sounds brutal, but is it really all that different from how our society operates? “The last will be first, and the first last” sounds intrinsically unfair in that sort of society.

Another way is to consider people in terms of their intrinsic worth, whether you approach that from a Christian, a humanist or whatever viewpoint. “The last will be first, and the first last” from that viewpoint is to say that there is no first, and there is no last.

There is just human worth.

And surely for that, we’re all worth our daily wage.
Amen.