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The Last Shall Be First
Once upon a time there was an aged merchant of Baghdad who was much respected by all who knew him. He had three sons, and it was a rule of his life to treat them all exactly alike. Whenever one received a present, the other two were each given one of equal value. One day, this worthy man fell sick and died bequeathing all his possessions to his three sons in equal shares.
The only difficulty that arose was over the stock of honey. There were exactly twenty-one barrels. The old man had left instructions that not only should every son receive an equal quantity of honey but should receive exactly the same number of barrels and that no honey should be transferred from barrel to barrel on account of the waste involved. Now as seven of the barrels were full of honey, seven were half full, and seven were empty this was found to be quite difficult.
I do hope that you will have the answer to the puzzle in a moment or two, please note that the brothers complicated the matter by refusing to take home more than four barrels with the same quantity of honey. Otherwise it would be too easy you see!
Now my version of this puzzle, that I like to set the Sunday school at least once a year, is to arrive with a number of slices of baguette always making sure that there is one more slice than the number of children. I then ask them to share out the bread. It is not long before they are engaged in a sort of barrel of honey puzzle and are searching for a sharp implement to divide up the odd slice of bread.
The trouble you see with this morning’s parable is that it affronts our human sense of fairness. Of course we think that those who worked “the burden of the day in the burning heat” should have more pay than the late arrivals and of course the Sunday school children try to find a way to divide up the slice such that everyone has equal amounts to eat. Even within the Gospel passage, there is a legalistic argument with the “all day workers”, “Well you agreed to work for the wages I promised you and that is what I have given you - be happy and go on your way!”
But human ways are not God’s ways. The teaching of the parable focuses on the grace shown to those who enlisted in the eleventh hour, those regarded by others as not worth hiring at all, for they were still there in the market place at the end of the day. As Jesus said “I come not to call the righteous, but sinners.” God’s grace, his promise of forgiveness and the gift of heaven and eternal life are available to all who follow him and believe in him. No matter that you came late to his house.
I think this is a really helpful idea, one that truly makes sense of repentance and forgiveness and of God’s deep understanding of our needs. I always suggest to the children after they have torn the slice into shreds that cutting it up was perhaps not the best solution. There are other ways of deciding who should have the extra slice, maybe for example one of them had missed breakfast because they were rushing to the class and had arrived late.
It is an especially helpful idea I think when we worry about someone we know who has died without them ever apparently expressing any faith in God. What will happen to them? Well the answer is that we cannot know, maybe you see in the final moments before they died, when maybe there was unknown to us, a period of clarity, a moment of vision, perhaps they did see the light, understand and come at last to God.
And in that eleventh hour and fifty-ninth minute and fifty-ninth second what Jesus is telling us is that God will still be gracious, God will still be forgiving and above all God will still be loving.