“Here, take my place”

Our weekly devotion from the sainted Rev. Earl Feddersen:

Isaiah 55:6-9
Philippians 1:1-11 & 19-27
Matthew 20:1-16

September 20,1999, Houston, Texas: Tickets went on sale today for the National League Playoffs. Blake Anderson, a steelworker on the late shift, was one of the first people in line. He took his place, at approximately 11:30 p.m., at an Astrodome window that would not be open until 9:00 a.m. To his surprise, 13 people were already in line. Anderson had orders from fellow mill workers for more than 60 tickets. At about 11:45, three men and a woman arrived who were greeted by two women ahead of him who had apparently “saved their place” in line. A few people grumbled about moving back four places, but no voices were raised. In a matter of minutes, however, three more people came, and Anderson now found himself in the twenty-first position instead of his original fourteenth. One fellow just ahead was a little agitated and yelled something about “line-crashers,” but there was no further response and no incident.

Between midnight and 1:00 a.m. the line grew tremendously behind Anderson. In an attempt to stay off the street and still stay within eyesight of the window, people began filling the entire width of the sidewalk and the line was no longer an orderly single file row. The steelworker had sat down on the pavement for awhile, leaning against one of the stadium pillars, but as people began to jostle about standing adjacent to or even a little ahead of his “place,” he decided to stand up. By 4:00 a.m., the mob was packed from stadium to curb, well around the turn of the building. A group of about 20 people came walking up the street. It was apparent that they had been “partying” somewhere, passing the time while the rest of their group “saved a place” for them ahead of Anderson. Their friends greeted them loudly, and they slowly moved from street to sidewalk to the dismay of many angry people. The people ahead started backing slowly, trying to make room for them, and Anderson was pushed backward through the crowd with more and more people now actually ahead of him.

Tired from a full shift’s work, standing in line for hours, and going on 24 hours without sleep, Blake Anderson lost his cool. He started yelling at everyone around him, and pushed his way toward the front, where he proceeded to verbally abuse the gatecrashers. One of them, looking more like a football player than a baseball fan, punched him in his left eye, knocking him to the pavement. In all, 23 men and six women were involved in the fracas when police arrived and took them all to jail. Anderson was first taken to the hospital by ambulance. It seems that some who had taken his side had stepped on and fallen over him, adding to his injuries. He was raised into the ambulance, still yelling, “It isn’t fair!” Charged with Disorderly Conduct, and released on his own recognizance at 10:15 a.m., Tuesday, he learned that all tickets had been sold out. Anderson repeated: “It isn’t fair.”

You have just read a Feddersen’s Fable, but similar incidents occur every year at sporting events, theaters, and other gatherings of fans. My character may be fictitious, but his statement is as true as it is common to much of human life — it isn’t fair. While the quotation does not appear in this Sunday’s Gospel Lesson, it is the obvious feeling generated by the events in Jesus’ parable and the source of grumbling from some of the characters Jesus portrays.

The story is about a landowner who needs workers for his vineyard. He got up early in the morning and found a group, more than willing to labor for a good day’s wage. At 9:00 a.m., he went and found some more, standing idle in the marketplace. He sent them off with a promise to give them what was right. Unemployment being what it is, he continued to find others throughout the day. He put the last group to work at 5:00 p.m. About an hour later, he told his foreman to pay the workers, starting with those who only put in one hour. They, along with those who worked three, six, or nine hours, all received the usual good day’s wage.

When those who had worked since sunrise received the same thing, they began to grumble. (It’s a good thing Blake Anderson wasn’t there — he’d have gotten arrested!) The landowner answered, “My friends, I am not cheating you. Did you not agree with me for this wage? Take what is yours and go. What difference does it make if I wish to give these last ones the same as you? Am I not free to do as I wish with my own money? Are you envious because I am generous?” Jesus had said that this story was an illustration of what the kingdom of heaven is like. He concluded, “Thus, the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

It’s a good thing that He said this was about the kingdom of heaven — it would certainly be a tough guideline for labor- management relations! I can just imagine what would happen the next day when word circulated that the landowner was out looking for workers. Everyone would be sitting in the shade, singing, “In the cool, cool, cool of the evening, tell ’em I’ll be there.” In a Concordia Journal, one of my former professors, Francis Rossow, emphasizes that this is a parable: “An earthly story with a heavenly meaning.”

This is a story about grace — sheer, abundant, generous, and amazing (no matter how unsettling, disturbing and capricious it may seem) — grace. It is certainly not a story about labor and management. It is not even a story about labor and wages. It is about a gift!

Another Feddersen’s Fable concerns a toy manufacturing plant at Christmas. A reporter heard that the owner of the business had decided, at the last moment, to give a thousand toys to needy children. She went to the plant to interview the donor, but asked if she could see some of the toys first. She was taken to a large room with the sign “Packaging A” on the door. Inside, people were busy wrapping the gifts. Christmas carols were playing in the background, but the workers seemed oblivious to the music. Their mood was hardly “Merry,” in the spirit of Christmas. They were hard at their task, and it seemed laborious. “These people don’t seem very happy,” she said. “Who are they?” “They are some of our employees,” she was told. “After all, they were supposed to get off at noon and, although the boss is paying them double-time, it is Christmas Eve, and they want to go home.”

The reporter was then escorted to a similar room marked, “Packaging B.” Here, the workers were also laboring and sweating, but these were laughing, joking and singing along with the carols. “Who are these people?” she asked. “Oh, these are some volunteers who showed up when we opened this morning and offered to help wrap the presents for the kids.”

When Jesus was crucified, in addition to the long list of “bad guys” and “good women” who were present, two other “good guys” are also mentioned. One is the disciple John, whose family connections made it possible for him to be there in relative safety. The other is one who had no other choice — the thief on the cross. An interesting question is: “Which of these would you rather be?” At first glance, a living disciple has a few advantages over a dying thief. On the other hand, the now ex-thief would be in Paradise with Jesus that very day. All of his troubles and struggles were about to be over forever. The worst of John’s struggles were about to begin. Serving God is a joy and a privilege, but nobody ever said it was easy!

The last follower of Jesus had been both lost and a loser all his life — Jesus found him just in the nick of time. He was the first in line when Jesus arrived in Paradise. Now wait a minute! This is Jesus’ home, right? Surely, He enters first, then the ex-thief. No, as a matter of fact, the image Jesus offers is one where He keeps stepping back to let someone else have His place in line for His House, His inheritance, His eternal life. The Bible makes it very clear that He took our place so that we could have His place.

The line starts here on earth. When I was born my mother and father stepped back to make sure there was room for me. Later, my pastor stepped back at my Baptism and again at my Confirmation, also trying to make room. I have been trying to let more and more people go ahead of me ever since, but my parents and pastor are some great servants of God that I’m chasing backwards and I am resolved that I’ll never catch up (or is it down — it’s so confusing). In any event, they get closer to Jesus every day, back at the end of the line, but He keeps letting more and more go ahead every day as well. All in all, it’s a great race. Do you want in? Here, take my place.

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