Riddle Me This


What memorable characters the Batman franchise has come up with: The Joker, the Penguin, the Riddler. “Riddle me this” the character dressed in a green coat covered with question marks says introducing a puzzling question. Many of us are still at the stage where we think God owes us answers. Peter is here in our text. What give rise to our parable is Peter’s question in the previous chapter that only Matthew records: “Behold, we have left all and followed You. What will we get out of it” (Mt. 19:27 GW)? And Jesus answers! He promises them the world in time and even more in eternity. But then Jesus closes with the enigmatic:” Many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first” (Mt. 19:30, EHV). Right after this our text starts with no change of scene or speaker. The chapter break created by men makes you lose the connection. Jesus is explaining by our parable what He meant by the mysterious phrase. And you know this for sure when you hear Jesus say in the last line of our text: “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.

First question. Riddle me this: why have you forever stood unworking, useless, lazy, unproductive for 11 hours? That’s what Jesus asks the 11th hour laborers in the vineyard. Note before this Jesus has gone out every 3 hours: 1st, 6th, and 9th. But one last time Jesus goes out in search of workers for His vineyard before the night comes and no man can work. The 3rd hour workers are found having taken a non-working stance. But Jesus doesn’t marvel at that. He does with the 11th hour workers. Why did they stand all day idle, unmoving, in the hustle and bustle of the market? The last word in the Greek sentence that has the emphasis is “how could you have stood the whole of the day idle?” Go by a day work-site. See what happens when a truck pulls up. All the men looking for work rush forward eagerly. They couldn’t be described as idle. 

They whole mystique, the ominousness, the criticalness of the 11th hour comes from this parable. The Babylonians, Greeks, and Hebrews adopted use of sundials with faces divided into 12 segments. Hours were marked by the sun from sunrise to sunset. Darkness came at the 12th hour, so the 11th hour is the last possible time to make a decision to act or not (Garrison, Web, Why You Say it, 1235). But note who does the acting here. Not the idle, perhaps lazy, unproductive, even ‘useless’ labors in the vineyard. They were content to stay idle for 11 hours so what’s one more? Nope. The Jesus character is the one who takes action at the 11th hour before it’s too late.

Second question. Riddle me this: didn’t you agree to Christ’s term? This is after the dust-up over the 11th hour workers being paid what the 1st hour workers agreed to as were the 3rd, 6th, and 9th hour workers. Seeing the 11th hour johnnies-come-lately and everyone else who worked less than you paid what you had been promised, wouldn’t you too assume you’d get even more? But, wait a minute. Didn’t you just get done singing: “Nothing in my hand I bring. Simply to Thy cross I cling”? Truth is we bring something, don’t we? We bring Sin, Death, and Devils whatever hour we’re brought into Jesus’ vineyard. We bring broken Commandments, befouled deeds, besmirched words, and bedeviled thoughts. As we sang: we bring nakedness; Jesus brings dress. We bring helplessness; He brings grace. We bring nose-pinching foulness; Jesus brings a fountain filled with His blood to wash us lest we die.

When you confessed your sins earlier, did you stipulate anything other than you’re a poor, miserable, sinner before God, who deserves temporal and eternal punishment? And did you get the absolution, the forgiveness of all your sins in Jesus name? Now you want to ask for more? Peter did after claiming the apostles had did what the Rich Young Man couldn’t. And Jesus’ friend in the text does too. And Jesus answers: Didn’t you say ‘amen’ when to your sin and sinfulness the Lord Jesus by my mouth forgave your sins? And you don’t think it should make Jesus mad that like Oliver Twist, we have the temerity now to say, “More please”?

Riddle me this: Does Jesus have the right to do what He wants with His things? I can see why in question 3 the insert has ‘money.’ In context ‘money’ is the issue. Yet only 23 of the 62 English translations I checked have ‘money.’ But it’s bigger than money: Jesus says literally: “Is it not lawful to Me what I wish to do in the things of Mine?” Jesus alone can like the seagulls from the movie Nemo say, “Mine, mine, mine,” and not be wrong. We sing in a hymn that when we give to God: “We give Thee but Think Own; whatever the gift may be all that we have is Thine alone a trust O Lord from Thee” (TLH 441). As I’ve mentioned before: in history when the offering was brought forward, the congregation would stand unprompted to signify that what’s in the plate is a only token of what they’re really giving: their soul, their life, their all. Our soul, life, self are part of the things that Jesus claims as “Mine”. We’re His by creation and by redemption. He formed us to be His own, and when after selling ourselves in rebellion and unbelief, God the Son came in flesh and blood to buy us back.

What we have is another Peter situation. In John 21 Jesus prophesies a martyr’s death for Peter, and seeing John following, Peter asks, “Lord what about him?” Jesus replies: “’If I want him to remain alive until I return, what’s that to you?’” This is a pot and potter situation too. The Lord says in Is. 45:9: "Woe to him who quarrels with his Maker; does the clay say to the potter, 'What are you making?'” You find this theme also in Jer. 18:6: "’O house of Israel, can I not do with you as this potter does?... Like clay in the hand of the potter, so are you in my hand,...” And it's even in the NT: Rom. 9:20-21, “ But who are you, O man, to talk back to God? Shall what is formed say to Him who formed it, 'Why did You make me like this?' Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for noble purposes and some for common use?”

Truth is it’s easy to confess the Lord is right when He uses you for noble purposes, makes you into something others admire, ‘pays’ you what you think you’re worth. It’s another matter when He uses you for common things. And it’s really difficult if you’re a clay fired in the kiln or being molded and reshaped by force, or illness, or tragedy. And it’s near impossible to confess, “Thanks be to God!” when 11th hour Christians are treated no different than you who’ve borne the burden and heat of the day.

Now for the 4th question in our text. Ruddle me this: Is your eye evil because God is good? Even fewer English translation get this right: Translating literally you’ll see why it’s much more serious than being “envious because God is generous.” Translating literally you’ll see how it is that the first end up last and that means damned. Make no mistakes it does. Luke 13:20, the only other place this exact expression about first being last is used, makes it clear they go to the place of forever weeping, burning, and teeth gnashing. What Jesus asks, “Is the eye of you evil because I am good?” And don’t think this is the ‘evil eye’ known of in most cultures. In them evilness goes out from the eye (Pickering, Dict. Of Superstitions, 97-98). Jesus here speaks of the eye that sees good things as evil. Jesus says in Mat 6:23 “But if your eye is evil, your whole body will be full of darkness.” Again almost 2/3 don’t translate the word “evil’ in this text either. If you look at the things of God: the good, the bad, and the ugly concluding God has done wrong, could do better, or not His best, that’s an evil eye. And the darkness is deep in you.

Look at the Collect. We say, “We cannot but fall [away]” unless we’re kept with the Lord’s “perpetual mercy.” This 1400 year old Collect originally said “without Thee human mortality falls”. In 1549 it was changed to “because of the frailty of man without Thee [Thy Church] cannot but fall.” Our revision 300+ years later keeps the cannot but fall but doesn’t tell us why (Reed, 535). To human frailty let alone fallenness the ways of God must look strange, bizarre even. How can we not look askance at 11th hour idlers being paid the same as we all day laborers? Go ahead makes sense of Lord preaching peace to those who are at war with Him; the lost by their own fault nevertheless being found; the guilty being forgiven; the dead being raised; Jesus looking for the sick not the healthy; the helpless not the helpful, an open Door to sinners not to saints. 

The Lord reveals this to Isaiah who had the commission from God to keep on preaching to an OT church that would only get harder, i.e. the first were going to be last. Then in Is. 65:1-3 the Lord tells him who He is going to call the first: "I revealed Myself to those who did not ask for Me; I was found by those who did not seek Me. To a nation that did not call on My name, I said, 'Here am I, here am I.' All day long I have held out my hands to an obstinate people, who walk in ways not good, pursuing their own imaginations-- a people who continually provoke Me to My very face,...” Riddle me this: Can you see why Jesus likens Himself to a stone that the builders rejected, tossed to the side, and then tripped over? Riddle me this: who can not trip over such blatant unfairness. If you’re a rule-follower this is what you stumbled over all your life. You playing by the rules end up last not first….but wait a minute. In Jesus’ world: aren’t the last first? 

The first hour workers have a “Why them” moment when they see the 11th hour workers treated the same as they and, here’s the real point, better than the Johnnies-come-lately deserve. Would that this text lead us to a “Why me?” moment instead. Kris Kristofferson’s 1972 song “Why Me” is based on his unexpected conversion to Christ. He sings in part: “Why me Lord? What have I ever done to deserve even one of the pleasures I've known.” Kristofferson’s hymn of praise doesn’t rise to the spiritual, eternal, Divine blessings that are ours in Christ. Riddle me this: Does ours? Amen

Rev. Paul R. Harris

Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas

Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost (20231001); Matthew 20:1-16