When I was growing up, our farm was surrounded on two sides by Mr. Thiemann’s fields. My father did not like Mr. Thiemann much, so relationships were sometimes strained, especially when Old Jersey, our cow, would jump the fence to enjoy Mr. Thiemann’s corn. More than once I had to go out in high and wet corn early in the morning to get Old Jerz back onto our land before Mr. Thiemann discovered her. It wasn’t easy, because she refused to jump the fence again, to come back home, so I had to figure out ways to get her around the fences and out of the forbidden field without being seen.
We were saved one year, though, because Old Jersey didn’t care for tomatoes, and Mr. Thiemann decided that would be his crop. I’m not sure if it is still true, but at that time Indiana was the second-largest producer of tomatoes, behind only California. Corn prices were low. Mr. T decided to get in on the tomato boom. My father thought he was stupid for doing so, because he thought everything Mr. T did was stupid.
I was pleased, though, when picking time came, because tomatoes require a lot of stoop labor. Enter Mexican migrants, who definitely were not taking the jobs anyone wanted, since there were not that many white boys in Gibson County who wanted to work that hard. The tomato picking was left to Mexicans, and a couple of middle-aged white “welfare queens” who had no teeth and no clothes so could not could not get other jobs but were willing to work at anything if given the chance, and me.
Jobs are hard to come by when you’re fourteen and your family has no money. But tomatoes had to be picked when they were ready. They spoiled quickly. Mr. T did not like my father or our cow much, but he would take anybody who could stoop over and put a tomato in a basket. All I had to do was walk up the gravel road from our house to the gate to Mr. T’s tomato fields and I was employed. I got there early every day and worked ‘til dark. It was not quite as miserable as detasseling corn but close.
Like the farmer in the story Jesus told, Mr. T kept going to town in his old Studebaker pickup truck to see if he could find more pickers. A few boys I knew came late and didn’t stay long. They just wanted enough money to buy some cigarettes and beer.
In a story Jesus told about tomato pickers--or maybe it was grape pickers but it sounded the same to me when I was fourteen--the farmer paid the same amount to the guys who came late just to get cigarette money as he did to the ones who worked all day. When those long-day workers complained, the farmer reminded them that he paid them what they had agreed on before they started. Since it was his money, he could do with it as he pleased, and he pleased to be sure that everyone had enough to buy his daily bread, even if he had not worked very long for it. [Matthew 20:1-16] It’s a story of God’s mercy, available to all at any time. Jesus ends his telling by saying, “So the first shall be last and the last shall be first.”
If Mr. T had decided to pay the guys who came late the same as he paid me, I would have been outraged. I’ve always had a keen eye for injustice, especially if I’m the one getting treated unfairly. Mr. T and I were spared that problem, because we pickers were paid by the basket, not by the hour or day.
“The first shall be last and the last shall be first” isn’t about time or mathematics or the reversal of fortunes. It’s about equality. In the Kingdom of God, there is no first or last. There is no lining up, with some folks at the front of the line and some at the end. Everyone there gets the same pay, because it’s not pay at all, it’s love.
I’m in the fifth month of a year-long “professional Christian” fast, eschewing all things preacherly, to see if I can learn to be a real Christian instead of a professional Christian, one who thinks by looking at anything and asking, “How can I use this in ministry?” rather than “How can I use this in growing as a Christian?” which is the same thing as saying “How can I use this to grow into a decent human being instead of telling others how to be decent human beings?” As you can see, it’s not going very well. [Also, my sentences are getting even longer and more confusing.]