READ : Matthew 20:1-16
When Jesus says that the last will be first and the first last, he’s not just offering a bit of proverbial wisdom about the way life sometimes produces upset winners. He is letting us in on a critical truth about how things work in the Kingdom of God: God rejects the world’s value system, in fact, he turns it on its head.
This is the story Jesus told about the workers in the vineyard.
“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner . . . . But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
Not all of Jesus’ teaching was unique to him. He once said he had come to fulfill the Law, not to abolish it, so it should not be surprising if God revealed many of the moral and spiritual truths Jesus taught to other generations who lived before him. Some of these truths were even known in cultures outside the Bible. For example, a version of Jesus’ Golden Rule “Do to others what you would want them to do to you” is found both in the writings of the great Chinese philosopher Confucius and in the teaching of the ancient Jewish rabbis. And the proverb that ends Jesus’ parable of the Workers in the Vineyard about the first being last and the last first was memorably illustrated in Aesop’s famous story, his fable of the tortoise and the hare.
But when Jesus says that the last will be first and the first last, he’s not just offering a bit of proverbial wisdom about the way life sometimes produces upset winners. He is letting us in on a critical truth about how things work in the Kingdom of God. Jesus is telling us here that God rejects the world’s value system; in fact, he turns it on its head. God redefines the meaning of success and failure as the world understands it. The people who thought they were winners are actually losers, and the losers win the last are first and the first last.
A Great Surprise
Like most of his stories, Jesus’ parable of The Workers in the Vineyard made use of things that were very familiar to Jesus’ hearers from everyday life. The events of the story were a daily occurrence in the villages of first-century Palestine, or, for that matter, in many villages of 21st century Africa or India. In Jesus’ culture just as in some parts of the world today many people eked out a precarious living as day laborers. Those who weren’t hired first thing in the morning would congregate in the town square, hoping to find something later on. In such places there are no unemployment benefits or social services; if you don’t work today, your family won’t eat tonight.
Well, Jesus said, one morning at daybreak a landowner came to the marketplace to hire some men to work in his vineyard. The owner agreed to pay the men the going rate one denarius, which was just about enough for a laborer to live on for a day. So off they went, only to be joined in the fields by others hired later in the day, and then a few later still, and finally a group who came out at the eleventh hour, that is, just one hour before quitting time at sundown.
Then came the payoff. The owner told his foreman to start with the last men hired, and he gave each of them one denarius, a full day’s wage. That was a surprise. When the all-day workers saw it, their hearts began to beat a little faster. Surely this meant they had a bonus coming. After all they had worked right through the heat of the day, they had labored twelve times as long as these johnny-come-latelys. Simple justice demanded they receive more.
But now comes the great surprise, the great reversal. When each man opened his pay envelope, there was only a single denarius. Grumbling soon broke out among the early crew, cries of “Unfair!” Then the owner addressed them. “You got what we agreed upon. I haven’t cheated you. I gave you no less than you earned. If I choose to give others more than they earned, it’s my money isn’t it? Do you begrudge me my generosity?”
There is the story. But what does it mean? What was Jesus getting at? I don’t think this is a story about agricultural economics or labor relations. No, this is a story about God and how he treats people. It’s a story about God’s generosity, in other words, his grace.
God is the land owner. The workers are the people he calls to himself. The pay is the gift of salvation he gives to all. Does this mean that God treats people unequally, or that salvation is something we have to work for? Not at all. That isn’t the point Jesus is making.
The important point is that, whether they came early or late, everybody gets the same thing, and what they get is grace. It doesn’t matter how long you serve; you can’t be more saved for serving a lifetime, or less saved if it’s just an hour all is grace, and nothing but grace.
Jesus’ meaning is most clearly expressed in the story’s last sentence, where the owner of the vineyard asks the complaining workers, “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?” (v. 15).
That question, I think, was intended to get Jesus’ Jewish audience to begin to examine its attitude towards the Gentiles for they were the ones who would be coming to God at “the eleventh hour.” Shouldn’t they rejoice at the salvation of the lost, rather than feeling bent out of shape, like the Prodigal Son’s elder brother, because their long service seemed to be under-rewarded?
There is a further question for each of us here: Doesn’t God always treat each of us with generosity, giving us far more than we have ever earned or merited? Do you really want God to give you just what you deserve? Would you like him to pay you exactly what you have earned? I wouldn’t.
A Great Reversal
A short sentence appears at the end of the story of the workers in the vineyard, and it seems to be Jesus’ comment upon the meaning of the story. “So the last will be first, and the first will be last” (v. 16). Here’s the important principle which the story illustrates: God will turn things upside down at the last judgment.
The Lord wanted to challenge some of his listeners’ most basic assumptions, things that they believed unquestioningly, like the fact that their religion assured them of God’s favor. They were sure they had a lock on first place in the kingdom.
He also wanted to challenge the idea that long and faithful service entitled one to privileged treatment at the hands of God. Not so, says Jesus. The judgment is going to reveal many surprising twists. Some who thought they were first with God are going to be put at the end of the line, or maybe even excluded altogether, while others who were sure they were far from him will be brought near.
This really ought to make us stop and think. We need to reconsider some of our basic assumptions about winning and losing in life, about who is first and who is last. Our culture believes and does a pretty good job at convincing everyone that the winners are those who finish first, those who do more, accomplish more, accumulate more, have more, spend more, leave more behind. Winning is the bottom line in life, and doing whatever it takes to win is the secret of success. As baseball great Leo Durocher famously said, “Nice guys finish last.”
But Jesus says that life isn’t about material success, or winning by the world’s rules, or getting ahead according to the world’s definition. Life is about salvation. It’s about coming to know God and fulfilling his intention of what a human being should be. The bottom line for God is not anything we do, not even anything we do for him. It’s what we receive from and become by his grace. The only “winning” worth anything is the victory God gives to us through our Lord Jesus Christ.
So just ask yourself this some time: “What race am I trying to win? Whether or not I finish first in this life, what place will I be in on the last day?”