The Last Shall Be First

The vast majority of jobs operate on a simple rule where employees earn an hourly wage and the individual who works more hours receives more money than the person who works fewer hours. However, what would happen if an employer gave the people who only worked 40-hours the same amount in their paycheck as the people who worked 80-hours? You got that right! The employer would have an outraged group of employees banging on the door demanding an answer. Did you know some people take this same view about salvation, asking, “Why should a person on his deathbed, one who dedicated his whole life to crime and living it up while others suffered, get to go to heaven?” Jesus taught a parable that answers that question.

In Matthew’s gospel, the apostle records a parable shared by Jesus about a vineyard owner who needed laborers to work in the fields. Early one morning, the owner went out and found some who were willing to work for a denarius (Roman currency) for a day’s work. Near the end of the day, the owner hired others seeking jobs and sent them into the fields. At the day’s end, the owner told his steward to pay everyone their wages and begin with the last hired up to the first. Regardless of how many hours he worked that day, each laborer was given the same salary, a denarius. Naturally, those who worked all day in the scorching heat grumbled at the owner over what they saw as unfair. Here is the owner’s answer:

“But he answered and said to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what is yours and go; but I want to give to this last person the same as to you. Is it not lawful for me to do what I want with what is my own? Or is your eye envious because I am generous?’ So the last shall be first, and the first, last.”

Matthew 20:13-16

Our human weakness allows us first to see and focus on what we perceive to be unfair treatment of those who labored the longest in the vineyard. However, the parable’s point is not about being unfair; instead, it’s about grace. What is grace? Grace is to receive something we do not deserve, whereas mercy is not receiving what we most certainly deserve. The vineyard owner was extending grace to those who were equally in need regardless of whether they worked a full day, a half-day, or a mere hour. When we apply this lesson to our spiritual understanding, we realize that we are all equally in desperate need of a Savior. Therefore, that is why the gift of eternal life is the same for everyone regardless of whether a person accepts Jesus at a young age, in mid-life, or with a dying breath, they all receive the same gift of eternal life.

In his commentary of Matthew’s gospel, author Frank Stagg keys in on another critical point seen in the parable. In contrast to the grumbling bargaining laborers who felt mistreated, Stagg writes, “Jesus called for followers who asked for no bargain, and whose concern was not for what he could get all that is due to him…, but the bargainer will always be dissatisfied with what he gets. The greater rewards are for those who seek no reward” (p. 194). He further shared that Jesus is looking for followers who find fulfillment only in the opportunity to serve and do His work– to be His arms and legs in the world, to seek the lost, share the gospel, and make and teach disciples to go and do the same.

Therefore, let us endeavor not to look at the blessings of others with bitter envy, be it the neighbor on our right or to our left; instead, let us be thankful for what God has given us for every blessing we receive is far greater than the judgment we deserve. Let us keep close to our hearts that the “last first and first last” statement signifies equality at the foot of the cross where all are welcome, for it is God’s word that says, “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him will not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:16).

Stagg, F. (1969). Matthew. J.A. Clifton (ed). The Broadman Bible Commentary (Vol. 8). Nashville, TN: Broadman Press.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture is taken from the New American Standard Bible®, Copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.

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