The First and the Last
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Matthew 20:1-16 “For the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2 After agreeing with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard. 3 And going out about the third hour he saw others standing idle in the marketplace, 4 and to them he said, ‘You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you.’ 5 So they went. Going out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour, he did the same. 6 And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing. And he said to them, ‘Why do you stand here idle all day?’ 7 They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You go into the vineyard too.’ 8 And when evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last, up to the first.’ 9 And when those hired about the eleventh hour came, each of them received a denarius. 10 Now when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more, but each of them also received a denarius. 11 And on receiving it they grumbled at the master of the house, 12 saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ 13 But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? 14 Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. 15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?’ 16 So the last will be first, and the first last.”
We see here that God directs and works in an unusual way, namely, he makes the first last and the last first. Human reason cannot fathom the meaning of this Gospel, and it is offensive to common sense.
Jesus teaches us in the form of a parable. How is a parable to be interpreted? A parable has one point of comparison. The kingdom of God is like a master of a house. Here the point of comparison is between God and the master of the house. Do not get carried away in all the details of a parable. The meaning is not found in the denarius, nor is there significance in the specific hours of day. The simile here is centered on some one thing the master of the house does that is similar to what God does in respect to the question, “How does one earn a denarius?”
The master went out to hire workers to work in his vineyard. He went in the morning and hired some workers who then contracted with him for a normal day’s wages, then went again three hours later and hired more, then every three hours thereafter, until the last group he hired only one hour before the end of the workday.
In what way was this master like God? The master was abundantly generous. The lesson of the parable, then, is the generosity of God. When the workers came to receive their pay, those hired last were paid much more than they earned or expected. The generosity and grace of the master is the simile between him and God. This is the lesson of the parable.
However, human reason, and our sense of justice, would tell us that the ones who worked all day long should receive more than those who worked just one hour. But, in fact, the master of the house paid the same wage to the ones hired last as he did to the ones hired first. Here is where we see how God works in a way incomprehensible to our reason.
Those hired first were surprised and angry that they did not get more pay. And in fact, so are we. It doesn’t seem fair to us, even though they did receive the amount they had contracted for. If a major international corporation did this with its employees today, there would be a major outcry around the world. Unfair! Injustice! The United Nations would try them in the world court at The Hague. How did these first workers earn the denarius? By a fair day’s work. They, like us, were looking at the denarius and their work, and expected to be paid in return for the amount of time and work they did. And in deed, they were paid a fair day’s wages for a day’s work.
Those hired at the end of the day were likewise shocked and surprised. For they received much more than they expected on the basis of the work they did. They looked at their works and did not consider themselves worthy or deserving of such great pay. Yet, focusing instead only on the generosity of the master and not on their works, they received the undeserved pay with joy and thanksgiving.
Then Jesus concludes the parable with his own interpretation: The last will be first, and the first last. So, let us learn the meaning of this parable by considering the words “first” and “last.”
Those who are first, that is hired first, are those who think that they are the closest and first before God and let others think that as well. They think that they have worked more, earned more and thus deserve greater favor from God.
The first are especially those who work and serve God in the church. They are those among you who have a higher status in the church, and think you have a higher status before God. You have done more to serve the church, you are active in all its doings, have served on boards and committees, and have contributed the most with your offerings. You pat yourselves on the back for your hard work and can’t understand why some people don’t seem to participate in the church or serve on boards or run for offices. You look at your works and feel secure and satisfied that God is satisfied with you. And that God has blessed you.
The last are the ones hired at the end of the day and worked the least. They do not think that they deserve the denarius, nor that they have earned it. They are the ones who consider themselves least in the eyes of men and of God, and they let themselves be considered the furthest away by the others.
They are those among you who do not consider yourselves to be important or of a privileged status. You are the ones who do not think you have done all that much to earn God’s favor or blessing. You don’t see yourselves as being something important or special. You have not been such great, exemplary Christians or workers in the church. You have your many failures. Whether at home in your family life, or at work in your professional career life, or at church. You consider yourselves the last, the least, the most insignificant. Regardless of how others see you, this at least is how you see yourselves. “I have done little to serve God. I deserve little in return.”
What does this all mean to us for our Christian lives? First it means that God wants to humble those who are something important, so that they trust in nothing but the grace of God rather in works. It means that no one should think himself above others. Those hired first thought they had earned more, that they had rank and positions of authority and honor. But we see here that Christ is alarmed at the arrogance of those who consider themselves to be the first. Those who have done good works have no more value than public sinners. No one is justified before God by works of the law. So, they lose the favor of God. They must take their temporal wages and trot away with their denarius and be condemned. They are those who want to fight their way into heaven with works. They take no interest in the law of God except that they should fulfill it in order to receive the reward. They have never understood the law, for the law does not save. By the works of the law they earn only God’s wrath and condemnation. If it is by your labor that you think you earn wages from God, then look out! For the law says: you are sinners, and the wages of sin is death. Death is the just pay for your day’s work.
Second, it means that for the last, those who have not been such great, exemplary Christians or workers in the church, and do not consider yourselves of high honor, that God gives to you what you don’t deserve. God would have you know and trust without a doubt that He is merciful and graceful to you and does not desire you to count your righteousness or worth according to what you do, or haven’t done, but desires to reward you according to his mercy and generosity. It is God’s heartfelt desire that his love overflows onto you generously and abundantly from the cross of Jesus. Cling to this and never doubt that his love for you is not just a cup being poured out, not even a river flowing, but is a flood that overtakes you and overwhelms you.
In his generosity, he sent his Son to work for you. Jesus is the love of God. In this is love, that he came not expecting a reward for his work or payment for his labor, but came to work on your behalf. He came to fulfill the deeds of the law on your behalf. The full day’s work has been done. A full day’s wages have been earned—not by you, but by Jesus! Yet, you receive full payment for his work. You receive full recognition from God, and you receive the full reward for having done a full day’s labor, because Jesus went into the field and did your work. He fulfilled God’s laws on your behalf so you are considered worthy in his sight. Jesus earned salvation and eternal life for you by his work, by his love, by going to the cross and dying for you. This is the true example of the love God has for us, and what it means to love our neighbor. Give yourselves to your neighbor, not because he deserves it, not because he has earned your favor, but because Jesus has given you what you do not deserve, and expects nothing in return. That is Christian love.
Now, as the day is coming to an end, as the sun is setting and darkness is coming over you, as you come in from the fields and are ready to collect your wages at the end of your life, you have only to look to the goodness of the master who is coming to you with full recompense for a full day’s work. He is coming to give you all his riches, indeed, his entire kingdom, and his eternal blessing. Oh, Lord, have mercy on us! Amen.