The Last Will Be First

Ordinary 25A

Matthew 20: 1 16

Introduction

In this text, our Lord is talking to his disciples, not to the Pharisees nor the general populace. Surprisingly he speaks to them in a parable, which he normally saves for the crowds. In fact, it is a fleshing out of the last verse in chapter 19, that is:

"But many who are first now will be last,
and many who are last now will be first."

The parable of the workers in the vineyard is not strictly an explanation of these words, but an opportunity Jesus provides for his disciples across the ages, to enter more deeply into the mystery. In this way he imparts a special gift, through the Holy Spirit, which enables us to see things from a heavenly perspective.

Further reading: Appendix 1 for those who find it heavy going.

Some Notes On the Text

Verses 1 7

Since this is a parable, we could profit from the advice of St John Chysostom (4th Century Bishop of Constantinople):

"It is not right to search curiously, and word by word, into all things in a parable; but when we have learned the object for which it was composed, we are to reap this, and not to busy ourselves about anything further."

We have an overview of the passage for those who might find it helpful.  Appendix 2 Labourers in the Vineyard 

In the first part of the parable we note the following points:

  • The parable begins with the words: "The kingdom of heaven is like…" This is the key to how we are to understand the essence of the lesson. We will return to this point later.
  • The setting is a village market place at the start of the Mediterranean workday, viz. 6 a.m. A landowner has arrived to hire any men who have come to find work.
  • The first group are hired with a formal agreement; one denarius for a whole day's work (an average rate for casual, semi-skilled employment).
  • The second group were hired at the third hour (after 6 a.m.), i.e. 9 a.m. They had an informal agreement: "I will pay you whatever is right."
  • The third group were hired at noon, and the fourth at 3 p.m., on the same basis as the second group.
  • At around 5 p.m. a final group is employed without any agreement in place. They are simply told to report to the foreman at the vineyard.

Verses 8 12

Part two of the parable gives account of how the landowner pays his workers. The foreman is instructed to call the workers in from the field, and to pay them in the reverse order in which they were taken on.

This is what occurred:

  • The team who were taken on at 5 p.m., just one hour before were paid one denarius for their one hour of work.
  • No one complained about what these men received.
  • It is not recorded what the 4th, 3rd, and 2nd teams received, but we can presume it was also a denarius. Again, there are no complaints from anyone.
  • When finally, the first team were paid, much to their surprise, they received only the one denarius that they agreed to work for. They had presumed that if the others (especially the last team to be employed) received a denarius for six, four, or more especially one hour's work, surely they would be given proportionately more.
  • They began to complain that because they had worked through the heat of the day and had put in a full 12 hours, they should receive more. They protested at the employer's injustice.

Verse 13 15

The landowner did not leave them without explaining his actions firmly but politely:

  • I am not being unfair to you!
  • You agreed to work the whole day for one denarius. I am paying you exactly what we agreed. That is fair and just!
  • I want to give the man who was hired last the same as I gave you.
  • I own the denarius and I have the right to give it to anyone I wish.
  • Why are you envious because I am being generous?
  • Take your pay and go!

Verse 16

Our Lord concludes his teaching session with the short saying (though in reverse form) which introduced it:

"So the last shall be first, and the first shall be last."

Conclusion

Following our Lord's model, let us now reflect on his first words last! He opened his parable with, "The kingdom of heaven is like….". This indicates that he is going to present an opportunity for his listeners to engage in seeing things from a heavenly point of view.

The moment we start talking these days about heaven, and angels, and so on, some Christian's bristle and show their insecurity by a series of belittling remarks. But this level of insight and understanding is what is needed so desperately in the world today.

Only a few weeks ago we read our Lord's declaration:

"For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father's glory, with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what he has done." (Matt. 16: 27).

As one scholar has said, "The supreme reward of all, to see God as he is in his unveiled splendour, will be enjoyed by all who are faithful to the end, and those who have this will care little what else they have or have not."

That is the heavenly standard, the aim which the disciples of Jesus must constantly uphold. If they do that, they will rejoice when they see others gain. They will not apply human standards of justice alone in their interactions with others. Instead they will desire the advance of others in the kingdom of heaven. They will rejoice at God's benevolence and generosity, and not claim some prior seniority or superiority.

The parable is therefore about being strengthened to go forth and reflect the magnanimity and loving generosity of God. This will demand ever so much more of the disciples of Jesus than mere justice. The Lord is acutely aware of this, and has taught this parable to prepare them (and us) accordingly.

We close with some pithy quotes:

Poole: "The owner's liberality to some is perfectly consistent with his justice to all."

Gore: "God refuses to have his generosity limited."

Blaiklock: "God does not measure out reward. He rather pours out his wealth."

Finally we would sum up all this by saying that whenever one is admitted to the Kingdom of God, one is admitted to full participation; never anything less! We stress the fact that herein lies the great treasure of this parable.

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