The First, the Last
By Rev. Canon David B. Tabo-oy
v1″The Kingdom of heaven is like this. Once there was a man who went out early in the morning to hire some men to work in his vineyard…. v16And Jesus concluded, “So those who are last will be first, and those who are first will be last.”
16 Verses of the 20th chapter of the gospel according to Matthew contains one of the most controversial if not scandalous and disturbing illustration that Jesus used to teach about the Kingdom of heaven. It is about the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard. The master of a house went out early morning to hire laborers in his vineyard for the day. The laborers agreed to be paid the regular salary for a day. Perhaps the vineyard owner saw the need for more laborers so he went out on different hours of the day to hire more workers even on the last hour. He assured them they will be paid a fair wage. The twist in this parable is when the hired workers finally received their salary at the end of the day – they received the same amount! This is scandalous and disturbing if seen from the standard labor practice of any civilized society. Rightly so, those hired first grumbled and complained to the vineyard owner. ‘These men who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘while we put up with a whole day’s work in the hot sun—yet you paid them the same as you paid us!’ ‘Listen, friend,’ the owner answered one of them, ‘I have not cheated you. After all, you agreed to do a day’s work for one silver coin. Now take your pay and go home. I want to give this man who was hired last as much as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do as I wish with my own money? Or are you jealous because I am generous?’ “And Jesus concluded, “So those who are last will be first, and those who are first will be last.” (Matt.20.12-16)
Looking from standard labor practice, Jesus’ story makes no economic sense, and that was his intent. The parables of Jesus make up a crucial part of the Bible. Jesus had the wisdom to simplify the profound spiritual truths he needed to share with humanity in the form of relatable stories that are easy to understand.
A parable is a tale about a simple, common subject to illustrate a deeper, valuable moral lesson. The source definition of the word “parable” means a placement side by side for the purpose of comparison. Sometimes the Gospel authors begin a parable with an analogy, as “The Kingdom of Heaven is like a landowner who went out at dawn to hire laborers for his vineyard” (Matthew 20:1). Or Jesus may provide an example from everyday life to convey spiritual truth, such as the Parable of the Good Samaritan to emphasize love and mercy, or the Parable of the Friend at Midnight to show persistence in prayer. (www.Bible Study Tools)
One preacher observed that almost in every church congregation you can find at least one church member — typically a lifelong, faithful, dedicated, and hardworking church member — who freely admits to finding today’s Gospel deeply scandalous and disturbing. This person openly identifies with and endorses the complaint made by the laborers hired at the beginning of the day, who “grumbled at the householder, and said, ‘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.’”
Among such parishioners, those of a more introspective bent will recognize and acknowledge the parallel with their own attitudes to other, more recently arrived, church members: “I’ve served this parish all my life without recognition or reward, and here the rector is lavishing attention on these latecomers! It’s not fair!” (As a rule of thumb, parishioners who find today’s Gospel offensive tend also to identify with the older son in the Parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15:11-32, and with Martha in Luke 10:38-42.)
In our parable this Sunday Jesus was giving us a parable about grace, which cannot be calculated like a day’s wages. The employer in Jesus’ story did not cheat the full day workers. No, the full-day workers got what they were promised. Their discontent arouses from the appalling mathematics of grace. They would not accept that their employer had the right to do what he wanted with his money when it meant paying scoundrels twelve times what they deserved.
Significantly, many Christians who study this parable identify with the employees who put in a full day’s work, rather than the add-ons at the end of the day. We like to think of ourselves responsible workers, and the employer’s strange behavior baffles us as it did the original hearers. We risk missing the story’s point: that God dispenses gifts, not wages. None of us gets paid according to merit, for none of us comes close satisfying God’s requirements for a perfect life. If paid on the basis of fairness, we would all end up in hell. The lesson of this parable is that God rewards us based upon the opportunities that He gives us. The later workers would have been willing to go to work earlier, but they were not given the opportunity.
The person who comes late is just as important as the one who comes early. We really do not comprehend the nature of God’s unmerited grace. If there is any special payoff for being selected early to labor in the Lord’s field, it is simply the inner satisfaction that we receive from being in God’s employ.
We are people driven by challenge, not by gifts. And we measure our worth largely not by who we are and our relationships, but by what we have and what we’ve gained. This is not limited to our jobs. It’s the same paradigm we follow in our education, in our vocations, in our community politics, yes even in our churches and our faith…
This is the gospel according to Jesus’ parable. In spite of our good fortunes or savvy playing skills or sheer hard work, we never win at the game of life when we play it by our own rules. But God is bending them in the direction of grace, something wonderful always happens.
God’s justice arises out of a sense of community in which we see the “eleventh hour” workers as our brothers and sisters whose needs are every bit as important as our own.
Jesus says that any “laborer” who accepts the invitation to the work in the vineyard (said by Jesus to represent the Kingdom of Heaven), no matter how late in the day, will receive an equal reward with those who have been faithful the longest. (The Living Church)
This parable is about the Kingdom of Heaven. It is about God’s endless generosity. It is about grace. Merit or good works alone cannot give us the ticket to enter the Kingdom of heaven. Entrance to God’s Kingdom is a matter of privilege, not merit. The parable also warns us of the following: Do not feel superior because of a fortunate position or assignment; Do not fail to share God’s concern in offering His grace to all; and avoid the spirit of envy toward the spiritual blessings of others. The first who are now last do not receive nothing or less, they receive the same, as the laborers themselves say, ‘you made them equal to us …” So perhaps it should be said that the last shall be first, and the first shall be the same.
A comment by Saint Augustine deserves mention. He says that those asked to go into the Lord’s vineyard early in the morning must not say: “why should I tire myself out when I can go at the last hour and receive the same reward? When you are called, come. The reward promised is indeed the same but the great question concerns the hour of working. No one promised you that you will live until the eleventh hour. Take care lest what he by promising is prepared to give you, you by deferring take away from yourself.”
Let us pray.
Grant us, Lord, not to be anxious about earthly things, but to love things heavenly; and even now, while we are placed among things that are passing away, to hold fast to those that shall endure; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.(ECP-BCP Proper 20 Collect)