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The First Shall Be Last, Matthew 20

Most Christians have heard about the parable of the workers in the vineyard. (Matt 20) Unlike the other parables, Jesus provides no conclusion or answers. In the story, the landowner went out to hire workers to labor in his vineyard.   He started out early, around six in the morning.  According to Matthew 20:2, the landowner found workers and contractually agreed to pay them a denarius for the day—that was quite a sum for that time.

Now, the landowner didn’t just stop there.   He also went out around nine in the morning, which was the third hour. At the third hour, he chose from those standing idle in the marketplace.   He told them to go into the vineyard and he would give them “whatever is right;” (v. 4) He again went out around twelve, the sixth hour, and around three, the ninth hour—you see the pattern.  

A strange thing happened though—he went out again at the eleventh hour, which would have been five in the afternoon.   This would have been one hour before the end of the day—six o’clock.   This was contrary to what he had been doing.   The ninth hour—three p.m.—would have appeared to have been the last time that he would have gone out, for he had been going out every three hours to get laborers.   But this landowner went out on the eleventh hour—five p.m.—just one hour before the end of the work day.

Just why did he go back out two hours after three at five rather than being content with those that he had hired for the day which would end at 6 p.m?   More than likely, he knew that there were others willing to work, but who had not previously been hired, for when he approached them, he asked, “Why have you been standing here idle all day?”  It is understood in the parable that they had been there all day because they said, “Because no one hired us.”   He then told them okay, you go also into the vineyard and you will be paid, “Whatever is right.” (v.7) Those workers had been at the marketplace all day and yet no one had hired them. No one had approached them, so they had no knowledge of the vineyard job. Similarly, there are those who have not yet been approached about the kingdom of God.  

So, at the end of the day (six p.m.), the owner had the steward call all the laborers so that he could pay them.  It did not matter what time of the day they had been approached. Interestingly, he started with the last ones hired—the ones that were hired at the eleventh hour.   He paid them a denarius as he did the others who were approached and hired earlier.   Now the first ones hired thought that they would be paid more and they grumbled when they, too, received a denarius.   They wanted to know why those who had worked only one hour received the same as they.

In likening the landowner and his vineyard to the kingdom of heaven, the first workers hired saw themselves as more worthy and deserving of more money than the workers who came later. The Pharisees and Sadducees of Jesus’ time felt that they, too, were worthy and deserving of God’s benevolence.  There are Christians today who have been saved for many years and they see themselves as deserving more from God than the upstarts who come into the kingdom later. The landowner said to those hired first, “Didn’t you agree to a denarius—now go and take what has been agreed upon.” Just like the landowner, God is no respecter of persons; he extends the same kingdom grace of salvation to all who come into the kingdom and he will continue to do it until Christ’s return.

The landowner noted that it was his prerogative to give the last the same as the first.  My interpretation: “I can pay the workers whatever I choose? The landowner said, “Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with my own things?   Or is your eye evil because I am good?” (v.15) In other words, those of you who were hired first agreed to the denarius for a day’s work and now you complain? Your complaints come from an evil heart. The others who were hired were willing to work, but no one approached them or hired them and they were willing to work for whatever I chose to give them.   Their hearts were not selfish and in it for what they could get out of it.   They were just grateful. My interpretation:  “Are you angry because I have extended my goodness to all who need it?” 

This  parable on work has been compared to the kingdom of God, but it is more than that. Seemingly, the first workers chosen were already equipped, ready and in the right place/position to work in the vineyard.   Perhaps, they were the skilled and equipped.  Maybe, like the Pharisees and Sadducees, they saw themselves as better than others who came later.  Or they were, like today, those who were “good” in their own sight and believed themselves more worthy of God’s grace.  Those are the ones who are not interested in the grace of God being extended to those who are ostensibly sinful coming into the kingdom. (Hints of the tax collectors of Jesus’ time!)  The last people who the landowners approached were ready to work in the vineyard.  They had been in the marketplace all day, and yet, they were not tapped for work.  Perhaps, they had been distracted–by fleshly tendencies, Satan or worldly endeavors.  Yet, it appeared that, if they had known the right posture earlier, they would have been willing to go to work in the vineyards. Today, the marketplace—the world—is filled with workers who must be told of the kingdom of God. They cannot be overlooked! And assumptions cannot be made because they look different or they are still sinners. 

This is the last hour and God is looking over the marketplace for those who are open but they have not heard the gospel message of Jesus, or they have not been approached, maybe because they are still sinning.   Many of these are open to the message of salvation and would grab hold of God’s grace if they knew and was approached. They are in the marketplace, but “No one hired us.” (v 7) Are there Christians ready to go into the marketplaces of the world—go into the by-ways and highways to share the gospel so that the would-be believers are not standing idly? God is not going to overlook the least of these in this last hour.  

In addition, we as Christians, can never think that we are more deserving of God’s grace simply because we see ourselves as more worthy.  No one is worthy of God’s grace—it is his prerogative to extend the gospel message of Jesus to all who are open to receive it.

Yes, in this last hour, Holy Spirit is ready to send the laborers into the harvest fields. He is seeking the least of these in this hour and those will be given the same reward as the first—the last will be first.   The landowner paid the last first because he wanted the laborers to know that no worker is greater than another—those who are hired in the last hour are just as worthy as those who were picked first.   It is the same in the kingdom of God; God’s grace is extended equally to all!

We must make sure that we do not judge some as being more worthy of God’s grace. We can extend God’s grace to all who are open.

Be blessed.

Spiritual References:

Romans 2:11   For there is no respect of persons with God.

Titus 3:5   He saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit.

Romans 10:13   For everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.

Published inInspirational Commentaries, Articles and Stories


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