There Are No Firsts and Lasts in the Kingdom of Heaven

"The Laborers in the Vineyard" by Eugene Burnand
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[Jesus said:] “So the last will be first, and the first last” (Matthew 20:16).
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
“So the last will be first, and the first last” (Matthew 20:16). It’s a puzzling statement, to be sure. But the very fact that Jesus wrapped that statement around “The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard,” front and back, proves its seriousness. As a matter of fact, the parable itself is designed to explain this mysterious statement and we will look at that shortly. But before we delve into the parable, let’s first look at the preceding passage in Matthew to gain a better understanding of the context in which it was first made.
The disciples had just witnessed the exchange between the rich young man and Jesus. It began when the man asked, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” The young man labored under the mistaken notion that he could somehow earn eternal life with good works and adherence to the Law. When pressed further, he even went so far as to claim he had kept all the commandments.
Rather than correct him directly, Jesus took the young man at his word and told him if he was truly serious about keeping the Law of God perfectly, he must sell all his possessions and give the proceeds to the poor. That way he could show that he truly loved his neighbor as himself. That way he would show that he loved the Lord with all his heart, soul, strength, and mind. But when the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth.
As usual Jesus used the opportunity for further teaching of His disciples. Solemnly, He declared a profound, severe truth: “Truly, I say to you, only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God” (Matthew 19:24).
The disciples were amazed by the rigors of Jesus’ demand. “Who then can be saved?” they asked. Under such conditions, the chance for salvation is slim for anyone since there is love of something in this world in everyone’s heart.
Jesus gave them a long piercing look. He wanted His concluding words to sink deeply into their hearts: “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26). Mere human beings cannot, by their own reason and strength, tear their sinful hearts away from the things of this world. Only God can do that.
There may have been a trace of arrogance and self-satisfaction in Peter’s tone as he said, “We’ve left everything and followed You. What then shall we have?” He had heard Jesus’ demand to the young man and promise of treasure in heaven if he would sell all his goods and give them to the poor. Peter concluded: “We’ve done that! We’ve left behind all those things to follow You. Is there a reward for us, too?”
Jesus assured Peter that everyone who has given up all to follow Christ will certainly receive much more in addition to eternal life. But He added a stern warning against any inclination to be self-satisfied and proud of our own works or to measure ourselves according to others: “Many who are first will be last, and the last first” (Matthew 19:30).
That’s when He told the parable in today’s text.
A landowner went out early in the morning to hire men to work in his vineyard. At about 6:00 a.m. he found some men willing to work. He agreed to pay them a denarius (the usual wage for one day’s work in Jesus’ day) and he sent them into his vineyard.
Four other groups of workers were recruited for labor in the vineyard, at 9:00 a.m., noon, 3:00 p.m., and 5:00 p.m., respectively. Though no specific amount of money was offered, the landowner told them, “I will pay you whatever is right.”
When pay time arrived, those hired last were paid first. They were given one denarius, a full day’s wage even though they had only worked one hour. Seeing this, those hired first naturally expected to receive more. To their dismay, they received only a denarius, the wage for which they had contracted originally.
“Not fair!” they whined. “We should receive more.” This is not the cry of the underpaid. No one is underpaid in this parable. The complaint is from the justly paid who cannot tolerate grace! “You have made them equal to us!” they shout angrily. To their market-oriented minds, their worth as human beings is directly related to how much they are paid. Grace is not only amazing, it is also—for certain types—infuriating!
The owner denied the charge of unfairness. He reminded one of the first crew that he had promised a denarius, and that is exactly what they received. He had been gracious enough to offer them meaningful employment when they had none. Concerning the others, it was his vineyard and his money and therefore his right to pay whatever he wished. He had chosen to be gracious. Did they have any right to be envious of his grace when it was bestowed upon others?
As Jesus finished the parable, He uttered a variation on His previous enigmatic statement: “So the last will be first, and the first last” (Matthew 20:16).
This story may have confused you at first. It did me. We’re just not used to thinking this way. I’m sure it puzzled Jesus’ disciples as well. Why should those who worked only an hour receive a full day’s wage? Based on merit pay and human rules of fairness, the owner of the vineyard acted unfairly.
But underneath these objections are some faulty assumptions. We assume that fairness is what life is all about—even from God’s perspective. We assume that God operates based on reward and punishment. But the kingdom of heaven does not operate under the same rules of fairness as the world.
And thanks be to God, it does not! For if we all received exactly what we deserve, we’d all have a reservation in the pits of hell, a little shack on the shoreline of the lake of fire. For “none is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one” (Romans 3:10-12).
And we must not count on gaining admittance because we’re more faithful, we’ve been more obedient, or we’ve been at it longer than the next man or woman. God doesn’t grade on a curve, but pass/fail; His standard is perfection. Only those who meet that standard will be saved. And not one of us meets that standard. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23a).
The is only one Man who met that standard of perfection—Jesus Christ. Only He was perfectly obedient. Only He fulfilled the Law perfectly. Only He loved God and man perfectly. Only He gave the perfect sacrifice that could pay the penalty for our sins—His own precious body and blood. Jesus labored in the vineyard from womb to tomb. The suffering servant bore the burden of the day and scorching heat—figuratively and then literally, suffering our hell and death on the cross. It’s only when we base our salvation on Jesus’ righteousness and forgiving love that we dare appear on the Day of Judgment expecting admittance to the kingdom of heaven. We are saved by grace, and grace alone!
God’s final and most important lesson for you is grace. If you’ve been blessed with many years of devotion to Jesus, it’s by grace. If you just came to vineyard in the last hour, it is by grace.
Many of you were baptized as infants, brought to worship weekly and catechized by pious parents. You can’t recall a day when you weren’t in God’s kingdom. You have borne the heat and burden of the day, have labored most diligently all your lives, have left and denied many things for Christ’s name. But you’ve never known what it is like to live outside of God’s grace. What a blessing!
Others have converted late in life. They’ve spent a large part of their life following the vain dreams of the world. In the very evening of their life they have heard and heeded the call of Jesus and have little time left to show their faith in good works. But so far as their relation to God is concerned, these last are on the same level as the first. The one group, as the other, is saved by grace alone­ through ­­­­­faith alone in Christ alone. What a blessing!
This parable is a wonderful and suspenseful story, carefully crafted to reveal that in the most important way, all disciples are equal in the present and future reign of God in Jesus. If you are ever tempted to make comparisons between your discipleship and someone else’s, then the message of Matthew 19:30 will remove that temptation: “Many who are first will be last, and the last first.”
You do not have a greater claim to the kingdom because you’ve been here longer. You do not have a greater claim to the kingdom because you finance a larger share of the budget. You do not have a greater claim to the kingdom because you spend more hours volunteering and serving.
There are no firsts or lasts in the kingdom of heaven. There is Jesus and there are His people who are called solely by grace. He is the Alpha and Omega, the First and Last, the beginning and end. All the rest of us are equally blessed just to be a part of His kingdom, a kingdom of grace, where the only merits that count are Christ’s merits credited to us by grace through faith in Him.
A real measure of our recognition of God’s grace comes in our willingness to accept that His grace is showered on others, especially on those who come “late to the vineyard” in one way or another. Early or late, we depend on the grace of God in Christ Jesus, crucified and risen. To work in the vineyard is privilege and the pay is pure grace; to question that grace for others is to risk losing it for oneself.
So, live each day in the knowledge and wonder of God’s grace. Thankfully acknowledge God’s precious gift of forgiveness and eternal life in the kingdom of heaven. Joyfully come each week to be fed by God’s means of grace—His Word and Sacraments. Share the Good News of God’s grace in Jesus Christ with all whom you come into contact. Rejoice that in Christ, the last are first and the first are last. And for the times you forget God’s grace, or when you begrudge God’s grace to others, repent and rejoice: Jesus died for that sin, too. Indeed, for Jesus’ sake, you are forgiven for all your sins.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.


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