The First Will Be Last


Matthew 20:1-16

Text Comment

The first thing to say about our text is that the chapter division here is particularly unfortunate.  The “For” with which verse 1 begins connects the new thought with what has gone before.  So do the references in this parable to last and first, which repeat the statement in the last verse of chapter 19 and are found in 20:8 and 20:16.  So does the theme of these verses we are about to read, which continues the answer that the Lord Jesus gave to Peter’s question in 19:27:  “We have left everything to follow you – what the rich young man would not do – What then will there be for us?”  Our chapter 20 does not begin a new section; it continues and concludes the previous one.

v.1       It was the Autumn.  The grapes were ripe and it was time to pick them.

v.2       The denarius was the ordinary daily wage of the laborer.  So what the vineyard owner was offering was a normal day’s pay for a normal day’s work.

v.3       The first workers went to work at 6 a.m.  Now some others are hired at 9 a.m.  This is a parable, so you don’t need to ask questions like, “How come he didn’t hire these men earlier?” or “Did he suddenly realize that he needed more help?”

v.4       “Whatever is right” would suggest to anyone the appropriate fraction of a denarius given the number of hours worked.  Obviously they wouldn’t expect a full day’s wage for they were beginning work in the middle of the day.

v.5       The sixth hour would be noon, the ninth three in the afternoon.

v.6       It was customary for unemployed men to wait in the market place in hopes of someone offering them a job.  This scene could still be observed centuries later.  A 19th century traveler in the Near East wrote of seeing a large number of peasants standing in the market, spades in hand, waiting to be hired to work in the surrounding fields. Passing by the same market later in the day he found some still standing there.  When he asked them why, they said, “Because no one has hired us.”  The Lord’s parables were taken from the scenes of everyday life.

v.7       If we have to have an explanation, perhaps we are to suppose that the man realized that he wasn’t going to get all his grapes picked that day unless he hired some extra men.  Nothing is said about pay but everyone would assume that these men would be paid according to the time they worked.

v.8       It is important that the last ones should be paid first so that the first ones will know what they were paid.  Remember, the theme of this parable is that the first will be last and the last first.

v.14     “I want to give…” sums up the parable, as we will see.

The typical labor union leader or shop steward finds it difficult to understand or sympathize with the Lord’s parable about workers who get the same pay for vastly different amounts of work, but the Lord is not here teaching us how to run a business.  He is not giving us a lesson in economics or labor relations.  In those days there was no state welfare to provide for those who had fallen on hard times.  There were no unions and no body of labor law to protect workers from unjust practices by an employer.  So, in such a case, this employer’s taking on additional workers whose productivity could not possibly match the wage they earned would be understood as the behavior of a compassionate man who had sympathy for the poor and wanted to provide for them.  One commentator titles this parable, “The Eccentric Employer” because these are not the actions of a typical employer who cares to receive value for money and so pays wages according to the work that is done.  [F.W. Beare in France, 289]

The essential point of parable is that God is like this unusual employer in this way: that his generosity transcends human ideas of fairness.  [France, 289] No one receives less than he deserves, but some receive far more.  And since, as we said, this parable continues the conversation that was begun when the rich young man came to Jesus to ask him what he had to do to get eternal life, we are still, obviously, talking about salvation, about the way of salvation, about how people get eternal life.

Now, sometimes people, even biblical and theological scholars make a great deal of the fact that Jesus does not talk about salvation in the same way that the Apostle Paul does.  Paul gives us an elaborate extended argument that begins in human sin and guilt, passes through Christ’s vicarious death for sinners, bearing their punishment in their place, and ends in a sinner’s justification – his pardon and acceptance with God – by faith in Jesus Christ.  Paul, as you know, makes a great deal of the contrast between the two soteriological theories:  works and faith.  He is constantly insisting that justification, our pardon and acceptance with God, comes not through our works, our obedience to the law and commandments of God, but through faith in Christ who obeyed for us, in our place.  There is nothing quite like this in the teaching of Jesus.  Some have argued that Jesus and Paul actually have a different theology of salvation.  But a parable like this one indicates that Jesus’ message and Paul’s are the same.  They are put in different ways, different terms are employed, but the message is the same.  In fact, the foil against which Paul sets out his teaching about justification by faith alone is the same as the foil against which Jesus presents his teaching about the way of salvation.  The wrong way, the fatal error is the same for both Jesus and Paul. Paul is always setting his doctrine of salvation by God’s free grace to undeserving sinners over against the fatal illusion indulged by the Jews of his time, who resented God’s grace to Gentiles, who thought that they were more deserving of God’s favor than the Gentiles.  And, Jesus did the same.  He was always setting the true way of salvation over against the proud, self-righteous works theology of his contemporaries in the Jewish church.

And it is not only here in Matthew 20 that Jesus says the same thing that Paul will later say.  Perhaps you noticed the similarity of this parable of the workers in the vineyard to one of the Lord’s most famous parables, that of the prodigal son in Luke 15.  In that parable also someone complains about the unfairness of the landowner.  His one son, you remember, had demanded his inheritance and then gone and squandered it.  The other son had continued faithfully to work on the family farm.   But when the wayward son returned and was greeted joyfully and treated generously by his father, the son who had stayed and worked resented his father’s generosity to a son who didn’t deserve such treatment.  He resented his father’s generosity to someone he felt was unworthy of it.   The introduction to the parable of the prodigal son, which we find in Luke 15:1-3 is this:

“Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathered around

to hear him.  But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law

muttered, ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.’”

That is, the older brother, the resentful brother in the parable of the prodigal son is a picture of the self-righteous Jews, Jews who think that salvation is earned, that the favor of God comes to those who deserve it.  Tax collectors and so-called sinners didn’t deserve it, but they did.  Well, that is precisely the point here in Matthew 20.  Who are the workers who complain and are resentful in the Lord’s parable of the workers in the vineyard?  They are again the self-righteous. They are people like the rich young ruler who began this entire conversation with his self-confident assertion that he had kept all the commandments of God from his youth.  We have it in Jesus as we have it in Paul:  the great alternative.  Salvation by works or salvation by grace.  Salvation by self or salvation by Jesus Christ.

Jesus is always talking about this fatal error that lurks in the heart of every human being, not just long ago Jews:  the notion that he is or can make himself good enough for God.  That a man is justified by his works, his behavior, his conduct, his way of life.  If he is good enough (and people who think this way tend to think most people are good enough) God will receive him.

It is very interesting that the Jews of that day had a parable quite like this one.  It is found in several pieces of Jewish literature in later NT times, though it was almost certainly was known and repeated earlier.  So we may assume it was current in Jesus’ day.  Perhaps we should assume that the Lord had heard it himself in a synagogue sermon or listening to the teaching of some rabbi.  [Morris, 505]

In this parable a king hires workmen to work in his vineyard.  One of them worked very skillfully, his skill caught the king’s attention, and the king took him by the hand and spent most of the day talking to him.  When the laborers were paid, this man received the same as the others.  They grumbled and said, “We toiled all the day, whereas this man toiled for two hours, and yet the king has given him his full wage!”  And the king replied to them, “What cause have you for grumbling?  This man in two hours did more good work than you in a whole day.”  [Eccl. Rab 5.11.5; Jer. Ber. 2:5c; Cant. Rab. 6.2.6]  The fact that the same parable is found in three different Jewish writings of the period indicates that it was thought to express an important truth.  But how different the message of that parable from the Lord’s!  Did you see?  The reason the man in the Jewish parable gets the same wage is because he did the same amount of work, even if he did it in less time.  It all boils down to the work you do, not to the generously of God!

That was the Jewish mind in Jesus’ day and that is the mind of the natural man still today.  One of the most wonderful things about the Bible and one of the most dramatic demonstrations of its divine origin, is that in deft strokes it lays bare the permanent and unchanging nature and thinking of man.  Why, after all, when the idea of salvation being earned by good works is so often and so emphatically repudiated on page after page of the Bible, does it so often resurface in the minds of church people? Why, except we find if so natural to think that way.

The Lord’s point is precisely not that the different groups did the same work.  They did not.  The last group worked for only an hour.  The first group worked all day.  The Lord’s point is precisely that men who did not deserve a day’s wage got one because God is generous, God is gracious.  The whole point of the parable is how unexpected that was.  And, indeed, most of us will admit that when we read verse 12 we feel a natural sympathy with the complaint of the men who had worked all day long and got nothing more than was paid to the group that worked for but an hour. One writer puts it this way, “It is frightening to realize that our identification with the first workers, and hence with the opponents of Jesus, reveals how loveless and unmerciful we basically are.  We may be more ‘under law’ in our thinking and less ‘under grace’ than we realize.”  [Stein in France, 290]  The Lord’s whole point is that this is not the way people think.  That is why he told this parable.  People do not naturally think about salvation the way God does.  And so long as they think that way, they will be profoundly and dangerously mistaken.  The men who resented the master’s generosity did so precisely because they thought in terms of merit and reward.  They thought they deserved more and these men deserved less.  They thought in terms of what men deserve.  They did not think in terms of God’s grace.

Now, to be sure, in the parable, the first men do perform a day’s work. They earn their wage. But in the larger context, we must not think of them as actually earning anything.  It is a parable after all/  You can’t press the details.  By comparison with the Lord’s frequent teaching of this type, these men stand for the Lord’s contemporaries and for all men who think of salvation in terms of works and reward.  It is not as though some can and do earn salvation by their works.  These men are the 99 sheep who are not lost in another of the Lord’s parables, they are the righteous who don’t need to repent, they are the older brother who never goes away from home to squander his inheritance in riotous living.  But in Jesus’ teaching these people are not actually righteous before God; they only think that they are righteous.  They are not 99 sheep who are not lost, but sheep that don’t realize they are lost.  When Christ says in so many different ways that those who are well don’t need a doctor or that he did not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance, he does not mean that there are those who are actually well and don’t need a doctor or that there are those who are actually righteous and don’t need to repent.  He is describing these people – and they are most of the people in the world at any time – as they see themselves!  And such are the workers here.  It is not as though Jesus means to say that there are some who have earned their way to heaven – working a full day and getting their denarius.  No, he means to say that so long as you see salvation in those terms, so long as you don’t see yourself as among those hired late and paid in full you will never understand salvation.  It is as before with the rich young man.  It was not as though Jesus meant him to understand that he really could make his way to heaven by keeping the commandments of God.  He was trying to show him that so long as he thought that way he was doomed.

In other words, in the inclusio that frames this parable – “many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first”, the statement at the beginning and again at the end, that serves as a kind of title, – “the first” are those who agree to work for wages; want to measure the return before committing themselves to the owner of the vineyard.  The middle groups of workers – no doubt they also all received a denarius – are primarily for color, but take note that the invitation to work and the promise to pay an unspecified amount was enough for them.  “The last” go with no promise of a specific return at all.  They just appreciate the privilege of having a job.  Those who demanded wages left no room for the owner to be gracious.  The first are last because they are not saved and the last are first because they are.  We are talking about salvation remember, nothing less.  We are talking about eternal life.  The rich young ruler brought it up and Jesus is still on that theme.

Now, with that understanding of the parable, let’s go back to the beginning.  The rich young man had refused to follow Jesus because the price was too high.  But Peter had then picked up on the Lord’s conversation with that young man and asked, “We’ve left everything to follow you!  What then will there be for us?”  To that question Jesus first promised them that they would have a great reward.  Men of no consequence in the eyes of other men – there wasn’t a prominent man to be found among the twelve disciples – were going to have important roles in the judgment of the entire world.  And then he repeated his promise that those who make sacrifices for him in this world will be lavishly rewarded.  I like Mark’s addition to Matthew’s shorter form of this promise, “in this life.”  I don’t much like his other addition, “with persecutions!”

But, as is so typical of Jesus, he doesn’t leave it there.  He explores the matter further; he goes deeper.  He wants Peter not only to be assured that his faithfulness will have its reward, but he wants Peter to have the right mind about all of this.  He does not want Peter to begin to think in the same terms in which his countrymen think:  as if he is to calculate his rewards before he makes his investment in Jesus; as if this is some kind of business calculation.  What Peter needs to understand is in committing himself to Jesus he is committing himself to a God of grace and mercy.  That is all that he needs to know.  Jesus Christ will not be fair.  He will be gracious, merciful, and generous to those who trust in him.

And to reinforce the main point – that salvation is by God’s generous mercy and not by our achievement; that its reward is God’s gift, not our desert – the Lord promises this great reversal.  A man who gives up houses, family, fields for Christ will receive a hundred times as much and eternal life but the rich young man who has it all, ends up with nothing.  The man who works but an hour will get a lavish wage but the man who counted on his wages ends up bitter and resentful.  The poor beggar, Lazarus, who all his life ate the crumbs that fell from other men’s tables, now finds himself enjoying utter bliss and being served by angels while the rich man at whose gate Lazarus sat as a beggar during his life in this world is now in hell crying out for some water to cool his parched tongue.  The thief who spent his life making others miserable, but who, at the very last hour of his life, found Jesus Christ, went from his cross to Paradise.  The poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind who were invited to the great banquet when those who had first been invited replied that they had better things to do, found themselves, quite to their own surprise, seated at the king’s table.

So you see, this is the grand picture of salvation that Jesus was always painting.  The unworthy raised to such heights and those who thought themselves worthy brought down to such depths.  The unworthy surprised and delighted to find themselves overwhelmed with such generosity.  Those who think themselves worthy resentful that such kindness was being shown to those less worthy than themselves. Nothing better describes the world of mankind than these pictures that Jesus painted.  Two kinds of people in the world and only two – then and now – those who want their money and those who are just grateful that the owner should have given them a job.  Translate those groups into Paul’s spiritual categories, and you have the same two groups:  those who imagine that they are good enough for God – whose theory of salvation is their own works – and those who, by God’s grace, have come to realize that they are unworthy of the least of God’s gifts and who want to say and know to say to God but one thing:  “God be merciful to me a sinner.”

We have the rich young ruler who thought, in all seriousness that he had kept all the commandments of God and we have the poor workers who couldn’t land a job and weren’t finally hired until but one hour remained in the working day.  Two spiritual states of mind are being described.  Which is yours?  The hard workers who spent a day toiling under the hot sun and earning their day’s wage – that group so easily appears to us to be the superior group, the more commendable group.  But not in the Lord’s parable.  They represent the do-it-yourself-ers of this world.  And the false principle in their hearts is exposed when the owner of the vineyard is generous to other workers who did less than they.  The second group, the rather pathetic bunch of ne’er-do-wells whom no one hires until the day is almost gone; those are the Christians.  We are those people, if we are followers of Christ from our hearts.  We are those who can’t land a job until and unless the vineyard owner takes pity on us.

So far as I know, it was the English Reformer and martyr John Bradford who was the first to say – what many have said after him – I say it was Bradford who was the first to day as he saw a condemned many being led away to execution, “There but for the grace of God goes John Bradford.”  What Jesus is after in his description of these workers is a spirit, a state of mind, an understanding of one’s utter dependence upon God’s generosity.  The man who goes off to work confidently in the morning, sure that he will get his pay at the end of the day because, after all, he has made his arrangements with the vineyard owner, represents that vast company of human beings who believe – however they would put it – who believe, really believe, that they have it coming.  Heaven, God’s acceptance, forgiveness of what small sins they think they may have committed – they have it coming.  The man who gets a denarius for an hour’s work is the man who knows he didn’t earn this, it was a gift.  The vineyard owner might just as well passed him by; not hired him at all; perhaps by any economic calculation shouldn’t have. How much can a man do in a single hour after all?  But far from being passed by, far from getting only a small payment for his short hour of work, he was rewarded  as if he had worked all day.

An elder in Alexander Whyte’s church in Edinburgh remembers an occasion during Whyte’s 50 year long ministry when a prominent man in the city had been caught in a crime and had, that very week, been convicted and sent to jail.  Free St. George’s was a west end church with many prominent men in its membership; judges, captains of industry, professors and the life. This was a man of their class; they knew him and his world.  It was the big story in all the newspapers.  Everyone had been shocked to see such a great man fall.  As the elders and Whyte gathered that Sunday morning in the vestry before the service began, the church bells began to ring to call the congregation to worship.  The elder remembers his minister saying, with tremendous emotion, “He can hear those bells.  He can hear them in his cell.  Man, it might have been me.”

That is the mind, the spirit that Jesus is after. A man who knows that he got his position among the Master’s workmen by sheer grace.  He owes his place among those who will be paid such a phenomenal sum both in this world and the world to come solely to his Master’s generosity.  He knows better than he knows anything that his only hope for eternal life is God’s grace and mercy.  And knowing that about himself, he will not, he does not resent that mercy when it is lavished on others.  Only the man who thinks far too highly of himself will stumble at God’s mercy to others.

Think about the angels for a moment.  They were all individuals.  They had no families, no children, no covenantal relationships such as man has with Adam.  Each was judged individually for his own actions.  Those who rebelled were immediately and forever condemned.  They got precisely what they deserved, nothing more, nothing less.  What an amazing thing it must be to the angels then – at least to those who remained holy and who can think rightly about such things – to have sinful men brought into the loving presence of God.  For them, their covenant of works, their original probation was the final word.  They failed the test or they passed it. Nothing more. There was no incarnation of God the Son for them, no atonement, no cross, no redemption.  There was no salvation preached to them, no invitation to believe and be saved. Yet here, rebellious men were loved by God, his only Son sent to save them.  I imagine that fallen angels are deeply bitter about that.  They resent God’s love for men who did what they did and rebelled against him as they had rebelled.  “It isn’t fair,” they have said for these ages that have passed since their fall and man’s fall.  “It isn’t fair!”

But, the fact is, and no one can deny it, the angel in hell and the man in hell, should find at least one source of gladness in that dark and gloomy world: that God has been merciful to others.  Such an angel, such a person, after all, has no complaint; he was deprived of nothing.  He got precisely what he deserved; he got the destiny he chose for himself.  He has no one to blame but himself.  But if he has any love in his miserable heart, if there remains any spark of goodness in that heart, he should be glad that some were shown mercy, even if he were not.  But, of course, the reprobate heart does not think that way.  It is curved in on itself and it is the index of its lostness that it cannot find within itself the selflessness to rejoice in God’s mercy to others.  It does not want anything for others that it has not received itself.  It would rather all perish than that it should receive less than someone else.

Do you know what the saddest, most repulsive feature of hell will be?  To spend your time in the company of people who bitterly resent the grace that God has given to others.  They will all think they ought to be in heaven and will gripe endlessly about nothing else.

And do you know what the happiest, most cheering feature of heaven will be?  To spend your time in the company of people who are so full of love and gratitude to God for treating them so generously.  They will all think that they ought to be in hell and will weep tears of joy endlessly that they are not.

It is this great reversal that is the lesson of this entire conversation, the first shall be last and the last first. This is the point from the Lord’s first encounter with the rich young man who wanted to know what he had to do to get eternal life to the end of this parable of the workers in the vineyard.  Those who are lowly before God and hope in nothing but his grace and generosity are lifted to impossibly great heights.  Those who in their pride and self-confidence think in terms of what they will earn cannot see God’s grace, cannot rejoice in it, and so miss the way to eternal life.  The rich young man and the resentful workers are the same and the world is full of such people.  The Lord is saying to you and to me:  “Don’t you be like them.”  The way to get eternal life is the same way you get a generous day’s pay for a short hour of work:  you don’t earn it; the Master is generous to you.

Stop worrying about your rewards, refuse any longer to worry about what God has given to others, and rest yourself content in the certainty that God will be generous, impossibly generous to those who, forsaking their own works, trust themselves entirely to God’s grace in Jesus Christ his Son.

What if God had asked me as a young boy what I wanted in return.  I would have asked for a new bike; or maybe for the girls to like me.  Where would I be now?  No; allow grace its secrets; its 100 fold secrets.  You will not be disappointed.  God is far too generous for that!  Meantime, it is enough to be asked to work.