We are everywhere encouraged to seek to first place in this life, to strive to put self first. What does that say about our reward in heaven?
I want to show the incredible blessing of following Jesus to a life of self denial, of taking last place.
We will look at the parable of the workers in the vineyard from Matthew 20 and its implications for today.
Wine Industry Parable
In an age when refrigeration and pasteurization were unknown, grape juice was commonly preserved as wine. As we look at the parable of the laborers in the vineyard, we may miss this salient point. We too often try to be more righteous than Jesus. But, the Gospel writers did not bat an eyelid when writing of Jesus and wine. Grace is too risky for some of us. We would rather make a rule banning a God-given gift than take the risk that someone might get drunk. Not so Jesus. Despite the fact that drunkenness also existed in those days, he turned water into wine, drank with sinners and used wine as one of the elements of the Lord’s Supper. It was also natural then for him to use the grape harvest in parables as he did in Matthew 20:1.
God the Generous Employer
Ancient day laborers had no rights and little security, as uninsured workers without a safety net. Jesus tells a parable of an employer hiring workers in the morning (Matthew 20:1) and hiring more later in the day, paying everyone the same day's wages, a generous desire to relieve the hardship of the poor. "no one has hired us" indicates that they wanted to work. The payment was according to need and not according to what was earned or deserved with obvious application to charitable giving. We will all receive eternal life, the late-comer the same as the long-time Christian. In any church, when a relative new-comer is promoted over a long-time Christian we get jealous, when we need to learn generosity towards late-comers. "The parable is thus about the goodness... the mercy... of God... The Good (or Generous) Employer".
Ref: Hagner, D. A. (2002). Vol. 33B: Word Biblical Commentary : Matthew 14-28. Word Biblical Commentary (572). Dallas: Word, Incorporated.
Farming the Church
Farming is an unpredictable business. Farmers cannot put it into their calendars a month ahead of time to harvest on a Tuesday starting at six and finishing up by Thursday noon. It doesn't work that way. It all depends on when the crop is ready, the weather and machinery breakdowns. A farmer would understand perhaps completely why in Matthew 20:3-7 the vintner went back several times to the unemployment lines for more hired hands. His harvest was ready and perhaps bad weather was on its way. The same is true in church life. We can schedule events to some extent but flexibility must also be a part of the plan. Things just have a way of totally changing at the last minute. A wise steward of God’s business is like a wise farmer: ready, flexible and patient with change.
Picking two teams from a lineup is very disheartening for the last ones picked. They often feel like nobody wants them or that they are simply not good enough to even be on the team. Someone with compassion hired a bunch of people for his vineyard, and when the last were hired it was late in the day. He asked why the last did not have any work. Their reply was simply that no one had hired them. Perhaps they were feeling like many long time unemployed people, that nobody wants us. Perhaps to make up for that natural feeling of despair is why the big boss paid them first (Matthew 20:8). Naturally, there were jealousies, but there is a reason for everything and it is not always favoritism. Some people just need a bit more encouragement than others.
Where Latecomers are First
The kingdom of heaven is a place where latecomers are first in line (Matthew 20:8). Why? We need to understand the literary context of this parable. When the disciples were spiritually immature they strove openly among each other for political position and spurned widows and children who attempted to talk to Jesus. This attitude of snobbery and striving for position will not be tolerated in God’s kingdom. Those who insist that they be addressed by exaggerated and grandiose titles, or look down their noses at those they consider to be lesser beings will be surprised in the kingdom of heaven. The last will be first and the first will be last. It is important to humble ourselves and become servants of all. If we are not given recognition in this life, our self-sacrificing service gives us status in heaven.
The parable in Matthew 20:9-10 is probably not about a real vineyard and therefore not an excuse for unjust or whimsical wages on earth. No vineyard owner would pay someone who worked only an hour a day’s wages. So, it is a parable, perhaps exaggerated purposefully to teach us about the kingdom of heaven, not things on this earth. However, it is about just wages in heaven. To God, it is irrelevant how long someone has served him. It is also unimportant what entitlements we presume to have earned. In heaven there will be a Great Reversal, where the first will be last and the last first. So let us beware of allowing position or tenure to delude us into thinking that we are better. Let us not look down on anyone. They may be our boss in heaven.
Where Reward is Undeserved
The kingdom of heaven is a place where our reward is undeserved (Matthew 20:12). Why? We live in a world of entitlement. Wealthy and powerful people are deluded that they somehow deserve to be treated better than others. They gladly pay the poor a pittance and heap excess burdens upon them fully believing that it is their divine right. Celebrities and royals, presidents and prime ministers, CEOs and business owners believe that they deserve more wealth and honor than anyone else. So they take it. We bring that self-centered attitude into the church. We too can think that our tenure or position makes us worthy of a greater reward. The parable of the workers in the vineyard reveals the opposite. The wages given to those who only worked an hour shows that heaven is a reward that is undeserved.
No Room for an Evil Eye
In The kingdom of heaven there is no room for an evil eye (Matthew 20:12). That’s the original wording in verse 15. The Friberg lexicon explains that an evil eye is an attitude of envy, greed or stinginess. When we want to hog the limelight or have all the best for ourselves, that is an evil eye. When we believe that others are undeserving of reward because they have not been around as long as we, that is an evil eye. Jesus revealed that in the kingdom of heaven the first will be last and the last will be first. So, we had better get ready for it. Our perceptions of what we deserve are contrary to those of heaven. Being jealous of others then will be too late. Let’s follow Jesus’ example and take the last places now.
Entitlement versus Need
A national debate is over entitlement versus need. Are workers entitled to health care for which they have need but can't afford? Are wealthy people entitled to million dollar salaries which they the have power to ask for but perhaps not the need? This is a central part of the discussion in Matthew 20:12. Our society has trouble providing basic human needs to the entire population. Whether government can afford it or the wealthy ought to sacrifice to provide it are ongoing debates. Jesus’ parable of the laborers in the vineyard is known as a subversive parable. It sets up a scenario that defies normal events in order to teach a lesson. The kingdom of heaven is not based upon entitlement, but need. None of us is entitled to heaven, yet we all have need of life after death.
Lasts who Already are Firsts
Why did Jesus say that in the kingdom of heaven the last will be first (Matthew 20:16)? Perhaps part of the answer lies in the fact that many who are last already are first. Many so-called little people are in reality big people and many big in the eyes of this world are really small in heaven’s eyes. Why is the janitor the happiest person in the building? Why is the widow the one who always has the most encouraging word? Why is the wisdom of an old man in a nursing home the greatest thing you have heard all week? Why does the poor farmer out plowing in his field sing so loudly? Why does the blue collar worker live longer and have a happier marriage than the billionaire? These are great secrets of the kingdom of heaven.
Life’s Journey from First to Last
When young people receive blessings ahead of older people we can be covetous. It can be that a newer Christian is gifted in a ministry that is suited to changing needs. An older Christian may be more gifted in ministries that served past needs well but feel overlooked as times change. It is the job of each generation to prepare the next one to take over, not hang onto power forever. For a church to develop, new personnel must be brought along. It’s a humbling thing for us to realize that this life is not forever. How do we deal with the change in status? In Matthew 20:16 Jesus addressed this issue by stating that the last will be first and the first will be last. Giving up status from first to last is one of life’s necessary sacrifices.
When we seek to place ourselves first in this life, we are choosing the last place in heaven. When we choose last place in this life, our reward will be first place in heaven.