The Last Will Be First, and the First Last: Matthew 20:1-16

Berry Kercheville

The parable of the laborers is contrary to human thinking. A man works one hour and gets paid the same as those who worked a full 12 hours! Our human side says, “What kind of employer does that to his workers? It is preposterous! Someone needs to start a union!” The fact that even we react negatively indicates the message is as valuable for us as it was for first century Jews.

Three mistakes are typically made in understanding the parable:

First, the chapter division tends to separate the parable from the previous narrative of the rich ruler so that we lose the parable’s connection to its context.

Second, Matthew 19 ends with, “The first will be last and the last first,” which is virtually the same phrase Jesus used in 20:16 at the end of the parable.

Third, a typical interpretation that those who come to Christ late in their life will receive the same reward as those who come early, does not fit the context.

The Rich Man (19:16-22)

How would you evaluate this man? He is a success story, but not just in physical terms. He also is dedicated in spiritual terms. He has kept the commandments from his youth, but that has not satisfied him. He wants to know what more he can do, what good deed that will give him eternal life. He was impressive.

However, there is something wrong with his question: “Good teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” Jesus’ answer is, “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good.” Jesus treated “doing good” and “being good” as the same. Goodness is not evaluated on the basis of having “done a good deed.” Goodness is not just doing good, it is being good – always, not part of the time or most of the time, but always. Only God is good. When I was young I remember preachers who would say, “If you will just do your best, you will be saved.” The problem is, how do you know when you have done your best? In fact, no one has done their best. The assertion sounds much like the question of the ruler. Jesus is dissuading us from talking about salvation and some good work in the same conversation.

Notice that Jesus shows the man that he is not good by saying, “keep the commandments.” But the man does not seem to understand. His answer is amazing: “Which ones?” That response clearly indicts him. He has evaluated his goodness on certain commands. Oh, that is us! Are you a good person? Sure! Do you do good deeds? Absolutely! Upon what basis are you making that evaluation? I’m making it on the basis of the deeds I am good at doing. If I tell you about my good deeds, I will not include commands at which I fail repeatedly. How would we answer if Jesus asked us if we love our neighbor as ourselves? I know my answer would not be, “I’ve done that from my youth!” In fact, I’m sure I fall way short of what God expects.

The Apostles’ Reaction

Upon seeing the rich man go away sorrowful and hearing the words of Jesus about the difficulty of a rich man entering the kingdom, the disciples are “astonished” and ask, “Who then can be saved?” After all, if a man can’t be saved who has kept the commandments and is seeking to do more, who can? Jesus’ answer again reveals the problem, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” Salvation isn’t about man or what man can do, it is about what God can do.

One final point before the parable. Peter makes the connection between what the rich man would not do and what the disciples had done: “We have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?” In verse 29, Jesus applies the principle to “everyone.” Everyone who does what they had done will receive a hundredfold and inherit eternal life. But then there is verse 30: “But the first will be last, and the last first.” The parable ends with these words and explains these words.

The Parable

First notice the words, “For the kingdom of heaven is like…” As is seen throughout Matthew, the kingdom of heaven does not reflect the kingdoms of men. We need to mark this well, because we live in a similar world with our corporate lifestyles, which we have very often brought into our corporate churches, even equating salvation to our good deeds just as moving up the corporate ladder. Do we not think this way? Listen to the words at a funeral about how surely the departed will be in heaven because of how good they were.

Notice the differences in the first hour laborers and the rest. The first hour laborers went into the vineyard on the basis of an agreed wage. The other laborers went in without an agreement, simply trusting the Master. The first hour laborers were paid last. Jesus arranged it this way because he wanted to single them out as an example. This is a warning to our approach to salvation. The first hour laborers grumbled at the Master. Jesus said, “Is your eye evil because I am good?” Can you imagine grumbling at the Judgment about who receives grace? Can you see yourself saying, “Oh come on Lord, you are going to give grace to that guy? If I had known that, I wouldn’t have worked so hard!”

Who Are the “First” and Who Are the “Last”?

The first are like the ruler who believes his salvation can be obtained by some good deed so that he can boast in what he attained.

The first are the scribes and Pharisees who counted on their personal righteousness for their reward and sought salvation by works (Rom. 9:30-33).

The first evaluate service and reward from the Master on the basis of what is deserved. If the Master pays the eleventh hour laborers a denarius, then they surely deserve more. They see the kingdom laborer as those who receive what they deserve.

Do we see why Jesus is warning Peter and the apostles about what they said, “What will we receive?” Do we see why the first hour workers are in danger? It is because it is about what man does instead of what God does. For man to be saved, he must rely on God. That is the ruler’s problem and that is the first hour laborer’s problem.

We could frame it this way: do you go into the vineyard expecting that the master will pay you what you deserve based on your good deeds and good obedience? That would certainly be the way a worldly kingdom would function. Or, will you enter the vineyard as did the latter laborers, through faith in the master to “give you what is right” and then be thrilled with the generosity of the owner? Titus 3:5, “He saved us, not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy…”

The third through eleventh hour laborers went into the vineyard for the love of working for the Master. They went in by faith, and what is beautiful is, they received more than they deserved. There is one thing you and I certainly do not want. We do not want what we deserve. We are looking for the graciousness of the Master.

Final Application: There are two religious extremes. One is like the Sadducees who disregarded a major part of scripture and were not careful in their obedience to God. Then there are the Pharisees, the “conservative” way of thinking we might say. Reacting against being loose with God’s word can lead these to pride. This is a warning to us. We see ourselves as doing what others are not doing. We are being careful to obey, and well we should (Ezek. 36:27). But when the day is done and we have done all that was commanded of us, we are unprofitable servants. We are still sinners. We have missed the mark hundreds of times and in hundreds of ways. Salvation with man is impossible, but with God all things are possible.

berrykerch@gmail.com