Summary: What kind of life do we lead when we put ourselves first, and others last? What kind of world encourages us to tread all over others and always be first? What would Jesus say about the first and last in society?
Prelude, Purpose, Plan
What kind of life do we lead when we put ourselves first, and others last? What kind of world encourages us to tread all over others and always be first? What would Jesus say about the first and last in society?
Let’s examine the incredible blessing of following Jesus to a life of taking last place so that we can serve others.
Let’s look at Matthew 20:1-16, the parable of the workers in the vineyard and its implications for today.
Matthew 20:1 Wine Industry Parable
Did Jesus promote the wine industry? In Matthew 20:1 Jesus said, “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard.” In an age when refrigeration and pasteurization were unknown, grape juice was commonly preserved as wine. Some try to be more righteous than Jesus. But, the Gospel writers openly wrote about Jesus and wine. Grace is risky. Pharisaic rules remove risk, but also grace. Someone might get drunk, yet Jesus turned water into wine, drank with sinners and used wine as one of the elements of the Lord’s Supper. He even used the grape harvest in parables.
Matthew 20:8 Where Latecomers are First
Why were the latecomers in the parable of the vineyard workers put first? In Matthew 20:8 Jesus spoke of the end of a harvest day, “So when evening had come, the owner of the vineyard said to his steward, ‘Call the laborers and give them their wages, beginning with the last to the first.’” Let’s understand the context. Jesus’ disciples quarreled openly for position. They spurned widows and children who attempted to talk to Jesus. This attitude is not tolerated in God’s kingdom. Those who arrogantly puff themselves up, and look down on others will be last in heaven. The last were put first so the first could learn something.
Matthew 20:9-10 Fair Wages
Are older Christians or older churches more entitled? The parable of the vineyard workers teaches us about this common attitude. In Matthew 20:9-10 we read, “when those came who were hired about the eleventh hour, they each received a denarius. But when the first came, they supposed that they would receive more; and they likewise received each a denarius.” How long we have served God does not give us greater entitlements. In heaven there is a Great Reversal. The first will be last and the last first. Let’s not allow position or tenure to delude us into thinking we are better than anyone. They may be our boss in heaven.
Matthew 20:12 Entitlement versus Need
Could the Old Testament law of redistribution, the Jubilee, work today? The super-wealthy would certainly complain. In Matthew 20:12 in the parable of the vineyard workers, the all-day workers complained about equal pay, “you made them equal to us who have borne the burden and the heat of the day.” This is a parable of entitlement versus need. Are wealthy people entitled to grossly excessive salaries which they the have power to get but perhaps not the need? Jesus’ subversive parable teaches that 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.
Matthew 20:15 God is Generous
Why did a vintner in Jesus’ parables hire harvesters several times during the day? The only indication why is he saw people who needed work. The farmer paid workers the same whether working all day or only the last hour. He explained in Matthew 20:15, “Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with my own things? Or is your eye evil because I am good?” God provides generously for the most needy. Jewish Christians are the same as Gentiles, and the most ancient churches are the same as the newest. “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.
Matthew 20:15 The Evil Eye
What is an evil eye? In Matthew 20:15 Jesus asked, “is your eye evil because I am good?” Friberg explains that an evil eye is an attitude of envy, greed or stinginess. When we want first place or all the best just for ourselves, that is an evil eye. When we believe that others are undeserving of positions because they have not been around as long as we, that is an evil eye. In the kingdom of heaven the first will be last and the last will be first. Human perceptions of what we deserve are not heaven’s. Jesus set the example. Let’s follow Jesus’ example and put ourselves last.
Ref: Friberg, Friberg, Miller, Analytical Lexicon of the Greek New Testament. Grand Rapids: Baker Books. 2000.