“The Last will be first and the first will be last” (Part 1)
In Matthew 20, we read of Jesus telling the parable of the landowner who went out early to hire men to work in his vineyard. He agreed to pay them a day’s wage, and sent them into the vineyard. A few hours later, he found some more men to work, and hired them also, promising to pay what’s right. He did the same in the 6th and 9th hours. Then finally, with about an hour left of work for the day, he hired yet more men who were standing around not doing anything, but looking for work.
When evening came, the landowner told his foreman to pay his hired help, beginning with those who worked the least. When those who were there all day saw that the foreman had paid the later-workers a full-days wage, they figured that they would be paid more for their full-day’s work. But when they received the same amount, they were disappointed, and began grumbling against the landowner. But the landowner replied, “Friend, I’m not being unfair to you. Didn’t you agree to work for a full-day’ wage? Take your pay and go. I want to give the men I hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do as I want with my own money? Or are you just envious because I’m generous?” Then Jesus said concerning the Kingdom of God, “So the last will be first and the first will be last.”
I once heard Brennan Manning use this parable in a talk about God’s awesome and generous grace. I believe he mentions it in his book, “The Ragmuffin Gospel”. I highly recommend it.
As I wrote down my notes on this parable, I couldn’t help but think of how people would react to this today. The first men hired agreed to the wage, and got what they agreed to. But the next day (not mentioned in the parable), if these same men saw him walking around looking for workers, I’m guessing they’d avoid him as long as they could so they could get hired later and paid the same for less work. Led by greed? Yes, most likely. Surely we could say that they showed more concern for themselves than for the landowner, but then they were just hired help – contractors. Regardless, I believe that they would take advantage of his generosity by avoiding him until later.
Then I realized that this could also be compared to what Dietrich Bonhoeffer calls “Cheap Grace”. For example, God’s grace is generous, but once you’re ‘hired’, you’re needed to work for the Kingdom of God (the vineyard). But many today, once ‘hired’, then choose to slack in their duties, begin calling grapes by names of other fruits, and are convinced that other fruits can grow on the grapevines with the grapes. They begin to believe non-workers outside the vineyard who speak of incorrect words about the landowner, leading them to take advantage of His grace and generosity. The Landowner asks everybody to come and work, but when some people turn down the landowner’s offer, the workers began grumbling about how the landowner’s not fair because He won’t pay a day’s wage to those who turned down the job, too. They say that if the landowner was really generous, He’d pay them anyway.
Notice also that the men who grumbled against the landowner were those who worked all day, agreed to a fair wage, and were actually “under contract”. We may not notice this today, for nowadays we want everything in writing, even mentioning irrelevant possibilities in order to patch up any unforeseen loopholes within the deal, but there was a time (not too long ago even) when a simple handshake was legally-binding. But the guys in this parable treated it more like when you buy a membership and sign a contract for a particular price, and soon after, they have a sale offering the same for less. To you it’s not fair that they get the same services for a lower price, but it was the price that you had agreed to, and it is their right to charge as they please.
I think it’s neat that God’s offer remains the same for everybody. Granted it IS a limited-time offer (only available while you’re physically alive) and should be accepted as soon as possible. But if you hold out until the last hour, although you’ll miss out on the gifts and wonderful experiences of serving, and God’s work first hand, you won’t miss out on the reward of eternal life…that remains the same for everybody.