Matthew 20:1-16 (NRSV)
The Laborers in the Vineyard
20 “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2 After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. 3 When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; 4 and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. 5 When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. 6 And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ 7 They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ 8 When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ 9 When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. 10 Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. 11 And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12 saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ 13 But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? 14 Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ 16 So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
It’s hard not to read this parable and immediately become caught up in that seminal line placed almost like a mic-drop at the very end. Jesus’ lessons are rarely ever straightforward; after all, it’s our ability to reread them again and again and still find new grounds of thought that makes them so valuable. Yet it’s lines like this that truly force me to stop and consider exactly what Jesus is saying:
“So the last will be first, and the first last."
As this is the second time that the Messiah mentions this exact sentiment (the first being directly before in Matthew 19) it’s probably a fairly important concept. Probably. At first glance I immediately begin to think that Jesus is claiming only the poor may enter the Kingdom of Heaven. After all, the mention in Matthew 19 is related to the story of a rich man’s struggles to follow Jesus as he lacks the desire to give up earthly possessions in favour of “treasure in heaven” (Matthew 19:21 NIV). While it is easy to see only this surface level understanding of the parable, if we dig only a little bit deeper we can come to see that this one little line is the basis for something much bigger than just the ink it takes up on a page; a revolution of faith.
While it may seem quite elementary, it’s important to establish who the characters are in this story and who they represent, as well as the core analogies. We are the workers hired throughout the day - the average Joe, the everyday man or woman trying to make ends meet. The vineyard owner is Jesus. As the day progresses it represents points in time closer to the return of Christ or in a sense a later time in the “day” of someone’s life. Working on the vineyard is doing the Lord’s work and finally, payment at sundown refers to the payment we receive at Christ’s return. Whew. Okay, guidelines out of the way. (Bear in mind that this is only my interpretation of the parable and I realise that I am not yet an expert on either the content or the context. What I am learning and discussing comes from a framework that I have put forward myself, a framework that I recognise may be fallible!)
What became immediately apparent to me here was that a single denarius did not seem very significant. Some research came up with evidence arguing the opposite. A denarius was enough to feed 3 men for a day, or one man for 3 days. Already, this vineyard owner has been more than generous, giving more than is enough. Furthermore, to the later workers he agrees to pay them what is “right” and still pays them a denarius. He knows that by paying them the same wage he is fairly providing for them even when they haven’t necessarily done the same level of work, yet he does because he can afford to do so. We are beginning to get a picture of this owner, a picture that is further defined when we consider who he was hiring. He does not discriminate; he takes all those who are standing idle in the hiring market, even those later on in the day who most likely remained unemployed up until that point for a good reason. He pays them all equally because he knows by doing so they will all make a living from that price - the price that was “right”, a price that was more than enough.
We must also address the argument put forward by the grumbling workers who are upset by the lack of a pay gap. We cannot help but agree that it is a little unfair. If you worked for 9 hours and received the same pay someone who worked 2, you would be similarly outraged. However, I believe the workers begin forgetting the truths of the matter. Had they not agreed to work for whatever price the master decided? Were they not provided for with 3 times the required amount to survive? Moreover, if they had not worked in the vineyard, what was their alternative aside from another listless day of defeat and the crushing feeling of bringing nothing home to their families? They forget who and what they work for - a man of seemingly endlessly deep pockets and payment of more than their portion. The fact that others had to ‘work’ less for the same should not be an outrage but a delight as they are caught up in their own elated celebration of avoiding the alternative. Imagine again that you worked 9 hours for the same pay as someone who worked 2, but instead you were both paid 100 million euro. You would be far more content in your newfound wealth than any dissatisfaction caused by the supposed injustice of the work hours. Jesus is reminding us to remember what we are working towards; what does it matter that you bore the “burden of the day and the scorching heat” longer than someone else when the reward for all is a life spent in eternity with the sovereign Lord? This section of the parable also calls an all too real aspect of faith into the spotlight - jealousy of giftings from God. I am blessed with many friends that have an incredible day to day faith in God and I’ve also been blessed to witness them succeed in ways that could previously only be imagined… Only to sometimes wonder why I am not blessed in the same way. In the moment you might express excitement for those around you but the musings of a listless mind always catch up, those hints of insecurity edging in. “I have been out here working, slaving away and I have not been blessed to the same degree.” It’s starting to sound a lot like the farm labourers isn’t it? By telling us that the first will be last and the last first, Jesus reminds us that there is no need for this jealousy that can only be counter productive; if we all try to force our way first through a tight doorway, it simply won’t work. If we sit back with the willingness to go last, each of us will get through, it’s just a matter of time. It also reminds us of the body that Paul later goes on to speak on, a body that we are all part of. Why would we be jealous of the talent our brothers and sisters have when we are all working towards the same goal. Placing us back in the parable, we are all working in the same vineyard and you have already been told you will be paid what is right … So why be jealous of what others have? C.H Spurgeon once put this much more succinctly than I ever could:
“If my hand has something in it, my foot does not say “Oh, I have not got it!” No, for if my hand has it, my foot has it; it belongs to the whole of my body.”
So, where does all of this fit into Jesus’ teaching of the first and the last? He is the vineyard owner - generous, wealthy, indiscriminate and reads from the heart. Would Jesus really want the rich man to go out and sell all of his possessions? Doubtful. I believe he wanted him to show that he was willing to do so. In the same way, the vineyard owner didn’t pay each man the same wage in order to implement some Communistic regime - he did it because he saw they were willing to work no matter the hour and rewarded them the just price. He doesn’t reward us for the work we do but for the decision to work for him at all - from the heart. It is this key factor that set Jesus so far apart from what the Messiah was expected to be like. He didn’t come to give eternal life to the two-faced zealots who followed the law to the letter and ‘worked’ the hardest but instead those who were truly willing to ask Jesus to meet them where they were at. The tax collectors, the prostitutes, any person with a heart for Immanuel - they wait all alone in the market, convinced of another day of destitution, but honestly willing to place themselves last. Of course, this is much easier said than done. “Impossible” (Matthew 19:26), in fact, according to Jesus. Yet with Immanuel this reversal becomes easy, the regular thing to do, the status quo. Just once you do, don’t lose sight of the fact that by reversing at all you are moving towards the true goal, a payment that is considerable enough to quell any grumblings about the hour. You just need to ask yourself if you want to be the first last or the last first.
Alex McElwee is a Dublin born student just entering into college as a fresh-faced and bushy-tailed nineteen year old. He hopes to enroll in the UCD arts block in September to study English and Classical Civilisations. Alex has loved writing from a young age, a passion that he likes to use in conjunction with his faith. When you’re not catching him waxing poetically in his notebook you might find Alex reading the works of F. Scott Fitzgerald, drinking coffee by the litre or working out in a suspect warehouse gym.