The Last will be First and the First will be Last
The gospel for this coming Sunday (Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost) is Matthew 20:1-16. This text is the account of the Labors in the Vineyard.
Jesus’ story will explain or ground why there are many first ones who will be last and last ones who will be first (19:30; also 20:16). This parable, the second longest one in the Gospel of Matthew, is a wonderful and suspenseful story, carefully crafted to reveal that in the most important way, all disciples are equal in the present and future reign of God in Jesus. The story exhibits a simple overall structure of two parts. In 20:1-7, Jesus tells of a householder who goes out five times during the day to hire laborers to work in his vineyard. In 20:8-15, the laborers come at the end of the day to receive their wages. The ensuing conversation between the vineyard lord and the group hired first provides both a corrective warning and a blessed promise to all Jesus’ disciples, then and now, as we wait for the final day of reckoning. The parable closes (20:16) when Jesus reverses the aphorism of 19:30. The parable’s message is simple but profound: God treat all those who are workers in the reign of heaven the same; owing to God’s grace, there is no distinction on the Last Day.
The Kingdom of Heaven here it is the Kingdom of grace, the visible church on earth, which will be consummated in the Kingdom of glory, v 8. Jesus is not speaking of the kingdom of power. All ideas of labor and management or of capital and labor must be laid aside. Jesus is plainly speaking of how he deals with members of the church, among whom are hypocrites.
The three intermediate groups of workers recruited by the householder (at the third, sixth, and ninth hours) are entirely absent in the second half of the parable (20:8-15). Their chief function is to create and build suspense about the wages that will be paid, for the householder promises this third middle group: “Whatever may be just I will give you.”
The landowner takes the initiative and hires men at about five P.M., unheard of, and purposely so, for Jesus is speaking about the Kingdom of Heaven, the Kingdom of grace on earth.
Among those who have worked the longest we may find many proud and conceited persons, who rely on their long hours of work in the church and despise those who have worked but little, who insist on their rights, and are offended at the grace and goodness of God.
The master’s decision to be generous with those hired last does not mean he has shortchanged those hired first, On the contrary, those hired first receive the wage mutually agreed upon. Being part of God’s kingdom is not based on earning or deserving anything but rather on grace.
Serving the Lord’s kingdom is a privilege and labor of love, not something undertaken to gain a reward. Through forgiveness and the renewing work of God’s Spirit, we can indeed be used by God for vital service in His kingdom.
Prayer: Keep me ever mindful, Lord, that it is only by grace that I have been included in your kingdom and am privileged to serve in it. Amen. (TLSB)