“The last will be first, and the first will be last”

This is the last sentence from Matthew 20: 1-16. We have read it a few times elsewhere in Matthew.

In this reading, Jesus tells the disciples the parable of the landowner who hires workers for his vineyard and pays them all the same regardless of the time of day they start work. When one of the workers who started the earliest complains that he is being paid unfairly, because he spent the most time working in the hot sun, the landowner rebukes him.

“My friend, I am not cheating you.
Did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage?
Take what is yours and go.
What if I wish to give this last one the same as you?
Or am I not free to do as I wish with my own money?
Are you envious because I am generous?”

And Jesus ends the parable with the words, Thus, the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

There are many ways of looking at this parable. Some in this day of labor law might wonder that Jesus thinks it’s OK to pay someone less for doing more work. Others in this day of fewer worker rights might see it as justification for paying less for working harder. But Jesus’ message here, as when he says it in other parts of Matthew, has little to do with paying workers for their labor and everything to do with salvation.

People often put themselves first over others because of their wealth, because of their position of power or popularity, or because they were the first to accept Christ as their Savior. What Jesus says here is that prominence or imminence isn’t eminence. In the kingdom of God, faith is what matters. Not when it occurred, not in what order, but the fact that you obtained it. In faith, we are equals. But if you put yourself above others, as in other matters of life you will be received as the lesser.

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