“The first shall be last and the last shall be first.” At a quick glance one wonders if this is Jesus’ version of the tortoise and the hare. But that fable has a winner and a loser. And Jesus’ story doesn’t have a winner or loser, just the first and last being reversed. At the end of the day, each person receives the same amount. Does that mean that someone loses? Or that they all win?
This story appears only in Matthew’s gospel, and it seems to be part of the extended answer to the question from the rich young person – who approaches Jesus and asks what must be done to “possess eternal life.” Jesus responds that you must keep the commandments – plus sell all that you have and give the money to poor people. And then the treasure you have will be in heaven instead of what you are used to here on earth.
Who can accept this teaching? Not the rich young person. The person walks away sad, even despairing. There is no hope to own eternal life if that is how one gets it.
We may feel the same way. Those of us who have enough money to get along, more than enough to be comfortable. We may feel like the rich young person. What is the use? I can’t sell everything I have. That would be impossible, unimaginable, irresponsible.
Jesus sees the despair as the rich young person walks away. He hears the confusion in the disciples’ voices. So he gives them a story to help them understand what he means when he says “the first will be last and the last will be first.”
Does the story help?
Jesus describes the reign of God, which is distinctly different from the reign of Caesar that Jesus and his disciples are used to living under. In the reign of God, the owner goes out to the market place where those who are desperate to find work hang out. The owner doesn’t have a manager do the hiring. The workers are hired by the owner.
In the kingdom of Caesar, the owner sits back in comfort and orders others to hire the underlings. Caesar oversees the important stuff, cultivates relationships with important people, makes sure everything runs smoothly. Caesar bosses people around indiscriminately. Caesar doesn’t go out on the street and hire lowly day laborers. What kind of business owner does that?
A few hours into the day, more people are needed. It is a good year for grapes; they have to be picked. In the reign of God, the owner goes out to the marketplace to look for more workers. Five times during the day the owner returns to that back parking lot where the hopeful wait. Each time there are workers available, happy to work instead of just standing in the heat. Happy to work instead of worrying about how they will feed their families that evening.
At the end of the workday, in Caesar’s kingdom, you might not get paid at all, not that day, not ever. Caesar’s people decide and they can change their minds or not. You just never know.
But in the reign of God, at the end of the work day, people are always paid. The owner tells a manager to line everyone up to receive their pay. The only unpredictable thing is that they queue up in the order they were hired. Those hired last will get paid first and those hired first will get paid last.
All the workers have been promised a daily wage, a fair wage. But now as those early workers watch the pay being handed out to those who only worked an hour or three, they begin to imagine what might actually be in store for them. Surely since we have worked since early in the morning they will get paid more. I mean, c’mon.
But this is not Caesar’s kingdom, this is the reign of God. There are no false promises. The workers were promised a daily wage, and they are paid what they were promised, a daily wage.
For many of us, this is just infuriatingly unfair. Is it even legal? How can this be an efficient or effective way to run a business? It makes absolutely no sense for the owner to spend so much time hiring workers and then pay everyone the same amount no matter how much they work.
I have to keep reminding myself that Jesus is not teaching a course in business management; he is describing the reign of God. And in the reign of God everyone gets what they need, a daily wage. It shouldn’t be all that much of a surprise. Remember the prayer that Jesus teaches earlier in the gospel of Matthew? “Give us this day our daily bread.”
We are not the only ones who struggle with this teaching. The rich young person walked away. Even the disciples don’t really get it. Soon after hearing this story, James and John have their mother ask Jesus if her two faithful sons, who have been with him since the beginning, can’t they have the best seats, on either side of him, in heaven? All that time on the road with him ought to count for something.
Maybe James and John think “the first will be last and the last will be first” is only about money. Maybe they think this story is just about a daily wage, not an eternal wage (even though the rich young person asks about eternal life.)
So is this one of Jesus’ many teachings on money or is it more of a spiritual lesson? Wouldn’t it be a whole lot easier if we took the actual money out of it, if these were spiritual wages that are being paid rather than actual paychecks?
I have been living with this parable for several months, ever since I read theologian James Alison’s take on the story.
Alison describes how there are always the early workers, who toil in the vineyard, who take the risk to work in the heat of the day. They put themselves out there, literally “come out” when it is not safe to do so. Alison tells the story of two such people who took a lot of heat for being out, for working hard to make more space for others.
And when some others eventually came out, were “hired” to also work in the vineyard, they were welcomed by the early workers and handed tools for the important work that still remained. The early workers did not begrudge those late to “come out.” Instead the early workers took a lesson from the owner of the vineyard. The early workers saw that there was still much work to be done so they handed the late ones buckets and said, “Start harvesting grapes. We are all in this together.” The early workers did not look to make more than the later folks, either in wages or recognition or status. The early workers welcomed those late to the game. How amazing that there is no bitterness, just joy at having more people to work in the vineyard.
Reading Alison’s description, I felt as if Jesus caught me in my own self-righteousness. Am I not an early worker who has been toiling in the hot sun for days and months and years? Don’t I deserve more recognition? But Jesus says, “No, it is a privilege to work, it is a gift to train the next workers. And you will be paid, you will receive what is fair. And besides, look around you. You believe that you arrived early to work but in reality, you are one of the last hired. What a gift you are being given, to work side by side, to learn from those who have been in the vineyard for months and years and decades.”
So is this a teaching about time or money? Is this teaching spiritual or practical?
One thing for sure, in Caesar’s kingdom there are rules for how time and money function. In the reign of God, it’s not clear how – or if – time and money work at all. Remember how we are told that to God a thousand years is like a day? Remember how a widow who gives a penny is giving more than all the other givers combined?
In God’s reign, it is not about being first or last. It is not how much money you receive or how much time you put in. In God’s reign we are all called by the owner, at different times and maybe in different parking lots. We all are invited to work together in the vineyard community. And we all receive the same pay, given in love with grace.