“The Last Shall Be First”

Matthew 20:1-16

I know most theologians will tell you that this parable that Jesus tells us is about God’s grace—that God offers grace to anyone who comes to Him regardless of when they come to Him. But if you look at it with me from a different viewpoint, you might disagree with most. If we would, together, honor both the biblical text and the historical context much more, then perhaps you and I will see the story quite differently than most. Let me be clear: our goal is not to agree with the mainstream. Our goal is to agree with the Word. Our goal is to be as orthodox as we can. Orthodox meaning being true to the text because we are seeking to be most true to our Savior.

When we venture to do our biblical due diligence with this parable,
We find that it is perhaps not a simplistic story about God’s grace,
but a profound passage about economic exploitation.
Let’s look at the Scripture.

1For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. 2 He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard.

A denarius wasn’t even a day’s pay. It was barely enough to feed yourself for a day let alone your family. So the landowner did not even offer the workers he hired a living wage. That doesn’t sound like God to me.

“About nine in the morning he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. He told them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.”

The landowner didn’t even tell them how much he was going to pay them.
He just told them to trust him. After he just offered an unfair wage to the first workers he hired for the day, do we expect him to actually pay these later workers what’s right?

So they went.
“He went out again about noon and about three in the afternoon and did the same thing. About five in the afternoon he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?’
“‘Because no one has hired us,’ they answered.

Wait a second. They weren’t lazy. They weren’t doing anything because poor people are slothful. They were standing around because there were no jobs! They were standing around because no one would hire them. Is this becoming clear to you? The landowner made the assumption that poor people who can’t find work must be do nothings. And so whatever he was going to pay them was going to be less than a day’s wage because he could; because they needed the job. And guess who Jesus is telling this parable to? He’s telling this story to a bunch of poor working people. He was telling this story to those who were constantly subjected to this same exploitation. He was preaching to the choir. He wasn’t telling them “Too bad for you. I approve of the shaft you’ve been getting. And guess what? God is going to give you the shaft too. Just wait until you get to Heaven.” No, Jesus is encouraging them. Jesus is pointing out their adversary. Jesus is identifying their oppressor. He’s saying “Don’t worry, those crazy rich people who are keeping you down, who people constantly hold up in high esteem, will one day will be last.

What the landowner is doing is exploiting their desperation. What most heads of companies do is exploit you—they swallow you up and spit you out. They don’t care about you. I heard a CEO of a major company say just a few weeks ago “Our first responsibility is to our shareholders.” And he said it proudly and unequivocally. Shouldn’t your first responsibility as a major CEO be to your employees and their families? It was indicative of how the rich man sees the world and his role in it. His first concern is not you, it’s money. It’s making the most he can by getting the most out of you for the least amount he can pay you—for the least amount you will take.

“When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first. “The workers who were hired about five in the afternoon came and each received a denarius. 10 So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. 11 When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. 12 ‘These who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’ 13 “But he answered one of them, ‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? 14 Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. 15 Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’

I want you to get this. This deal is all done on the landowners’ own terms. The ruling elites of this world decide what is “right” for the rest of us according to their own interests. Let us, the rich, fix all your problems by doing more of what benefits us. Professor Obery Hendricks states “Jesus knew the beleaguered workers could never change their circumstances if they did not understand their own reality and the reasons for it. So He grasped their attention with a parable that highlighted the true injustice of their common situation. He painted in bold strokes the aspects of their plight they had not always focused on, if they ever had: the elites’ notion that their wealth gave them the right to play God.”

This is how the housemaster operates. The housemaster hides his duplicitous role in the workers’ trouble and desperation by faulting them for their problems. The housemaster calls you idle, he calls you lazy. And he says he’s going to help you by giving you a job—when his true intent is to exploit you, when his true intent is to pay you less than a day’s wage for an all day job. His true intent is to control you, to manipulate you for his own great gain. The last thing he would want you to do is to come together as workers, to unionize, to fight against the housemaster as a united front. If you did that he would be greatly challenged to hire anyone for the jobs that build our buildings, teach our children, make our cars, construct our roads and bridges and run our transportation systems without going to us as a collective body and coming to a collective bargaining agreement. This is important to understand as a Christian: Advocating for unions for the working class and the poor is biblical justice. In Isaiah 58, the prophet prophesies against the exploitation of workers in his prophecy about the true fast.

The prophet says,
2 For day after day they seek me out;
they seem eager to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that does what is right
and has not forsaken the commands of its God.
They ask me for just decisions
and seem eager for God to come near them.
‘Why have we fasted,’ they say,
‘and you have not seen it?
Why have we humbled ourselves,
and you have not noticed?’

“Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please
and exploit all your workers.

We want to talk about how spiritually minded we want to be. We want to talk about what it means to be spirit-filled? This is the manifestation of the Holy Spirit:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because He has anointed me to preach the good news to the poor…” (Luke 4)
This is what it means to be filled by Spirit of the living God. The Spirit of the Lord is upon us to be Jesus in the world. The Spirit of the Lord is upon us to be His hands and feet, to be His body in the world.

The house master claimed ignorance for the cause of the workers’ idleness. But it had been people like the housemaster whose manipulation of the populous was the reason for the idleness of the working class. It had been their own perverse planning. It had been their ubiquitous plotting that stole, that pillaged the wealth of the average worker. When most people read this, dare I say, when most Eurocentric scholars read this, they see this scripture in the simplicity of their own domineering complacency. They see this parable in the simplicity of their own sublime situation. They see this passage as a shout-out to salvation, an invitation for all to come to Jesus, both Jew and Gentile, regardless of how late in their coming they may be. But those eyes they see with don’t view this parable through the eyes of the exploited worker. Those eyes see through the eyes of the housemaster. Those eyes see through the eyes of people that sit on human thrones. For the eyes of the worker, who Jesus just so happens to be telling this parable to, sees, hears and feels a different reality. They don’t see a land owner. They don’t see a land master. In actuality, the term landowner in the English is a translation of the Greek word “oikio-despotes.” Oikios is house.  And the despotes means master. So they’re not hearing about a gracious land owner,

They see an exploitative, controlling, manipulative “house massa.” They see a plantation owner, a “go step and fetch it” kind of master. The housemaster could never be God in the story because the housemaster was cruel and unfair. The housemaster didn’t even give the workers that labored the longest for him enough pay to feed their families for a day.

But why explore the scripture any further? Why question the inconsistencies in their interpretation anymore? Why not just justify their perception of the housemaster by justifying everything He did and said? God forbid there is more contextual evidence and, thus, a more historically accurate interpretation; a much more sound and credible understanding of this parable that flies in the face of mainstream theology today. “But what about the first verse in the chapter ‘For the kingdom of Heaven is like a landowner…’, doesn’t that tell us clearly that the landowner is God?” It probably would if that was the first verse? This is the problem with the insertion of chapters. A new chapter leads us to assume that a new subject or topic has begun. But I don’t believe it has. Chapter 20 and v.1 is actually a seamless continuation of the verses before.

17…If you want to enter life, keep the commandments.”
18 “Which ones?” he inquired.
Jesus replied, “‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, 19 honor your father and mother,’ and ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’”
20 “All these I have kept,” the young man said. “What do I still lack?”
21 Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

This command contradicts the landowner in chapter 20 who was exploiting the poor.

22 When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth.
23 Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly I tell you, it is hard for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven.24 Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

That is why the last will be first, and the first (the landowner) will be last in the Kingdom. In the Kingdom of Heaven, God doesn’t act like the rich man whose disposition He despises here.

25 When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished and asked, “Who then can be saved?

Apparently, His disciples thought the rich were God’s favored people. But the next parable Jesus tells them that the rich are typically last and not first in the Kingdom of Heaven.

26 Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”
27 Peter answered him, “We have left everything to follow you! What then will there be for us?”
28 Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. 29 And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life.  30 “But many (of the rich people like that rich young ruler) who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.”

The Kingdom always has it right. And we who know the Lord are supposed to pray for His Kingdom to come, for His will to be done on earth as it already is in Heaven. We are supposed to pray for, work towards and advocate for the last to be treated like they’re the first. We are purposed with the responsibility and privilege to bring some Heaven down here on earth. We have a calling on our lives, a Spirit called the Holy Ghost upon us to set those who are oppressed free and to proclaim that the time of the Lord’s favor for them is now. The year of jubilee is now. They need to know that the people who are called to set the captives free are going to love on them, champion them, advocate for them, and help liberate them. Because, indeed, the last shall be first and the first shall be last