And The Last First

In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus tells Peter (at the end of chapter 19) of the blessings and glory that His followers will receive “in the regeneration” because they have left behind this-worldly security (wealth and family) to follow Christ.  However, He warns that “many who are first will be last, and the last first.”  The next verse (beginning chapter 20) begins with the word for, “For the Kingdom of Heaven is like….”

The Kingdom of Heaven is like a landowner hiring laborers to work in his vineyard, Jesus tells us.  The landowner goes out and finds laborers early in the morning, agrees to pay them a denarius (a day’s wages) to work in His vineyard.  Throughout the day, the landowner finds more laborers and sends them too out to work in the vineyard, agreeing to pay them “whatever is right.”  Then “at the eleventh hour,” at the very end of the day, he finds more laborers and sends them out into the vineyard.  Then when the work is done, the landowner pays the laborers, beginning with those hired last, giving them each a denarius.  Those hired first (and paid last) thought that they would receive more because they worked longer, but they were paid the same.  When they grumbled, the landowner points out to them that they were paid what they had agreed to receive, and then he asks them if their “eye is evil” (are they envious) “because I am good.”

And immediately Jesus reiterates, “so the last will be first, and the first last.”

When we hear this story, I think we forget that it is a parable of the Kingdom of Heaven.  We tend to hear it not as a parable of the Kingdom of Heaven, but rather as a morality tale presenting God (the landowner) as generous with his money (blessings), so we should be generous too.  And while we should be generous because God is generous, that is not what this parable is about.  It’s about the last being first and the first last.  To see this more clearly, it may help us to reflect on the fact that the denarius each laborer receives is not merely a unit of money, it is the image of the King.

The pay, the reward, the blessing and glory of the age to come is just that: we receive the clear image of the King.  Or to put it another way, “in the regeneration,” the image of God that has been tarnished and spoiled by sin (the old Adam) will be replaced by the renewed Image (the new Adam).  Or as St. John says, “When He appears, we will be like Him, for we will see Him as He is” (1John 3:2).

It seems to me that for all but the very holiest saints, this transformation (regeneration) will be quite a shock.  But for those of us who have labored in the vineyard for a while, who have in this life (and in some small ways) left houses and family and lands to follow Christ, the transformation will be much less of a shock than it could be.  Those who have shared even in the smallest ways in the sufferings of Christ in this life, will have already tasted in some small ways of the Glory, the Comfort, the Light and the Consolation of the age to come.  I don’t mean by this that all or even most of those already laboring in Christ’s vineyard have experienced the Glory, Comfort, Light and Consolation of the age to come in a way that they can point to and identify: “Ah, yes, this bit here and that bit there are instances of God’s Light and Consolation in my life.”  I don’t mean that at all.

Most of us are so sick and distracted by the diseases of this world, that even the Glory and Light of God shining brilliantly around us goes unnoticed.  We are truly blind.  But even as a blind man may not see the light of the sun, but nonetheless experience the blessings of its warmth, so we too, the spiritually blind, experience the warmth of God’s Grace in our lives, even if we are not able to identify it exactly.  But in the age to come, when all is Light and Grace, when our blindness is healed, then we will know.  Then we will say, “Aha, that’s what that is.  God has been so near to me all along.”  This is the joy of those who spend the day working in the vineyard.  They are with the Master, they are not experiencing the torment of those loitering on the streets, waiting because no one has hired them.  

The workers in the vineyard, because they are with the landowner, already know to some degree the joy of their Master, His kindness, His generosity–or at least they can know it, they can come to know it.  But sometimes they don’t.  Sometimes, like the workers in the parable, instead of rejoicing in their labor, in their nearness to the heavenly Landowner, in the love of the Master who has already promised them a denarius (His Image), they judge and evaluate others.  Instead of attending to their labor, the salvation of their own soul, they are attending to what others are or aren’t doing, how long or how hard others seem to be working.  Jesus tells us that these long-term laborers, those who appear to have been working for a long time but who are really not, these are the first that will be last.

The last who are first are those who are surprised, consumed, by the Master’s love and generosity.  They do not see what others do or don’t receive; they do not attend to what others have done or should do or might get: this is the attitude of the workers of the eleventh hour.  And I think that this attitude of the eleventh-hour workers is the attitude Jesus invites all His workers to embrace, regardless of how long they have been in the vineyard.  

St. Paul never stopped viewing himself as the least of the Apostles, as the chief of sinners.  The Apostle to the Gentiles had the attitude of an eleventh-hour laborer.  Regardless of our position in the Church or the number of years we have been laboring in the vineyard of Christ, it is, I think, possible to nurture the mindset, the attitude, of the last who will be first, of the eleventh-hour worker.  

May God help us to have the attitude of eleventh-hour workers even if we have “borne the burden and heat of the day.”  For this is our joy, to bear somewhat the burden and heat of the day, to get to be with the Master and share in His sufferings.  That God would include me, that God would invite me to share in what He is doing, this must always surprise and consume me, because as far as I am concerned, there is no greater love, no greater condescension, no greater miracle.

3 comments:

  1. "That God would include me, that God would invite me to share in what He is doing, this must always surprise and consume me, because as far as I am concerned, there is no greater love, no greater condescension, no greater miracle."

    Amen, Father!

  2. Isn't it somewhat problematic, though, to speak of this as a parable about "generosity", when the day labourers are paid only a denarius? Various scholars have pointed out that a denarius wasn't worth all that much and that it might not have even been enough for a poor man to feed his family for a day, or that the Greek word sometimes translated "generous" is more accurately translated "good", which would point to the fact that the landowner (who isn't really a "master", since he only hires these people for the day) was simply following the Torah in paying each labourer his wages at the end of the day. Plus, the landowner kind of insults the later day labourers by asking them why they're hanging around doing nothing — this, despite the fact that there is so little work to go around, and despite the fact that the landowner himself declined to hire them on his earlier visits.

    It may indeed be possible to draw lessons from the parable that hinge on the idea that the landowner is a stand-in for God, but to speak of the landowner's "love" and "generosity" goes far beyond the text, I think. Sometimes, as with the story of the "unjust judge", Jesus makes a comparison of some sort between the actions of God and the actions of an unlikeable human figure — and there may indeed be something like that going on here, or in the parable of the talents/minas, etc. But I think we risk losing the point of such parables when we make the human figures likeable.

  3. Dear Peter, perhaps you are right, and I am being a little too Alexandrian in my spiritualizing of the text. But I have to say that the land owner does have a few things going for him. He does pay the last workers a whole day's wage–whether that is unionized wage or not, I do not know. And wether he was generous or merely (?) good seems to me to be the same difference. And whether or not there was enough work to go around seems to me to be a bit of conjecture on your part (which I fully grant, being a chronic conjecturer myself). But If the workers had been hanging out all day (because there wasn't enough work) and not hired by the landowner (knowing they were there), and yet at the end of the day he comes back and hires them, that seems to me to speak pretty highly of the land owner.
    Nonetheless, I take your point that I am evoking interpretive licence here. Good comment.

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