The last shall be first and the first last
Have you ever discovered a co-worker’s salary? How did it affect you? It can be deeply destabilizing.
There are good reasons that offices issue their payslips in sealed envelopes. Knowing the wages of fellow labourers can inspire volatile jealousy and tear a workplace apart. But why should it?
Well, human beings are incurable rankers. We constantly assess ourselves against others.
There is within us a deep-seated feeling that “I am not ok”. And we seek to drown out its intolerable voice by shouting “But I’m not as bad as him! And I certainly deserve more than her!” To use the technical term, we are committed to an intensive and almost unceasing programme of self-justification.
Nervously, we eye the front of the queue and, whether through hard work or just self-deception, we put ourselves forward. Maybe not to the head of the queue. But pretty far along. Further than most!
And while we jostle for the front, the Judge of the World arrives to announce: “The front is the back and the back is the front!”
It’s a sword-thrust through the heart of self-justification.
And how do those at the front feel?
Well let’s read this familiar story from Jesus to get a sense of it:
For the kingdom of heaven is like unto a man that is an householder, which went out early in the morning to hire labourers into his vineyard. 2 And when he had agreed with the labourers for a penny a day, he sent them into his vineyard. 3 And he went out about the third hour, and saw others standing idle in the marketplace, 4 And said unto them; Go ye also into the vineyard, and whatsoever is right I will give you. And they went their way. 5 Again he went out about the sixth and ninth hour, and did likewise. 6 And about the eleventh hour he went out, and found others standing idle, and saith unto them, Why stand ye here all the day idle? 7 They say unto him, Because no man hath hired us. He saith unto them, Go ye also into the vineyard; and whatsoever is right, that shall ye receive. 8 So when even was come, the lord of the vineyard saith unto his steward, Call the labourers, and give them their hire, beginning from the last unto the first. 9 And when they came that were hired about the eleventh hour, they received every man a penny. 10 But when the first came, they supposed that they should have received more; and they likewise received every man a penny. 11 And when they had received it, they murmured against the goodman of the house, 12 Saying, These last have wrought but one hour, and thou hast made them equal unto us, which have borne the burden and heat of the day. 13 But he answered one of them, and said, Friend, I do thee no wrong: didst not thou agree with me for a penny? 14 Take that thine is, and go thy way: I will give unto this last, even as unto thee. 15 Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own? Is thine eye evil, because I am good? 16 So the last shall be first, and the first last: for many be called, but few chosen. (Matthew 20:1-16)
Question: Into whose shoes do you naturally put yourself in this story?
Most church folk see themselves in the hardest working labourers. And their cries of “Unfair!” resonate with us, even if we might never be so bold as to voice such a ‘murmur.’
Rarely do religious types think of themselves as those standing idle because “no man hath hired” them. Yet, if we are Gentiles, that is our story. We have been passed over for generations while God established His vine, Israel. We have been invited in at the last minute and lavished with the blessings of Abraham.
So really it doubly reveals my self-justification. I’ve actually worked some of the shortest hours and I’m tempted to feel cheated! How deep our sense of entitlement runs!
But here is the rock on which our self-justification is dashed: the goodness of Jesus. This is a stunning truth. Any who grumble against the judgement of Jesus will find themselves grumbling against His generosity.
Friend, I do thee no wrong: didst not thou agree with me for a penny? 14 Take that thine is, and go thy way: I will give unto this last, even as unto thee. 15 Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own? Is thine eye evil, because I am good?
The penny was a perfectly reasonable day’s wage. If these grumblers had never known about their neighbours’ pay they wouldn’t even think to murmur. But they don’t just want pay, they want more pay than others. And Jesus puts His finger on their problem – their “evil eye.” This just means their jealousy. They want to be rewarded and vindicated as better than others. But the Lord refuses to play along. He wants to be generous. And so He makes a show of His equal pay to all.
He doesn’t quietly lavish the undeserving with grace, He publicly does it. He is declaring to all that generosity is the very atmosphere of His kingdom. Therefore self-justification is out.
There can be no murmuring, no entitlement spirit, no ranking in Christ’s Kingdom. While we jostle for the head of the queue, Jesus shows up at the back – the lowest of the low. He serves and suffers and bleeds and dies the most shameful death. And He – the Servant – is vindicated as Lord. The Last became First. He made the back of the queue into the front.
Meantime, all those clambering to the “front” find that it leads only to further jealousy, back-biting and gnashing of teeth.
The implication is clear. Give up the self-justification. Give up the comparisons and the competition. Don’t despise the generosity of Jesus. Depend on it.