The last shall be first and the first last

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Matthew 20:1-16

Have you ever discovered a co-worker’s salary?  How did it affect you?  It can be deeply destabilising.

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?

Read Matthew 20:1-16

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? Take that thine is, and go thy way:  I will give unto this last, even as unto thee.  Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own? Is thine eye evil, because I am good?” (Matthew 20:13-15)

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.

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