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First and last

Flipping a favourite parable on its head.

We’re in our final few days of the season of Epiphany. A season all about noticing the light that enters our darkness. The light that often seems foreign, so contrary to our way of seeing the world.

Jesus told stories to help us picture the light. They usually included something surprising and confusing. Why isn’t the Sower more careful with the seed? We should not pull up the weeds? You welcome that scoundrel brother back? It’s OK for the steward to change the amount owed the master?

When it comes to money, our world’s god, it is very confusing. Our “common sense” says that those who work get paid. Those who work the hardest get paid the most. So why would the vineyard owner pay workers who worked 12 hours the same as those who worked one (Matt. 20:1-16)? That’s not fair, as any three-year-old will tell you. How could the Kingdom of Heaven be like this?

Giving

The simple answer is grace. We do not earn our way in. Yes, but doesn’t our work have value? Shouldn’t that be rewarded? Jesus promises an abundant inheritance for those who choose to leave the things of this life to follow him (Matt. 19:29). This contrasts with the rich man who could not give up his wealth to follow (Matt. 19:16-22). Should we give to get? Is that “the game”?

Expectations

At first the vineyard parable sets the expectations. The first workers will get a day’s wage for a day’s work. The next workers will get what’s fair. There is no discussion of pay for the next three groups, but we expect the pattern of fairness.
The privileged will see themselves in the first groups. They will work faithfully and expect fairness. Some might, sadly, see themselves in the last group. Life has not been fair or kind. No one has given them a job. They have been neglected and feel worthless. They have little expectation.

Surprise! A day’s wage for an hour’s work. The privileged expect more. They grumble. They enhance their case by emphasizing their hardships.

I understand these first workers and identify with them. Why? Because I am privileged, but more. Because my middle-class Western upbringing has taught me that I earn my own way. I sometimes compare myself to others and expect more rewards.

Unexpected

I did not anticipate being told I am not in charge nor that my sense of justice is wrong, having made justice more important than grace. I did not expect my greed to be called out.

I have an evil eye (translated as “envious”). I look at others wrongly. To those richer and more privileged I look wantingly. To the poor I look haughtily, maybe accusingly. Where is grace?

I am not alone. As I write this, an American Senator has refused to support a social welfare bill saying the poor would just waste the money on drugs and time off for sickness or parenting leave would be used for hunting. Others complain that taxes take what is rightfully theirs.

Proverbial Wisdom

Wrapping this story is the proverb that “the first will be last and the last will be first.” When we hear this in the context of Matthew 19, it sounds like the eschatological reversal. Those who are wealthy and selfish in this world will be overturned in the next. We could self-righteously hear this as us poor followers of Jesus, who have sacrificed in obedience, will ultimately win. In part, yes, but there is a twist.

After the parable of the vineyard workers, the proverb is reversed to “the last will be first and the first last.” Now my privilege is challenged. Now the proverb is even questioned. Should it be all about who is first or last, about winning?
We compete to outdo each other and to gain accordingly. God’s Kingdom is defined by community. It puts us all on the same footing. Look at yourself before God, not in comparison with others. This is how Luke 13:30 uses the last/first proverb responding to the question of how many will be saved. Last AND first, first AND last. This is God’s new community.

Author

  • Tom Wolthuis

    Dr. Thomas Wolthuis is a CRC pastor serving as the English pastor of the Chinese Church of Iowa City. He has been a campus minister, institute president, professor, pastor, and church planter. His Biblical Studies podcasts are at www.geneva-ui.org.

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