First or last?

Pentax P50 (film scan from probably Ilford SP4 ASA 125) about 1988. (Click to enlarge)

Matthew 20:1-16

Imagine if in the place where you worked full-time, 9 to 5, six days a week, there were other employees who worked part-time, say in the afternoons, and there were still others who only came in for an hour at the end of each day. You might not have a problem with this initially because you would assume that those that worked less hours would get less money at the end of the week. But how would we feel however if the boss came round at the end of the week and gave the wage cheques to the one-hour-a-day workers first, then the part-timers and then us last of all, and to make it worse how angry would we be if they all got the same wage as us!?

This is what happens in the parable of the ‘workers who were paid equally’. In the Parable, the Lord tells us that the:

“The Kingdom of heaven is like this. Once there was a man who went out early in the morning to hire some men to work in his vineyard.”

Next we see that the Lord returned to the market place at 9 o’clock, where the men hung out waiting for someone to come and employ them for the day, and he hired them also. The same happened at 12 o’clock and at 3 o’clock. Even at 5 o’clock, when the working day was nearly over, the landowner went and hired still other men who were standing around.

Finally when the working day was over the landowner instructed the foreman to give out the wages to the workers. Those who were hired last, with only an hour of work to do, each received a silver coin, (which was the standard wage for a day’s work for a soldier or a labourer). On seeing this, the workers who were hired first then expected to receive more than they had agreed to at the beginning of the day. So when they were given their silver they were upset and grumbled. They said to the landowner:

“These men who were hired last worked only one hour, … while we put up with a whole day’s work in the hot sun – yet you paid them the same as you paid us!” (v.12)

The Landowner replied to one of them:

“Friend, I am not being unfair to you. Didn’t you agree to work for one silver coin? Take your pay and go. I want to give the man who was hired the last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?”

And then the Lord finishes off the parable with a statement that summarises all that he has been teaching here on the kingdom of heaven. In verse 16 he says:

“So the last will be first and the first will be last.”
What on earth does that statement mean? Basically it means that all those who in the world are first, i.e. those with wealth, education, position, prestige, talents etc. All those who are highly regarded and who all in society look up to, they will be last in the kingdom of God. The opposite side of the coin is that those who are last in the world, the poor, the uneducated, those at the bottom of the ladder, those who everybody tries to avoid, those who have no real quality of life at all, these who are last in the world will have first place in the kingdom of God.

This is of course consistent with what we read in the gospels; those that responded to Jesus were more often than not the outcasts of society, the poor, the blind, the lame the lepers, the tax collectors and the prostitutes. Conversely, the pillars of society, the religious leaders and rulers, the landowners and so on, as a whole they rejected the Lord. So it is that the last will be first and the first last. There are of course notable exceptions to this. In the gospels, important people such as Nicodemas who was a member of the Jewish ruling body, the Sanhedren, followed Christ, and there was the Roman Centurion also, who Jesus commended for having a strong faith in God. Likewise today, it would be foolish to say that no one who is privileged in society can be saved. There are numerous, politicians, leaders, wealthy people and celebrities who know and love the Lord Jesus as their Saviour, but no doubt they are greatly outnumbered by those much less fortunate from a worldly point of view.

So it shall be in heaven that we will probably be surprised at whom we may see there. There will be those pillars of society, even of the church that we might have been expecting to see, who will not be there. Likewise there will be those who we considered to be dropouts who will be there, the Lepers of our day, the druggies, the prostitutes and outcasts. Those who everyone else looks down on always have been very dear to the Lord. This reminds us of the Lord’s words to Samuel in 1 Samuel 16:7:

“The LORD does not look at the things that man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.”
That’s so true isn’t it? We judge each other so much by outward appearances. That’s why we dress up to go to church. We might even say that we want to look our best for the Lord as we do so. But the Lord doesn’t care so much about how nice our clothes and our hair and our teeth are. He looks at our hearts. He might say, ‘Well Daniel you’re looking very smart, if a little hot in that historical costume you’re wearing, but what about your heart?’ Is your heart washed and cleansed and looking it’s best as you come to church? The Lord would much rather we approached him dressed in rags, yet with a heart that loved Him first, than with our best M&S suit and tie or flowery dress, and a luke-warm heart. Of course it is possible to have a good heart and be smartly dressed, as many here clearly show ;-), but we must never forget that our priority is how are heart is, because that is where the Lord looks and what the Lord takes note of.

Just as in the parable, where the workers who were last got the same reward as all the workers that went before them, so we will find many others coming to faith in Jesus Christ who leave it a lot later in life than us. We’ve all heard about ‘death-bed conversions’, where people have lived their whole lives for themselves and then at the very last minute as death stares them in the face they turn to Christ. Think also of the thief on the cross next to Jesus. He had committed a crime serious enough to deserve the death penalty, yet by the grace of God he had a spark of faith, enough to believe in who Jesus is. The thief never got to go to church, never got to go to a Bible study, he never paid any envelopes in, he was never baptised. He simply said to the Lord ‘remember me when you enter your kingdom’, to which the Lord replied ‘I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.’

I’ve heard people who have been urged to turn to Christ, especially young people say that they want to live their lives first, how they want to make money and travel and so on, then when they are older they will give their lives to Christ! Firstly the longer we travel on the road of this world, the road of selfishness, and greed, the harder it is to get off it. The more worldly we become the harder it is to have faith in Christ. Secondly, as the saying goes ‘we may be run over by a bus tomorrow’. We never know what’s around the corner. It’s a really stupid thing to keep putting off giving our lives to Christ, because we do not know what will happen tomorrow. I’m sure that there are many poor souls for whom this is true, that they intended to give their lives to Christ, ‘but not yet’, and due to circumstances beyond their control, they died before being able to come to Christ. Again as the old cliché goes ‘the road to hell is paved with good intentions’.

So where are we in relation to the kingdom of God? Are we in God’s kingdom or not? Are we putting off giving our lives to Christ? If that is you, please do not delay any longer, because you do not know what tomorrow may bring. For those of us who have already given our lives to Christ, let’s make sure that our hearts are God-centred rather than self-centred. Let us show our gratitude to Christ by living our lives solely for Him, not grumbling and complaining about other people but by being ambassadors for Christ, that He might be able to use us that much more effectively for the service of His kingdom…

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