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The first shall be last

Matthew 20:1-16

Pastor David Ernst

Epiphany Lutheran Mission of La Caramuca  
Barinas, Venezuela

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Sun, Feb 13, 2022 

Grace and peace in our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

Our gospel for today is actually a commentary on Matthew 19:27-30. Then Peter answered and said to him: Behold, we have left everything and we have followed you; what then shall we have? And Jesus said to them, "Assuredly, I say to you, in the regeneration, when the Son of Man sits on the throne of his glory, you who have followed me will sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And whoever has left houses, or brothers, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands for my name, shall receive a hundredfold, and shall inherit eternal life. But many who are first shall be last, and those last first. ." The first part is Jesus' response to Saint Peter and the apostles; the second applies to all Christians. The entire parable explains that last sentence, "But many who are first shall be last, and the last shall be first."

This parable is often called the parable of the hours, since the length of the workday, from six in the morning to six in the evening, is an important element in the story told by Jesus. His Church, as it appears before men, as his work is carried out before them and for their salvation, is like the owner of a vineyard. Such a person could be found almost any morning, in the early hours, since he was forced to go out and hire workers so that the ripe fruit would not rot. For a denarius a day he contracted with the workers; that was the usual daily wage. Three hours later, the householder left again, at nine o'clock. In the market square in the center of town, where unemployed workers gathered and waited for some employer to hire them, he found other jobless unemployed. In hiring these men, no definite sum was stipulated, his promise being simply that he would do what was right and just for them; he would give them what he considered fair wages. At noon and at three in the afternoon the same process was repeated, with the same contract agreed in the same way.

But the last pass of the day was especially noteworthy. It was five o'clock in the evening when it became clear that the work at hand had to be finished that very night and that a sufficient number of willing hands could accomplish the task.

When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman: "Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last hired and continuing to the first." A prophetic allusion is made to the Last Judgment. The sunset of the life of each individual resembles the sunset of the world.

Christ shows here the peculiar and singular justice that is obtained in the kingdom of God. In temporal affairs, whatever a person does and deserves will be credited to him as a matter of just reward. But the custom of the kingdom of God is different. Whenever the question is raised as to how a person can be justified before God and saved, God's grace alone decides. He distributes the gifts of his kingdom according to his merciful will, and not according to his natural worth or unworthiness. It is true that there is a difference between those who are called to the kingdom. Some have endured the heat and burden of the day, have worked very diligently all their lives, have been diligent in all good works, have forsaken and denied many things for the name of Christ. Others have been converted late in life, having spent much of their lives following the vain dreams of the world. In the very evening of their lives they have heard and heeded the call of Jesus and have little time left to show their faith in good works. But as far as their relationship with God is concerned, they are on the same level as the first. One group, like the other, is saved by faith alone. And if among the first there are such people who are proud of themselves, who vainly point out their good deeds, the fact that they have worked successfully in the external kingdom of Christ, who are offended by the goodness and mercy of God towards the humble, cannot maintain their position in the Church of mercy. Not being willing to be saved like the publicans and sinners, like the thief on the cross, they lose their salvation altogether; they bring upon themselves damnation.

A senseless and unauthorized demand makes it unworthy of all consideration. It can only be due to malice, jealousy and envy, manifested in the darkened and hostile eye, that one is dissatisfied with the kindness of the master, with the generosity that goes beyond what the situation demands. And so Jesus repeats the lesson of history, chapter 19, 30: "The last shall be first, and the first shall be last." He who insists on the recognition of his works and merits in the judgment of the Ruler, he will find them woefully inadequate to capture the first place. Rather, this demand will result in a person being made the least and last in the kingdom of God, in danger of being lost forever.

"They began to complain" is used for the envious, self-righteous, rejecting, and soul-losing. It is never used of repentant sinners. In illustration, workers begin to complain only when they see that the last hired receive the same salary. In the application, this should not be limited to Judgment Day. What Jesus intends is for us to examine ourselves now, so that we don't lose our souls in the Great Judgment. He is warning Peter and all Christians about complaining now.

Furthermore, the parable should not literally apply only to people who have been Christians all their lives rather than those who become Christians at the hour of their death. He is talking about an attitude, an attitude of self-righteousness, of envious comparisons, with other Christians.

The complainer put his own judgment above that of the owner. The translations are correctly unanimous in treating as neuter, "with my own money, with what is mine." This question implies that the whisperer arrogated to himself the position of possessing and disbursing the money. The result is simply amazing. The generosity, kindness, grace and kindness of the owner makes them feel envy, hatred towards "the last ones". Nothing could be more perverted. The fault is not the grace of God, but entirely the envious.

Here Jesus makes application. "The last" are the repentant sinners who endure. "The first" are those, though knowing better, who fell prey to envy, disbelief, hypocrisy and comparison with others. Peter was warned and so are we.

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