Being last in anything often brings shame and embarrassment. I feel like I failed if I get last—my reputation ruined. Thus, I often succeed in not being the very last. Yet, whenever I see Jesus’s words about the “last”, I wonder if the mentality not to be last whatever the cost, proves wrong.
Jesus says, “Many who are first will be last, and the last first” (Matthew 19:30).
We don’t easily digest this “be last” mindset in the success-driven world we live in. The most skilled, the “elite”, and the first-placers rise up in order to get rewarded with wealth, prestige, and reserved parking slots.
But Jesus calls for a correction of our perspective. He pulls back the reigns on our natural pursuit of self-aggrandizement.
The Story of the Vineyard Workers
Jesus illustrates to his disciples the difference between the reward system of God’s kingdom and worldly accolades in the parable of the vineyard workers in Matthew 20:1-16.
He says, “For the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard” (v.1). The landowner goes out looking for men at three different times, hires everyone he can, and promises to pay each a denarius.
At the end of the day, when the landowner goes out for the last time, he finds people still waiting to be hired (v.6). It seems that other landowners passed them by and hired others, for they reply, “Because no one hired us,” when asked why they remained idle (v. 6-7). This landowner hires these men, though the day is almost done. He tells them he will pay them “whatever is right” for their work, which turns out to equal the same wage as the ones who worked much longer (v.4-5).
Immediately prior to this parable, Peter’s asks a question of Jesus that reveals that he embraced a low reputation in the world, but still struggled with pride. Like Peter, one can be low on society’s totem pole, but still lifted too high in their heart.
He and the disciples had given up everything they had to follow Jesus, so he asked Jesus what they would get in return (Matthew 19:27).
Perhaps Jesus’s purpose for the parable is to show Peter (and us) the importance of trusting God for the reward of our work, and to stop thinking we deserve more than he gives.
In the parable, the all-day workers believe they deserve more than the others who worked less. This makes sense by worldly standards (Matthew 20:10). Like the early workers, Peter thinks the disciples deserve a reward for being more obedient than others—like the rich young ruler they just heard about (Matthew 19:16-24).
But, the landowner simply wishes to give the same wage to the laborers who worked less (Matthew 20:13-15). He does so out of his generosity. And, though he was true to his word, it bruises the vanity of the others. He says:
“But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?” (Matthew 20:13-15)
It turns out that the reason for the landowner’s generosity is rooted entirely in his own character, and not in the recipient. He graciously gives to each what he wishes—though he never does so unfairly.
The point Jesus makes gets to the heart of the workers he hired first—the Peters—and those of us who think we deserve more than we should.
Jesus assures us of a reward, but it will be different from our worldly expectations. God says that he rewards differently than the world rewards—he does so according to the generosity of his own heart.
God’s Ultimate Generosity
God generously grants us the faith to believe in Jesus Christ. It says in his Word, “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us…For by grace you have been saved through faith…not as a result of works, so that no man may boast” (Romans 5:8, Ephesians 2:8-9).
We don’t deserve to escape God’s wrath because of our sin. This undeserved gift of salvation in Jesus Christ is the epitome of God’s generosity.
God may give others more than we think they deserve, and he may give us less than we think we deserve. But praise God that he has not given those of us in Christ what we actually deserve! Every gift God gives comes by grace—from our salvation to the reward of our work (Romans 2:6).
And, God will never be unfair, for he is just:
“The Rock, his work is perfect, for all his ways are justice. A God of faithfulness and without iniquity, just and upright is he.” (Deuteronomy 32:4)
He will be, and has been, more than fair and abundantly generous to those who receive Christ as Lord and Savior. And for that we praise him.
His Promise to Exalt the Humble
To be first in the kingdom is to be last in our sense of deserving—desiring praise from the world and from God for what we’ve done. God will humble us if we ask him, change our perspective, and he will reward us justly in due time:
Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you. (1 Peter 5:6)
Thus, let us focus on the object of our service—God himself—more than any earthly reward. When we joyfully work and serve with our eyes on Christ and what he’s already given us, we won’t long for more.
But, we do have the gracious promise that we will be rewarded for our good work done in Christ’s strength (Colossians 3:24). It’s important to see any good we do as Christ working in us and not our self-motivated obedience (John 15:5). God will be faithful to exalt the humble; therefore, in light of God’s generosity, let us be zealous for good works as those who are weak and imperfect, but who have a mighty and generous Savior.