The upside down Kingdom – “The first will be last and the last will be first”
Parables were told by Jesus to answer questions, they were often used for shock value to get us thinking or to expose something in the hearer’s hearts.
Context of where this parable falls in Matthew:
Instructing the disciples on the way of life that their soon to be crucified but risen Lord requires in the reign of heaven:
Community relationships marked by humility, mutual consideration 18:1-14
19-20 utilize the audience’s knowledge of the four standard elements of the ancient world’s
hierarchical household structure to propose a different order for households of the reign of God.
Jesus resists the unlimited power of the husband over the wife 19:3-12,
calls all disciples to live the marginal existence of children 19:13-15,
opposes the use of wealth as the means of defining human identity and social
relationships 19:23, 16-30,
Urges all disciples to imitate Jesus’ act of service (his death, 20:17-19, 28 as servants and
slaves for each other 20: 17-28.
He offers disciples roles of the marginalized, eunuchs, children, and servants and slaves.
This parable comes right after the question of Peter “Then Peter said in reply, “See, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?
Jesus answers with “Truly, I say to you, in the new world, when the Son of Man will sit on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. 29 And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life. 30 But many who are first will be last, and the last first.” Followed by this parable.
So what is Jesus getting at here?
This parable has had many interpretations
Historical allegory: Spans Israel’s history
Theological eisegesis: To teach that God’s appointed way of salvation is by grace
and not by works
Social: pointing out the care of the landowner for the oppressed
Urgency: of the harvest – bringing others into the Kingdom
In light of where it falls and who Jesus is speaking to, I believe it is much simpler than these in depth interpretations and that it can affect us in the same way it must have affected the disciples who heard it. It is intended to shock our sensitivities.
I believe it was meant as a heart check and as a warning as well as a message of God’s scandalous grace and to teach us how God’s values are so very different from the values of the world we live in.
Let’s put this in present day context:
You work a job that you love, you work 40 hours a week and get paid $45,000 a year. You are at the annual Christmas party and you are seated next to someone who does the same job as you. In speaking with them you come to know that they only work 15 hours a week. They proceed to tell you they love the job as well and can’t believe that they have a job they love and how gracious the owners are to pay them $45,000 salary and can imagine that you do very well working the 40 hours a week that you do. How do you feel in that moment? Suddenly your perspective shifts and your attitude changes.
Let’s go back to the culture the story was told in and imagine the two perspectives of the day laborers that night when explaining their day to their wives.
God’s value system is scandalous! What a strange merit system – regardless of labors expended no one earns either more or less than the other – God’s gift is lavish and right.
We like fairness – assurance, order, predictability, control, hierarchy. We live in and promote a wage based society.
What happens when divine goodness trumps human fairness? – Grace is dangerous. It reverses business as usual.
Grace reveals the goodness of God. Wages reveal human effort. Grace seeks unity and inclusion. Wages make distinctions and separate.
Tragedy of a wage based life – blinds us to the presence of grace, can make us resentful of grace, goodness and beauty in the life of another. Separates/isolates us from others, we set up standards and expectations of others and eventually of God.
Neither group owned the vineyard; both groups needed work and were invited to join in the work.
We see this theme throughout God’s word: The sinful woman who wept at Jesus feet – neither could pay the debt. The prodigal son (compare perspectives).
Two lessons for me through this passage:
Perspective: have I lost the thrill of partnering with God on His mission, how has my love and thrill of him grown cold? (share examples) Judgement: the judgements I have made on others (share examples). What happens in your heart when you make a judgement?
The lavish grace of God in comparison to our human understanding and capacity.
How do we live from the proper perspective? How do we get there?
Phil. 2:3-11 – the humility (mindset) that is ours in Christ Jesus – two different interpretations
We cry out to God, to break us and change our hearts, to renew our passion and the awe of His grace in our lives, to break our judgmental attitudes.
So what is the message for each of us and for this community? What areas does the Lord want to address in us?
May we all be led to a shocking examination of our perspectives and our hearts, leading to humility and unity in the body of Christ!