Forming Faith Blog

Laborers, Lasts & Firsts (March 17, 2019)

As we continue our journey through the season of Lent, we also are continuing Jesus’ teachings on how strange to us are the ways the kingdom of heaven. We started with an argument over who is the greatest in the kingdom (Ash Wednesday) and then heard of God’s extravagant forgiveness (Lent 1) for us, which we are expected to share with others.

Laborers in the Vineyard

To anyone familiar with the parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard, we might have heard it taught and proclaimed as about God’s gracious gifts in the kingdom. All are loved and no one is more deserving of God’s gracious just because we’ve been at it longer or done more. I think this is certainly true.

However, what confuses me are the statements that bookend this parable:

“But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first”

Matthew 19:30

“So, the last will be first, and the first will be last”

Matthew 20:16
Laborers in Line?

If Jesus is speaking about sequential order from the parable, then this makes perfect, literal sense. The laborers who showed up last were the first ones to get paid; the laborers who showed up first were the last ones to get paid. But, merely identifying the sequential order of the story is not the point here. Either there is special meaning attached to the order in which the landowner chooses to pay the laborers, or these bookends mean something else. Since the emphasis and twist of the story are about how much each is being paid, the order seems more to serve the plot twist than special significance beyond that.

What They Needed

So, this first/last thing is not about where one is in a line. Not surprising. It would be strange if that were the case. But, in this parable, the owner gives each laborer what they need. I assume from context that a denarius a day is a fair, livable wage. Enough to get by until the next day. The workers who came early in the morning were likely pleased with the honest work and happy with the wage. The latecomers might have been passed over by others and unable to work, unable to provide for themselves and their families (perhaps). They may have wondered how they were going to pay for food and other necessities.

The landowner took care of this. He not only gave them work when no one else did (for whatever reason) but provided them with what they needed (one might say, daily bread). In this case, the needs of all the laborers were the same, so the wage (or gift) was the same. Were the first and last here the order in which the laborers were hired?

Who Are the Firsts?

That shows more promise. But, if we’re to discover a deeper, more applicable meaning here, we need to think about the significance of why some were hired first, and some were hired last. I’m making suppositions here, so feel free to disagree with me.

Those hired first were the most qualified. They were motivated, hard-working, and energetic. They got up early and showed up ready to go. My question is: how did they get this way? Every effect has a cause, so how did these people get so motivated and hard-working? I think at least part of it was privilege. They probably wouldn’t think themselves privileged (none of us do), but something gave them a boost up. A good upbringing, enough to eat, good health, even personality, a strong will, and other innate qualities. This doesn’t negate the decisions they made to get up and work hard. It just makes it easier.

Who Are the Lasts?

What about those who were hired last? Were they there all day, but considered to be unsuitable candidates? Did they just get there? It would be too easy to dismiss them as lazy, but then we should remember Jesus teaching us not to judge others. What would make them unsuitable? Bad health, low energy, bad attitude? Why would they be late? Maybe the same things. They could have been sick, with a sick relative, or taking care of their own small plot of land. We only know their self-reported “Because no one hired us” (20:7). In these cases, the “lasts” had less privileges. They did not start at the same place as the “firsts.”

Bad Business Advice

The twist in this parable is that the owner gives the laborers their “wages” not related to the quantity of their work (paid by the hour), but their need. Definitely not a good way to run a business or encourage a good work ethic. But Jesus isn’t giving a lesson in a business class. He is teaching about the kingdom of heaven which God does not run like a business. God gives us what we need, not what we deserve.

Call to Follow

This is a teaching moment, not only about God’s grace, but God’s call for the disciples. God does not give generously based on what people deserve. Jesus certainly did not become incarnate and endure the cross (20:17-19) because we deserve it. Neither should we treat others how they “deserve” to be treated. Jesus calls us to become last, “whoever wished to be first among you must be your slave” (20:27).

Privilege and Children?

All of this talk about privilege and the laborers is clearly not the best interpretive path to teach children, either by themselves or in a cross+generational environment. It would, however, be an interesting and fruitful conversation for adults, and even youth. For kids, the importance is for them to be able to retell the parable, and to know that God does not give us the love we deserve, but what God knows we need. As followers of Jesus, we are called to treat others the same way.

A fun way to reflect on the strange twist of this passage is through an adapted game of musical chairs! “Last Will Be First” is from our Living the Word: Cross+Gen Education curriculum. This would be a tricky activity to incorporate into worship (please let me know if you do!), but it could be used in all ages, although an adult group might be hard to convince.

May God bless you this Lenten season.

In Christ,

-Gregory Rawn (Publisher)

Lent is here! That means it’s time to order Spring Living the Word faith formation resources (covering Lent through Pentecost Sunday)! As soon as your payment is processed, you can download the materials and start using them!

Year 2 (2019-2020) products have launched! Check out the announcement blog post for more details!

For more great ideas on how to engage participants of all ages in the story of God’s love, check out our complete Living the Word series for elementary students, youth, adults, and intergenerational settings!

Be sure to download our free Narrative Lectionary 2018-2019 Planning Tool and Scope & Sequence. The 2019-2020 Planning Tool, NL Readings Overview, and Scope & Sequence are available to download, too!

Image Copyright: Stas Walenga