Forming Faith Blog

Laborers, Lasts & Firsts (Matthew 20)

In the Parable of the Laborers, Jesus gives downright bad business advice. But God’s kingdom isn’t a business. God doesn’t give us what we deserve but what we need.

One of the laborers working in a vineyard.
Image Copyright: Stas Walenga

As we continue our journey through the season of Lent, we also are continuing Jesus’ teachings on how strange to us are the ways of the kingdom of heaven. Last week, we heard about the ridiculousness of God’s forgiveness.

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 can’t be the point here. Either there is a 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 have heard variously that a denarius is enough to get through a day or that a family needs two denarii to survive. Since the first laborers seemed satisfied with the offered wage, I’m going to assume that it is a fair, livable wage. So, the first laborers knew that they would be earning enough to get by until the next day.

The latecomers might have been passed over by others and unable to work, unable to provide for themselves and their families. 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 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 wages were the same.

Who Are the Firsts?

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. So, they deserved to get hired first and paid more, right? 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 boils down to privilege. They probably wouldn’t think themselves privileged (none of us do), but something gave them a boost. A good upbringing, enough to eat, good health, a strong will, an amenable personality, 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. (And Martin Luther’s admonition that we should interpret the actions of our neighbors in the kindest way.)

What would make them unsuitable? Bad health, low energy, bad attitude? Why would they be late? They could have been hungry, sick, caring for 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 fewer 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 according to their needs. 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.

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?

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 a fruitful conversation for adults and 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.

May God bless you this Lenten season.

In Christ,

Gregory Rawn (Publisher)

Note: This blog post is edited from the original written for March 17, 2019.

Free Resource

During the main Narrative Lectionary year (this year: September 11 to May 28), we provide a free resource download from one of our products to help you in your faith formation ministry. This week, download a free activity “Lenten Service Project” from our Living the Word: Cross+Gen Worship (NL) (Year 1, 2022-2023 or Year 2, 2023-2024) curriculum. This activity can be used intergenerationally or with most age groups individually.

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