Parable of the Workers in the Lord’s Vineyard: “The last will be first, and the first last”

“For the kingdom of heaven is like a householder who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard.  After agreeing with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard. And going out about the third hour he saw others standing idle in the market place; and to them he said, ‘You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you.’ So they went. Going out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour, he did the same. And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing; and he said to them, ‘Why do you stand here idle all day?’  They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You go into the vineyard too.’ And when evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his steward, ‘Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last, up to the first.’ And when those hired about the eleventh hour came, each of them received a denarius. 

Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received a denarius. And on receiving it they grumbled at the householder, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ 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 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?’ So the last will be first, and the first last.”

I called this parable “troublesome,” not because the point is difficult, but because the actions of the householder are so foreign to our ways, so impractical, so contrary to the way we think a businessman should act.  As [my husband] Tom remarked, “Just wait until the next time he tries to hire laborers!” And, indeed, if this was one day in the life of a village, it would be folly to act like this.  

But this is another parable of the end times and judgment, this time focusing on how the people spend their lives.  The “day” of this parable is the whole course of human history, or the history of a human, and the payment given to the laborers is indeed the wages for one day’s work, the day that is their whole lives.  It is not a paltry coin, enough to by one day’s food; it is eternal bliss in the kingdom of God.  

Is it ever too late in life to answer the Lord’s call?

This parable has similarities to the parable of the sower, in that it differentiates among the recipients of grace on a more detailed scale than “saved” or “damned.”  But the difference is not how each receives the grace, but when.  Each of the men who receives the offer of employment accepts, and all go to the vineyard, and, apparently, all work hard.  

The difference among them is how long they work, as a consequence of how early in the “day” they were hired.  Taking the “day” as the life-span of a man, some, like Timothy, are raised in the faith, make it their own as a youth, and serve the master all of their adult life.  Others are converted as young men, when middle aged, later in life, or when elderly and near death.  As long as the conversion is sincere and thorough, and the man really loves the Lord and serves him whole-heartedly, to the best of his ability, length of service does not determine the reward.  

Thus this parable is answering the question as to whether it is ever too late in life to answer the Lord’s call.  The answer is “no, it is never too late.” Death-bed repentances are accepted by the Lord. This doesn’t mean that there are no consequences to delaying accepting salvation.  Aside from the risk of missing one’s opportunity to accept the Lord, one misses years of fellowship with the Lord and his people, years of fruitful work, healing of past hurts and growth in holiness.  Instead one spends those years in sin and sorrow, accumulating the scars of sin and the guilt of harming others by one’s sins. This is a loss, even if it doesn’t lead to loss of heaven’s bliss. 

Who deserves more of God’s heavenly reward?

At the hour of payment, the latecomers are paid first. There is significance to this timing beyond building suspense which we will discuss later, but here it soon appears that all are being paid the same amount: one day’s wage.  At this point, the narrative seems to descend into more realistic details, with the protest of one of the early workers and the Master’s reply.  Since the “coin” is the total bliss of an eternity in heaven, a person so blessed should have no motive for complaining of others receiving the same reward, even if they did not work nearly so hard and long. 

The scale of the reward eclipses any question of who deserves more.  As Paul says in his Letter to the Romans,

“I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” 

Romans 8:18

or in Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians: 

“For this slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.”

2 Corinthians 5:17

But we, here in our working world, do see this discrepancy as unfair, and totally understand and sympathize with the protest.  For this reason the protest must be answered, and to do this, we must look at the context of the parable. That context is the preceding discussion with Peter about what sort of reward the disciples will get for having left all to follow Jesus, which in turn follows the refusal of the Rich Young Man to join Jesus at that price.  

After reassuring Peter that he will get plenty here and then inherit eternal life, Jesus closes with the enigmatic statement, 

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

Matthew 19:30

This saying (Matthew 19:30) is the last verse of Chapter 19.  Since this parable opens Chapter 20, and since Jesus’ final word about it is verse 16 “So the last will be first, and the first last,” it is clear that the parable is an answer, told as a story, to the question of why the last will be first and the first last.  It is the chapter break that gives the illusion that we have changed topics, rather than continuing with the question of the rewards and conditions of discipleship. 

This statement is one of Jesus’ favorite lines, if one goes by frequency of use. The theme of reversal in general is one he uses often.  Within the parable, it is clear that the last were first, both in being paid first, and in getting their pay for less work. The first were last for the reciprocal reasons.

But there is more to this. The master tells the protesting worker to take his agreed wage and leave. He is being dismissed from the master’s favor for being small-minded in begrudging the other workers equal pay, and for criticizing the Master’s generous character and use of his own money.  I am not sure how this fits into the coin representing eternity with Christ.  Perhaps the master is saying that if the worker insists on seeing the coin as merely a day’s wage, then that is all it will be for him.  

God’s generous mercy versus “our fair share”

God’s mercy and generosity have no limits, but only too often ours is limited by what we consider “our fair share.”  We may appear to love God, but we don’t love our neighbor enough to want him to be in the same rank with us, and certainly not ahead of us.  Instead we cling to pride and status, and compare ourselves to those around us, striving to be first.  Ironically, this behavior shows that we are last, having not yet learned the etiquette of the kingdom, that the one who leads must be the servant of all.  If we really want to be first, we must consent with all our hearts to being last, if the master’s generosity chooses to lift up others.  And who knows? When we are content to be a doorkeeper in the house of the Lord, He may yet say to us, “Friend, come up higher.”  

“Lord, I discussed this with Tom, and we both felt convicted of not wanting certain others to be ahead of us in the kingdom roster. Forgive us, and teach us the humility which is so basic to kingdom relationships, and which you, our Master, have modeled for us.”

Top image credit: Photo of people picking grapes in the vineyard, from, © by Goodluz, stock photo ID: 51772933. Used with permission. 

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