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The First Will Be Last and the Last Will Be First In God’s Kingdom

What is the difference between fairness and justice?

How many of us have felt that someone treated us unfairly? Has someone favoured another person over us? All of us have endured some hurt when our dreams are dashed or ambitions denied. Preferred treatment can lay the foundation for bitter memories. Does our ill treatment serve a greater good? Do others in need benefit? Sometimes we endure unequal treatment in the name of justice. In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus presented the Kingdom as one of justice, not necessarily of fairness. According to Jesus, the faithful, even those who practiced faith all life long, did not earn the Kingdom. God gave His children the Kingdom as a gift.

Jesus told the parable in Matthew 20:1-16 to illustrate His point that “the first will be last, and the last first”. The landowner hired workers at 9:00 am, 12 noon, 3:00 pm and finally at 5:00 pm. The group hired at the end of the day would have included the sort of workers nobody wanted to hire. The owner promised all the labourers the same wage.

The parable would have had significance in the early church whose members were Jewish Christians. To them the “late arrivals,” the Gentiles, deserved a lesser place in the kingdom. After all, they were not the first invited, as were God’s chosen people. Judging from the heated epistles, like Galatians and the accounts in Acts, the conflict between the two groups could get quite intense.

It also runs contrary to how the world works today. We’re used to being rewarded in proportion to our service. We would be happy to grant the apostles a larger share than we would expect for ourselves if we could expect more than a lesser disciple might receive. We feel for the all-day workers, who received the same pay as the one-hour workers. Is that fair? Don’t they deserve more? Shouldn’t the master treat them better?

We don’t want to be on par. We want to be on top! We don’t want mercy (what God gives freely) but justice (what we have earned). If God distributes rewards fairly, we who worked all day will get more than those who arrived at the last hour. We will receive what we have earned plus a generous bonus. The irony, of course, is that the little bit we have earned is of no consequence when compared to God’s grace.

The generosity of the landowner in this case shifts our thinking away from what a person can achieve or offer to the way in which a person and their very life is valued by the landowner. This parable calls into question the way our world operates and how it devaluates people and exploits many who work long hours in appalling conditions so those in wealthier countries can have cheap products.

This parable reveals important truths about God’s grace. No matter how many hours they worked, all workers were paid the same wage—the wage that was promised. The workers hired first represent Israel, the recipients of God’s covenant promises. Those hired last, at the end of the day, represent the Gentiles, who were offered the same salvation available to the Jews through faith in Christ.

Jesus repeated His parable from Matthew 19:30 and added that “many are called, but few chosen.” His meaning is essentially the same in both cases; namely, that God lavishes His grace on those He chooses, and those who receive it are blessed beyond anything they can ever hope to earn.

If Christians are just and pay their lawful debts and injure no one, the world has no right to complain if they give the rest of their property to the poor, or devote it to send the gospel to the world, or release a prisoner. It is their own. They have a right to do with it as they please. They are accountable only to God. The world has no right to interfere.

This parable is about the kingdom of God. It presents the nature of God’s grace. Grace is God’s graciousness. He extends his love and mercy to everyone. Not everyone responds alike to His goodness. Some compare and evaluate their own “goodness” and thereby fail to understand God’s graciousness.

The points of the parable are:

1. The calling to service is in direct relation to the need.
2. The reward for service is a gracious meeting of our needs.
3. The integrity of service will respect the integrity of grace in meeting needs equally.

God can and does distribute His gifts and His goodness as He wills. Grace can’t be earned or deserved. God is completely free to parcel out His favour however He chooses.

When we’re envious, we’re in a battle with God. We doubt God’s goodness in our lives. We resent His decision to bless others. We accuse Him of being unfair. We don’t believe He has our best interests at heart. We accuse Him of playing favourites. God has a good reason why we don’t have what we want. He knows us better than we know ourselves.

There are two main reasons to never compare ourselves to anyone else:

1. We’re unique. God made each one of us special.
2. If we do start comparing, it’s always going to lead to either envy or pride.

We can easily get trapped by our own patterns of counting and assessing and evaluating that we can miss God’s generosity. We can learn to overcome comparison obsession by focusing on the life God has given to us. As we take time to thank God for everyday blessings, we change our thinking and begin to believe deep down that God is good.

We dare not judge God’s love by our poor standards, nor should we think that once we are in heaven we can choose to go to hell. We should admit that no one deserves to receive freely anything from God. It is His grace that brings salvation. Our work is only a poor “thank you” for what we have received from His mercy and grace. (Pause)

The generosity of the landowner shifts our thinking away from what a person can achieve or offer to the way in which a person and their very life is valued by God. God wants to give value and opportunity to even the weakest within the faith community. The good news is not just for the privileged few but for all. God will return and seek us out to join the labour as many times as it takes.

It isn’t the amount of faith we have, or when we come to faith, that matters. The object of our faith matters. Constantly comparing ourselves to others robs us of the joy of working for God, who made each of us His treasure. God’s gift of grace is free and undeserved. Each of us is given the grace that is sufficient for us to live our Christian faith. Our response is to rejoice and be glad.

Those who only find Christ later in their lives are the ones who have missed out, for life in Christ is rich and meaningful. To find forgiveness and fullness and meaning and purpose is to find freedom, which is what Jesus intends for all of us. Following Jesus and His way is the way of freedom. Following the ways of the world are the ways of bondage and meaninglessness. Like the workers hired later in the day, the landowner found them “… standing idle… with no purpose.”

The kingdom of heaven image from Jesus comes as a comfort and as a warning. A comfort, because the invitation is always there for each of us. It is never too late for us to turn to God. It is a warning because there will indeed be those who are welcomed into God’s family after we are. Our task is to love them and welcome them just as God does. We are not to feel haughty and more important because we were there first. We must meet them with great joy for their faith.

When God pours out His love and favour toward us, we don’t have to worry. If we take the time to look we will see that God has filled our cup. When God’s favour is extended to those of whom we disapprove, it’s time for us to begin looking at the world the way God looks at the world. We are all equal in God’s eyes.

The story about the workers in the vineyard is about forgiveness. When God forgives our sins, he forgives them all. A brand-new Christian is as welcome to God as the person who has known God for a long, long time. It’s not about fairness. It is about forgiveness. It is about a big and welcoming God who doesn’t make us feel like second class citizens. God takes outsiders and makes them insiders. He treats us not according to our standards but according to His. The measuring stick he uses is generosity.

When God pours out His love and favour towards someone else, we don’t have to worry. If we just take the time to look, we will see that God has filled our cup to the brim too. When God’s favour is extended to those of whom we disapprove, it’s time for us to grow up and begin looking at the world the way that God looks at the world.

The question for today is this: “Is God fair?” Of course, he is! But do you know what else? The Bible tells us that he is more than fair. The Bible tells us that “God is love.” Does God love us because we love him?” No, the Bible says, “This is real love-not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as a sacrifice to take away our sins.” That’s not fair-that’s love.

If we got what was fair, none of us would get to heaven. We can rejoice in the knowledge that God doesn’t give us what is fair. He gives us his love and grace, despite what we deserve!

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