And so the last shall be first and the first last. Mt. 20:16
It’s almost impossible to understand this parable today because modern culture has distorted the way things really work. It has turned everything upside down so that idle people are praised and rewarded, while those who earn their money through hard work and honest labor are looked at with suspicion and envy, but there are important lessons that we need to learn from it so we must untangle things as best we can.
How do things really work in this world? St. Paul sums it up like this, “if any man does not work, neither should he eat.” Or to use a modern adage, “there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.” Every time someone gets paid without working, someone else must work without getting paid and that is un-natural! It conflicts with the way things work in the fallen world and leads to all kinds of misery.
The Lord’s hearers understood this very well, they knew that much labor brought much pay, and that little labor brought little pay. But if that is the case, what was the owner of the vineyard thinking with his harebrained scheme to pay the same wage to those who worked for an hour as those who worked for the whole day? Didn’t he know that he was opening Pandora’s Box? Didn’t he know that you cannot challenge the laws of economics anymore than you can the laws of gravity? However the story is just that, a story, a parable. It never really happened, but our Lord uses it to enlighten us on how things work in the divine economy.
We need to be so enlightened by Jesus because without his instruction we can never understand life’s most profound and far-reaching truths. That’s because sin has blinded us and clouded our judgment, so that apart from the bright light of God’s Word we can understand nothing of Him, but must idle away our lives in the market place of sin from here to eternity. Therefore the parable imparts several important lessons to us.
First, that we cannot do business with God. The last words of Buddha, the founder of the Buddhist religion who died in 483 b.c. were this, “Work hard to gain your own salvation.” But we must not think like that. We must never think that we can deal with God the way we transact with other men – quid pro quo, something given for something received. God doesn’t operate that way. This is what the parable teaches us. Instead He chooses to be gracious and merciful, and to deal with us in steadfast love, not counting our sins against us or repaying us for our many offenses. Rather, He justifies us by Christ, makes us righteous in His sight, and showers us with every imaginable blessing.
Above all the parable affirms for us once again that God is Good! He is Good and that He has expressed His goodness by the death of Jesus on the cross. By giving His Son, who is the Firstborn of Creation and Firstborn of the Virgin to humble Himself and make Himself last, in order to accomplish a singular and sacred mission – that of collecting the collective wages of our sin, taking them to the cross, to the grave, and giving us His righteousness in exchange. We learn here that Jesus who is the Alpha made Himself the Omega for us, and that we who are last on account of our sins, are made first in righteousness, innocence and blessedness by His blood. Not only has God saved us in this manner, but He also chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world, and called us by the Gospel so that today we find ourselves as laborers in the vineyard of grace and full-fledged citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven.
We also learn, by the vineyard owner's many trips into the market place even up to the eleventh hour, that God never stops calling sinners to Himself, that He unremittingly pours out His grace upon the whole earth and upon all men, earnestly desiring for all to be saved, to turn from the idleness of their sin, and to come to the knowledge of the truth.
This brings up another important lesson: that we need not work ourselves into an evangelistic frenzy, or think that by our clever efforts we can grow the church, save her from extinction or populate the Kingdom of Heaven. We are not the masters of the vineyard, God is, and His Spirit is the one in charge of calling sinners from death into life, but there is work for us to do both collectively and individually. However, because of all the confusion that surrounds this matter let us proceed carefully.
First we should know that God commissions His church as a whole to gather every week in order to hear the gospel and receive the sacraments. He does this not only for the benefit of His people, but also to provide an earthly temple for the Holy Spirit to gather those whom He calls, a place of grace where sinners are baptized, catechized, absolved and fed with Christ’s own flesh and blood for their daily blessing and eternal salvation.
As individual Christians we also have a role in bringing people into the Kingdom of Heaven, but not the one that is so relentlessly urged upon us. It is not our job to knock on doors or attend evangelism seminars where we learn techniques to close the deal, and to convert people to Christ. Instead every Christian is charged by the Lord to, “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father in heaven.” We are encouraged and yes even compelled by the love of Christ to run the race that is set before us as if we mean to win it; to subdue the Flesh and to live holy and godly lives in this present age. These are the things that speak louder than words, and make the love of God attractive to others. These are the labors of love that mark those who have been graciously called into God’s vineyard.
And now may Christ, who put Himself last in order to put us first, make us steadfast and immoveable in our calling, knowing that our labor in the Lord is never in vain. Amen.
~ Rev. Dean Kavouras