"But many who are first will be last, and the last first."
“For the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house 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 marketplace,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 foreman, ‘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 those hired first came, they thought they would receive more, but each of them also received a denarius. And on receiving it they grumbled at the master of the house, 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 worker 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.”
Matthew 19:30-20:16 (ESV)
In the world we live in today we have laws that prevent things like this from happening. Favoritism is forbidden and unions are formed to make sure all is fair in the workplace. But God's kingdom is run by a different set of rules. These rules state that the hardest worker doesn't always receive the best reward. Latecomers are always welcome to the party. The greatest thing about it is that the master of the vineyard is always on the lookout for more day laborers.
This story is told in response to the episode with the rich young ruler. That young man wanted to earn eternal life. Jesus played along with him pointing him to the God's law. Thinking he had already fulfilled the law, he asked what he was lacking. Jesus laid down a heavier law by telling him to sell all he possessed and to give it to the poor. This man couldn't obey, so he went away sorrowful.
Now Jesus shares this parable with us. The kingdom of God is both just and merciful. It is just because when we agree to work for the master, he will pay you a fair wage. But the work is difficult. You will bear the burden of the day and the scorching heat. This work is the law of God. If you are looking for God to be fair and just, know this the law is a cruel taskmaster and demands perfection. If you are relying on your works, what do you think you should be paid? If you are honest with yourself, you deserve eternity in hell, because you have not fulfilled the law of God.
But remember, the kingdom of God is merciful as well. The workers who come late, even though they work for only an hour of the day, they receive more than they deserve. This master is merciful to them and gives them what they have not earned. Jesus does this for you. Though you have sinned greatly, He shows you mercy by dying on the cross to pay for your sins. He moves you to the front of the line and rewards to you what you have not worked for. He will give you eternal life, through His work on the cross.
What kind of worker are you? Are you like the workers that came to the vineyard early in the day? Do you look to your own effort, hoping that somehow you can earn eternal life? Or are you like the workers who were chosen last, relying on the generosity of the master? Are you looking to Christ and His work on the cross to forgive you of all your sins?
This is a matter of faith. You can have faith in yourself, in your own effort, or you can have faith in Jesus, in His effort. Which will it be?
"So the last will be first, and the first last."