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The First Will Be Last


Passage: Matthew 20:1-16

Speaker: Rev. Tim Schaefer

Stories are fascinating things. We know from anthropologists that stories and storytelling are central to human existence. Evidence of storytelling is found in every known culture. Storytelling even pre-dates writing. Primitive cave drawings more than 30,000 years old form murals that tell stories. Our oldest scriptures consist of stories spread orally from generation to generation before eventually being written down.

How can storytelling be such an ancient form of communication, and yet endure today? It is because our brains our wired to look for patterns. In the same way that we see images in those random inkblots, our brain is wired to look for patterns in stories. And this impulse, which begins to develop in infancy, is so powerful that we can see story patterns even when they are not there. That is what makes stories such and effective form of communicating ideas. We connect with people’s stories because we recognize something in them that is familiar or relevant to us. And yet, our own life experiences are often so different, that the messages we take from the same story may be vastly different.

Any skilled storyteller understands their power to persuade and teach through story, while also recognizing that they cannot control what the listener takes away from the story. And I believe that as a skilled storyteller, Jesus knew exactly what he was doing when he used parables over and over in the teaching of his disciples. As Pastor Laura told us this morning during our Time with Young Disciples, “the beauty of our parables is there are no right or wrong answers. There are so many different ways to look at them, that we can hear them over and over and over again and learn something new.”

And this is certainly true for our parable from this morning. As with any story, the title often sets the tone. Traditionally, this parable has been called The Laborers in the Vineyard. So, even as we begin reading the story, our expectation is set—the focus is first on the laborers and next on the location. Now we are more likely to identify with the laborers in the parable—not the landowner. And from there, we are left to wonder, “who, then, does the landowner represent?” Is it God? Does the vineyard then represent God’s property? Is this a story about how we should understand the divine?

And this move towards allegory is understandable, especially when you consider that in first-century Jewish culture, the vineyard was a metaphor for God’s property. New Testament scholar Amy-Jill Levine writes that Jesus’s Jewish audience would have been “familiar with God as the vineyard owner and Israel as the vineyard.” Passages in Isaiah, Jeremiah, the Psalms, and other parts of the Hebrew Scriptures suggest it. So when Jesus tells a story about a vineyard and its landowner, it is natural to presume that his listeners may have associated “Israel with the vineyard and the owner with God.”[1] Once we make those associations, the natural conclusion is that this parable is about salvation. And that has been the dominant interpretation of this parable for centuries.

I’m not here to tell you that this interpretation is wrong. Remember, the parables are complex, and there is no right or wrong way to understand them. But I am here to say that once we conclude that this parable is narrowly about salvation and the world to come, we risk ignoring the very real-life implications it has for us here and now. As Dr. Levine puts it: “Once allegory enters, the real world is left behind, as well as any concern the parable—and Jesus, its teller—might have for issues of economics, employment, and the relationship between managers and employees.”[2]

And it is not a stretch to conclude that Jesus might have been talking about real-world economic justice in this parable. Remember, this is the same Jesus who was so concerned about how we treat our neighbors, that when he was asked what the greatest commandment was, he answered:
“‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Matt. 22:37-40)

This is the same Jesus who proclaimed that everyone deserves the basic necessities of life when he taught us to pray, “Give us each day our daily bread” (Luke 11:3) … on earth, just as in heaven.

So maybe, this parable is about salvation and the heavenly realm, but I think Jesus was much more concerned about his followers loving their neighbors by providing for their basic needs of food, shelter, and security.

With that in mind, let’s take a closer look at our parable. Perhaps we should start by de-emphasizing the laborers and the vineyard and refocusing on the economics at play. The parable opens with a landowner visiting the marketplace early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. We learn that the landowner and the workers agree to a wage. Our passage calls it “the usual daily wage,” which literally means “denarius of the day.” We don’t know exactly how much a Roman silver denarius was worth, but scholars estimate that it probably would supply food for a family for three to six days. It would have been what we might refer to today as a living wage. And scholars tell us that Jewish law of the time would have set this amount as the customary wage because it was a fair wage for a days’ work.

But this is where things start to get strange. The landowner returns to the marketplace again at 9 o’clock, at noon, and at 3 o’clock to do the same. And then the landowner goes back at 5 o’clock—just before the end of the workday—to pick up one final group of workers. He asks this final group, “why are you standing here idle all day?” –although a more accurate translation might be “why are you without work?” And it isn’t clear from the text why these laborers have shown up to the marketplace so late in the day. Had they spent their day caring for a sick child or elderly family member? Had they been at a marketplace in a nearby town seeking work? Did they already work another job that hadn’t paid enough? Regardless of the reason, the landowner hires them and agrees to pay them what is right. The Greek word dikaion suggests that the landowner is paying them what is fair, what is just.

The unexpected part of the story comes at the end, when the landowner not only pays the workers the exact same wage regardless of the amount of work they’ve done, but also insists on paying the last to arrive first. Imagine if the landowner had simply paid the workers in the order that they were hired. The first to arrive would have left with their wages without even realizing that everyone else received the same amount of pay even though they worked fewer hours. But Jesus tells the story in a way that upsets our ideas about hierarchy and equality.

This parable sometimes makes us uncomfortable. What happened to “equal pay for equal work?” Isn’t it unfair to the workers who came earlier in the day to be paid the same amount as those who came near the end of the day? To that, Jesus, the storyteller, answers through the landowner, “how have I wronged you? Have I not paid you the wage we agreed upon? Are you envious because I am generous?”

Jesus calls us, through this parable, to put aside for a moment the idea of equality, and focus on what is just and equitable. In a world that is equal, each worker would have been paid an hourly wage. Those who showed up early in the day, would have earned enough to provide food and shelter for their families. Those who started later would have earned a starvation wage, or worse. But in a world that is just and equitable, each worker is guaranteed a living wage. In this world, the workers are not penalized for the barriers out of their control that stand in their way.

If we applied the lesson of this parable to our world today, I wonder what it would look like? What would happen if we focused on the most economically vulnerable in our society and took seriously the words of Jesus: “the last will be first, and the first will be last?” What would a more just and equitable economy look like? Would it mean fighting for a living wage? Universal basic income? Closing the gender and racial pay gaps? Would it mean making higher education more affordable? Student loan debt relief? Childcare for working families?

However you envision a more just and equitable world, Jesus challenges us to act with fairness and to be guided, above all, for our love and care for our neighbors as ourselves. Let it be so.  


[1] Amy-Jill Levine, Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2014), 278-79.[2] ibid.