Teasing, alluring and tantalizing is how I would describe our text, Matthew 20:1-16. “Many who are last will be first . . . last ones hired . . . So the last will be first and the first will be last” (19:30, 20:8 and 20:16 respectively). Three times we get this last first, first last motive check. The bottom line of Matthew 19:16 – 20:16 is Watch that Motive because the first can become last and the last may become first.
To see the sweep of what our Lord is addressing in 20:1-8, we need to start back in 19:16-30. This section concludes with the last, first; first, last thing. Our text ends with a similar statement: “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” So the two passages belong to each other. The sections are connected. Jesus is completing the thought of chapter 19 in chapter 20.
Let’s look first at the 19:16-30 passage. A rich young man comes to our Lord Jesus Christ and asks how he can earn forever (eternal) life. Jesus tells him to keep the commandments. We can never earn a relationship with God, but humanity continues to try (it appeals to our fallen natures that we can add to the great work of redemption achieved by the Lord Jesus Christ).
Jesus gives the young man something to do that would require him to be dependent on others – sell all he had and give it away. Then he would be dependent, especially on God. Like him, we don’t like being dependent.
So the rich young man turned away (19:22).
Notice the negative conjunction “but” in 19:30 — “But many who are first . . .” Who are the “many?” They are said to be “first.” Who could the text have in mind that would be viewed as “first?” Who had done what Jesus had told the rich young ruler to do? Who had sold all, and followed Jesus? Peter and the other disciples.
Peter had not turned away, so he asked: “We have left everything to follow You. What then will there be for us” (verse 27)? Peter had done what Jesus had challenged the rich young ruler to do. He paid a huge price, walking away from all he knew and a steady livelihood. Like Peter, most Christians – if they sacrifice enough — will eventually ask this same question.
Jesus does not react negatively to the question. He does not say to Peter, “Now Peter, let’s be spiritual about this! Stop looking for a reward and stay busy serving.” Jesus is not critical of Peter because of this question.
In fact, Jesus promised a 100 percent increase on the investments of Peter’s time, service, energy and money. In effect Jesus said, “Instead of sacrifice, see your service as an investment.” Your investment will bring a reward in this life and/or in the next life (Luke 18:18-30).
While our Lord was not critical of Peter for asking the question (19:27), He did propose a motivations check (a warning). And it is that check that we focus on now. Matthew 20:1-16.
Notice some key words or phrases in Matthew 20:1-16:
Vs. 1 “The Kingdom of Heaven is like” — this is what the kingdom here and now looks like. This is kingdom life. This is reality in God’s kingdom. This is how God runs His world.
Vs. 2 “He agreed to pay them.” What does that mean? It means the ones hired first had negotiated a contract. They “agreed” on a set amount prior to going to work. Notice that the second group was simply promised – Verse 4 . . .
Vs. 4 “. . . I will pay you whatever is right.” — No negotiation here. No bargaining. No contract. Simply trusting the landowner to pay them appropriately. And there is nothing said about others hired later doing any negotiating either.
Vs. 8 “Call the workers and pay them, beginning with the last ones hired.” The whole parable hinges on paying first those hired last.
Vs. 10 “expected to receive”
Vs. 13 “I am not being unfair to you.”
Vs. 13 “Didn’t you agree?” I am simply sticking to the contract.
Vs. 14 “I want to give. . .” This is clearly the statement of the Sovereign God. He does what He does.
Vs. 15 “Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money?”
Vs. 15 “Are you envious because I am generous?” This parable is partly about envy versus generosity.
Vs. 16 “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” Who was last and who was first in the immediate context? The rich young ruler was “last.” Spiritually he was misoriented. Peter and the disciples were “first” because they had left everything and sold everything and had come to follow Jesus. Peter was quick to see the contrast between the wealthy young ruler and the poor disciples who had left everything, paying a real price for being a disciple.
And here is the Lord Jesus saying, “the first could end up being last.” That is, Peter and the guys could be last. And the “last” – the rich young ruler, if he turned toward God and lived as a disciple – could end up being first. Whoa!
The parable has nothing to do with salvation. The parable is about work, but we do not work for salvation. The focus is not on equal pay for unequal work.
Nor is the parable talking about rewards – because we are not all going to receive the same reward. Nor is this parable about some being saved early in life and having longer to work for the Lord Jesus than those saved later in life.
Nor is it about “fair.” Life is not fair (from our fallen perspective. Period. I do not mind Jesus dying for me, which was not fair at all).
Jesus detected in Peter’s question (“What do we get?”) the possibility of an unbalanced motive for service. This seems to be the reason for adding the warning contained in Matthew 20:1-16.
The parable (20:1-16) is emphasizing having the right attitude as we serve. Some have the contract attitude. They want to negotiate with God. They try to agree on a wage. Others are non-contract workers, trusting the good heart of God to “. . . pay you whatever is right” (verse 4). The first workers negotiated a contract, which explains why the landowner paid the workers as he did. It was the only way he could show the contract workers how generous he was.
Imagine what the contract works were thinking. At first, they expected a penny for the long day’s work, but as the non-contract, late hired workers, were paid one penny for one hour of work, they then expected many pennies.
But when those hired at 3 P.M. also received a penny, the contract workers recalculated and still expected to receive more than one penny. When those hired at noon received one penny, the contract worker’s pay further reduced their expectation.
But the owner gave them only the one penny they had agreed to. Had they trusted the goodness of the landlord, they may have gotten far more.
The lessons for us are obvious. We should not serve Him because we overly anticipate a reward, and we should not insist on knowing what it will be in advance. God is very gracious and in most cases will give more than we deserve.
There was some peril hidden in Peter’s question (19:27) to which Jesus was alerting him. We must not “expect” that we will get more.
It is possible to do the Father’s work, but not from the heart (Ephesians 6:6). If we serve Him with too much anticipation of the reward, we will miss His best blessings. If we trust Him, He is free to give us His best gift without us assuming on what it will be.
Beware of overconfidence about rewards, for those who may be first in their own eyes, may end up last. Likewise, do not get discouraged if you are not the center of attention and your serve is more quiet – you may end up first.
Beware of the danger of watching other workers and measuring yourself by them. “Judge nothing before the time” (I Corinthians 4:5). We see the work and the worker, only God sees the heart.
This balancing act of the Christian life comes down to drawing legitimate encouragement from the certainty of reward (I Corinthians 3:8, Ephesians 6:8, Matthew 10:42, Psalm 16:11, Hebrews 6:10, Matthew 19:29), while stopping short of presumption.
Finally, we must beware of criticizing God or indulging in the self-pitying feeling that we have been left out. Had the early morning workers trusted the heart of the landowner, they would likely have gotten more. But they did not trust him. They did not rejoice when others received more. They complained. The graciousness of the owner revealed their self-centered focus. God is generous.