The Last Will Be First
Septuagesima| Matthew 20:1-16| Pastor James Preus| February 13, 2022
In this parable, our Lord Jesus simply teaches us how God rewards his laborers in the kingdom of heaven. You shouldn’t get hung up trying to figure out what the denarius symbolizes, but simply recognize that God does not save us based on our works. Those who worked for twelve hours under the hot sun and those who worked just an hour in the cool of the evening received the same wage, because the master was not paying them according to their work, but according to his own generosity.
This is how the kingdom of heaven operates. In Luke 17, Jesus teaches his disciples, “When you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unprofitable servants; we have only done what was our duty.’” Unprofitable servants. That is what we are. That is, we are not earning our keep. Those who labored longer or harder should not begrudge those who labored fewer hours, because they got paid the same as if the master is taking from the hard workers to pay the lazy ones. No, everyone is getting paid according to the master’s generosity, from the master’s purse. They are not making a profit for the master. The late-comers are not stealing from the early-comers. Everyone receives a gift that he doesn’t deserve.
Those who made a deal with the master at the beginning of the day grumbled, because they thought they had earned more than the others. That is how the works-righteous think. The works-righteous are those who think they can become righteous before God by their own works. Yet, Scripture says in Romans chapter 3, “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in God’s sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.”, and “For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Scripture makes clear that no one will save himself by his own works, because everyone is a sinner.
The works-righteous want to make a deal with God. They’ll do their part if God does his part. But this places them under the law. And this causes them to reject God’s generosity in the Gospel. St. Paul says that Israel did not succeed in reaching a righteousness by the law, because they did not pursue it by faith, but as if it were based on works (Romans 9:30-32). Again, St. Paul teaches us that whatever does not proceed from faith is sin (Romans 14:23). So, the works-righteous proceeding without faith can only sin. And the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23). So, by insisting on be rewarded by their works, they lose the gift. But what does Scripture say, “Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work, but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness.” (Romans 4:4-5)
Now this does not mean that Christians should not do good works. St. Paul does not mean that the one who believes in him who justifies the ungodly does not also do good works, but rather, he does not trust in his works to save him, but in God alone, who forgives the ungodly apart from their works. Even those who went into the vineyard in the eleventh hour worked. But their work did not contribute to their salvation. Christians do good works, because God commands them to and by doing good works, they give glory to God, their generous master (Matthew 5:16). Christians do good works to help their neighbor, because, having been loved by God, they also love one another.
And Christians do good works to confirm their calling. St. Peter writes, “For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. For whoever lacks these qualities is so nearsighted that he is blind, having forgotten that he was cleansed from his former sins. Therefore, brothers, be all the more diligent to make your calling and election sure, for if you practice these qualities, you will never fall.” (2 Peter 1:5-10) So, good works do not earn your salvation, but you can lose your salvation if you continue in sin without repenting. So, being busy in good works and learning God’s Word can keep you from backsliding into wicked sins, which lead to unbelief. As the saying goes, “Idol hands are the devil’s workshop.”
But your good works do not earn your salvation. Salvation is a free gift earned for you by the merits of Christ Jesus. This is God’s generosity! That he sent his only begotten Son to die for our sins. The generous master says, “Whatever is right, I will give you.” What he is saying is, “I will give to you for the sake of the holy, innocent, bitter sufferings and death of my beloved Son. So rich is my generosity.”
This is why, in the parable, each laborer received the same denarius. Although, working in the Lord’s Vineyard, we have various tasks. There are pastors, teachers, elders, trustees, and musicians; there are husbands and wives, fathers and mothers. Some have the task of teaching and preaching God’s Word, others in caring for the elderly, others in caring for children, others in supplying for the needs of the church. Some work is noticed by all, while other work is often ignored. The labor of the vineyard includes the caring for souls and the changing of diapers, the labor of fathers and mothers, and the chores of even little children. Yet, all of these workers in the Lord’s Vineyard receive the same Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:11)! They worship one Lord, hold on to one faith, have been washed in one Baptism (Ephesians 4:4-6). All laborers in the Lord’s Vineyard receive their prize by the merits of the one and only Christ Jesus, so none can receive a greater Christ than the other, as Scripture declares, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28) We all put on the same Christ Jesus in our Baptism; that’s why we each receive the same denarius.
So, Jesus concludes this parable by saying, “So the last will be first, and the first last.” Here again, Jesus teaches that we receive our eternal reward through faith and not by our works. The last are those who consider themselves last, who acknowledge that they are unprofitable servants. For this reason, the last trust not in their own works or how much they’ve earned, but rather they trust solely in the generosity of the Good Master found in the sacred suffering and death of Jesus Christ. St. Paul summarizes this perfectly in his letter to the Philippians in chapter three, “But whatever gain I had, I count as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith.” (vss. 7-9)
So, it is not that the last have done no good works, or that they have worked less than the first, but that they do not consider their works worth mentioning. They do not trust in an award based on their works. They trust solely in the Lord’s generosity.
The first are those who consider themselves worthy of a reward from God and who do not trust in God’s generosity through Christ. They often grumble and despise those whom they consider last. As with the last, to be first is the condition of your heart. How do you consider yourself? Are you better than others? Are your works better? Do you deserve your seat in heaven? It’s easy to feign humility and claim that you don’t think you’re better than others, but unless you hold Christ alone as your righteousness, you consider yourself first.
But the last will be first. Those who repent of their own sins and trust in Christ alone for their salvation will be saved. They will receive a reward not equal to their work. And the first will be last. Those who refuse to acknowledge their own sins and repent, who trust in their own goodness and works, they will be put last, that is, they will be condemned. They’ll receive whatever earthly reward they get, and will be forever shut out of the Lord’s good Vineyard.
We are unprofitable servants. We cannot earn our way to salvation. We don’t make a profit for our master. In this world, that is a precarious situation to be in! No one wants to be unprofitable! But in the kingdom of heaven, this is the best situation to be in, because it means that you depend on Christ. If you found an owner of a vineyard here on earth, who would pay you a day’s wage for showing up for an hour, that might be a pretty sweet situation. Until the foolish man ran out of money. But our God will never run out of his generosity, because he pays us by the merits of Jesus’ precious blood. The man who died for our sins is our God. In his blood is infinite forgiveness, endless grace and mercy. There is no more certain ground you can stand on than on God’s promise for Christ’s sake.
Those who consider themselves first in their hearts live in a delusion. They are confident that rubbish is worth its weight in gold. Their situation is dire, unless they can be convinced to let go of their own vanity and rejoice in the generosity of God. But those, who place themselves last, who trust not in their own works, but rely solely on God’s generosity for Christ’s sake, they cannot lose. Jesus cannot fail them. He will never run out of his grace and forgiveness. And, you will find, and it may surprise you on the last day, that those who were last actually did produce more beautiful fruit by their labors than those prized by the world. Amen.