The Last will be First

Matthew 20 16 b

Q. In Mt 20:1-15 Jesus told the parable of the Workers in the Vineyard, but added v 16 “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” The word “so” connects v 16 to the preceding parable, but why? Doesn’t the parable simply teach God’s sovereignty and grace, and that He gives to whoever whatever amount He wills?

A. Your observation is correct, but there’s more. The phrase “last will be first, first will be last” appears 4 times in the NT. The first two appearances are in the “Rich Young Ruler” (Mt 19:16-30, Mk 10:17-31):
Mt 19:30 But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first. (Also Mk 10:31)
This is immediately before Mt 20:16, which reinforces and expands the teaching. In Mt 19 Jesus told His disciples, “It is hard for a man who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven.” They were astonished and asked, “Who then can be saved?” In other words, they fully expected the rich, who the world considered blessed by God, to enter the kingdom of God first. This is the way the world works, with the rich enjoying all the privileges and benefits, ahead of everybody. But Jesus said at the renewal of all things, there will be a reversal of man’s priorities. Those who were first in this world will be last in God’s kingdom, and many who the world considers last will be first in God’s kingdom.

Then Jesus continued His teaching with the parable of the Workers in the Vineyard, as 20:1 starts with “for the kingdom of God is like …”, which indicates He is on the same subject, but unfortunately broken up by the chapter division. Those who were hired first expected to receive more than those who were hired late in the day. This is because man’s concept of fairness dictates that the reward be directly proportional to the effort. The more one works, the more pay is earned, deserved, and expected. But while this is the way man thinks, it is not God’s way of grace, giving men what they do not deserve. The early workers were therefore envious because the landowner was generous towards the late workers.

The last appearance is in Lk 13:30 Indeed there are those who are last who will be first, and first who will be last.” There the Lord taught “Make every effort to enter through the narrow door (Lk 13:24)”, in contrast to the world’s way of entering through the wide gate and the broad road (Mt 7:13).

All three incidents show that man’s ways are not God’s ways. The statement “So the last will be first, and the first will be last” summarizes neatly the upside-down nature of the value system in God’s kingdom, and is a fitting conclusion to the parable.

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