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Immediately following the declaration of reward for those who follow him, Jesus makes the paradoxical promise:

But many who are first will be last, and the last first. Matthew 19:30 (ESV)

Jesus illustrates this proposition with the parable of the “Laborers in the Vineyard”. [1]In the parable, certain workers are hired in the morning for a set wage. As the day progresses, more men are hired without a wage specified (“whatever is right, I will pay you”). When it comes time to make payment, the foreman begins to make payment, starting with the last hired. They are a paid a denarius – the precise wage offered to the first hired workers. When the foreman gets to the first hired workers, they suspect that they will be paid more than the denarius to which they originally agreed. They are paid a denarius, as agreed, and respond with anger.[2]

The owner of the vineyard responds:

14 Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. 15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?’ 16 So the last will be first, and the first last.” Matthew 20:14–16 (ESV)

Bruce rejects the interpretation that parable means that all believers will receive the same from the Lord on the Last Day[3]. Bruce compares the other parables on work and wages and notes that they plainly state a difference in reward based upon the difference in work. Moreover, in the parable of the Laborers and the Vineyard, the owner makes a substantial differentiation in pay, in that the final workers are paid a far higher rate than those first hired.[4]

What then gives a key to Bruce’s understanding: First, context: the parable begins and ends with the paradox of the reversal of first and last. Second, the heart of the workers: The first hired received a specified wage and showed themselves to be discontent when they were not paid better than others. The last hired went without  the promise of a specific return.

From this, Bruce derives the discipleship lesson that service – right service – depends not upon the extravagance or “greatness” of the work performed, but rather the heart attitude, the soul motivation of the worker. The one great in work may be the one last in heart – and vice versa.  

Since Jesus gave this instruction to the twelve, we must realize that all believers could fall into this trap. Bruce lists three specific elements which can infest one’s Christian walk:

First to fear:

Those who make sacrifices for Christ’s sake are in danger of falling into a self-righteous mood of mind, when the spirit of self-denial manifests itself in rare occasional acts, rather than in the form of a habit.

Those who make sacrifice for Christ only on occasion are those who do not rightly treasure the service of Jesus. Self-denial crosses our the most immediate desires of our flesh.  When it comes only on occasion, we indicate that the glory of God is not our first thought. We will serve – but only sparingly. We will give – but only under compulsion. We will share – but not with unfeigned love.

Second to fear:

There is great danger of degeneracy in the spirit of those who make sacrifices for the kingdom of God, when any particular species of service has come to be much in demand, and therefore to be held in very high esteem.

When the work is held to be esteemed by people – even (or perhaps especially) by people in the church – then the worker will be tempted to do the work to seek the praise of people.  God will not reward “service” which seeks human applause.

Third to fear:

The first are in danger of becoming the last when self-denial is reduced to a System, and practiced ascetically, not for Christ’s sake, but for one’s own sake. That in respect of the amount of self-denial the austere ascetic is entitled to rank first, nobody will deny. But his right to rank first in intrinsic spiritual worth, and therefore in the divine kingdom, is more open to dispute. Even in respect to the fundamental matter of getting rid of self, he may be, not first, but last. The self-denial of the ascetic is in a subtle way intense self-assertion. True Christian self-sacrifice signifies hardship, loss undergone, not for its own sake, but for Christ’s sake, and for truth’s sake, at a time when truth cannot be maintained without sacrifice. But the self-sacrifice of the ascetic is not of this kind. It is all endured for his own sake, for his own spiritual benefit and credit.

Bruce thus last out the traps for service and self-denial: Sin and pride can creep into the smallest and most unlikely space:

Lying behind the parable is the thought that we serve in the kingdom of heaven not so much for the reward we receive as for our delight in the service itself. Do we serve willingly and gladly, simply because we love our Lord and Master?

Iain D. Campbell, Opening Up Matthew, Opening Up Commentary (Leominster: Day One Publications, 2008), 121.


[1]

While Jesus shifted to a different point in this parable, it was related to his point in his conversation with the rich young ruler and the disciples. Our entrance into heaven depends on God’s grace, not on our righteous works. In the same way, our reward in heaven will be based on God’s reckoning, not our human calculations. Rewards are indeed meritorious, but they are calculated from God’s perspective.

 

Stuart K. Weber, vol. 1, Matthew, Holman New Testament Commentary (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2000), 317.

[2] Bruce compares this parable with the Prodigal Son, wherein the first hired workers match the elder brother; the last hired, the prodigal:

 

This parable has at times, rightly, been paired with that of the father and his two sons in Lk. 15:11–32. The point is not identical, but they share the challenge to recognise the goodness of the outcome of the action of the landowner/father. Solidarity plays a greater role in Lk. 15 than in Mt. 20, but in both cases one’s perspective towards what God is now doing is chiefly in focus; what he is doing is good and to be rejoiced in.

 

John Nolland, The Gospel of Matthew: A Commentary on the Greek Text, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI; Carlisle: W.B. Eerdmans; Paternoster Press, 2005), 813.

 

[3] Compare:

Luke 12:47–48 teaches that there are degrees of punishment in hell; Matt 20:1–16, that there are no degrees of reward in heaven. [9 highlights] Neither of these facts is commonly known or understood in Christian circles. To be sure, every individual will have a highly unique experience before God on Judgment Day (see esp. 1 Cor 3:10–15). But no text of Scripture supports the notion that these differences are perpetuated throughout eternity. [8 highlights] The very nature of grace and perfection preclude such a concept.36 The reason we object to equal treatment for all is precisely the objection of the workers in this parable—it doesn’t seem fair. But we are fools if we appeal to God for justice rather than grace, for in that case we’d all be damned. [9 highlights] Nor will it do to speak of salvation begun by grace but ever after preserved by works. True salvation will of necessity produce good works and submission to Christ’s lordship in every area of life, or else it never was salvation to begin with. But all who are truly saved are equally precious in God’s sight and equally rewarded with eternal happiness in the company of Christ and all the redeemed. Jesus has now finished his answer to Peter’s question of 19:27.

 

Craig Blomberg, vol. 22, Matthew, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1992), 304-05.

[4]

 D. Brown:—1. True Christianity is a life of active service rendered to Christ 2. God rewards us for this service, though not of merit, but of pure grace. 3. There is a reward common to all laborers, and special rewards for peculiar services. 4. Unreasonable and ungrateful conduct of the murmuring laborers, and the rebuke administered to them on the day of account. 5. Encouragement for those called at a late hour. 6. Strange revelations of the judgment day: some of the first will be last, some of the last first, and some of the greatest note in the church below, will be excluded altogether.

 

John Peter Lange and Philip Schaff, A Commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Matthew (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2008), 358.