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”. 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.
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. 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.
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.