“Many who are first will be last, and the last first” (Matt 19:30).
Jesus speaks these words to his disciples after promising that the sacrifices they’ve made to follow him will indeed be worth it in the Age to come, which comes after shocking them by saying it will be hard for a rich man to enter into the Kingdom of the heavens, which follows directly on the heels of a wealthy young man walking away in sorrow because he was unwilling to part with his wealth in order to follow Jesus.
Jesus then tells the parable of the workers in the vineyard, where the master of a household hires workers at various times throughout the day to work in his vineyard. Some work the whole day, others work for only an hour or so, but at the end of the day, they all receive the same amount for their work. The workers hired at the beginning of the day don’t like this, but that’s the way it is. The master wanted to give everyone the same pay, and that’s that. “Thus,” Jesus concludes, “the last will be first, and the first last.”
Measuring ourselves against each other
It’s a parable about the Kingdom of the heavens, and Jesus speaks the aphorism about the first and the last at the beginning and the end of the parable. He’s clearly trying to help his disciples understand something important about the nature of the Kingdom. Jesus is emphasizing a crucial aspect of the “life of the Age” that the wealthy young man wanted so badly to have.
In the Kingdom, in the “life of the Age,” the radical generosity and self-giving love of God moves toward everyone indiscriminately, and this disrupts our status games. Everyone receiving equally from the master upends all the ways we seek to measure ourselves against each other, all the ways we calculate who is better and who is worse, who’s on top and who’s on the bottom, who is worthy of honor and who can be disregarded.
Too offended to enter the Kingdom
By declaring that all are loved, the gospel demands that we leave these status games behind, lest we become too offended to enter the Kingdom. In God’s economy, we all receive out of the overflow of God’s generous love, and thus we must cast aside all the ways we attempt to distinguish ourselves as better than others. We must lay down all the ways we try to prop up our own egos in order to receive the gift, or we simply won’t enter the Kingdom at all.
Thus it would appear that the first are last and the last first, because the old order of things has been completely upended. The workers who started at the beginning of the day would have been fine with their pay until it became apparent that others “worse” than them were receiving the same pay. For them, it was all about status. They didn’t actually need more money, they just wanted recognition that they had worked harder than all the other workers. They wanted assurance that they were better than others. But the Kingdom of the heavens is like a master who upends the whole game by giving to everyone equally.
This is the work the gospel does relentlessly, which is why it’s so hard for the rich to enter the Kingdom of the heavens. It’s the reason it’s hard for anyone who feels they’re on top of some kind of status game to enter the Kingdom: it’s hard to let go of the story that you really are better than other people, and you have the receipts to prove it (wealth, or intelligence, or humor, or good looks, or right belief, or moral purity, or popularity, or influence).
What game do you play?
What status games do you play? What kinds of comparisons do you make to figure out who’s better and who’s worse? What would it look like to lay aside those games today and enter the Kingdom of the heavens?