THE “LAST” WORKERS IN THE VINEYARD BECOME “FIRST”
Jesus has just told his listeners in Perea that “many who are first will be last and the last first.” (Matthew 19:30) He underscores this statement with an illustration about workers in a vineyard:
“The Kingdom of the heavens is like the master of a house who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. After he had agreed with the workers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard. Going out also about the third hour, he saw others standing unemployed in the marketplace; and to those he said, ‘You too go into the vineyard, and I will give you whatever is fair.’ So off they went. Again he went out about the sixth hour and the ninth hour and did likewise. Finally, about the 11th hour, he went out and found others standing around, and he said to them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day unemployed?’ They replied, ‘Because nobody has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You too go into the vineyard.’”—Matthew 20:1-7.
Jesus’ listeners likely think of Jehovah God when they hear mention of “the Kingdom of the heavens” and “the master of a house.” The Scriptures present Jehovah as the owner of a vineyard, which represented the nation of Israel. (Psalm 80:8, 9; Isaiah 5:3, 4) Those in the Law covenant are likened to workers in the vineyard. Jesus, though, is not illustrating the past. He is describing a situation existing in his time.
The religious leaders, like the Pharisees who recently tried to test him on the subject of divorce, are supposedly laboring continually in God’s service. They are like full-time workers who expect full pay, the wage being a denarius for a day’s work.
The priests and others in this group consider the common Jews as serving God to a lesser extent, like part-time laborers in God’s vineyard. In Jesus’ illustration, these are the men who are employed “about the third hour” (9:00 a.m.) or later in the workday—at the sixth, ninth, and finally the eleventh hour (5:00 p.m.).
The men and women who follow Jesus are viewed as “accursed people.” (John 7:49) For most of their lives, they have been fishermen or other laborers. Then, in the fall of 29 C.E., “the master of the vineyard” sent Jesus to call these lowly people to labor for God as Christ’s disciples. They are “the last” whom Jesus mentions, the 11th-hour vineyard workers.
Finishing his illustration, Jesus describes what occurs at the close of the workday: “When evening came, the master of the vineyard said to his man in charge, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, starting with the last and ending with the first.’ When the 11th-hour men came, they each received a denarius. So when the first came, they assumed that they would receive more, but they too were paid at the rate of a denarius. On receiving it, they began to complain against the master of the house and said, ‘These last men put in one hour’s work; still you made them equal to us who bore the burden of the day and the burning heat!’ But he said in reply to one of them, ‘Fellow, I do you no wrong. You agreed with me for a denarius, did you not? Take what is yours and go. I want to give to this last one the same as to you. Do I not have the right to do what I want with my own things? Or is your eye envious because I am good?’ In this way, the last ones will be first, and the first ones last.”—Matthew 20:8-16.
The disciples may wonder about that final part of Jesus’ illustration. How will the Jewish religious leaders, who imagine themselves “first,” become “last”? And how will Jesus’ disciples become “first”?
Jesus’ disciples, whom the Pharisees and others view as “last,” are in line to be “first,” to receive full pay. With Jesus’ death, earthly Jerusalem is to be cast off, whereupon God will choose a new nation, “the Israel of God.” (Galatians 6:16; Matthew 23:38) John the Baptist pointed to such ones when he spoke about a coming baptism with holy spirit. Those who have been “last” are to be the first to receive that baptism and to be given the privilege of being witnesses of Jesus “to the most distant part of the earth.” (Acts 1:5, 8; Matthew 3:11) To the extent that the disciples grasp the dramatic change Jesus is pointing to, they may foresee facing extreme displeasure from the religious leaders, who become “last.”