What do we think when we hear Jesus say, “the last shall be first, and the first shall be last”? I don’t know about you; I always assume I’m getting a promotion. I know the ways in which I am not first, and I await the day when God will rectify the situation. Of course, to someone else I may be one of the first. I don’t have as much stuff as I want, but I’ve got some nice stuff, house, family, my air and water are mostly clean. According to folks without, maybe I’m getting a demotion, but I try not to think about that. It’s depressing. I want God to improve the areas of my life that aren’t where I want them to be, and leave everything else alone.
I don’t think I am the only one here who has ever felt this way. I think it is common for those who believe in God to limit God to certain parts of life. We take social constructs (like gender or class), economic issues (like safe food, water, homes), and spiritual concerns (like forgiveness or holiness)—and we treat these as separate, assume God’s only interested in the one that interests us, and keep God out of the other ones. That is not the way God does things. When Jesus says, “the last shall be first, and the first shall be last,” he holds all of life in his hands. He means it in multiple senses.
Jesus presents this in a parable that is a brutal depiction of daily life for his contemporaries, and that, like most parables, can be read multiple ways simultaneously. A vineyard owner goes out to hire day-laborers. It’s harvest time: that’s the only reason he needs so many people, and the only reason so many people are there looking for work. Without day laborers, the advanced agrarian economy of the Roman Empire couldn’t function, but theirs was not a good life. One was not born to day labor, because day laborers didn’t make enough to support families. One became a day laborer out of financial desperation. Wages are set by supply and demand (and there’s always too much supply). It is likely that a day’s labor did not consistently earn the half denarius needed for one person just to survive one day, and when it wasn’t harvest or planting season, well, folks begged, stole, did whatever.
When the day ends, Jesus tells us, the owner comes out with his manager to pay the workers, and he inverts the pay order. He starts with the guys who worked an hour, probably thought they might get bread. They get a whole denarius. The guys who worked all day have to watch this, which is scandalous in that society, but they see that big fat denarius for one hour of work and figure, ka-ching! Instead, they get one denarius. This is, by that society’s rules, shameful. The owner shames those men who worked all day by making them watch him overpay the last and then delivering only a denarius to them. Then, in an exchange that’s all too typical in this sort of work the guys who worked all day complain, and the owner picks one of them, makes an example of him. The others know it could’ve been them, and they slink away. The vineyard owner can’t get his wealth, his crop, without these men, but they have no power. That’s not a contemporary political statement; that’s reality, for Jesus’ audience, and for Matthew’s first readers.
Matthew’s readers and Jesus’ listeners would’ve known a denarius a day to be considered a fair, biblical wage. It was enshrined in the Book of Tobit. If you don’t know Tobit, it’s probably because you’ve never been Roman Catholic or Greek Orthodox; it’s one of those books protestants ditched from the Old Testament. It’s the common citation for a denarius a day; it is also a story, like the parable, of someone securing his wealth with the help of a hired laborer. Tobit is an Israelite exiled in Nineveh, distinguishing himself as an official to the King of Assyria. A series of unfortunate events leads to his losing his job, his savings, and his eyesight. He tells his son, Tobias, that he once left ten talents of silver with a relative in Media, and that Tobias is to go retrieve the money but will need to hire someone to help. The archangel Raphael overhears this. Simultaneously (he is an angel), Raphael overhears the prayers of a woman named Sarah, who lives partway between Nineveh and Media. Sarah keeps getting married. Every wedding night, a demon kills her new husband. Guys keep marrying her… But she’s getting frustrated. Raphael figures he can solve both problems with one road trip. (God likes that; it saves money on travel expenses.)
Tobias goes to the market to hire a laborer, and he finds a guy named Azariah. He takes him to Tobit, Tobit agrees to pay 1 Greek denarius a day, plus expenses. (There’s the paycheck rule.) On the way to Media, Azariah happens to mention to Tobias how to chase off demons on your wedding night. They stop at a house, Tobias meets Sarah, they get married, demon shows up but Tobias knows how to get rid of him. The marriage feast lasts two weeks, so Tobias says, “I can’t go get the money. Azariah, you do it.” He does. Tobias, Sarah, and Azariah go back to Nineveh, on the way Azariah happens to mention how to restore lost eyesight. When Tobias gets home, he restores Tobit’s sight. Tobit is so excited to have his money, his son, his eyesight, and a new daughter-in-law, that he offers Azariah half the treasure. Azariah says, “I suppose I should tell you: I am the archangel Raphael. God has been using me to do all this.” Everyone is horrified, but he tells them, “Praise God. Use what God has given you to tell what God has given you.”
The laborer, hired for a denarius a day (and without whom great treasure could not be secured) turns out to be an archangel. The “last” (exiled Tobit) is first (servant of the king) then last again (poor and blind) then first again. The story of Tobit echoes through the parable, and provides it multiple simultaneous senses. In one sense, last-to-first is just what it looks like: the laborers have their order inverted. It is not just a matter that all share equally in the Kingdom of Heaven regardless of how long they’ve been here, but also that the shame visited upon those who worked all day exposes the honor shame system itself. Jesus exposes how we treat life in a contractual manner. We all have a balance sheet, and we track whatever our society calls an asset or a debit (and we usually make our assets look better than they are and everyone else’s debits a little bigger than they really are). With this parable, Jesus says, “That is not the Kingdom of Heaven.” In God, we don’t do “classes” or “order in which you joined” or “who did the most.” All are welcome. All share equally. End of story.
Yet that reading assumes God is the landowner, the one paying a denarius a day. That is not necessarily the case. If this story echoes Tobit, there’s at least one more equally valid reading, in which the first are last and the last are first. The “first” is the owner, and the “last” is the day laborer singled out, without whom none of the wealth of the vineyard would be in hand. That laborer hears the owner shame him and blacklist him; not recorded (but I think strongly hinted at), is the part where the laborer, Raphael, says, “I suppose I should tell you who I am and what a big mistake you just made.” Jesus exposes just how much we downplay others and the role they play in our lives—how utterly dependent each of us is on everyone else—and what brutal behaviors we will rationalize as we look out for ourselves. Having depicted this, Jesus says, “That’s not the Kingdom of Heaven.” In God, we are together as a community. We live that way. That means we treat economic issues (can these laborers eat) on a par with their own personal questions (are we forgiven) and any social jockeying going on (who is most important here). All are welcome. All share equally. End of story.
In our community, the Church, we offer the world grace. We say, “All are welcome” here (and we try to live that), and we work outside of this room so that all are welcome everywhere. You don’t fit society’s gender roles? Well, you fit here, and we’ll work so that the society fits you in, too. You can’t afford to eat? Well, you’ll eat here, and we’ll work so that our society finds a way you can eat. You feel guilty and dirty? Well, you’re forgiven and holy, here, and we’ll work so that our society treats you that way. We aim for that. We can do that when first are last and last are first.
The first are last and the last are first in Jesus Christ. First: he is the Son of God, before there was a world. Last: his return will mark the End of the world. First: hailed as a king on Palm Sunday. Last: crucified as a terrorist on Good Friday. First: glorified in the ascension. Last: present with us in “the least of these.” In all these, Jesus glorifies his Father. He uses what the Father has given him to show everyone what the Father has given him. With the parable, Jesus urges us to see Jesus in the first and last—as the late-comers, the first laborers, the owner—so that wherever we find ourselves by society’s reckoning, we glorify God; and so that as a community we can say: all are welcome, all share equally, end of story.