”…the last will be first and the first last.”
I used to think Jesus’ statement meant the following: there are people who sacrifice many things for the Kingdom of God. They give up home and family and friends for the sake of the gospel. They die to themselves, and lay down their lives for their friends. From an earthly perspective, these people come in last. In reality however, when all is said and done, these people will actually be first. They will be rewarded, for their lives of love and sacrifice, and thus “…the last will be first and the first last.”
But now I don’t think that’s what Jesus was teaching.
The passage begins by saying something that would seem to support my original interpretation. Peter, who has sacrificed so much, asks Jesus what his reward will be. And Jesus says:
“Truly, I say to you, in the new world, when the Son of Man will sit on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life.” (Matthew 19:28,29)
Then Jesus says, “But…” Before Peter can do anything Jesus puts the brakes on his thought process, because he knows what people do as soon as they think of rewards. Pride comes like a flood, and we start comparing, and we stop loving. Jesus does not affirm what he just said, saying, “Thus, many who are first will be last, and the last first.” No, Jesus says, “But many who are first will be last, and the last first.” (Matthew 19:30)
And then (after a very strangely placed chapter division) Jesus explains his caution with a story. A landowner goes and hires workers for his field. He hires some first, and they work very hard in the blazing sun for a long time. The last ones hired only work for an hour in the cool of the evening.
But they all get paid the same thing…
The first people hired couldn’t believe it, and I can’t believe it either. What kind of upside down economics is Jesus proposing? Does “the first will be last” mean that those who haven’t given up as much, and have come last to the work, will be made first at the reckoning? Surely that can’t be. Jesus, I don’t like your teaching.
But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?’ So the last will be first, and the first last.” (Matthew 20:13-16)
Peter, your sacrifice and your reward will make you proud, and on the day when I show my generosity you will burn with envy. “So, the last will be first, and the first last.”
Peter, you are bound to lose if you start playing the game of comparisons. Do you really desire for those around you to receive less than you? What if your whole perspective is wrong. What if you should rejoice when those who come later receive reward? The angels in heaven, who have never sinned, rejoice when the most sinful rebel returns and is given the highest honor of sonship. They don’t have envy though they perhaps deserve it more. And Peter, what if you should actually live your life in such a way specifically so that others will get more reward than you? Shouldn’t your service make life better and easier for those who come later? Do you not want the coming generations to accomplish more than you did? They will stand on your shoulders and do far greater things. Even I, the Christ, am not jealous when others do greater things than me. In fact, I promise you that you my disciples will do greater works than I have done, and that makes me very happy.
Some suffer from sickness. Some give up homes. Some become martyrs. Some are overwhelmed by doubt and depression. Some spend their whole lives fighting a sin. Some experience the difficulty of marriage. Some experience the difficulty of singleness. Some must defend their faith amidst the skepticism of academia. Some can never learn to read. Some will serve me their whole lives. Some won’t get to know me until it is almost the end. Some go to Madagascar. Some won’t ever have the opportunity.
Peter would you like to be the judge? Would you like to hand out the rewards? Can your comparisons determine who should be last and who should be first. Please, just be generous and rejoice in my generosity.
And notice one more thing, Peter. Did you hear what I said to the first worker? “Friend, I am doing you no wrong.” Stop worrying about what everyone else is getting, and focus on the fact that I called you friend. I don’t throw that word around casually, although in future generations the word friend will have lost all its meaning. The master of the land has become your friend, and you became my friend in the fields. You became my friend as we worked together in the heat of the day. In our time together you have come to understand me and my heart and my plans;, and that is a reward greater than any other heavenly treasure.
So, friend, lets go out in the fields together, and spend life sacrificing everything in love so that even those who arrive last can be first.