So the kingdom of heaven is sometimes a merchant, sometimes the treasure; sometimes a tiny seed, sometimes the sower and sometimes the landowner. Matthew 20:1-16 is the “first shall be last” parable, for in it, the landowner who hires people at different points throughout the day then pays them all the same. When the earliest hires complained that they should have gotten paid more than those who worked only an hour, the landowner reminds them that they’d agreed on an amount earlier in the day already and that he should be allowed to do whatever he wants with what belongs to him. He also doesn’t fail to point out the possibility that these complainers might be jealous because he is generous. Frustrating but fair enough, I guess. But then the landowner goes and adds this line: “So the first shall be last and the last shall be first” (Matthew 20:16).
This uncomfortable line appears a few other places in Scripture: in Mark 9:30 and just before the current parable, in Matthew 19:30. This is the parable where Jesus says to a rich, young rule that if he wants to “be perfect,” he must sell everything and give all the proceeds to the poor. When the ruler walks away, Jesus points out that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle for the rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. It may be harsh, but the warnings against wealth and money are too numerous in Scripture to be ignored. “The first shall be last” may, as some suggest, refer to Israel and the Jewish people, but here – in Matthew 19 and Matthew 20, it seems to me to be about money.
The kingdom of heaven is like the landowner who is sovereign over what belongs to him. Those that complain about their wage think that it’s unfair to pay everyone the same when some did much more work than others but the landowner is using an entirely different metric in deciding what to pay, revealing that those hired first aren’t really about fairness as they claim to be, but are putting their own desire for money above the generosity of their boss. “You cannot serve both God and money,” (Matthew 6:24) indeed.
So when we think about “the first being last” in terms of wealth, we cannot escape the care and concern God has for the poor. While at least 20 cities in our country have passed laws making it illegal to feed the homeless and governments can easily find the money to bail out banks, corporations and insurance companies as the gap between rich and poor widens, we must say no to this worship of money. Even as we desire the standard of living to be raised for everyone on the planet so that no one has to live on less than a dollar a day as the world’s poorest billion people currently do
, we must say no to the idea that money makes us powerful, safe or provides for us. It is imperative that we stop putting the first in this world (by the world’s standards) first (like, for example, wealthy corporations who do not care about health, community or the poor) and work ever harder to seek those who may seem last now but will, as promised, be made first in the kingdom of God.