The last two verses of today’s chapter in Matthew can be puzzling if we do not realize the chapter break is wrongly placed and the context continues into the next chapter. The end of chapter 19 records Jesus saying, “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. But many who are first will be last, and the last first”.
The lesson Jesus is teaching becomes clear in his next words at the start of chapter 20. “For the kingdom of heaven is like a master … who went out early … to hire labourers for his vineyard … for a denarius a day.” There follows the details of going out again at “the third hour … the sixth hour … the ninth hour … the eleventh hour”.
In the evening payment is made “beginning at the first” (verse 4) and they all receive the same payment (verse 10) regardless of how long they have worked. Those who had “borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat” (verse 12) complain. Verses 15,16 put the matter into focus from the divine point of view, “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”.
The disciples are going to labour in the “scorching heat” of the day, this is a lesson for them. But beware of looking at the situation from the opposite perspective! Could we be tempted to think to ourselves, ‘As long as we get to the service on most Sundays, that is all I really have to do’?
Look again at Jesus’ words, “everyone who has left … for my name’s sake will receive …” It evidently means, everyone who has given first consideration to me and the needs of my vineyard as they live their lives – and done things, according to their ability and opportunity (and this includes making opportunities) “will receive …”.
Let’s put this alongside another saying of Jesus in Luke 12. First note verse 37 “Blessed are those servants whom the master finds awake when he comes” and then “everyone to whom much was given, of him (or her) much will be required, and from him to whom they entrusted much, they will demand the more” (verse 48). Much food for thought for us today – how much has been given to me – to you?