The last 2 verses of today’s chapter (19) in Matthew can be puzzling if we do not realize the chapter break is wrongly placed and the context includes the next chapter. The end of chapter 19 records Jesus as 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 ch. 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” [v.4] and they all receive the same payment (v.10) regardless of how long they have worked. Those who had “borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat” [v.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 back at the first passage quoted above, Jesus says, “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 ch. 12. First note v. 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.” [v.48] Much food for thought for us today – how much has been given to me – to you?.