Is the Last First?

I wonder if my siblings think the arrangement is fair? I’m the youngest of four in my family, and we’re spread out over 20 years. That means that my sister has invested 20 more years of life with our parents than I have. She had 20 more years with our father when he died and she’ll have 20 more with our mother at the end of her run. My brothers, then, have 15 and 10 years additional.

Despite this, our mother’s will stipulates that everything be split four ways. Does that seem fair? Shouldn’t I get less, having fewer years of service to claim? Maybe that’s why, when it came time to choose an executor for that will, both of my brothers pointed at me.

This question draws me to another of Jesus’ kingdom parables, this one in Matthew 20:1-16. Here, he tells the story of a vineyard owner (God) hiring people (believers) to work in his vineyard. He promises the early-morning hires a denarius. Then he keeps hiring more people throughout the day, adding some just before quitting time. In the end, he pays all of them a denarius, regardless of how long they worked. The all-day workers are incensed, complaining of the unfair treatment. The vineyard owner’s response fills the last few verses of the passage:

“He replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I’m doing you no wrong. Didn’t you agree with me on a denarius? Take what’s yours and go. I want to give this last man the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with what is mine? Are you jealous because I’m generous?’

Jesus says that the kingdom of God is like this story of the vineyard. If that’s the case, then what do we learn about the kingdom from this account? Does it indicate that absolutely everybody who enters into the kingdom will receive the same reward?

If that’s what Jesus is saying then it seems to run counter to what Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 3:10-15. Although the metaphor is different there–building instead of vineyard-tending–the ideas coexist. The all-day vineyard workers (or quality builders) can look at the work they have done as well as at the pay in their hands as a reward.

So what are our takeaways from this parable?

  • The kingdom involves labor in this life and then payment at the end of the “day.”
  • The kingdom rewards all of its subjects equally, regardless of their term of service.
  • The kingdom, therefore, excludes the pride of being the older brother in the Prodigal Son parable.
  • The kingdom’s work, intuited from 1 Corinthians 3, can be its own reward for the most dedicated workers.

I’d write more, but in a few minutes I have to go to my mother’s house and drive her to her hair appointment. Most likely I’ll need to fix something she’s done to her computer. Tonight, after the rain, I’ll think about her leaky basement. Maybe I am earning that full share among my siblings after all.