Appendix 1 — The Last Will Be First
St. Matthew 20: 1 — 16
A Little Tete-a-Tete For those Who Find It Heavy Going
This reading does not follow immediately on from our previous one (Matthew 18: 21 — 35).
In fact the whole of chapter 19 lies between them. It is another glorious chapter and
it deals some wonderful topics:
• Marriage and divorce
• Jesus teaches on celibacy
• Jesus blesses little children
• Jesus counsels the rich young ruler
• With God, all things are possible.
At the end of this chapter St. Matthew places one of our Lord’s frequent “one-liners”.
“But many who are first now will be last,
and many who are last now will be first.”
Our present text is, in fact, a kind of expansion of this saying; an aid to understanding
it. But as is the case with so many of His explanatory parables, there are very strict
conditions, which must be met before they yield their precious meaning. Possibly this
is never more the case than regarding the parables of the “unforgiving servant”, and
the “workers in the vineyard”.
Many find they don’t really get particularly excited about the parable of the unforgiving
or unmerciful servant. If that is the case they will get even less spiritual motivation
from the parable of the “workers in the vineyard”. Why are some modern Christians
left so flat after trying to meditate on these parables? We do not need to be ashamed
if we include ourselves in that category. These reflections are those of in-house family,
where we can let our guard down and attend to what needs doing.
We think the problem is partly due to the different ways Christians use the Bible. Some
use it like a mechanic’s manual, and look it up for quick ready-made answers. It is very
tempting to use it as a convenient source of quotations to merge and back up a belief
or teaching session. Using Scripture to under-pin our beliefs is, of course, legitimate
and essential. However, if we only use it to build a patchwork quilt, we run the risk of
becoming like religious butterflies, flitting from passage to passage, but never stopping
long enough to listen to the real message waiting to be heard. The two parables we are
referring to demand this kind of deeper listening.
If we are honest, there is only one sentence in each that ever gets much of a mention
these days (Matthew 18: 22; and 20: 16 which restates 19: 30). That is:
• I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy seven
times (or seventy times seven).
• So the last will be first, and the first will be last.
And frankly, they often get left in the “too hard” basket.
What is the secret of these passages, and how do we hear what Jesus is seeking to
impart to His disciples? How do we move beyond the quick-fix, jet-set, superficial
“get me excited quick, or I’m leaving” attitude. How do we stop dumping on our
Lord the responsibility to get His message across, and instead, play our part in
learning to understand? Do we dump it on the Holy Spirit instead?
The beauty of these parables lies in our Lord’s acceptance of our human weakness
and spiritual shortsightedness. He tells each in a way that we can engage in, become
part of, and give expression to our very strong feelings of injustice or outrage. He
expects us to climb in, “boots and all,” only to be confronted with sheer mystery which
hits us with a thud! We then do what the Church has done for 2000 years. We reflect
on His words, over and over until finally, we see a glimpse of the way ahead. Each
of these two parables demonstrates from a heavenly point of view, not a human
point of view, God’s:―
• mercy and lovingkindness
• justice and equity
• generosity and magnanimity.
This is the great gift of these two parables (and indeed of others), that they allow each
of us with our individual foibles to enter into the teaching moment, seeing and reacting
in predictably human ways, yet to emerge at the other end with the gift of spiritual
insight. This enables us to see and understand as citizens of the kingdom of heaven,
but even greater ― as members of His Household. This is why Jesus says,
“The Kingdom of heaven is like a landowner ….”. In doing so, He honours us as no
other teacher ever has; He treats us as His own students, in fact, as members of His
own family. Yet it is so easy to miss the point. It has to be! Only those actively
seeking the kingdom of God before all else can be entrusted with its spiritual
Returning now to our present text, let’s not, even unconsciously, put the burden on
to the Holy Spirit (or on any pastor, priest, presenter, or group leader for that matter)
to get us all excited and aroused by this passage. Rather, let’s accept the invitation of
Jesus to learn how to see things in the way we must, if we are going to be citizens of
His kingdom here and now. The entering into the experience is the training for such
citizenship; there is no other way. Read the passage, listen to it, reflect on it, wrestle
with it, respond in your heart honestly to God, and rest in His goodness. Spiritual
growth will occur! You are a member of the Household of God: act accordingly, and
do not exchange this for any lesser dignity!
You can now confidently return to meditation on the Gospel text. It is a mystery, but
our Lord chooses to unfold its inner meaning to each of His followers as we are ready
for it. Since you are one of His disciples, this is part of your heritage. Do not let it slip
away. We wish you every blessing as you persevere in His service. Let us rejoice that
we do so together.
Appendix 2 ― Labourers In the Vineyard
I From: The Gospel Story by Ronald Cox
There is no change of audience; Jesus is still speaking to His disciples, not to the
Pharisees, or the crowds. Ordinarily parables were used for people, not for the apostles;
but Jesus sometimes made exceptions to this rule. The parable is closely linked with
the preceding incident; the last verse of the previous paragraph is the transition, and is
repeated again at the end of the parable. This parable illustrates the part played by the
grace of God in the kingdom: it is a free gift that he gives to whoever he wills; God is
not only just, he is lavish with undeserved favours. This is exemplified both in the
apostles, who were last in rank (compared with the Pharisees), but have now become
the rulers (‘first’) of the kingdom; and in the Gentiles, who were last in time (the Jews
were called centuries before), but will soon be predominant (‘first’) in the kingdom’#.
The whole parable is really a commentary on Jesus’ statement to the apostles about
the rich young man, ‘To God all things are possible. ‘God’s grace plays its part in the
kingdom, as well as man’s own effort. In a similar parable, Jesus showed the need of
personal striving to enter the kingdom; here he takes up the other side of the picture
(a line of thought familiar in St. Paul. e.g. Romans 9: 14 ― 16). There was danger
that the apostles would be influenced by the outlook of their first teachers, the
Pharisees; these looked on God’s favours as their just rights; Jesus’ attitude to publicans
and sinners was something they disapproved of. So, by this parable, our Lord wished to
impress on his followers God’s mercy and grace to those who have not merited it, such
as the penitent thief.
In March the first signs of spring appear; in vineyards particularly it is a time of
feverish work from daylight till dark. Most of the work is done by casual labour, since
it is only seasonal in accordance with the Mosaic law (Deuteronomy 24: 15), wages were to be
paid at the end of each day’s work; the ‘silver piece’ was a denarius, which means a
day’s pay. The order of payment in the parable is a device to introduce the
dissatisfied spokesman of the union members; he sounds very much like the elder
son in the parable of the Prodigal Son.
# Ronald Cox is referring here to the role of Gentiles in the Church, preparing for
the entry of their elder brother in the end days.
II From: The Four Gospels by Rev. C. J. Callan, O. P. (American spelling retained.)
The Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard, which extends from the
first to the sixteenth verse of the present chapter, is found only in
St. Matthew. This parable cannot be rightly understood out of
connection with the last four verses of the preceding chapter, as it
was called forth by the question of Peter, “What therefore shall we
have?” (19: 27). The scope and aim of the parable is primarily and
directly to warn the Apostles, and, through them, the rest of the Jews
that, although they were the first called and favored by Almighty God,
they are nevertheless to enjoy no preference over the Gentiles in
Christ’s Kingdom, either here or here¬after. Secondarily and indirectly,
the parable is directed against every state of mind, which would make
those in possession of spiritual privileges feel any right or title to
special place or consideration in the Kingdom of God. The message,
therefore, of the parable is a warning to Peter and the other Apostles,
and through them, to the Jews and all true believers against a wrong
spirit, which would lead them to look upon their spiritual blessings and
favors as a result of their own merits, and not of the gratuitous grace
of God; and which, consequently, would make them feel themselves
worthy of some special reward or privilege in God’s Church, either
militant or triumphant. Our Lord would thus teach His Apostles, and
all of us who are called to the service of God, that, however long and
abundant our labors, they are nothing before God without humility
and charity; and that, if we lose sight of these virtues, we shall in the
end come short of the reward to which our labors were intended to