The Last Will Be First
Ordinary 25 Year A
A Hebrew Catholic Perspective
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We have, here, another parable which evokes the response from many a reader:
“It doesn’t do much for me!”
This is very understandable. The first thing we need to remember is that it doesn’t stand alone. It is part of a broader cluster of instruction and it must be examined in that light, which we would then discover, makes all the difference.
In this text, our Lord is talking to His disciples, not to the Pharisees nor the general populace. Surprisingly He speaks to them in a parable, which He normally saves for the crowds. In fact, it is a fleshing out of the last verse in chapter 19, that is:
“But many who are first now will be last,
and many who are last now will be first.”
The parable of the workers in the vineyard is not strictly an explanation of these words, but an opportunity Jesus provides for His disciples across the ages, to enter more deeply into the mystery. In this way He imparts a special gift, through the Holy Spirit, which enables us to see things from a heavenly perspective. This special gift of insight from the Holy Spirit will be absolutely necessary to understand the depths of our Lord’s instruction. Fr. G. L. Haydock draws attention to the importance of the opening words of Jesus who, clearly, wishes to emphasise how His Kingdom is to be seen as a single family in its daily operation. He writes:
“….. the conduct of God in the choice He makes of members for
His spiritual kingdom, the Church, and His elect for the kingdom
of heaven, is not unlike that of the father of a family, who hires
workman to labour in his vineyard.”
This point is easily missed, but is so important for engaging in the real message contained in the lesson.
Further reading: Appendix 1 for those who find this parable heavy going.
Some Reflections on the Text
Part 1 Taking on labourers
Verses 1 — 7
“The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out at dawn
to hire laborers for his vineyard.
After agreeing with them for the usual daily wage, he sent them
into his vineyard.
Going out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the
and he said to them, ‘You too go into my vineyard, and I will give
you what is just.’
So they went off. (And) he went out again around noon, and around
three o’clock, and did likewise.
Going out about five o’clock, he found others standing around,
and said to them, ‘Why do you stand here idle all day?’
They answered, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them,
‘You too go into my vineyard.’
Since this is a parable, (and not an allegory# ), we could profit from the advice of St John Chysostom (4th Century Bishop of Constantinople). He makes the point that we should not be distracted from the main lesson by fascination with minor elements.
# In an allegory, every detail is seen as symbolising something significant.
In a parable, there is usually one main point and we shouldnꞌt squeeze meaning out of every little detail.
“It is not right to search curiously, and word by word, into all things
in a parable; but when we have learned the object for which it was
composed, we are to reap this, and not to busy ourselves about
We have two introductory overviews of the passage for those who might find them helpful. Appendix 2 — Labourers in the Vineyard
In the first part of the parable we note the following points:
• The parable begins with the words: “The kingdom of heaven is like
a landowner …” This is the key to how we are to understand the
essence of the lesson. We will return to this point later.
• The setting is a village market place at the start of the Mediterranean
workday, viz. 6 a.m. A landowner has arrived to hire any men who
have come to find work.
• The first group are hired with a formal agreement; one denarius
for a whole day’s work (an average rate for casual, semi-skilled
• The second group were hired at the third hour (after 6 a.m.),
i.e. 9 a.m. They had an informal agreement: “I will pay you
whatever is right.”
• The third group were hired at noon, and the fourth at 3 p.m., on
the same basis as the second group.
• At around 5 p.m. a final group is employed without any agreement
in place. They are simply told to report to the foreman at the vineyard.
Part 2 Payment by the landowner
Verses 8 — 12
When it was evening the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman,
‘Summon the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the
last and ending with the first.’
When those who had started about five o’clock came, each received
the usual daily wage.
So when the first came, they thought that they would receive more,
but each of them also got the usual wage.
And on receiving it they grumbled against the landowner,
saying, ‘These last ones worked only one hour, and you have made
them equal to us, who bore the day’s burden and the heat.’
Part two of the parable gives account of how the landowner pays his workers. The foreman is instructed to call the workers in from the field, and to pay them in the reverse order in which they were taken on.
This is what occurred:
• The team who were taken on at 5 p.m., just one hour before were
paid one denarius for their one hour of work. (The normal pay for
a whole days work.)
• No one complained about what these men received.
• It is not recorded what the 4th, 3rd, and 2nd teams received,
but we can presume it was also a denarius. Again, there are no
complaints from anyone.
• When finally, the first team were paid, much to their surprise, they
received only the one denarius that they agreed to work for.
They had presumed that if the others (especially the last team to
be employed) received a denarius for six, four, or more especially
one hour’s work, surely they would be given proportionately more.
• They began to complain that because they had worked through the
heat of the day and had put in a full 12 hours, they should receive
more. They protested at the employer’s injustice.
Part 3 The landowner deals with complaints
Verses 13 — 15
He said to one of them in reply, ‘My friend, I am not cheating you.
Did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage?
Take what is yours and go. What if I wish to give this last one the
same as you?
(Or) am I not free to do as I wish with my own money? Are you
envious because I am generous?’
The landowner did not leave them without explaining his actions firmly but politely:
• I am not being unfair to you!
• You agreed to work the whole day for one denarius. I am paying
you exactly what we agreed. That is fair and just!
• I want to give the man who was hired last the same as I gave you.
• I own the denarius and I have the right to give it to anyone I wish.
• Why are you envious because I am being generous?
• Take your pay and go!
Part 4 The Lord’s summing up
Our Lord concludes his teaching session with the short saying (though in reverse form — See chapter 19, last verse) which preceded it:
Thus, the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
Following our Lord’s model, let us now reflect on His first words last! He opened His parable with, “The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner ….“. This indicates that He is going to present an opportunity for His listeners to engage in seeing things from a heavenly point of view: that is, His point of view!
The moment we start talking these days about heaven, and angels, and so on, some Christians bristle and show their insecurity by a series of belittling remarks. But a higher level of insight and understanding of the spiritual dimension is what is needed so desperately in the world today.
Only a few weeks ago we read our Lord’s declaration:
“For the Son of Man will come with his angels in his Father’s glory,
and then he will repay everyone according to his conduct.”
(Matt. 16: 27).
As one scholar has said, “The supreme reward of all, to see God as he
is in his unveiled splendour, will be enjoyed by all who are faithful
to the end, and those who have this will care little what else they have
or have not.”
This parable certainly reinforces that the immensity of God’s gifts to us cannot be earned. However, the point could also be made that we are accountable for how we use these gifts, as Matthew 16: 27 above, emphasises. In our Lord’s way of seeing things, our salvation requires we take both aspects very seriously.
That is the heavenly standard, the aim which the disciples of Jesus must constantly uphold. If they do that, they will rejoice when they see others gain. They will not apply human standards of justice alone in their interactions with others. Instead they will desire the advance of others in the Household of God. They will rejoice at God’s benevolence and generosity, and not claim some prior seniority or superiority which would be quite out of place in a warm, supportive, loving family setting.
The parable is therefore about being strengthened to go forth and reflect, in fact — share the magnanimity and loving generosity of God. This will demand ever so much more of the disciples of Jesus than mere justice. The Lord is acutely aware of this, and has taught this parable to prepare them (and us) accordingly.
In the vastness of the world it would be easy to think of the Lord’s kingdom as corresponding to the kingdom “of this world”. Yet He took pains to place this parable in the context of a single family business; like that of Joseph, His foster father. His family — whatever the origin of each member, whether adopted or just “taken-in”, or whatever — all are to rejoice in being sisters and brothers alike, and are not to worry about how favours are spread around. In such a setting, the free and unearned gifts to each are to be enjoyed by all. This is the spiritual intimacy that God chooses to share with us, and for us to share with one another. When we accept His generosity on His terms, we participate as full members of His Household. The workings of the Kingdom of God will require this type and degree of intimacy with God and with one another. That is the secret of this parable.
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(Mark 16: 15)
The real Jesus, is the real answer to the real needs of the world!
Let us remember God’s teaching, contained in His Word and in doing
Ordinary 25 Year A St. Matthew 20: 1 to 16
1. As is obvious no one can earn a day’s wages in one hour. In our parable the
2. Many of us would still have sympathy “at the back of our minds” that the
3. This parable, though it should not be “allegorised”#, nevertheless lends itself
Jesus uses many different models and forms of expression to share the glories
# In an allegory, every detail is seen as symbolising something significant.
Let us pray for one another that we will reflect sincerely on this parable from time to
Then let us pray for a generous spread of God’s blessings throughout the world and that we will always try to second His action humbly, and never impede it.
Matthew 20: 1 — 16
Ordinary 25 Year A
1 1 “The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out at dawn
2 After agreeing with them for the usual daily wage, he sent them into
3 Going out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the
4 2 and he said to them, ‘You too go into my vineyard, and I will give
5 So they went off. (And) he went out again around noon, and around
6 Going out about five o’clock, he found others standing around, and
7 They answered, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You
8 3 When it was evening the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman,
9 When those who had started about five o’clock came, each received
10 So when the first came, they thought that they would receive more,
11 And on receiving it they grumbled against the landowner,
12 saying, ‘These last ones worked only one hour, and you have made
13 He said to one of them in reply, ‘My friend, I am not cheating you. 4
14 5 Take what is yours and go. What if I wish to give this last one the
15 (Or) am I not free to do as I wish with my own money? Are you
16 6 Thus, the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
1 [1-16] This parable is peculiar to Matthew. It is difficult to know whether the evangelist composed it or received it as part of his traditional material and, if the latter is the case, what its original reference was. In its present context its close association with ⇒ Matthew 19:30 suggests that its teaching is the equality of all the disciples in the reward of inheriting eternal life.
2  What is just: although the wage is not stipulated as in the case of those first hired, it will be fair.
3  Beginning with the last . . . the first: this element of the parable has no other purpose than to show how the first knew what the last were given (⇒ Matthew 20:12).
4  I am not cheating you: literally, “I am not treating you unjustly.”
5 [14-15] The owner’s conduct involves no violation of justice (⇒ Matthew 20:4, ⇒ 13), and that all the workers receive the same wage is due only to his generosity to the latest arrivals; the resentment of the first comes from envy.
6  See the note on ⇒ Matthew 19:30.
Scripture texts in this work are taken from the New American Bible, revised
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
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,
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
And frankly, they often get left in the “too hard” basket.
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
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 treasures.
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