What is the meaning of Matthew 20:1-16? Why did Jesus so specify to mention about “The last will be first, and the first will be last”? Is it any special meaning of it?
The phrase “But many that are first shall be last; and the last shall be first,” closes Matthew 19 and is repeated in (20:16), but the context goes all the way back to Matthew 18:1 when Christ’ disciples asked: “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” The amount of space given by Matthew toward this question shows how big and broad this problem is for mankind. It shows how difficult it is for us to see the problem and how difficult it is to rid ourselves of it. Jesus puts forth the Parable of the Vineyard in Matthew to try to open their eyes.
If we ignore the chapter divisions and realize that this parable is related to the Parable of the Rich Young Ruler in chapter 19. From Matthew 5:20 and all throughout the book of Matthew , Jesus is dealing with the misunderstandings of the scribes and Pharisees. The main point in the Parable of the Vineyard is why were these “idlers” not hired (verse 6-7)? It was not because they were lazy. They were ready to work but none would hire them.
Remember Matthew was written to the Jews, religious people. The same problem had occurred throughout the Old Testament. They had missed the meaning of what religion was all about. WHY DID THE PHARISEES NOT HIRE THEM? It was because their religion WAS BASED UPON MERIT. But these “idlers” had not accomplished anything. They had no great attainments. This is why his disciples could not understand why the rich young ruler had been overlooked by Jesus. In their eyes here was a “great” person. The apostles were also mistaken. (Mark 10:28; Luke 18:28) “We have left all…” and were looking at this through the eyes of meritorious works. Their looking at it through meritorious works you can see why they asked the question, “Who would be the greatest.” But this parable shows it is not based on merit.
When payday came some murmured. Why murmur unless they were thinking about it on the basis of merit? …how long they had worked …how much they had done. The ones that murmured are identical to the ones in Luke 15:1-2. In this case Jesus tells them the Parable of the Prodigal Son. The elder brother’s whole philosophy was based on how much he had done and how much he deserved, contrasted to his brother who had thrown away everything and did not deserve anything.
The Parable of the Vineyard shows that God does not measure in the same we that we do. In Matthew 10:42: the emphasize is not that one gives a cup of cold water, but rather that was all he had to give. It is to show it is not the amount, nor the size, but the motive. It’s not how much people have to give that counts, but how much do they understand their need of redemption and then using what they have, whatever it may be. And God does not measure by merit, but rather by faithfulness to our opportunities.
Why would they not rejoice that these who had been out of work had not found work? For the same reason the elder brother did not rejoice when the brother came back home. It indicated they were selfish like the elder brother. When the householder said “Friend, I do thee no wrong.” (Matthew 20: 13), it is the same as when the Father said to the elder brother: Luke 15:31 “…all that I have is thine.” They were as unhappy about the whole matter, the same as the elder brother was unhappy.
Matthew 20:10 “But when the first came, they supposed that they should have received more; and they likewise received every man a penny.” Why did they think they should receive more? Because they thought they had done more showing they were reasoning on the basis of merit. An example of this is found in (Mark 12:41-44) as Jesus watched them cast money into the treasury “…they cast in out of their abundance”. They thought they had done more than the widow. More in dollars and cents, in the way man looks at things, but not more in sacrifice, the way God see things. In 2 Corinthians 8-9 the Macedonians could not equal the Corinthians in dollar amount, but in sacrifice they surpassed them. That is the reason our giving is based on our “prosperity” and not a dollar amount.
“Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own?…” In the parable of the prodigal son, did not the father have it all to start with? Did he not have the right to give it to the prodigal as he wanted to? When the elder brother complained didn’t he say it had been there all the time for him?
Matthew 20:15 “…Is thine eye evil, because I am good?” Now you can see why Jesus asked the rich young ruler in Matthew 19:16-17 “…Why callest thou me good? there is none good but one, that is, God: but if thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments.” Eternal life does not just have to do with God is Deity and can save whomever He wants. It is controlled by His goodness which does not select people on the basis of merit. God’s goodness provides grace which is open to everybody. It excludes none, but we can exclude ourselves (the reason he told the rich young ruler to “keep the commandments”) by not allowing the word of God to remold and remake us on the inside. If we do not, not only will we exclude ourselves, but by our attitude we will exclude others, too. God’s goodness was manifest in this parable because He gave to the last the same as He had to the first. The one that can only clean the building has as much right to enjoy the blessings of the kingdom as the best preacher or elder. In Deut. 15:7-9, 10-11 “the evil eye” indicates covetousness because he would not lend to the poor knowing “the seventh year” was at hand. In the seventh year all debt was forgiven and he would not have to repay him. He says give to him but don’t complain and murmur. (This the attitude exhibited in Matthew 29).
God didn’t love us because of who WE are, but because of who HE is. (1 John 4) makes it clear it is God’s character that caused Him to love us and he did that “while we were yet enemies”. (Romans 5:10) That is, it was not because of our meriting it. Therefore God loves without distinction which is the basis of John 3:16.
Matthew 20:16 “So the last shall be first, and the first last: for many be called, but few chosen.” This is the same as “the broad way and the narrow way” in (Matthew 7:13-14) All are called but many, in fact most, are like the Pharisees and are not chosen. It is the few that have the attitudes of the Sermon on the Mount and throughout the book of Matthew that must be developed in order to become “salt…light” (Matthew 5:13-15).
Matthew 20:17-19 Jesus is going to the most religious city in the world and they are going to kill him. Yet there was not a city farther from God and truth and right than Jerusalem. (Matthew 20:20-28) Jesus answers the question about greatness. Note the word “desire” in Matthew 20:20 and Jesus’ question in verse 21: “What wilt thou?” Do we desire to be great in the sight of man or in the sight of God? Do we desire to be “first” in the sight of man or “first” in the sight of God? In the sight of man (“Gentiles”) it is determined by how many we rule over. In the sight of God it is determined by how much we serve and are willing to sacrifice.
“Many called but few chosen” is like there are many that might apply for a job, but few actually get the job. Many fill out the application, but few meet the requirements to get the job. “The last shall be first and the first last”: many think they are qualified but when the jobs are posted will be disappointed. Many think they are doing God’s will but will be disappointed at that great day because they “have not kept his commandments”.
By Danny Stanford