In Matthew 20, Jesus tells a parable about what the “kingdom of heaven is like.” In the New Testament, the “kingdom of heaven” or “kingdom of God” refers to the “reign of God,” rather than to a place. So, what is God’s reign among His people like?
Jesus’ parable on this topic is about a master of a house who hired laborers for his vineyard. Throughout the day he hired more and more laborers. At the end of the day as he paid them their daily wage, the people who had been hired early in the morning and who had therefore been working all day in the heat expected to be paid more than those who were hired in the eleventh hour. But, the master of the house paid them all the same thing; everyone got paid the same amount, regardless of how long they had labored.
So, some of the workers came to complain to the master of the house that it wasn’t fair that those who came in late got the same payment as they. They assumed that those who had worked longer would get more money. In response, the master of the house said, “I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. 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 last will be first, and the first last – we hear this sentiment quite a few times from Jesus.
After telling this parable, Jesus took the twelve disciples aside and told them that in Jerusalem “… the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death and deliver him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified, and he will be raised on the third day.”
So, Jesus first tells the disciples what the reign of God is like and then tells them about his impending suffering, death, and resurrection. Following this, the mother of James and John comes up to Jesus with her two sons and kneels before him to ask him something. James and John were among the twelve disciples; they were apostles. Now, Jesus has just said that he’s going to die. But, have you ever talked with someone and told them something very important and then they say something to you that makes you think they weren’t really listening? It’s like the whole time you were telling them some important news, they were simply thinking of what they were going to say next. And so it is with the mother of James and John.
Jesus foretells his death, but she says to him, “Say that these two sons of mine are to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.” She doesn’t really know what she’s asking for. For, when Jesus ushers in his kingdom – his reign – on the cross, as he hangs on that cross there is a thief on his right and one on his left, being crucified along with Jesus. So, James’ and John’s mother doesn’t know what she’s asking, because service in the kingdom of heaven does not involve power or glory, but more often suffering and ridicule.
Jesus says to her that to sit at his right hand or at his left is not his to grant, but is the prerogative of his Father. And the other disciples become mad at James and John for pushing their mother to ask Jesus for this honor. For, James and John were trying to place themselves into a position of authority over the other disciples, and using their own mother to help them.
But, Jesus calms things down by reminding the disciples what it truly means to be a disciple of Christ. Jesus says to them all, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But, whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
So, in this chapter of Matthew, we have two statements of Jesus: “The last will be first, and the first last” and “Whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave.” And these two statements are both fulfilled and seen in Jesus Christ because “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Think about that. The almighty, eternal Lord God who created us came to earth in the flesh to be with us. And he came not to be as earthly kings are, having his people serve him and wait on him. Instead, he came to serve his people. He washed their feet at the Last Supper. He bore with their weaknesses, gently teaching them. And finally, he died for them, for you; giving his perfect, sinless, holy life as a ransom for your imperfect, sinful, and unholy lives. Through his death and resurrection, Jesus the Christ the Son of the living God gives you his righteousness in order to cover over your sins and set you apart – that is, to make you holy – for salvation.
Think about the difference between what God did through Christ and how we often act. When people get into positions of power, they often lord it over others, just as Jesus stated to his disciples that they are not to do. There are exceptions – but this is how it often is; “the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them.”
But, this is not how God acted, although He had every right and reason to do so. God didn’t demand that we do something to be saved, He didn’t demand that we become perfect through our own efforts before He would save us. He didn’t stay far off. didn’t do this, even though He has every right and reason as our Creator. But, instead, He came to us to die for our sins. God in His mercy sent His Son to die for us and for his sake forgives us all our sins. Christ served us through his death in order to lift us up from death into life.
And so because Christ has served us, and we are now his through Baptism and faith, we are to serve others. Pastors are called into the pastoral office, not to lord their authority over others, but to serve – to care for the souls of those with whom he is entrusted. Elders too are called to serve the congregation. And ultimately, all Christian believers are called to serve their neighbor. Think about that, if everyone is focussed on serving the other person, then everyone is looking out for their neighbor. That’s the whole Law isn’t it?: to love the Lord our God with our whole heart, mind, and soul; and our neighbor as ourself.
But, we as sinful beings cannot do this through our own power. We are like the laborers in the vineyard who look at others and say, “That’s not fair.” That’s not fair that that person is saved – look at all the horrible things he’s done in his life. That’s not fair that that person lived a life of debauchery and yet God forgives him and brought him to faith. That’s not fair that I’ve been faithful my entire life, enduring hardship and persecution due to my faith, while this other person sailed through life without a care in the world and without one thought of God, and yet now he’s come to faith and will be saved.
Shouldn’t I get something more for all my faithful service? Shouldn’t there be a distinction between me and those who came to faith after me? And to all these thoughts, Jesus says, “Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?”
Because, it’s all about God’s grace through Christ. As soon as we realize it’s about Him and not us, we’ll be better off. He has been greatly generous to us, forgiving us of all our sins and restoring us to a relationship with Him, our Father and Creator, through Christ. And He has gifted us eternal life with Him. We as sinful beings want to argue about what’s fair, but we should be careful for what we ask. Because fairness would require that God punish us for our sins. Fairness would say that we need to pay God back and make amends for all our sins against him. Fairness would demand payment from us, a payment that we could never satisfy, no matter how hard we worked or how strongly we tried.
But, thanks be to God that He is not fair. He sent His Son to die for us. That wasn’t fair, but it was gracious to us. He did what we could not. We could not make amends for our sins, we could not stand God’s punishment, we could not pay God back for all the wrong we’ve done, we could not be perfect. We can never balance out His scale of justice with good works. So, God wasn’t fair – His Son bore our punishment, atoned for our sins, and paid our debt. He was the first – the Son of God – but he became the last for us – crucified on the cross – he became our servant to save us. Through him, we have received not the wages of sin, which is death, but the gift of life.
The Lord has had mercy on the unlovable, the evil, the unrighteous – for He has had mercy on you and me. We were once his enemies, and yet he has forgiven us and made us His children through Christ by crediting to us Christ’s righteousness.
And so we as the Church, as Christ’s people, are likewise called out into the world to love the unlovable, the evil, the unrighteous. We are to proclaim God’s Law to bring them to repentance so that they know their sick and fallen state. Then, we bear to them Christ’s love through the Gospel and proclaim the peace with God and forgiveness of sins that Christ’s death and resurrection brings. We are to proclaim to them the restoration that Christ brings – a restoration that we have in part now in the Church and that we will have in full when he returns to restore all creation to the perfection in which God had originally created it.
For you have been brought into this restoring reign of God. You are all forgiven by Christ and restored to God as His children. Some of you may have come to faith early in life, grew up in the Church, and have never wavered. Some of you may have wandered from the Church and then come back. And some of you may have come to faith late in life or fairly recently. Some (all?) of us may continually struggle with your faith.
And yet you all receive forgiveness of sins and eternal life with God – and this is due to God’s grace and mercy and not due to anything you have done, precisely because it is a gift. He gives it to you freely. And so we are not to begrudge His generosity or look down on those who are young or new in the faith. Instead, we are to serve them – teaching them, and helping them – since this is exactly what Christ has done and is doing for us.
(Image: Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard; By Rembrandt – , Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6848572 )