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What did Jesus mean by “The last will be first”?

PARAGUAY
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This statement is the closing line of one of Jesus’ most radical, challenging parables.

We are all more or less acquainted with the saying “the last will be first, and the first will be last.” We might not be that well acquainted, though, with the context the phrase originally belongs to: that of the landowner who hires day laborers at four different times in the course of the same day, and then pays them all the same amount of money, regardless of how long or how briefly they had worked. Those who worked a full day received the pay they had agreed to receive. But even though they were not cheated in any way (they got their money, that’s for sure), they were nevertheless unhappy that those who were hired later in the day received the very same pay they got for a full day of work.

Something in the landowner’s behavior might strike us as unfair. Is Jesus here praising arbitrariness? Well, not at all. He is pointing at something entirely different and, to a certain extent, unexpected.

As always, one needs to consider the context: this parable comes in the Gospel of Matthew right after the young rich man turned away from Jesus, unable to give up on his wealth. As soon as this happens, Jesus’ disciples asked him what reward they would have in heaven since, unlike the rich young man, they had already given up everything to follow him. Here, the apostles might be somehow boasting, becoming a bit complacent with themselves: “Ha! See? He was not able to give it all up, like we did!”

Sure, a very straightforward way to understand this parable would be taking it as a reminder that one’s prestige or wealth are not easily and directly translatable into heavenly rank, even if you are an apostle. In fact, it might be quite the opposite: “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you” (Matthew 21:31–32).

But an even more radical reading of it would understand this parable as a reminder of God’s grace. Grace is indeed a gift, freely given by God, and freely received by whomever wants to receive it. What Jesus is pointing at is that salvation is not a matter of “deserving.”

In the parable, laborers are not earning their money based on how long they worked. So what is the landowner paying them for? Even if invited to work at different times throughout the day, they all have one thing in common: they all accepted the invitation. It is not their work what is being rewarded: is their acceptance of the invitation in the first place. The parable is, in the end, an invitation to stop comparing oneself to others, and to simply and gratefully accept the infinite gifts of God.

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