As we learned previously in our study of the parables, it’s important to determine the primary principle that was being taught by Jesus in the parable. We should avoid the temptation to allegorize every detail of the story, but try to discern the central thought that Jesus was teaching.
Having said that, however, it’s still possible to have more than one application. And this parable lends itself to possibly more than one application. But rather than focus on whatever those possible interpretations may be at this point, I want to go back to chapter 19, because I think that by considering the greater context in which this parable was given we will get a better understanding of what Jesus was teaching.
The context for this parable really starts back in chapter 19 vs 16, as Jesus is visited by a man described as a rich, young ruler. So far in our studies of the parables, Jesus has had a lot to say about the perils of being rich. And in both previous parables we’ve looked at concerning a rich man, one was characterized as a rich fool because he was rich in the world’s goods, but not rich towards God. And the other rich man was foolish as well, being rich in the world’s goods, but not rich towards God, and at his death finding his soul consigned to the torment of Hades.
Now in this account from real life this rich, young ruler comes to Jesus and says, “Teacher, what good thing shall I do that I may obtain eternal life?” He shows that he is a little more prudent than the other rich men Jesus has talked about previously through parables. He may be rich, but he also recognizes that there is life beyond this world and he needs to make preparation for that eventuality.
I’m sure you are familiar with the story, so I don’t have time to exegete every detail this morning, but the end result of his discourse with Jesus was that he went away from that meeting sorrowful, because he had great riches, and it seemed to him that Jesus said he must be willing to sell it all and give it to the poor, and leave everything to follow Him. The eternal life this rich young ruler was seeking could only gained by a willingness to forsake everything for the riches of Christ. And he was not willing to forsake his great riches for Christ.
After the man left, Jesus turned to the disciples and spoke the following; “Truly I say to you, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” Now that’s a pretty heavy statement. And while most of us would protest that we aren’t rich, yet I would argue that depends on how you define rich. And I think if we broadened our understanding of what it means to be rich in the world’s goods, we might find that we qualify as being rich in the eyes of God. I would support that by saying that if salvation actually depended upon you selling your house, your cars, your stocks, emptying your bank account and giving it all away, then I’m afraid many of us would more than likely remain unsaved. I wonder how many people would be willing to go to that extreme if that was the requirement for salvation.
The question arises though, was Jesus serious when He said that? Or was He just using hyperbole? I’ve never heard a preacher speak about the dangers of riches without prefacing it repeatedly by saying there is nothing wrong with being rich, it’s just your attitude about riches that is the problem. I’m not sure we can be so cavalier about it, to be honest. In my experience, I think salvation is most certain when one comes to the end of themselves. They are willing to surrender everything completely if God will just help them. Riches are just one of many things that you can put before God that can prevent you from coming to that point of complete surrender.
Well, the disciples were just as troubled by that statement that Jesus made as you might be. Maybe more so, because they were taught that the way to righteousness was by giving alms to the temple and by giving alms to the poor. And so for the rich it was much easier to give large sums of money than for others to do that. These disciples were by nature hard working fisherman, and they didn’t have a lot of money. So they thought if it was difficult for rich people to be saved, then it was going to be next to impossible for them.
So when the disciples heard this, they were very astonished and said, “Then who can be saved?” And looking at them Jesus said to them, “With people this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” Now that statement gives us insight into the principle that salvation is not of men, not of merit, not of virtue, not of value, but salvation is of the Lord. It is the gift of God. Salvation is by grace.
Now following on this statement Peter then said to Jesus, “Behold, we have left everything and followed You; what then will there be for us?” He claimed that they had done what Jesus told the rich young ruler he had to do to be saved. Peter says, we have left everything and followed you, what will be our reward?
And Jesus said, “Truly I say to you, that you who have followed Me, in the regeneration when the Son of Man will sit on His glorious throne, you also shall sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or farms for My name’s sake, will receive many times as much, and will inherit eternal life. But many who are first will be last; and the last, first.”
Again, Jesus reiterates the principle that giving up everything to follow Him is the key to receiving eternal life. And the disciples, insomuch as they had given up everything to follow Christ, were going to not only get eternal life, but in the regeneration, in the new heavens and new earth, receive dominion over the 12 tribes of Israel.
But then Jesus summarizes that with a principle; “many who are first will be last; and the last, first.” Now that principle is the thesis for the parable which we are looking at today. And it’s important to understand that is the central thought which Jesus is teaching in that parable. I’ve heard and read others commentate on this parable and in the process extrapolate from it the doctrine of election, the sovereignty of God and so forth. And I am sure those doctrines are illustrated to some degree in this parable. But I don’t think they are the main point.
And I can show further evidence for that because of the fact that this parable is bookended with this statement. We have to remember that the chapter divisions are not inspired. They were added by the translators quite a long time after the original writings. And in this case, I think the chapter break does the passage harm. Because if you disregard the chapter division, then you will see that the last verse of chapter 19 and the 16th verse of chapter 20 are virtually the same, Jesus just reversed the order. And so the statement is both the introduction and the conclusion of the parable.
Let me read both of them for you, Matt. 19:30 “But many [who are] first will be last; and [the] last, first.” And then Matt. 20:16 “So the last shall be first, and the first last.” It’s obvious to me that Jesus deliberately presented it this way so that the parable is an illustration of that principle which is repeated twice, at the beginning and at the end. So as I have said previously, the best interpretation of a parable is one that Jesus Himself gives, and here He gives us this interpretation twice.
So now we know what the central principle of the parable is, but what does it mean? Well, let’s consider the parable which He gave to illustrate it, so that we might understand it.
In this parable, the owner of the vineyard went out to search for laborers to harvest the fruit. When the grapes had ripened to the optimal point, it was important that they be harvested as quickly as possible. And so he needed many people to work before the grapes were past their prime. As was the custom in that day, the laborers would gather in the marketplace early in the morning to wait for employers to come and hire them for the day.
Jesus said at the first hour of the morning, about 6 am, he hired workers who agreed to work for the day for the wage of a denarius. A denarius was the standard wage for a day’s work. As the day went on, he went back to the marketplace and hired another group, this time about 9am. Obviously, the work was in danger of not being finished in time, so the vineyard owner came back at 12 and hired some more and again at three. To those groups he offered them work and said he would pay them what was right.
Finally, the vineyard owner came back at the 11th hour which would be 5 o’clock. There was only an hour left to work, but nevertheless after speaking with some workers who had been waiting all day and no one had hired them, the vineyard owner hired them as well.
At the end of the day, as was customary in those times, the workers came together to be paid for their day’s labor. The vineyard owner instructed his foreman, “Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last group to the first.” As the last group of workers came forward to get their wages they each received a denarius. The workers from the 9th hour and the 6th hour and the third hour received a denarius as well. When the workers from the first group received their denarius, they were angry that they received the same as the others. They said, “‘These last men have worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden and the scorching heat of the day.”
But the vineyard owner replied, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what is yours and go, but I wish to give to this last man the same as to you. Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with what is my own? Or is your eye envious because I am generous?”
Now this parable is particularly prone to over interpretation. I think the point that Jesus is teaching is very simple. But if you parse each detail and dissect all the dialogue, you can easily come up with more questions than you have answers. I think the simplest answer is best, and that comes from remembering the context in which Jesus gave it. And the simplest answer is found in light of the rich man being unwilling to leave everything to follow Jesus, and consequently not entering into eternal life, and the disciples leaving everything to follow Jesus and entering into eternal life and being given authority in heaven. In light of that, Jesus is simply saying that those who seem to be first in this life in regards to earthly goods and riches, whether financial or physical or even relationships, will be last in eternity. And those who seem to be last in regards to earthly riches but are rich towards God will be first in eternity.
Now that’s what He is teaching in this parable. And that is born out by Jesus’s summary remark in vs 16, “So the last shall be first, and the first last.” Jesus started the parable by saying, “the kingdom of heaven is like…” It is an illustration of the nature of the kingdom of heaven. One aspect of the kingdom of heaven is illustrated here. There may be other applications that can be made from this parable, but I would discourage drawing too many conclusions from some of the details of the story. Because not all of them have a direct correlation to the nature of the kingdom. Some of the details just help to make the story more relatable. But they are not necessarily included to be allegorical.
So we know the primary central thought of the parable and what Jesus was teaching. But there can also be secondary points that are illustrated as well. For instance, the principle that salvation is of grace is indicated in this passage to a certain degree. Grace is illustrated by the fact that the vineyard owner generously gave a denarius to those who had not worked a full day. But we really have to break the parable in order to make sure that we don’t include works as a means of grace. Paul said in Romans 4:4 “Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due.” The word translated gift there is from the Greek charis, which is the word normally translated as grace. So it’s difficult to use this parable as an illustration of grace when they are working for their wages, even if some only worked a few hours and others worked more. So as all the laborers worked in the parable, they all got wages, and therefore it is not really a true representation of grace.
Another possible secondary interpretation is that which might be called dispensational. It might be possible to say that those under the law of Moses were the first, and those under the dispensation of grace would be the last. And thus those attempting to enter into the kingdom through their works would come in last, and those who come under grace are those in first. But again, the context doesn’t really support that idea. When Jesus addresses the rich young ruler He tells him to keep the commandments if he wants to receive eternal life. And when Peter speaks up about the disciples’ sacrifices, Jesus says that they will be given thrones over the 12 tribes of Israel. All of that is very much Old Testament theology. Not much is said there about grace.
Of course, we are saved by grace, the unmerited favor of God. But grace is a by product of our surrender to Jesus as Lord. Romans 10:9 says, “that if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved; for with the heart a person believes, resulting in righteousness, and with the mouth he confesses, resulting in salvation.” Grace is the application of Christ’s righteousness to our account as a result of our confession of Jesus as Lord. Paul says further in vs 13, “WHOSOEVER SHALL CALL ON THE NAME OF THE LORD WILL BE SAVED.”
The emphasis is on calling on Jesus as LORD. The principle of surrendering to the Lordship of Christ is the means of our salvation. We don’t have to understand all the doctrines of grace or the doctrine of election, or the doctrine of substitutionary atonement in order to be saved. We simply have to come to the end of ourselves, come to the end of our independence, our self reliance, the end of our rebellion and recognize Jesus as Lord. He is God, He is the King of the kingdom of heaven. From Him is life, from Him is every blessing and every good gift. He is the source of our righteousness which makes us accepted into the kingdom of God.
The Lordship of Christ exposes the problem with riches. They are a means of our self reliance. They are what keeps us from trusting completely in Him as the source of life, as the source of blessing. Every good gift comes from above. He owns the cattle on a thousand hills. And when we forsake everything to follow Him, we find that He gives us everything that we need. He is sufficient. He is the source of life in all it’s fullness and abundance. So we do not trust in riches or trust in the things of this world, even in the relationships of this world, even the love of this world, but we trust in the Lord with all our heart and lean not unto our own understanding. In all our ways acknowledge Him and He will direct our path of life.
The problem is that we tend to put the world’s things first in our life and the Lord is given second place at best. Jesus said that the first shall be last and the last first. Jesus wants first place in our life and He will not accept second place. The first and foremost commandment has not changed; “YOU SHALL LOVE THE LORD YOUR GOD WITH ALL YOUR HEART, AND WITH ALL YOUR SOUL, AND WITH ALL YOUR MIND.” That is first place. If He has first place in your heart, then forsake everything and follow Him and you will receive eternal life.
In light of that, we really should do a spiritual inventory and ask oursevles, what do you value more than Christ? If you were told that you had to give up your riches, would you do so for the sake of Christ? If you were told that you had to give up your career, would you do it for the sake of Christ? How about giving up your family? Would you give up your family for the sake of Christ? He must have the preeminence. He must have first place.
That’s why I think most people that are truly saved are people who have hit bottom. They have come to the end of themselves. They recognize the hopelessness of their situation. They have nothing left to hold onto. And so maybe it’s easier for them to give up everything for Christ. But it’s hard for a man who is rich in the things of the world to enter into the kingdom of heaven. “It’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”
Those are heavy words, my friend, because we are told that the gate to the kingdom of heaven is narrow, and few there be that find it. And for those who try to enter carrying all the things that they love from this world, they find that it is impossible to enter through the narrow gate while carrying those things. A lot of people are pretty well satisfied with their life, but they want to add something to be certain that they will be received into heaven in the next life. So they come to God on the basis of adding to their riches. I would ask you to consider what are you carrying this morning? Perhaps you are like the rich young ruler, you are smart enough to know that there is an eternity, that there is a heaven, but are you willing to forsake everything in order to get in? I pray that you are.
Paul said in Phil. 3:7-11 “But whatever things were gain to me, those things I have counted as loss for the sake of Christ. More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish so that I may gain Christ, and may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from [the] Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which [comes] from God on the basis of faith, that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death; in order that I may attain to the resurrection from the dead.”
And that is what we all must do if we would inherit eternal life.