So those who are last now will be first then, and those who are first will be last.– Matthew 20:16
I would highly recommend going through and reading Matthew 20:1-16 before reading this because it will make a lot more since, but for those of you pressed on time, I will give you the abridged version. This is the parable of the land owner who pays the same wage to the people who started working at five o’clock in the afternoon as the people who had been working all day since nine o’clock in the morning. I know, instantly that just doesn’t seem right, does it? Why on earth would someone who works all day get paid the exact same amount as the person who worked for a couple of hours? Samuel Gompers is rolling over in his grave just hearing this!
As always, though, Jesus is not really using the context of the parable literally. He isn’t talking about money, or labor for that matter. He is talking about the Kingdom of Heaven. The Kingdom of Heaven isn’t seeking currency (no matter what your church tells you); the currency in that kingdom is faith. So what is he really talking about here?
We, as humans, really enjoy working really hard to find the “gray area,” in the Bible. Like the rich man in Matthew 19, Jesus says, “follow the commandments,” and we ask “which ones?” Well, my guess would be all of them. That’s why they are called commandments. It wasn’t called the 10 suggestions, or the 10 good ideas. They are the 10 commands of the bare minimum of behavior that God is seeking in us. That being said, God didn’t really write them down in descending order of greatest to least, with one having a more severe punishment than the next. Breaking any of those commandments is sin, punishable by death. No gray area there, no probation period, no option for parole; just death. If you broke a commandment and did not resolve it with the proper sacrifice – before the time after Jesus’ sacrifice – you were not forgiven, and there was no jury of peers to defend you. What I am getting at is that sin is sin is sin. Stealing a pen had the same ramifications as cold blooded murder. I know, here we go again. That’s just not fair! I hear you. It is really hard for our minds to wrap around this idea. We have an entire legal system dedicated to determining what crimes are more sever than others and which punishments each of them should deserve. Further more, God handed down an entire legal system to the Hebrews on how to handle sins or crimes committed against one another. The fact of the matter is that God knows that our minds can’t really grasp this concept, and that we needed a system of punishment to suffice in this world. If the Hebrew nation had the same single punishment tactic every time someone committed a crime against another person there just wouldn’t have been a Hebrew nation for long. God handed down a “gray area” legal system to deal with crimes in this world so we didn’t just up and off one another.
Now that the context of sin being a simple check box of yes or no is covered. How does that apply to Matthew 20? Well, if we are trying to understand faith, it is best to look at the destroyer of faith as a contrast. Since all sin has the same punishment in God’s eyes, all faith – by contrast – would all have the same reward. Luke 23:42-43 is the very best example we could possibly ask for. Jesus and two criminals are hanging out enjoying getting a good tan… No the three are all hanging on the cross, lives of all three are about to come to an end, and one of the criminals turns to Jesus and says, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your Kingdom.” To which Jesus replies, “I assure you, today you will be with me in paradise.” Jesus didn’t say, “Oh sure, nice cop out, sorry pal! You’re too late!” He told the man that he was coming with him. Why? Because he believed in who Jesus was. He didn’t really have time to jump off the cross and perform a few good deeds, or go get baptized. He simply believed in who Jesus was and was forgiven of everything he had done in the past without even really asking for it. It sounds poetic when Jesus says it, but how do we usually handle it in the real world?
You’ve been a Christian your whole life. You’ve done all the right things, you’ve lived a good life, and you have found your relationship with God through the “right” ways. Your faith is in tact because you have always had a commitment to doing the right thing in Gods eyes. First of all, don’t kid yourself. The first half of this writing might be something you want to pay close attention to. That being said though, for the most part you’ve been a good egg. A man walks into church one Sunday, and you see tattoos all over his arms, neck, and even a tear drop tattooed under his eye. You’ve read on Facebook what those tattoos mean, and you know that he is a bad person. He’s done bad things, and to prove it you can see the bulge of a house arrest monitor underneath his sock when he sits down. He comes to church every week for a long time after that initial appearance. You’ve see him raise his hands in the air during worship and you’ve seen him wipe tears away from his eyes when the pastor hits a touchy subject in his life.
Finally one day, the pastor’s topic is on forgiveness and grace, and you notice the guy isn’t sitting in his normal seat. The pastor invites a person up by a name you’ve never heard, and its him. He starts to share his testimony about growing up in gangs, dealing drugs, and finally going to prison for murder. He spent a long time in prison and finally with good behavior he was released and put on parole. He says he came to know Jesus in prison, and though things are rough as he tries to get himself acclimated into society, he knows that Jesus loves him, and that Jesus has washed away his sin. How do you feel about that? Are you moved to tears by his testimony? Or are you disgusted that he thinks God would forgive a murderer? I guarantee you, all of heaven rejoiced the day he believed in Christ all the same as they did when you decided you believed.
I know those are two extremes, and that almost anyone who reads this probably falls into the middle of the spectrum somewhere there, but that is exactly the point. That is the whole purpose for the parable in Matthew 20. It doesn’t matter if you’ve believed your whole life, partied through your 20’s and then settled down, found Jesus in prison, or find him on your death bed. Jesus is saying the reward for faith is the Kingdom of Heaven. There is no gray area and there is no cut off line. There is no sin too great that Jesus did not conquer the day he died on the cross. It doesn’t sound fair, because we want to feel like anyone who finds their faith after we do cant possibly be viewed the same as us. We have had faith, and we have built our relationship with Jesus far more than anyone who came after us. It’s not fair! But let me say this, Jesus hit the nail on the head when he said, “..Should you be jealous because I am kind to others?” No, because Jesus has been kind to you as well. Do not let your selfish pride take away from celebrating with all of Heaven, when a brother or a sister comes to Christ, no matter what they did before they got there.