And the last will be first

At the end of his encounter with the rich young ruler, Jesus told his disciples, “But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first” (Matt 19:30, NIV).  Last week, I put up a post about the first half of that statement; this week, we’ll deal with the second.

In order to explain his cryptic remark, Jesus tells a parable in which workers are hired throughout the day to work in a vineyard (Matt 20:1-16).  Those hired at the beginning of the day understandably expected to be paid more than those brought in later.  But when everyone received the same pay–one denarius, a typical day’s wage–those who worked longest complained: “These who were hired last worked only one hour…and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day” (Matt 20:12, NIV).

Much of what I said in this past weekend’s sermon on the parable can be found in a previous post on what I call “the deathbed gospel”: the idea that even the most repellent sinners on the face of the planet can be forgiven by whispering a Jesus prayer with their dying breath.  You know the objection: “You mean to tell me that the ruthless corporate raider who’s done nothing but spread pain everywhere he’s gone gets to go to heaven just because he supposedly gave his life to Christ two seconds before he died?”

If we find that idea somehow repulsive, we probably feel the same way about the parable.  It’s not fair; it makes that evil sinner equal to us who have borne the burden of doing good work. 

But in truth, the problem isn’t just that the gospel makes the corporate raider equal to us, as if he had the same merit; it makes us equal to him, as if we had no merit at all.

That’s the problem with a gospel of grace.  If we truly accept that we’ve been saved solely by the grace of God, we have to admit that we can’t be saved by anything else–not even the good we think we’ve done.   We don’t deserve heaven; we don’t deserve a place in God’s kingdom.  Eternal life is sheer gift, to be received with gratitude rather than a sense of entitlement.

One must enter the kingdom humbly.  And that includes watching out for a certain species of false humility that sometimes rears its head, albeit quietly.  We look at other Christians we admire, and say, “I could never be like them.  They’re such prayer warriors.  They’re such natural evangelists.  They’re so knowledgeable about the Bible.  I could never be as good as that.”

There’s nothing wrong with admiring the gifts God has given to others, if it means celebrating his grace and desiring even more to discover our own gifts, to be part of the work he wants to do in and through us.

But if admiring others leads us to the depressing conclusion that we could never measure up, that’s not true humility.  That’s clinging to the idea that there should still be some scale of merit that separates the winners from the losers.  That’s denying God’s plan to equip every believer in some way to serve him.

That’s denying grace.  And if we do that, we gut the gospel, making it old news instead of good news.

We can be like the responsible but grouchy older brother in the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32), moping and pouting and avoiding the party.  Or we can confess our prodigality and join the celebration.  We can be the people who were hired to work in the vineyard at six in the morning, resenting those who come in the eleventh hour.  Or we can be the people who were hired at five in the afternoon, rejoicing in the surprising grace we’ve received.

It’s our choice.  Just remember: either way, it’s the same denarius.