What does Jesus mean when he says “The first shall be last and the last shall be first?”

What does the adage "The first shall be last, and the last shall be first" have to do with the workers in the vineyard?

Reference: Matthew 20 Matthew 20:16

Question:

What does Jesus mean when he says “The first shall be last and the last shall be first?”  And what does it have to do with the parable of the vineyard workers?

Answer:

The meaning of Jesus’ curious statement about the first and last role reversal has everything to do with the parable that precedes it.  I have said in previous posts that parables should not be treated as strict allegories.  In other words, we should avoid assigning a specific meaning to every element of a parable.  However, there are some overwhelming first-century symbols that cannot be overlooked.  In this parable we find just such a symbol… the vineyard.  Remember, we need to hear this parable as the first century listeners would have heard it.  Considering that important interpretive note, the idea of the vineyard takes on a potent meaning that cannot be ignored.

The vineyard was an analogy for the people of Israel (see Isaiah 5 or Psalm 80). The vineyard was a symbol of Israel and its promised prosperity.  With this knowledge the message of the parable becomes much clearer.  Thus the workers who come late still get to take part in the reward of the vineyard and its owner. Jesus is communicating a radical message to the leaders and the people of Israel that says, ‘the Kingdom of God has been opened up to the Gentiles too’.  The nation of Israel may have been first, but that doesn’t mean that others cannot receive the blessing.

Thus, when Jesus says “those who are last now will be first, and those who are first will be last” we must interpret it in light of Jesus message about Jews and Gentiles.  This is more than just a comment on pride and humility.  Jesus is suggesting that the ones who show up later, the Gentiles, have just as prominent a place in the kingdom of God as the Jews.  The trouble is that this does not sit well with those who were already there.  In Verses 10 and 11 one can see the discontent of the workers who showed up first.  It is there that you get a sense of what it means for the first to be last.   For those who think they deserve more and they get less, it feels like losing.  But what Jesus is really saying is that there is no distinction between those who arrive early and those who arrive late (Jews and Gentiles respectively).

Today this message applies to the Church.  Sometimes the Church can be so closed off from the world.  The message for those of us who know Jesus already is that we should long for all people to partake in the same reward that we ourselves receive when we follow after Jesus.

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6 Responses to “What does Jesus mean when he says “The first shall be last and the last shall be first?””

  1. Ricardo Estrada Says:

    Isreal is in the middle east, By any chance do you know the nationality of jesus?

  2. MetroBibleBlog Says:

    Jesus was an Israelite. The nation of Israel was established through Jacob, whom God named Israel. Jacob had 12 sons, from which came the twelve tribes of Israel. Jacob’s grandfather was Abraham through whom the promise was given that his descendants (Israel) would be made into a great nation.

    God promised the Abraham that his descendants would be given the land of the Canaanites, what we now call the land of Palestine. That is why Jesus was Palestinian, because he grew up in Palestine, but his national identity was that of an Israelite.

  3. mark santos Says:

    A comparative analysis about Spiritual Legality of all religions. The bible is a Testament given ONLY to Jacob kingship as a promised salvation (Luke 1:33) and nothing else. Do you know the mission job order of Jesus Christ was to Gather his people (Mt. 15:24) and about his people,read Rev 7:1-8 & 14:1-5. How would you interpret this message of Jesus Christ in ITimothy 2:5 acvording to Paul? Please analyze to whom pertaining the message of John 7:49 before and specially today?

  4. Taaa1 Says:

    I am the last! Can you imaging how finding an interpretation of such things makes one feel?

    I am truly the last and never once before today imagined that this actual state of being had any reflection on this Biblical reference but I suppose it does in the realest of sense!

    Interesting!!

    Get angry if you will but it is true!

    All criers have past, one left still; alive from within, I am the last.

    T

  5. margerydowling Says:

    Metro Bible has it correct that Jesus was an Isrealite and not a Jew he was from the tribe of Juda which is different altogether, the word Jew did not come into the bible until the second book of kings this was well after the nation of Isreal was formed and before that they were called Hebrews. Look to see what Paul describes his geneology as, there is mention of Jew.

  6. margerydowling Says:

    Metro Bible has it correct that Jesus was an Isrealite and not a Jew he was from the tribe of Juda which is different altogether, the word Jew did not come into the bible until the second book of kings this was well after the nation of Isreal was formed and before that they were called Hebrews. Look to see what Paul describes his geneology as, there is no mention of Jew.

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