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?
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.