I do not know of many races or sporting competitions in which the last person across the finish line comes in first place. Certainly, getting the lowest time often means the winning performance. But to come in last place means to come in last. For all of us who were picked last for various athletic events in school, how whimsical it would have been if being chosen last was a position of honor! Of course, I could very easily see how unfair it would seem if those with the best athletic ability, those who had trained the longest, worked the hardest, and had come in first place did not receive the honor due that effort. The last being first can be very bad or very good depending upon where one stands.
Jesus once told a story that upends expectations for those who perennially find themselves as last or first. A landowner hires laborers to work in his vineyard. They are hired throughout the work day and all the workers agree to the wage of a denarius for a day’s work. The enigmatic and exceptional punch line to this story occurs when those who are hired at the very end of the day—in the last hour—are paid the same wage as those who worked all day long. The long-suffering laborers cry out, “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.” Those workers that were hired first are not paid any additional wage. The first are not first, in this story. Instead, the landowner replies with a radical reversal: The last shall be first, and the first last.
Not only is the conclusion to this story exceptional and enigmatic, it also seems wholly unfair. For how could those who worked so little be paid the full day’s wage? Yet, this upending of any sense of fairness is a recurring theme in other stories of Jesus as well. Indeed, the familiar parable of the prodigal son functions in a similar manner and upsets our sense of what is fair and right, just as in the parable of the laborers. A careful reading presents an extravagant display of grace towards all wayward sons and daughters, even as it illuminates a human frugality with grace.
Jesus presented this story as a crowd of tax-collectors, sinners, and religious leaders gathered around him. All who listened had a vested interest in what Jesus might say. Some hoped for grace, while others clamored for judgment. “A certain man had two sons,” Jesus begins. The younger of the man’s two sons insists on having his share of the inheritance, which the father grants though the request violated the Jewish custom that allotted a third of the inheritance to the youngest son upon the death of the father.(1) With wasteful extravagance, the son squanders this inheritance and finds himself desperately poor, living among pigs, ravenous for the pods on which they feed. “But when he came to his senses” the text tells us, he reasons that even his father’s hired men have plenty to eat. Hoping to be accepted as a mere slave, he makes his way home. And while he was still a long way off, his father saw him, and felt compassion for him, and ran and embraced him.
The religiously faithful (i.e., first in faithfulness) in the crowd might have gasped at this statement. How could the father extend such grace towards a son so wasteful and wanton? Yet, this father is the true prodigal, extending grace in an extravagant way. His prodigal heart compels him to keep looking for his son—he saw him while he was still a long way off. And despite being disowned by his son, the father feels compassion for him. With wasteful abandon, he runs to his son to embrace him and welcome him home. The father orders a grand party for this son who has been found, “who was dead and has begun to live.”
The older brother in Jesus’s story provocatively gives voice to a deep sense of outrage.(1) In many ways, his complaint intones the same complaint of the laborers in the vineyard. “For so many years, I have been serving you and I have never neglected a command of your… But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your wealth with harlots; you killed the fattened calf for him.” We can hear the implicit cry, “It’s not fair!” The text then tells us that the older son was not willing to join the celebration. He will not hear the entreaty of his gracious father both to come into the celebration and to recognize that “all that is mine is yours.” Here again, the last shall be first, and the first last and all expectations of fairness or of getting one’s rightful due are upended.
While not vague in their detail or content, these two parables of Jesus are both exceptional and enigmatic. If we are honest, they disrupt our sense of righteousness and our sense of fairness. Both portraits of the prodigal father and of the landowner present a radical reversal. God lavishes grace freely on those many deem the last or the least deserving. But perhaps the exceptional and enigmatic aspects of these parables are felt most keenly by those who fail to recognize their need of grace. For all who see themselves least, last, or lost from the grace extended by the gracious God depicted in these stories, we may yet find ourselves in that honored place of the presence of God.
Margaret Manning Shull is a member of the speaking and writing team at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Bellingham, Washington.
(1) Fred Craddock, Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1990), 187.