the first shall be last The story that Jesus told His disciples about the hired workers being paid the same wage would not be a popular one in modern-day Australia. It would break every industrial-relations principle and employment law we have in this country.

The idea that these workers would receive the same payment — regardless of how many hours they worked — would be unacceptable in the modern workplace.

But there is another puzzle in this story for me. When it came time to pay, the landowner paid the ones who worked the least first.

So those who had worked all through the day saw these “latecomers” get paid, and would have realized that their wages were no different. In my mind, it would have been more clever (and sneaky) to pay those who worked the longest first, because then they may not have even known that the others received the same amount.

Obviously, Jesus had something more important than workplace compliance in mind when He told this story. This is captured in a question and a statement at the very end of the story.

The question He asks is this: “Are you envious because I am generous?”

Oh, what a provoking question.

It strikes at the core of all of us. Isn’t it too true that sometimes we are personally aggrieved, even angry, when we see someone either getting something that we don’t think they deserve, or else getting something we think we deserve. The last thing we want to do is “rejoice with those who rejoice.”

And then that statement: “So the last will be first and the first will be last.” It’s a statement that requires little interpretation; the meaning is clear.

It may have been only a puzzling story for the disciples, but it does carry a sting in the tail for me. I need it!

But he answered one of them, “I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?” So the last will be first, and the first will be last. — Matthew 20:13–16, NIV

Prayer: God, please keep us always open to and thankful for your generosity in others.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Tim Hanna is the CEO of Compassion Australia.

Read all the One in Spirit devotionals.

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  1. Vicky Acker
    Apr 11, 2012
    at 7:13 am

    I don’t think that I would be envious, but I do think that I would not work as hard the next day. I think this is human nature and that the real reason that this would not work in modern society is that business would have many, many workers who hardly did anything but received full pay and suddenly the price of a tomato would be $15 to pay for all the laborers. I think that as people we are motivated by the idea of receiving more for more work and without this encouragement, the vast majority of people (myself included at times) try to do the least they can get away with. Even as far as my Compassion kids, I do write them more letters just to make them happy, but I’d be lying to myself and God if I didn’t also admit I write them more often so I also receive more letters. To me this is “payment” and I would be upset if a sponsor who wrote only once a year received letters monthly.

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