Good News for Guttersnipes Like Us: Heaven Is Not a Meritocracy

Do you ever wonder what Jesus meant when he said, The last will be first, and the first last?

The statement sounds like typical rabbi-speak or else something Yoda would say were we to invert the wording a bit: First the last shall be, perhaps.

Jon Tyson

Nevertheless, Jesus didn't waste words. So the phrase, no doubt, points to some important truth. In fact, last month we explored one such meaning behind the phrase. That is, heaven's value system is often in opposition to that of this world's. The rich young man of Mark 10 and Matthew 19 found this out the hard way when Jesus told him to sell his possessions, give the proceeds to the poor, and follow Jesus.

The rich man, obsessed with firstness, could not do it.

And yet, if we probe deeper we uncover more layers behind the saying, The last will be first. These nuances are interesting and useful enough that I thought it would be worth spilling more digital ink in contemplation of the phrase.

"Do you begrudge my generosity?"

Right after the rich young man walked away in sadness, Jesus told a parable meant to elaborate on his point about lastness and firstness.

By the way, some of what follows is taken from my reference guide called The 39 Parables of Jesus, Explained. If you'd like to own your own copy, you can get it for free by joining my email list. Just enter your email address below and I'll send you a link where you can download the guide:

Anyway, after the rich man shirked away, Jesus told the parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard in which the "master of a house" goes out early one day to hire laborers to work his vineyard. He and the workers agree to a wage of one denarius for a day's work. Then, at noon, the master hires more workers promising, "Whatever is right I will give you" (Matthew 20:4). He repeats this process at 3:00 PM and even 5:00 PM (i.e. "the eleventh hour").

At the end of the work day the foreman, under instructions from the master, pays the laborers in reverse order they were hired. Those hired at 5:00 PM receive one denarius. When the foreman pays those hired early in the morning the same, they grumble. They expected to receive more money since they worked over ten times as long as those hired last. In response the master says,  “Did you not agree with me for a denarius? . . . Do you begrudge my generosity?”  (Matthew 20:13, 15).

At the end of the parable, Jesus said, “So the last will be first, and the first last” (Matthew 20:16).

We Are the Last, but Why Are We First?

What can we take away from this parable, and how does it relate to the rich man we discussed previously?

Well it helps to go back to the rich man's original question, "Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?" (Matthew 19:16). His question is not all that different from questions people ask today. It is the popular (dare I say predominant?) opinion in much of the world that if our good deeds outweigh our bad then we will get to go to heaven.

As a result people are often asking themselves (at least on the subconscious level), Which good deeds do I need to do? And, How many do I need to perform?

The rich man thought the same. Many Jewish people in the Pharisaic tradition believed that the best Torah-keepers would enter heaven.[1]

Make no mistake, God's law is perfect,[2] but what we know that the rich man didn't is that we cannot be justified by the law. No amount of good deeds will grant us entry into heaven. The only way is through Jesus. He said as much in John 14:6:

I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.

In part, this is why Jesus told the rich young man to sell everything he had and give the proceeds to the poor. Jesus pinpointed what, for this man, was the most impossible thing imaginable as a way to demonstrate the absurdness of trying to earn one's way into heaven by being "good."

In fact Jesus kind of preempted the man's whole question when he said, "Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone" (Mark 10:18). With such a statement Jesus showed the man he could never be good enough to get into heaven.

In contrast to the rich man, the last are more likely to accept Jesus as the way to heaven because they don't feel the entitlement of the first.

Who are the last?

The humble, the meek, the bums and scallywags. The contrite, the title-less, and the nobodies. These are the last.

Remember what Jesus said at the conclusion of his parable contrasting the prayers of the self-righteous Pharisee and the ashamed, contrite tax collector? He said, "I tell you, this man [the tax collector] went down to his house justified, rather than the [Pharisee]" (Luke 18:14). And again in Matthew Jesus said to the religious elite, "Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you" (Matthew 21:31).


But this is the essence of the phrase, The last will be first, and it's great news for bums and nobodies like us. If you're a guttersnipe like me, it's amazing to know that no amount of good deeds can get us into heaven. Just like the workers hired last did not deserve a full day's wages neither do we deserve the grace God freely gives.

This is what the kingdom of heaven is like: those who are last--the poor in spirit, the losers, the ragamuffins--are the first. Those who worked just one hour received a full day's wage. They were paid as if they were the first to be hired.

Do you want to know what it means to be last?

Look no further than the thief on the cross. To the other criminal he said, "We are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man [Jesus] has done nothing wrong” (Luke 23:41).

This guy had mere hours left to live and yet he humbled himself and asked Jesus to remember him. And in the eleventh hour of this criminal's life, Jesus rewarded him as if he'd been following God his whole life:

Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise. 
Luke 23:43

Sounds a lot like the parable of the Laborers, doesn't it? Those eleventh-hour workers didn't deserve the master's generosity. Neither did the thief on the cross.

Neither do we.



1. I say Pharisaic because the other dominant sect of the day, the Sadducees, did not believe in the afterlife. See Matthew 22:23.
2. See Psalm 19:7 et. al.

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