Cursed Are the Spoiled Brats: What Jesus Meant When He Said the First Will Be Last


Can I confess something to you? I've always felt for the older brother in the parable of the Prodigal Son.

Yes, he is a selfish, spoiled brat, but I guess I resonate with his complaint a little.

Perhaps it is because I've never been super rebellious. Yes, there have been seasons of my life when I've been far from God. I've been in some dark places, but I never disbelieved. I never ran away from home. I never dropped out of school and got a tattoo.

But this older brother was loyal to his father. He was steadfast. And when the no-good brother comes home he gets a party? How is that fair?

And what about the poor saps who worked all day in the parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard?

If you remember the parable, a master hired workers early in the morning, at midday, and late in the afternoon and yet paid all hired hands the same wage. As a result, those hired first ended up earning the lowest per-hour wage. How is that fair?

The Unfairness of Being First

In reality, God's grace is not fair. Never has been and never will be. By definition grace is unmerited favor.

So what do we do about the first being last?

I think Jesus's broader point about the first is that anyone who believes he or she is entitled will be treated as last. To piggyback off of the parable above, let's look briefly at another.

By the way, I cover this parable and the parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard in my free reference guide, The 39 Parables of Jesus, Explained. Want your own copy?

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Anyway, in Luke 13 Jesus told a parable about a narrow door into a master's house. Once the master closes the door, many will stand outside and knock, but the master will say he doesn't know where they come from. In response those outside will say:

"We ate and drank in your presence, and you taught in our streets." But [the master] will say, "I tell you, I do not know where you come from. Depart from me, all you workers of evil!"
Luke 13:26-27

In addition, Jesus said people from all directions would come and recline at the table with Abraham and the other patriarchs. Then he finishes the parable with our phrase, "And behold, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last” (Luke 13:30).

The mention of Abraham gives us insight into the Lord's meaning. This parable served as a warning to Jewish people who felt entitled to the Kingdom on account of their heritage. John the Baptist issued a similar, yet more direct, warning at the Jordan river:

Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not presume to say to yourselves, "We have Abraham as our father," for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 
Matthew 3:8-10

Jesus told his audience that people from all over the world--thereby implying gentiles--would eat with the Hebrew forefathers! Can you imagine?

This would be like Canadians and Mexicans dining with a resurrected George Washington while Americans were excluded from the meal!

So what does this have to do with firstness and lastness?

Jesus was trying to warn his people that even though they descended from Jacob, they would not necessarily enter God's kingdom. The Hebrew people were the first. God called Abraham to leave his homeland and promised him innumerable offspring. God kept his promise. And those descendants made a covenant with God at Sinai.

This covenant is reminiscent of the agreement the master made with the workers hired first in the parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard. Remember the verse? Jesus said, "After agreeing with the laborers for a denarius a day, [the master] sent them into his vineyard" (Matthew 20:2).

God called and established the Hebrews as his people. He rescued them from Egypt and led them to Sinai where they entered into a covenant relationship. As you know, a covenant is an agreement between two parties. God promised blessings, protection, and their own land, and the people promised obedience and devotion. As Exodus 19 reads:

If you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; ... All the people answered together and said, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do.” 
Exodus 19:5, 8

So it is this agreement Jesus alluded to in the parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard.

Nevertheless, many Hebrew people forgot what the covenant was really about. They thought simply being of the proper lineage entitled them to the kingdom. And yet God is more concerned with where one's heart is.

Consider God's message to Judah through the prophet Jeremiah. He said, "Circumcise yourselves to the Lord; remove the foreskin of your hearts" (Jeremiah 4:4).

TMI, am I right?

But within that one compound sentence lies a great deal of meaning. Circumcision is a symbol of the Law of Moses and the covenant at Sinai. It was symbol for setting Israel apart from the other nations. Judah kept that tradition but forgot the heart of law.

So what Jesus was trying to teach the Jewish people is that lineage matters much less than the condition of your heart. Simply being the first, while a privilege, means little if your heart isn't in the right place. And being the first often leads to entitlement and produces spoiled brats.

Remember what Jesus said about the rich young man? He said, "Only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God" (Matthew 19:23-24). Why is this so? Is it perhaps because the rich are the firsts of this world? Is it because they feel entitled, that they can earn or deserve God's favor?

I think Jesus was saying the same thing about some of his Jewish brethren. They believed that because they were the chosen people, they deserved the rewards of the kingdom. But, as we learned, God's grace is unmerited. No one can do anything to deserve it. So these spoiled religious brats will be left outside while the lasts dine with the master in heaven.

Great, Kid. Don't Get Cocky

Lest we grow cocky or smug, this warning is really for us too. The admonition is for anyone who feels arrogant or superior in their faith: The older brother who's been faithful to his dad while the younger throws away his inheritance. The young adult who's been a Christian her whole life. The pastor whose church has tripled in the past year. The blogger who thinks he knows a thing or two about the Bible. We may not have been born into Israel, but we're just as prone to first syndrome as anyone.

Our prayer then is a request for humility; it is a ban on braggadocio. Or as Paul wrote, "'Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.' For it is not the one who commends himself who is approved, but the one whom the Lord commends" (2 Corinthians 10:17-18).

This does not mean we shouldn't be confident in our faith. We should. God promises salvation for those who repent and believe, and he always keeps his promises. But it's when we cross over into thinking God owes us something or we deserve grace that we plummet down to last place.

Or, to put it another way, "The last will be first, and the first last."


  1. It is often hardest for those of us who have grown up as Christians to realize that we, too, are in need of a Savior. Like the olderbrother, we have always had the kingdom and become complacent. For those that come to faith later in life,they remember what it is like without Jesus and are often more grateful. Without Jesus, we are all lost. It is during those times of trouble that we cling to Christ and realize how wonderful His grace is for each and every one of us.

    1. I agree. It's important to stay focuses, to be intentional about our relationship. Two of our main enemies are pride and entitlement.

  2. Thanks for that Andrew, I have always said "that's not fair" when reading that parable but never thought about the Hebrews being the 'the first'. 🤔 I am definitely going to try to stop saying "that's not fair" from now on. 😊

    1. Whoops, I am Judith, not unknown 🤔

    2. You're welcome Judith. The world definitely is not fair. Thank God!

  3. I never felt sorry for the elder brother. After all, the prodigal came home. The workers are a different story: they worked all day in the heat and received the same pay as those hired last. I believe God gave you some insight to help bring clarity to people like me. Thank you for sharing this.