This is a parable about the eye. The insert has the Lord of the vineyard asking, "Are you envious because I am generous?" What He literally asks is, "Is your eye evil because I am good?" The "evil eye" is known by most ancient cultures. It's the idea that a look can kill or at least curse. This parable, however, doesn't warn of the evil eye of others but of your own. An evil eye in you harms you. Jesus says in Matthew 6, "If your eye is evil, your body is full of darkness."
We don't see clearly the warning Jesus gives because we don't hear the parable in context which is the last 4 verses of chapter 19. It begins with a self-righteous assertion and a hireling-like question from Peter. The rich young man had just left because he couldn't give up his possessions to follow Jesus. Then Peter asked Jesus, "Behold we have left everything and followed You; what then will there be for us?" How self-serving is that? "What's in it for me?" is the question of a hireling, not a brother or sister of Jesus, not a slave of Jesus, not a disciple of Jesus.
If Peter's question astounds, even more so Jesus' answer. Jesus first addresses Peter as an apostle saying, "Truly I say to you that you who have followed me in the regeneration will sit upon 12 thrones, judging the 12 tribes of Israel." Then Jesus answers all who have the "what's in it for me" question. He says, "And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields for My sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life."
Doesn't this only fuel the hireling spirit? Yes, but it's the truth. No one in service of Jesus ever comes up short. However, that hireling spirit must be dealt with, and Jesus begins to do so in the last verse before our parable saying, "But many who are first will be last; and the last first." Then Jesus tells the parable, and by what He says after the parable we know it's meant to explain this warning. Jesus says, "So, (or "in this way") the last will be first, and the first will be last."
Because we don't see clearly the context of the parable, we don't clearly see the point of the parable. After you chip all the peripheral stuff away, the parable turns on, "Is your eye evil because I am good?" This refers to the fact that what was once worth laboring the whole day for became worthless to the workers called first because it wasn't more than others.
There are rewards in this life for following Jesus. In the parallel passage in Mark 10 Jesus says, "He shall receive a hundred times as much now in the present age." Whatever health, wealth, standing, status, we have in this life comes to Christians because of Christ. But the rub is this. It differs among Christians. Some Christians are healthy their whole life while others are chronically ill. Some have more than enough their whole life while others struggle. And when you start to compare notes, when I start to compare notes, the green-eyed monster flashes in my eyes.
The Lord who graciously promises so much suddenly looks unfair in our eyes. Why does that person who hasn't been as long in the Lord's service, who hasn't borne what I have, get the same as me? Shouldn't I get more? "They began to grumble against the Landowner." The Landowner is the Lord, and when you hear "grumble" don't think "complain," or "gripe," or "moan." Think unbelief. In the NT, this word is always used of envious, self-righteous, rejecters of Jesus. Paul warns the Corinthians not to become like the OT church in the wilderness saying, "Do not grumble, as some of them didand were killed by the destroying angel."
This parable has the astonishing warning that you can receive your due in this life as a follower of Jesus but end up damned in the end. That enigmatic phrase, "So the last will be first and the first will be last," is only found one other place in Scripture. In Luke 13 it is clear that the last are the damned. They are those who ate and drank with Jesus and heard Him teach but are thrown out of the kingdom in the end. Likewise those who Paul says were killed by the destroying angel "all ate the same spiritual food and drank the same spiritual drink" which was Christ.
"So the last will be first and the first will be last" is meant to put the fear of God in the greatest of saints. You can receive the earthly benefits that come to followers of Jesus and still miss your inheritance. Did you catch that distinction in the promise? Jesus said, "Everyone who has left things for My name's sake, will receive many times as much and will inherit eternal life."
Peter asks the hireling question "What do we get for following You?" Jesus answers it saying "many things in this life," and adds "you will inherit eternal life." The first workers got the earthly pay due them, but then the Lord says, "Take your pay and go." The first became last. They got the earthly rewards but not the heavenly inheritance. They who were first in the kingdom became the last kicked out, thrown out, damned.
And what did this to them? Their many sins? The terrible nature of their sins? The fact that they were sinners praying, "Forgive us our sins" everyday of their lives? No, what got them kicked out was their evil eye. Their gracious, generous Lord became an ogre in their sight because they didn't get more than others; they didn't get as much as they thought they should. You don't trust an ogre; you don't love an ogre. You don't follow an ogre. You sure don't want an ogre's inheritance!
If we see clearly the parable's context, we see clearly its point, and so, we clearly see how it applies to us. We see that we don't deserve to be in the Lord's Vineyard at all. We, as sons and daughters of Adam, had been cast out of Eden to sweat and suffer with the thistles and thorns of sinfulness till we starved to death without the Tree of Life. The Lord couldn't bear to leave us to our just judgment, so He came outside of the Vineyard to get us. He took on our flesh and blood in Mary's womb. God the Son became Man. By doing what we do not do, keep God's Commandments spotlessly, and by suffering what we deserve, temporal and eternal punishment, Jesus won us a spot in His Vineyard.
Jesus didn't just win us a spot. He came and got us. By Word and Sacraments, by the Good News that all of God's Laws have been kept and all of His wrath satisfied, the Lord brought us into His kingdom. The Lord brings people in at all hours of the day before the night of judgment when it's too late. The only way to be in this vineyard is if the Lord brings you in. Try going to Wal-Mart and act like you work there. Just start straightening, stocking, bagging, or checking people out. You will be tossed out in no time. So it is with Jesus' vineyard. No one gets in by volunteering or by meriting a place. Jesus must bring you in. He does this by preaching, teaching, baptizing, evangelizing.
You're in the Vineyard! What got you here was grace; what keeps you here is grace. Grace is denied when fairness, rights, or due is introduced. What is fair for sinners to get here in time and there in eternity? Punishment. What rights do people such as you and me who daily sin much against the holy God have? The right to go to hell. What is due people who are guilty of crucifying the innocent Lamb of God? Surely not the privilege of working for Him in His kingdom let alone being forgiven, clothed, and fed by Him.
When we look at our Lord, we clearly see we have no claim based on fairness, rights, or due, but when we look at other sinners, when we compare ourselves to others, instantly we think it's not fair, right, or just. Why? Paul tells us in Ephesians 5, "No man at anytime has ever hated his own flesh." We're number one; everyone else is number two. But our falling away from grace into justice doesn't start with looking at others. It starts with looking at church membership as a hireling.
When you use the eye of a hireling to look at your Savior and Lord, you see a Master not a Father. Only sons and daughters inherit the Kingdom of Heaven; hirelings don't. Hirelings don't live from grace to grace but from what is fair to them. And what is fair to a hireling is that he always gets more, but grace says each gets whatever their Lord Jesus wants to give.
The question though is not how you see others. We being fallen have an evil eye and therefore only have the ability to see others as beneath us. Try as you might to be different you won't, you can't. So you will either give way to despair and give up or give way to self-righteousness and lower the standard so you can keep it. Neither is the question how do you see the Lord. Again being fallen, we naturally have only an evil eye, so we can only look at Jesus as a hireling does constantly guarding lest we get less than our fair share.
The Gospel isn't found in how you see others or Jesus. The Gospel is found in how Jesus sees you. How does the One who is really first in the Kingdom of Heaven see you? He made Himself last so He could see you as first. He sees you as a reflection of Himself. He sees you as longsuffering, tender-hearted, and forgiving. He sees you as never grumbling but as always glad to be here. He sees you as that old man or woman in the painting sitting before a stale piece of bread and small piece of cheese. He sees you exclaiming, "All this and heaven too!" He sees you going away with your denarius in this life whether it be sickness or health, poverty or wealth, pain or pleasure, pleased as child with shinny new quarter.
"But I'm not that at all!" you protest. I'm not talking about what you are, but what Jesus sees. He sees you washed in Baptism. Tell me? Can you see sins in Baptismal water? He sees you declared forgiven in Absolution. Can you see sin where the Lord declares there is none? He sees you Bodied and Blooded to Himself in Communion. Now I know you can't see sin Him. So can you see everything clearly now? Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost (20080914); Matthew 20: 1-16