Friday, August 31, 2012

Inequity of Time

On Jesus' fateful final approach to Jerusalem, He stopped off and spent some time with the people of the Judean countryside. There, Jesus told a rich man to sell all that he had, give to the poor, and follow Him, but the man apparently rejected His command. Then, Jesus explained how those who had given up everything to follow Him would indeed be compensated, but there was some discrepancy of whether or not that compensation extended to this life as well as the afterlife.

Inequity of Time
There are a number of recorded sayings of Jesus which do not have an immediately clear meaning. In most cases, the context immediately surrounding the verse define it, but occasionally you have to look well outside the immediate context for intent. Of course, if you are in the process of making your own Gospel, and one of those semi-ambiguous verses appears, and a situation at hand provides a more meaningful interpretation for the verse, you may neglect to look for the real meaning and just use your own, like Matthew did.

In closing out the discussion about what compensation the Disciples would receive for following Jesus, Mark 10:31 ends it with this peculiar expression:
"But many who are first will be last, and the last first." NIV
What could that mean? The first will be last, and the last first? Nothing in the immediate context in Mark, either before or after this verse, provides any insight to what Mark meant here. There is a reason for that. Mark's Jesus had previously explained what He meant with this kind of terminology in Mark 9:35 back when they were all in Capernaum:
Sitting down, Jesus called the Twelve and said, "Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all." NIV
This is a message of humility, and it fits neatly together with Jesus' statements about the compensation that the Disciples would receive in Mark 10:28-30. It is a reminder that they should not be seeking to attain prestige either through the honor of men or through the gaining of earthly wealth, but that they should keep in mind to humbly serve all, and, in doing so, earn righteous prestige from God.

Luke relocated this phase to Luke 13:30, presumably to have more immediate contextual meaning. In Luke 13:28-30, he has Jesus discuss people taking their places at the feast of the Kingdom of God (feast seating assignments were based on the honor bestowed on guests by the host, reference Luke 14:7-11). So the verse is saying that many who had high accolades in life will find their ultimate fortunes reversed with those who truly worked as servants to others. Luke understood Mark's text here.

What about Matthew?

Matthew 19:30 is where you will find the first-last, last-first phrase, in the same ill-context-fitting location as Mark. However, Matthew understood a different meaning, or defined a context of his own...

Matthew was likely written at least two decades after Jesus' death, but possibly much later than that even. By that time, many followers had likely become "mature" in their faith. So, similar to Luke, Matthew had his own issues within the population of the faithful to confront.

After laboring for many, many years in anticipation of a then-soon-coming Kingdom of God, some of the more-experienced members of Matthew's target audience had become indignant over the fact that the newly-converted believers were not going to have to labor very long before being rewarded with all of the riches of God's Kingdom. In this situation, Matthew found another meaning in Jesus' words. Matthew 19:30 closes the chapter with essentially the same first-last, last-first verse as Mark 10:31, but Matthew goes on to explain his meaning for the verse in the next chapter.

In Matthew 20:1-15, you find the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard:
The Kingdom of Heaven is like this: A vineyard owner hired men throughout the day to work in his vineyard for the day. Some he hired at 6 A.M, and he agreed to pay them a silver coin. Others he hired at 9 A.M., and he agreed to pay them "whatever is right." Others he hired at noon, others he hired at 3 P.M., and the last ones he hired at 5 P.M. At 6 P.M., the man called all the workers together to pay them for the day. Beginning with the ones he had hired last, and proceeding in succession to the ones he had hired first, he paid each man a silver coin. The men who were hired first complained to the vineyard owner for paying the last-hired workers the same as what they themselves were paid, despite having worked longer. The vineyard owner replied that they had agreed to work for a silver coin, and that he had the right to be generous with his money if he wanted to. (My paraphrase)
Just so you know that Matthew is indeed clarifying that previous verse, Matthew 20:16 caps off that parable with:
"So the last will be first, and the first will be last." NIV
This is fascinating! In black and white, captured for all posterity, we can see Jesus' message being manipulated to suit the needs of the circumstances. Perhaps "manipulated" is too strong of a word. Maybe "redefined" would be better, because we cannot be certain if Matthew knew that he was changing the message, or if instead his situation rendered an alternate interpretation to be the only logical one to him. We would be able to better judge Matthew in this case if we knew the origin of this parable. Did Matthew create this parable himself, or was it mixed in with other random sayings of Jesus which Matthew used as a source in creating his Gospel?


  1. Even as a child, I thought the vineyard parable sucked because if the owner wanted to be generous, he should have extended his generosity to everyone and not just the late arrivals. Maybe a lifeboat metaphor would have worked better. You know, some were rescued early and others late, but none went down with the ship.

    "Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all."

    Sounds manipulative, no, this intentionally being last today so you can be first tomorrow?

    I enjoyed this post and appreciated your insights. I grew up a church that studied the Bible constantly but lacked all scholarship regarding when different parts were written or what was going on at the time.

  2. Welcome, and you are welcome! I think you are right, Snowbrush. A lifeboat metaphor would have been much, much better in representing what most Christians believe here.

    I agree it can come off as a little manipulative and twisted. To some, it would seem that you are only being a servant now so that you can be the highly regarded in the time to come. (Although, it is difficult to tell with certainty that the first-last/last-first ends with this life.)