So the Last Will Be First

Meditation on Matthew 20:1-16

The Presbyterian Church, Coshocton, OH

Pastor Karen Crawford

Sept. 20, 2020

I am SO glad our sound is fixed! Last week, if you weren’t here, we had an echo. We discovered it about 10 minutes before worship began, so we just tried to make the best of it. One of our elders said I sounded like I was preaching at Yankee Stadium! That’s never been a secret dream of mine.

Jim, on the way home from church, told me that I didn’t even need the sound system that day. I was so loud, he said, I didn’t need a microphone! That’s quite a compliment coming from the one who knows how I have struggled with finding my preaching voice.

It was summer 2007 when I preached my first sermon. I hadn’t even had a preaching class! I had been invited to serve as a park chaplain for a state park campground near Hanover, Pennsylvania. The first Sunday that I led worship in the outdoor amphitheater, I didn’t have a microphone. And I think there was an air show going on overhead, just as I started to speak.

The next week, the committee that hired me brought a portable, wireless sound system. I was the first chaplain at that park who ever needed a microphone, they said. The system plugged into an outlet enclosed in a little wooden box. My youngest son, James, in middle school at the time, operated my sound and helped with set up and take down.

It worked great until the Sunday when he opened the little wooden box to plug in the receiver—and there was a snake coiled inside! It was big! We had to call a park ranger to come and get the snake before we could start the worship service. She brought a rake and just reached in and coiled the snake around the rake and carried him away. She said he was a good snake. I can’t say that I agreed!

It truly has been a perpetual learning experience for me—these years of ministry and going back farther than that. I’m pretty sure that the Lord had been preparing me for ministry my whole life, but I didn’t have a clue. That’s what God does—he prepares us for His future, for all eternity, waiting to unfold.


Today’s gospel reading in Matthew 20 is about God’s grace and humanity’s mixed response. This is part of a longer teaching on the kingdom of God—and how it’s not like the world. This is hard for the disciples to grasp. It’s hard for us to understand, too.

In Matthew 18, the disciples come to Jesus and ask, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” It just dawned on me last night that they probably wanted him to choose between them! But he doesn’t pick one of them.

 He calls a child—and everyone knows children should be quiet and invisible in Jesus’ society, everyone but Jesus, that is! “Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven,” he says. In chapter 19, he says this about children again. “Let the children come to me,” he says to those who are shooing them away, “and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.”

Then he totally astounds them when a young man asks Jesus “what good deed” he must do to have eternal life. This is during a time when religious people commonly believe that wealth is a sign of God’s favor. Some people believe that today! But that’s not what Jesus says! He tells the man to sell all his possessions and give the money to the poor, so he will have treasure in heaven. Then, “Come,” he says, “Follow me.” The man goes away grieving, for he has many possessions.

“Truly I tell you,” Jesus says, “it will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven.”

“Then who can be saved???” the disciples ask.

“For mortals, it is impossible,” Jesus says, “but for God all things are possible.”

Chapter 19 ends the same way our passage today ends, “But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.” This repetition isn’t accidental or an editorial error. Christ is emphasizing this point.

We reach today’s reading in chapter 20, and we find some disgruntled workers. Why are they complaining? Everyone received the same pay for a day’s work—a denarius, a typical wage for a laborer. Who are the people doing the most complaining? Those who worked longer, right, but received the same pay as those who worked less. They are outraged! This isn’t fair!

There’s no gratitude here for the owner of the vineyard, though they would still be standing unemployed in the market—no money, no way to buy food for their families—if the owner hadn’t given them work to do in the first place. “Are you envious because I am generous?” the owner asks. “So the last will be first and the first will be last.”

I can’t imagine that’s what they want to hear. We are left wondering what will happen next. But Jesus doesn’t tell us any more of the story, just like he doesn’t tell us what the older brother in the Parable of the Prodigal Son decides when his Father begs him to stay and celebrate the return of his rebellious brother—the one who was dead, but now alive, lost and now found. Will the workers decide they won’t labor for the generous employer who pays everyone the same, regardless of their work?

But the story isn’t over when the parable ends. And if you think that maybe the disciples got the message about humility, grace and gratitude, then you’d be mistaken. Just a few verses down, the sons of Zebedee come to Jesus with their mother, when none of the other disciples are around. She has a request. She wants one of her sons to sit at Jesus’ right hand and the other at his left in his Kingdom. Jesus explains that they don’t know what they are asking. And they don’t. Not yet. But when all the disciples are back together, and they are angry at James and John, the Lord again astounds them with his teaching.

He’s moved from God’s grace and humility to our calling to imitate God’s sacrificial love. “Whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant,”  he says, “and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

No one says anything after that. What could they say?

 Their journey of faith and Christ’s ministry and teaching by example continue with two men being healed on the way to Jerusalem. “Son of David, have mercy on us!” they cry out. Jesus stops,\ and asks, “What do you want me to do for you?”

“Lord, let our eyes be opened,” they say.

Moved by compassion, Jesus touches their eyes. Immediately they regain their sight and follow him!


When I consider my calling to ministry, mostly I am amazed. How can God use someone like me? I often wonder. Christ’s words in Matthew 19:26 reassure me that this isn’t about me. “For God, all things are possible!”

I celebrate the anniversary of my ordination this week—Sept. 25, 2011. I give thanks to God that 9 years ago, I was led to say yes to the Lord with all my heart, committing my life to labor for the Kingdom, not knowing, of course, what was to come.

I have been continually inspired by the Great Cloud of Witnesses that surrounds me, including my good friend, Leslie Ritter, who went home to be with the Lord on Sept. 14. She was the clerk of session at my Florida congregation, but she did many other things for the church, too, such as helping to prepare and serve fellowship meals with her husband, Carl, every Tuesday night for more than 2 decades. She often assisted me with home communion, as well. She was a tiny woman, but she was tough, the daughter of a colonel. She was also kind and funny and generous. If I was anxious about something, she’d give me a fierce look with her blue eyes and say, “Be strong! Be strong!”

So many others have helped me be faithful to my call and brought me joy in this journey. Some have visited me here in Coshocton! Others aren’t free to travel, but call and write. My friend, Sis, in her 90s now, still reaches out. I just love to hear from her! When I ask her how she is, she says, “Same old, same old.” I know she has pain but she doesn’t complain. She models gratitude. She tells me that every morning, when she wakes up and puts her feet on the floor, she thanks the good Lord for another day!

And I have to say this. I would not be a pastor if God hadn’t placed Jim Crawford in my life. I would still be a journalist, working long days and writing stories on deadline, wondering if there was something else I could do for God, but what could that be? Jim has always believed in me, even when I have had doubts.

Friends, God responds to our weakness, our grumbling and complaining, our anxieties and fears. You know how God responds? By providing for all our needs and saying, “I love you. I forgive you. My grace is enough for you!”

Someday, we will see our Savior face to face. And you know what he will say to us? Because of His grace and because of His Son and not because of anything we have done?

He’s going to say, “Well done, good and faithful servants. Well done.”

Let us pray.

Gracious heavenly Father, thank you for your love and mercy for sinners, revealed by the sacrifice of your Only Son, and for your kindness and patience shown to us every day. Help us, Lord, to be your grateful children, imitating the humility and sacrifice of the One who came to serve and not be served and to give his life for a ransom for many. Lord, thank you for your call to ministry to each of us and for the Great Cloud of Witnesses, dear friends and good examples on this side of your Kingdom and in the world to come. Strengthen us to be more faithful, trusting your provision in our wildernesses, trusting you to guide us, trusting that your grace is enough. We look forward to the day when you return for your Church, when you gather us all to yourself. We long to hear you say, “Well done, good and faithful servants. Well done.” In Christ we pray. Amen.

Published by karenpts

I am the pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Smithtown, New York on Long Island. Come and visit! We want to share God’s love and grace with you and encourage you on your journey of faith. I have served Presbyterian congregations in Minnesota, Florida and Ohio since my ordination in 2011. I am a 2010 graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary and am working on a doctor of ministry degree with Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. I am married to Jim and we have 5 grown children and two grandchildren in our blended family. We are parents to fur babies, Liam, an orange tabby cat, and Minnie, a toy poodle.

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