The Russian Saying
Winston Churchill described Russia as "a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma." Does this describe the saying our text ends with? "The last will be first, and the first will be last." Isn't this a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma that leaves you with a foreboding sense?
How many times do you think it's used in Scripture? I would have guessed 6. It's only used 3. Who do you think says it? Only Jesus. It's used 2 times in Matthew and 1 time in Luke. Luke 13:30 leaves no doubt that the last in last place in fact go to hell. So, removing the figure from the saying we have: There are those on the path to heaven who will find themselves in hell and those on the path to hell who will find themselves in heaven.
No wonder you have a foreboding sense whenever you hear these words from your Savior's lips! Luther said these words were meant "to frighten the greatest saints" (Lenski, Luke, 755). In a similar vein Luther liked to refer to this story from the 3rd or 4th century work The Lives of the Fathers: Shortly before death a hermit was sad and motionless for 3 days with his eyes fixed on heaven. When asked why, he said he was afraid of death. His pupils comforted him by saying he had lived a very holy life and had no reason to fear death. He responded, "'I have indeed lived a holy life and observed the Commandments of God, but the judgments of God are quite different from those of men'" (LW, 26, 149)! I'll say. Those we consider in first place might be in last and those we are sure are in last place could come in first.
What you probably don't know is that the parable of The Workers in the Vineyard was told by Jesus just to unwrap the riddle and bring the enigma out of this Russian saying. First, a little context. It all begins with the rich young man coming to Jesus and asking Him "What good thing must I do to get eternal life?" Jesus answers him according to his assumption that a person could work his way into heaven as long as he knew just what to do. Jesus points him to the 10 Commandments. The young man says that he has kept all of them. Jesus then piles on more and heavier law saying, "Sell your possession, give to the poorand come follow Me." The young man leaves Jesus. Matthew tells us this was because he had great wealth.
Wait. The context isn't over. Peter pipes up. "Well, we have left everything to follow you! What then will be there for us?" Amazingly Jesus answers him once more according to his shallow presumptions: "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." Then Jesus ends with the Russian saying: "But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first."
When Jesus uses the saying in Luke 13, it too is at the very end and there too He is trying to correct, temper, even rebuke wrong assumptions. The episode in Luke 13 begins with the always wrongheaded start of talking about someone else's salvation. "Someone asked Jesus, Lord, are only a few people going to be saved?" Then, talk about foreboding statements, Jesus begins with heaven's narrow door swinging forever shut and people banging, banging for entry claiming they knew Jesus and Jesus saying, "I don't know you or where you come from." Then Jesus paints the picture of not only Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and all the prophets being saved but people streaming in from all four corners of the globe and themselves thrown out. And He closes with the Russian saying: "Indeed there are those who are last who will be first, and first who will be last."
This is a tough saying. Thankfully, Jesus tells an entire parable to explain it. The incident with Peter closes chapter 19, the chapter right before our text. The ending words being the first/last, last/first Russian saying. Then our text begins with, "Because the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who looks to hire men to work in His vineyard." Don't miss the because', translated for' in your insert. That tells you the parable explains the Russian saying. And to be sure that you don't miss this fact, the parable ends with Jesus saying, "So" or "Therefore" or "In this way" the last will be first and the first last.
Let's start with what we know the Russian saying doesn't mean. It doesn't mean that God does not desire to save everyone (FC, EP, XI, 12). Doesn't that give you some breathing room? Doesn't that turn down just a bit the creepy, foreboding, tense, pensive music that hangs over the last words? Live from the clear passages of Scripture. 2 Peter 3:9, "The Lord is not willing that any should perish but for all to come to repentance." 1 Timothy 2:4, "God wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth." Just these two words are more than enough to live on, but you can go to John 3:16, "God so loved the world." Or 1 John 2, Jesus is a wrath removing sacrifice not only for our sins but the sins of the whole world. Or 2 Corinthians 5, God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself. Or John 1, Jesus is the Lamb of God carrying away the world's sins.
So, banish from this first/last, last/first saying the thought that it means God doesn't earnestly desire the salvation of all men. When you think that way you are introducing a foreign thought to the text. Jesus is not trying to make you wonder if God really wants to save everyone and maybe, just maybe you're part of the part He never wanted to save. No, Jesus says to every single one of you in Matthew 11:27, "Come unto Me all you who that labor and are heavy laden." And in John 6:37, "Whoever comes to me I will never, ever cast out."
Secondly, this Russian saying isn't about what most of you fear without knowing you do: God's hidden will is different than His revealed will. Sure, He says He wants all to be saved, and He reveals that He sent Christ into the world to keep the law for all and to pay for the laws broke by all, but in His hidden will He wills differently. Sure, God calls all in His revealed will, but He's really not thinking of all but only a few. That is wrong (FC, SD, XI, 34).
Well, that thought certainly frightens the greatest saints but in a deep, dark unrelievable way. It unleashes the Monster of Uncertainty into your salvation with no way to get this raging beast out. Why? Because his lair is the hidden will of God. There is such a thing as the hidden will of God. Two things to remember about that. First, we're not to pry into it; we're not to lift the veil God has put over it. If we do, we will find ourselves staring into madness itself. Second, you can't think the hidden will of God is contrary, or undoes the revealed will of God. The revealed will of God is what He has given us to know Him by. We won't get to a cross, the grave, or heaven and find God other than He revealed Himself to be. It will never be like in the horror movies where the gentle, accepting, comforting person you know so well turns into a raving manic or vengeful beast.
What the Russian saying does mean is that God has ordered things so that the Holy Spirit calls, enlightens, and coverts those He has chosen in eternity through the Word (FC, SD, XI, 40). He doesn't call to faith in Christ crucified apart from the Word; He doesn't enlighten people with the knowledge that Christ kept everyone of God's laws in their place apart from the Word; He doesn't convert them to trusting that Christ suffered and died in their place apart from the external Word of God.
This parable specifically teaches that we are to take God's purpose, counsel, will, redemption, call, justification, and even sanctification as one unbreakable unit (FC, SD, XI, 27). Every time the Lord sends His ministers into the marketplace, His wills to save all they call; His call to salvation contains the justification of those sinners and their complete sanctification too. Whether you hear the Call of the Word in the First hour or the 11th hour as the bells are tolling the 12th, all of God's grace, mercy, and peace, all of the forgiveness Jesus bought and paid for are there.
Each Sunday the Lord sends me out into this public market place, for this is a public service, to say: You, and you, and you, and you, every single one of you hearing this, has been chosen by God in eternity. You are to believe that God the Son kept every single Law that accuses you. You can look above your head right now and see that it is gone, taken out of the way. Kept by Jesus in your place. Every Sunday I say to the marketplace, to you, no matter if you have been standing idly through 11 hours and 59 minutes of your life, the Lamb of God carried away not only the world's sins but yours. Particularly the one you see poking out, hoping no one else sees. It doesn't matter. Even if they see it, God the Father doesn't.
Jesus uses the Russian saying not to put you in fear for your salvation but to lead you away from the very dangerous thought that Peter had. You have earned a place in heaven where other people failed to. Peter misunderstood Jesus' preaching of the law to the rich young man. He thought Jesus was giving him a doable law. No! He was giving Him a law He knew he could never do in order to bring him to Himself who had done all the laws and paid for his inability to do any of them. Peter and we are being summoned back to the Word.
Whether that Word be visibly put on you in Baptism, preached into your ears by Absolution, or read into your heart through your eyes, the Word brings all the grace, mercy, and peace of Christ for your salvation. What determines firstness and lastness is your relationship to the Word. When you judge yourself unworthy of it by spurning it, not hearing it, not believing it you're last no matter if you're first to church every Sunday. When you hear it as Good News, as comfort to your sinful soul, as medicine for your dying body, you're first no matter if you're a Johnny- come-lately. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost (20171008); Matthew 20: 1-16