In Matthew 19, we have the well-known story of the “Rich Young Ruler.” Well, in Matthew we don’t find out he is a “ruler”, but you know what I mean. Most of us are familiar with his pride (assuming there was only “one good thing” left on his to-do list, assuming doing bare minimum commandments was good enough for God [“which ones?”], assuming he checked off those commandments already, etc.), and, of course, the story is heartbreaking as well. For in the end, he not only rejects following Christ because of his love for money–but he KNOWS he is choosing the idol of his wealth over Christ (he went away “sorrowful”, implying an awareness of his choice…but he still went away.). Jesus reinforces the reality of his decision by declaring the sheer impossibility of the rich entering the kingdom of heaven.
In response to this, the disciples ask Jesus, “Who then can be saved?” After all, if the rich, commandment-keeping person wasn’t getting in, then there wasn’t much hope for backwoods, rough-and-tough, foot-in-mouth fisherman types. Or anyone in between for that matter.
Jesus responds that this is indeed humanly impossible…unless God intervenes.
Peter, though, noticed something in Jesus’ demand that the rich man sell his possessions and follow Christ. If that leads to eternal life, then, he figures out–“We as disciples have done that already! We have left all and followed you, Jesus! Is there reward for us?” (v. 27).
I expect Jesus, by these point in the Gospel, to say something like “eternal life is enough reward.” or (in my mind), “Peter, you’ve said so much stupid stuff that it pretty much cancels out all you left behind.” But he doesn’t. Instead, he feeds their appetite for rewards- thrones to judge the 12 tribes in the “regeneration” when the Son of man reigns, inheriting 100x more of what they left behind, and of course, eternal life- the cherry on the sundae!.
Now all that’s left is for the disciples to figure out what order the thrones will be in.
Which is precisely why Jesus doesn’t end strictly with this great promise of reward. He adds a stinging and somewhat perplexing sentence- “The last will be first and the first will be last.” And as if that sentence weren’t enough, he launches into a parable to illustrate just that point. (the chapter break from 19-20 is very poorly timed here.) In 20:1-16, he describes a vineyard owner hiring day-laborers to work. He agrees to pay (or reward) the first group 1 denarius for the whole day- a fair wage. then a few hours later, he finds some others (with no pay guaranteed), then a few hours later, and so on, until a final group (probably the weakest and worst laborers, since no one else hired them all day!) is chosen to help work the final hour of the day. When closing time hits, those showing up for one hour are paid a denarius each. So the original crew, who were there first, labored all day (even during the afternoon sun), assume that their pay has been upped. It’s only fair, right? To their chagrin, they are also paid a denarius and proceed to complain to the foreman about the unfair wage practices occurring.
“What was unfair?” he asks. “You agreed to a denarius, you got a denarius. If I want to pay others the same, it’s basically none of your concern because I can be gracious with my own money.” Jesus summarizes again–“So the last will be first and the first will be last.”
Jesus has no qualms about promising rewards for righteousness. There will be thrones and 100-fold rewards, etc. But in striving to live righteously for rewards, we must remember that the kingdom is one of grace. The king is a lavish giver, and we shouldn’t be surprised to see others rewarded who appeared far worse than we. The death-bed confession, the struggling alcoholic, and the janitor may wind up on a throne next to us (to use Jesus’ picture.) or above us. Lest the disciples turn these promises of reward into their own checklist, into a competition between themselves for top billing in the kingdom, Jesus reminds them of the kingdom’s upside-down nature. Another paradox for the Christian life–we are to seek reward in an upside-down kingdom.