The parable of the vineyard [Matt. 20:1-16] begins:
For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard.
And ends with the non-sequitur:
So the last will be first, and the first will be last.
I call it a non-sequitur because the bulk of the parable is a caution against the assumption of religious privilege. At the very least, after doing our work for the landowner (Christ and the Father), we don’t want to screw up the relationships by challenging the generosity shown to those that come later. But in that context, the final line seems a little harsh to the Hebrews. Are they really to expect that as the original subscribers to God’s burdens, they are going to be lesser than the Gentiles brought into the fold through Jesus’ ministry?
That doesn’t seem fair.
To make sense of the final line, I recommend treating it as a bookend to the first. Jesus is suggesting the process by which God prepares fallen souls to enter the kingdom of heaven. Early in the “day,” when the spiritual condition of the “field” is most rugged, the strongest workers are brought in to uproot the weeds and remove the stones. They enlarge the perimeter in which cultivation can be done. As the day progresses, less hardy souls are brought in to plant and irrigate. As the crop develops, gentle and sensitive spirits are brought in to prune and guide the growth. Finally, at the very end of the process, the final workers are brought in to gather the harvest – in Jesus’ metaphor, to guide the cultivated souls into heaven.
The first workers are spiritual pioneers. Not only do they clear the land, they prevent corruption of the crop. If they were called in first, the efforts of the later workers would be overwhelmed. Thus they must stay out in the field, performing their roles, until the workers brought in later in the “day” are safe in the kingdom of heaven. Only then can the pioneers enjoy the fruits of their shared labor.
Will there be no honor in heaven accorded to those early workers? In this parable, Jesus is silent on that point. It is in the parable of the talents that the point is made that those that do the work accrue the gratitude of their fellows, and will receive honor in heaven. Here, Jesus is attempting more to give them strength not to carry privilege and pride back with them when they come to heaven. That corruption cannot be allowed through the gates. If they receive honor, it will be because their fellows grant it to them, and privilege and pride are the surest way to lose that boon.