This parable is written by the evangelist Matthew in the twentieth chapter, and is very dark and hard to be understood; yea, there is no harder piece of scripture written by any evangelist. Therefore it may well be called hard meat; not meat for mowers nor ignorant people, who are not exercised in the word of God. And yet there is no other diversity between this scripture and any other. For though many scriptures have diverse expositions, (as is well to be allowed of, so long as they keep in the tenour of the catholic faith,(3)) yet they pertain all to one end and effect, and they are all alike. Therefore although this parable is harder to understand than the others at the first hearing or reading, yet when we well advise and consider the same, we shall find it agreeable unto all the others.
Now to the principal cause, and to which our Saviour had respect in this parable, and that is, he teaches us hereby that all Christian people are equal in all things appertaining to the kingdom of Christ. So that we have one Christ, one Redeemer, one baptism, and one gospel, one Supper of the Lord, and one kingdom of heaven. So that the poorest man and most miserable that is in the world, may call God his Father, and Christ his Redeemer, as well as the greatest king or emperor in the world. And this is the scope of this parable, wherein Christ teacheth us this equality. And if this is considered, the whole parable will be easily and soon understood.(4)
Here is declared unto us that some laboured the whole day, which are hired for a penny, that is of our money ten pence: for like as we have a piece of money which we call a shilling, and is in value twelve pence, so the Jews had a piece that they called denarium, and that was in value ten of our pence. The first company wrought twelve hours, and the others wrought, some nine hours, some six hours, some three hours, and some but one hour. Now when evening was come, and the time of payment drew on, the householder said to his stewart, Go, and give to every man alike, and begin at those that came last. And when the others that came early in the morning perceived that they should have no more than those that had wrought but one hour, they murmured against the householder, saying, "Shall they which have laboured but one hour, have as much as we that have wrought the whole day?" The householder, perceiving their discontented mind, said to one of them, "Friend, wherefore grudgest thou? Is it not lawful for me to do with mine own what pleaseth me? Have I not given thee what I promised thee? Content thyself therefore, and go thy way, for it hath pleased me to give unto this man which hath wrought but one hour as much as unto thee." This is the sum of this parable, which Christ concludes with this sentence, "The first shall be the last, and the last first."
First consider who are these murmurers? The merit-mongers, who esteem their own works so much, that they think heaven scarcely sufficient to recompense their good deeds; namely, for putting themselves to pain with saying of our lady's psalter, and gadding on pilgrimage, and such like trifles. These are the murmurers; for they think themselves holier than all the world, and therefore worthy to receive a greater reward than all other men. But such men are much deceived and are in a false opinion, and if they abide and continue therein, it shall bring them to the fire of hell. For man's salvation cannot be gotten by any work: because the Scripture saith, "Life everlasting is the gift of God." (Rom. vi.) True it is, that God requires good works of us, and commands us to avoid all wickedness. But for all that, we may not do our good works that we should get heaven withal; but rather to show ourselves thankful for what Christ hath done for us, who with his sufferings hath opened heaven to all believers, that is, to all those that put their hope and trust, not in their deeds, but in his death and suffering, and study to live well and godly; and yet not to make merits of their own works, as though they should have everlasting life for them; as our monks and friars, and all our religious persons were wont to do, and therefore may rightly be called murmurers; for they thought they had so great a store of merits, that they sold some of them unto other men. And many men spend a great part of their substance to buy their merits, and to be a brother of their houses, or to obtain one of their coats or cowls to be buried in.
But there is a great difference between the judgment of God, and the judgment of this world. In this world they were accounted most holy above all men, and so most worthy to be first; but before God they shall be last, when their hypocrisy and wickedness shall be opened. And thus much I thought to say of murmurers.
Now I will not apply all the parts of this parable; for, as I said before, it is enough for us if we know the chief point and scope of the parable, which is, that there shall be an equality in all the things that appertain to Christ: insomuch, that the ruler of this realm hath no better a God, no better sacraments, and no better a gospel, than the poorest in the world; yea, the poorest man hath as good right to Christ and his benefits, as the greatest man in this world.
This is comfortable to every one, and especially to such as are in misery, poverty, or other calamities; which, if it were well considered, would not make us so desirous to come aloft, and to get riches, honour, and dignities in this world, as we now are, nor yet so malicious one against another as we are. For then we should ever make this reckoning with ourselves, each man in his vocation; the servant would think thus with himself, I am a poor servant, and must live after the pleasure of my master, I may not have my free will; but what then? I am sure that I have as good a God as my master hath; and I am sure that my service and business pleases God as much, when I do it with a good faith, as the preachers and curates, in preaching or saying of service. For we must understand that God esteems not the diversity of the works, but he hath respect unto the faith; for a poor man who does his duty in faith, is as acceptable unto God, and hath as good right to the death and merits of Christ, as the greatest man in the world.
So go through all states of men, whosoever applieth to his business with faith, considering that God willeth him so to do, surely the same is most beloved of God. If this were well considered and printed in our hearts, all ambition and desire of promotion, all covetousness and other vices, would depart out of our hearts. For it is the greatest comfort that may be unto poor people, especially such as are nothing regarded in this world -- if they consider that God loves them as well as the richest in the world -- it must needs be a great comfort unto them.
But there are some that say, that this sentence, "The first shall be last," is the very substance of the parable. And here you shall understand, that our Saviour Christ took occasion to put forth this parable, when there came a young man demanding of him, "What shall I do to come to everlasting life?" Our Saviour, after he had taught him the commandments of God, bade him, "Go, and sell all that he had, and give to the poor; and come and follow him." He hearing this, went away heavily, for his heart was cold. And then our Saviour spake very terribly against rich men, saying, "It is more easy for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of heaven:" -- a camel, or as some think, a great cable of a ship, which is more likely than the beast that is called a camel. The disciples hearing this, said, "Who then can be saved?" He made them answer, saying, "God is almighty, and that which is impossible to men, is possible with God;" signifying, that he condemns not all rich men, but only those who set their heart upon riches, who care not how they get them, and when they have them, who abuse them to the satisfying of their own carnal appetites and fleshly delights and pleasures, and use them not to the honour of God.
And again, such riches as are justly, rightly, and godly gotten, those are the good creatures of God, when rightly used to the glory of God, and comfort of their neighbours; not hoarding nor heaping them up, to make treasures of them. For riches are not evil of themselves; but they are made evil, when our hearts is set upon them, and we put hope in them; for that is an abominable thing before the face of God. Now after these words spoken by our Saviour Christ, Peter came forth, saying, "Lo, we have forsaken all that we had, what shall be our reward?" Peter had forsaken all that he had, which was but little in substance, but yet it was a great matter to him, for he had no more than that little: like the widow who cast into the treasury two mites, yet our Saviour praised the gift above all that gave before her. Here thou learnest, that when thou hast but little, yet give of the same little; for it is as acceptable unto God, as though it were a greater thing.
So Peter, in forsaking his old boat and net, was approved as much before God, as if he had forsaken all the riches in the world; therefore he shall have a great reward for his old boat; for Christ saith, that he shall be one of them that shall sit and judge the twelve tribes of Israel; and to signify them to be more than others, he giveth them the name of judges; meaning, that they shall condemn the world: like as God speaketh of the queen of Sheba, that in the last day she shall arise and condemn the Jews who would not hear Christ, and she came so great a journey to hear the wisdom of Solomon. Then he answered and said, "Whosoever leaveth father, or mother, or brethren, for my sake, shall receive an hundred-fold, and shall inherit everlasting life." Now what is this, to leave father and mother? When my father or mother would hinder me in any goodness, or would persuade me from the honouring of God and faith in Christ, then I must forsake and rather lose the favour and good-will of my father and mother, than forsake God and his holy word.
And now Christ saith, "The first shall be last, and the last shall be first," alluding to St. Peter's saying, which sounded as though Peter looked for a reward for his deeds; and that is it, which is the let of altogether,(5) if a man come to the Gospel and hears the same, and afterwards looks for a reward, such a man shall be "the last." If these sayings were well considered by us, surely we should not have such a number of vain gospellers as we now have, who seek nothing but their own advantage under the name and colour of the Gospel. Moreover, he teaches us to be meek and lowly, and not to think much of ourselves; for those that are greatly esteemed in their own eyes, are the least before God: "For he that humbleth himself shall be exalted;" according to the scripture, which saith, "God resisteth the proud, and advanceth the humble and meek." And this is what he saith, "The first shall be the last," teaching us to be careful and not to stand in our own conceit, but ever to mistrust ourselves; as St. Paul teacheth, saying, "Whosoever standeth let him take heed he fall not; and therefore we may not put trust in ourselves, but rather in God."
Further, in this saying of our Saviour is comprehended a great comfort; for those that are accounted by the world to be the vilest slaves and most abject, may by this saying have a hope to be made the first and the principal; for although they are ever so low, yet they may rise again, and become the highest. And so this is to us a comfortable sentence, which strengthens our faith, and keeps us from desperation and falling from God. And at the end he saith, "Many are called, but few are chosen." These words of our Saviour are very hard to understand, and therefore it is not good to be too curious in them, as some vain fellows, who seeking carnal liberty, pervert, toss and turn the word of God, after their own mind and purpose. Such, I say, when they read these words, make their reckoning thus; saying, "What need I to mortify my body with abstaining from all sin and wickedness? I perceive God hath chosen some, and some are rejected. Now if I be in the number of the chosen, I cannot be damned; but if I be accounted among the condemned number, then I cannot be saved: for God's judgments are immutable." Such foolish and wicked reasons some have; which bring them either to desperation, or else to carnal liberty. Therefore, it is as needful to beware of such reasons, or expositions of the scripture, as it is to beware of the devil himself.
But if thou art desirous to know whether thou art chosen to everlasting life, thou mayest not begin with God: for God is too high, thou canst not comprehend him; the judgments of God are unknown to man; therefore thou mayest not begin there: but begin with Christ, and learn to know Christ, and wherefore he came; namely, that he came to save sinners, and made himself subject to the law, and a fulfiller of the same, to deliver us from the wrath and danger thereof, and therefore was crucified for our sins, and rose again to show and teach us the way to heaven, and by his resurrection to teach us to arise from sin: so also his resurrection teaches and admonishes us of the general resurrection. He sitteth at the right hand of God and maketh intercession for us, and gives us the Holy Ghost, that comforts and strengthens our faith, and daily assures us of our salvation.
Consider, I say, Christ and his coming; and then begin to try thyself whether thou art in the book of life or not. If thou findest thyself in Christ, then thou art sure of everlasting life. If thou be without him, then thou art in an evil case. For it is written, "No man cometh unto the Father but through me." Therefore if thou knowest Christ, then thou mayest know further of thy election. But when we are about this matter, and are troubled within ourselves, whether we are elected or no; we must ever have this maxim, or principal rule before our eyes; namely, that God beareth a good-will towards us; God loveth us; God beareth a fatherly heart towards us.
But you will say, "How shall I know that? Or how shall I believe that?" We may know God's will towards us through Christ: God hath opened himself unto us by his Son Christ; for so saith John the Evangelist, "The Son which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath revealed." (John i.)
Therefore we may perceive his good-will and love towards us; he hath sent his Son into this world, who suffered a most painful death for us. Shall I now think that God hates me? Or shall I doubt of his love towards me? Here you see how you shall avoid the scrupulous and most dangerous question of the predestination of God. For if thou wilt inquire his counsels, and enter into his consistory, thy wit will deceive thee; for thou shalt not be able to search the counsels of God. But if thou begin with Christ, and consider his coming into the world, and dost believe that God hath sent him for thy sake, to suffer for thee, and deliver thee from sin, death, the devil, and hell; then when thou art so armed with the knowledge of Christ, then, I say, this simple question cannot hurt thee; for thou art in the book of life, which is Christ himself.
Also we learn by this sentence, "Many are called," that the preaching of the gospel is universal; that it pertains to all mankind; that it is written, "Through the whole earth their sound is heard." Now seeing that the gospel is universal, it appears that he would have all mankind saved, and that the fault is not in him if we are damned. For it is written thus, "God would have all men to be saved:" his salvation is sufficient to save all mankind, but we are so wicked of ourselves that we refuse the same, for we will not take it when it is offered unto us; and therefore he saith, "Few are chosen;" that is, few have pleasure and delight in it; for the most part are weary of it, they cannot abide it. And there are some that hear it, but they will not abide any danger for it, they love their riches and possessions more than the word of God. And therefore few are elected, there are but a few that stick heartily unto it, and can find in their hearts to forgo this world for God's sake and his holy word.
There are some now-a-days that will not be reprehended by the gospel; they think themselves better than it. Some again are so stubborn, that they will rather forswear themselves, than confess their sins and wickedness. Such men are the cause of their own damnation; for God would have them saved, but they refuse it; like as did Judas the traitor, whom Christ would have had to be saved, but he refused his salvation; he refused to follow the doctrine of his master Christ. And so, whosoever heareth the word of God, and follows it, the same is elect by him. And again, whosoever refuses to hear the word of God, and to follow the same, is damned. So that our election is sure if we follow the word of God.
Here is now taught you how to try out your election, namely, in Christ, for Christ is the accounting book and register of God; even in the same book, that is, Christ, are written all the names of the elect. Therefore we cannot find our election in ourselves, neither yet in the high counsel of God; for "Secret things belong to the most High." (Deut. xxix.) Where then shall I find my election? In the counting book of God, which is Christ; for thus it is written, "God hath so entirely loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, to that end, that all that believe in him should not perish, but have life everlasting." Whereby appears most plainly that Christ is the book of life, and that all that believe in him are in the same book, and so are chosen to everlasting life; for only those are ordained which believe.
Therefore when thou hast faith in Christ, then thou art in the book of life, and so art thou sure of thine election. And again, if thou art without Christ, and have no faith in him, neither art sorry for thy wickedness, nor have a mind and purpose to leave and forsake sin, but rather exercise and use the same, then thou art not in the book of life as long as thou art in such a case; and therefore shalt thou go into everlasting fire, namely, if thou die in thy wickedness and sin, without repentance.
But there are none so wicked but he may have a remedy. What is that? Enter into thine own heart, and search the secrets of the same. Consider thine own life, and how thou hast spent thy days. And if thou find in thyself all manner of uncleanness and abominable sins, and so seest thy damnation before thine eyes, what shalt thou then do? Confess the same unto the Lord thy God. Be sorry that thou hast offended so loving a Father, and ask mercy of him in the name of Christ, and believe steadfastly that he will be merciful unto thee in respect of his only Son, who suffered death for thee; and then have a good purpose to leave all sin and wickedness, and to withstand and resist the affections of thine own flesh, which ever fight against the Spirit; and to live uprightly and godly, after the will and commandment of thy heavenly Father. If thou go thus to work, surely thou shalt be heard. Thy sins shall be forgiven thee; God will show himself true in his promise, for to that end he sent his only Son into this world, that he might save sinners. Consider therefore, I say, wherefore Christ came into this world; consider also the great hatred and wrath that God beareth against sin; and again consider his great love, showed unto thee, in that he sent his only Son to suffer most cruel death, rather than that thou shouldst be damned everlastingly.
Consider therefore this great love of God the Father, amend thy life, fly all occasions of sin and wickedness, and be loath to displease him. And in doing this thou mayest be assured that though thou hadst done all the sins of the world, they shall neither hurt nor condemn thee; for the mercy of God is greater than all the sins of the world. But we sometimes are in such a case that we think we have no faith at all, or if we have any, it is very feeble and weak. And therefore these are two things; to have faith and to have the feeling of faith. For some men would fain have the feeling of faith, but they cannot attain unto it; and yet they may not despair, but go forward in calling upon God, and it will come at length: God will open their hearts, and let them feel his goodness.
And thus may you see who are in the book of life, and who are not. For all those that are obstinate sinners, are without Christ, and so not elect to everlasting life, if they remain in their wickedness. There are none of us all but we may be saved by Christ, and therefore let us stick hard unto it, and be content to forego all the pleasures and riches of this world for his sake, who for our sake forsook all the heavenly pleasures, and came down into this miserable and wretched world, and here suffered all manner of afflictions for our sake. And therefore it is right that we should do somewhat for his sake, to show ourselves thankful unto him; and so we may assuredly be found among the first, and not among the last; that is to say, among the elect and chosen of God, that are written in the counting book of God, who are those that believe in Christ Jesus; to whom, with God the Father, and the Holy Ghost, be all honour and glory, world without end. -- Amen.