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Matthew 20

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Following upon his discourse Christ now gives the disciples a parable about the kingdom – and a disturbing one it is, too.

The Laborers

Mat 20:1-16 NASB "For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. (2) "When he had agreed with the laborers for a denarius for the day, he sent them into his vineyard. (3) "And he went out about the third hour and saw others standing idle in the market place; (4) and to those he said, 'You also go into the vineyard, and whatever is right I will give you.' And so they went. (5) "Again he went out about the sixth and the ninth hour, and did the same thing. (6) "And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing around; and he *said to them, 'Why have you been standing here idle all day long?' (7) "They *said to him, 'Because no one hired us.' He *said to them, 'You go into the vineyard too.' (8) "When evening came, the owner of the vineyard *said to his foreman, 'Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last group to the first.' (9) "When those hired about the eleventh hour came, each one received a denarius. (10) "When those hired first came, they thought that they would receive more; but each of them also received a denarius. (11) "When they received it, they grumbled at the landowner, (12) saying, 'These last men have worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden and the scorching heat of the day.' (13) "But he answered and said to one of them, 'Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for a denarius? (14) 'Take what is yours and go, but I wish to give to this last man the same as to you. (15) 'Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with what is my own? Or is your eye envious because I am generous?' (16) "So the last shall be first, and the first last."

The finite nature of man

Man, being the top predator on the planet, has the privilege of making up his own mind about things of ultimate importance. We comprehend so much that it is a little difficult to think that there is something we could not comprehend. So in our mental picture of God, we see him being just like us.

So we see ourselves in this picture. We’re the day laborers waiting on the curb; at each time this landlord comes up and offers each of us a one hundred dollar bill in exchange for a day’s work. It is perfectly natural, then, that when this landlord pays everybody the same thing, we have two reactions:

  • One is that this landlord is a bit daft; we certainly wouldn’t do it that way.
  • The other is a combination of bitterness and envy. If we’re the guys who have worked all day, we wish we were the guys who were called at the end of the day. We envy them.

But we’re finite. We imagine the landlord has a limited number of $100 bills. We could certainly give him some spending advice. But what if his supply of hundreds is limitless? Does that make a difference?

Look at it from the point of view of the laborer at the end of the day – whom we might identify as the person who accepted Christ as Lord at the very end of life, a deathbed conversion. We are jealous of all the fun he had – which shows our view of sin as desirable. How much fun it would be to live an evil life and repent on the last day! This may explain why we are not told how long we will live.

The infinite nature of God

We must now make a mathematical digression.

We may take as our example the Infinity Hotel. The hotel known for having an infinite number of rooms, and an infinite number of guests to fill them. Suppose the hotel is full, and another guest arrives. No problem! We just move the guest in room 1 to room 2, room 2 to room 3, and so on. We now have a space for another guest! Ah, but suppose an infinite number of new guests arrive; what then? Simple. Room 1 goes to room 2; room 2 into room 4 – everyone doubles their room number. Now all the odd number rooms are vacant – which, of course, is an infinite number of rooms.

Now then, suppose the landlord of the vineyard had this capability as well – an infinite stack of hundred dollar bills. What’s another hundred to Him?

God, you see, calls the worker out of his infinite love. The key to understanding this labor is simple: God calls them when they will come. Only when pride gives way to obedience will God make that call. This is very encouraging to those late in life who hear that call – a point which needs be made. It is His will that none be lost, even late in life.

That doesn’t always sit too well with us. Remember the older brother?

The nature of the kingdom

It happens frequently enough: when deciding where charity or help should go, the sinner’s worthiness is one of the criteria. We don’t have an infinite stack of hundreds, so we parcel out what we have carefully. One criterion is whether or not the recipient is “worthy.” What makes a recipient worthy or unworthy?

  • Natural disasters produce worthy recipients. We don’t ask to see the criminal records of the people we’re passing out blankets to.
  • People in trouble of their own making might be worthy recipients – especially if they are related to us.
  • People with whom we have no sympathy (poverty stricken Arab terrorists, for example) are not worthy recipients.

Interestingly, we judge other people’s giving somewhat in reverse. Those who give to the least worthy are often judged the most noble.

God, following that to its infinite conclusion, is the most noble giver of all. Indeed, He goes to some lengths to show that our worthiness is NOT one of His criteria:

Deu 7:7-8 NASB "The LORD did not set His love on you nor choose you because you were more in number than any of the peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples, (8) but because the LORD loved you and kept the oath which He swore to your forefathers, the LORD brought you out by a mighty hand and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt.

What counts is not the worthiness of the people of Israel, but God’s faithfulness. What counts in salvation is not the merit of the sinner but God’s love. That’s why salvation is open to all – for His will is that His love should be extended to everyone.

Politics as usual

The reader should note that a number of women, including Salome, the mother mentioned here, followed Christ throughout His ministry. They evidently were also contributors financially.

Mat 20:17-28 NASB As Jesus was about to go up to Jerusalem, He took the twelve disciples aside by themselves, and on the way He said to them, (18) "Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem; and the Son of Man will be delivered to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn Him to death, (19) and will hand Him over to the Gentiles to mock and scourge and crucify Him, and on the third day He will be raised up." (20) Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came to Jesus with her sons, bowing down and making a request of Him. (21) And He said to her, "What do you wish?" She *said to Him, "Command that in Your kingdom these two sons of mine may sit one on Your right and one on Your left." (22) But Jesus answered, "You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?" They *said to Him, "We are able." (23) He *said to them, "My cup you shall drink; but to sit on My right and on My left, this is not Mine to give, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by My Father." (24) And hearing this, the ten became indignant with the two brothers. (25) But Jesus called them to Himself and said, "You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. (26) "It is not this way among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant, (27) and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave; (28) just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many."

The warning shot

It was abundantly clear to the Pharisees that Jesus claimed to be the Christ; that He said more than once that He would rise from the grave – to the point they asked Pilate to put a guard on the tomb. Why, then, the disciples would not understand this point is puzzling. Other than terminal stupidity, it has been suggested that their hopes were so pinned on an earthly conqueror that they discounted such an idea. We hear what we want to hear, don’t we?


Let’s be clear about it. The way to success in this world depends very much on who you know. This is easy to abuse; for example, every large church is likely to have someone whose entire reason for going to church is to make sales contacts. It was normal then, it’s normal now – we just call it networking.

Salome, no doubt, figured she could at least get in the early bird request. She has, after all, followed this man around for some time, and likely enough has contributed financially. She probably feels she’s owed a favor; she may feel that her sons would be awkwardly placed to ask, but not mom.

To understand the difficulty, consider this question: what do you get for a rich man in the way of a birthday present? It’s tough; my wife and I have that problem, and it is not easy. Pictures of the kids are the odds-on favorite.

If that’s a difficulty, just how do you give so richly to God as to put Him in your debt? How do you get Him to “owe you one?” To ask is to see the problem. Which Salome didn’t.

Christ, in His reply, wisely chooses to give the answer to mom’s questions to James and John directly. He does so by telling them of the route to greatness in the kingdom of God.

Greatness in the kingdom

The matter is rather obvious once you know the answer – and the example. Consider the Servant King, Jesus the Christ. He is the ultimate in “greatness,” and He came to serve. Now, if He does that, what does that say for the rest of us? Is it not obvious that greatness comes from service? And that service is best expressed as the imitation of Christ, the supreme example?

Your mother was right: you have to do things the hard way. Most church organizations have a hierarchy, and it’s easy for the higher-ups to forget this. Being honored and respected is a good feeling; it’s important to remember how Christ got there – because that’s our route too. As Chrysostom put it, “How much soever you humble yourself, you cannot descend so far as did your Lord.”

Example of Greatness

Mat 20:29-34 NASB As they were leaving Jericho, a large crowd followed Him. (30) And two blind men sitting by the road, hearing that Jesus was passing by, cried out, "Lord, have mercy on us, Son of David!" (31) The crowd sternly told them to be quiet, but they cried out all the more, "Lord, Son of David, have mercy on us!" (32) And Jesus stopped and called them, and said, "What do you want Me to do for you?" (33) They *said to Him, "Lord, we want our eyes to be opened." (34) Moved with compassion, Jesus touched their eyes; and immediately they regained their sight and followed Him.

Humble service to the great and visible is one thing; humble service to the invisible people is another. The crowd understands this; the blind beggar is a nuisance, constantly asking for money. The crowd wants to hear the rabbi, see a healing or some other miracle. They’re not interested in a blind beggar or two. If they had seen Mother Teresa, they’d have told her to minister to the Brahmins, not the Untouchables.

Do you not see it? To Christ, the status of the recipient of His mercy means nothing. More importantly, nor does the history of the recipient. Not one of us deserves His mercy; that’s why it’s mercy. He does not ration it out to the most worthy; He distributes freely to all.

Humility in service

Even on the way to the Crucifixion we may note the humility of Christ. He stopped for the beggars. The wording in the Greek implies that he (and the caravan of hearers) came to a dead stop. Only then does He call to them. It’s as if He had only one thing to do at the time;

But call them He does. It’s a lesson for us – we need to persist as these blind men did. We also need to be grateful when He aids us. And afterwards, we need to follow Him.

The Light of the World

An interesting summary of these thoughts can be found in the Gospel of John:

Joh 9:1-5 NASB As He passed by, He saw a man blind from birth. (2) And His disciples asked Him, "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he would be born blind?" (3) Jesus answered, "It was neither that this man sinned, nor his parents; but it was so that the works of God might be displayed in him. (4) "We must work the works of Him who sent Me as long as it is day; night is coming when no one can work. (5) "While I am in the world, I am the Light of the world."

Do you see the point? The question of whose sin, like the question of who is worthy, misses the point. The Light of the World must bring glory to God. And Jesus tells us[1] that we are the light of the world. Even the candle can imitate the sun; even the least of us can imitate the Son.

[1] Matthew 5:14

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