Matthew 20 – Jesus Teaches of Grace, Greatness, and Service
A. The parable of the workers in the vineyard.
1. (1-2) A landowner’s workers early in the morning.
“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. Now when he had agreed with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard.”
a. For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner: Like many of Jesus’ parables, this story is about an employer and those who work for him. Jesus will use this story to answer a question from Matthew 19:27: See, we have left all and followed You. Therefore what shall we have? His reply came in stages.
· First, a promise of reward (Matthew 19:28).
· Second, a warning that God’s manner of distributing reward is not necessarily the manner of men (many who are the first will be last, and the last first, Matthew 19:30).
· Finally, this parable that illustrates the principle that God’s manner of rewarding is not like man’s practice of giving rewards.
b. To hire laborers for his vineyard: The landowner went to the marketplace, which was the gathering place for day laborers. A man who wanted to work came there first thing in the morning, carrying his tools, and waited until someone hired him.
c. Early in the morning: This is literally “at dawn,” usually reckoned to be about 6:00 in the morning. These workers hired at the very beginning of the working day agreed to work for a denarius a day, the common daily wage for a workingman. This was an entirely normal arrangement.
2. (3-7) Through the day, the landowner continues to hire workers.
“And he went out about the third hour and saw others standing idle in the marketplace, and said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and whatever is right I will give you.’ So they went. Again he went out about the sixth and the ninth hour, and did likewise. And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing idle, and said to them, ‘Why have you been standing here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and whatever is right you will receive.’”
a. And he went out about the third hour: The third hour was about 9:00 a.m.; the sixth hour was about 12 noon; the eleventh hour was about 5:00 in the evening. Through the day, the landowner went to the place where the laborers gathered, found some standing idle in the marketplace, and hired them to do the work in his vineyard.
i. “If the harvest was not ingathered before the rains broke, then it was ruined; and so to get the harvest in was a frantic race against time. Any worker was welcome, even if he could give only an hour to the work.” (Barclay)
ii. The picture is that the landowner had an inexhaustible supply of work for those who wanted to work. The impression is that the landowner was surprised to find people idle, because he had plenty of work to give them.
iii. Spurgeon applied this to us spiritually: “Why is any one of us remaining idle towards God? Has nothing yet had power to engage us to sacred service? Can we dare to say, ‘No man hath hired us?”
b. Whatever is right I will give you… whatever is right you will receive: The landowner promised the earliest workers a day’s wage (a denarius a day). The other workers hired through the day were not promised a specific wage, only whatever is right. He promised to pay all the later workers fairly.
3. (8-10) The landowner pays his workers.
So when evening had come, the owner of the vineyard said to his steward, ‘Call the laborers and give them their wages, beginning with the last to the first.’ And when those came who were hired about the eleventh hour, they each received a denarius. But when the first came, they supposed that they would receive more; and they likewise received each a denarius.
a. Call the laborers and give them their wages, beginning with the last to the first: These are day laborers, so they are paid at the end of each day. When it came time to pay the workers, the men hired last were paid first – and paid for a full day of work!
i. The men who were hired at the eleventh hour – who worked only about one hour – were obviously elated about being paid first, and being paid for a full day.
b. They supposed that they would receive more: The men who worked for the landowner all day saw the men who worked for only an hour come away from the pay table, and they supposed, “If the landowner is paying these guys a full day’s pay for one hour’s work, then we will get far more.”
i. The order of payment was important. If the first workers had been paid first, they would not have had time to develop the expectation of more pay for themselves. “Possibly the first felt their vanity wounded by being paid after the others. They used their waiting time in considering their own superiority to the latecomers.” (Spurgeon)
c. They likewise received a denarius: Yet the men hired first – early in the day, and who had worked all day – got paid exactly what the landowner had promised them (a denarius a day, Matthew 20:2). The landowner did exactly as promised, but their supposition of more pay than promised was disappointed.
4. (11-15) The complaint of the early workers.
“And when they had received it, they complained against the landowner, saying, ‘These last men have worked only one hour, and you made them equal to us who have borne the burden and the heat of the day.’ But he answered one of them and said, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what is yours and go your way. I wish to give to this last man the same as to you. Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with my own things? Or is your eye evil because I am good?’”
a. They complained against the landowner: After being paid, the men hired first took up their complaint with the landowner. They were offended that the landowner gave the men who worked less equal to us who have borne the burden and the heat of the day.
i. “The money was paid by the overseer, but he was standing by enjoying the scene.” (Bruce)
ii. It is easy to sympathize with these who had worked all day. They worked while the others were idle. They worked in the heat of the day while others shaded themselves. Yet they were paid exactly the same.
b. Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? The landowner reminded them that he had been completely fair to them. He did them no wrong, and had broken no promise.
c. I wish to give to this last man the same as to you: The landowner did nothing to explain why he did it, other than simply to say “I wish.” The reasons for the landowner’s generosity were completely in the landowner himself, and not in the ones who received.
d. Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with my own things? Or is your eye evil because I am good? The landowner rebuked them for their jealousy and resentment of the landowner’s generosity towards others. He also strongly claimed his right to do what he wanted with what was his.
i. The “evil eye” was a jealous, envious eye. The landowner asked if they were jealous because the landowner was generous to other people. “The ‘evil eye’ was an idiom used to refer to jealousy (cf. Deuteronomy 15:9; 1 Samuel 18:9).” (Carson)
ii. “An evil eye was a phrase in use, among the ancient Jews, to denote an envious, covetous man or disposition; a man who repined at his neighbour’s prosperity, loved his own money, and would do nothing in the way of charity for God’s sake.” (Clarke)
5. (16) The parable applied: the principle of God’s reward.
“So the last will be first, and the first last. For many are called, but few chosen.”
a. So the last will be first, and the first last: Peter and the disciples knew they had given up a great deal to follow Jesus. Peter wanted to know what they would get in return. Through this parable Jesus assured Peter and the disciples that they will be rewarded – but the principle of many who are first will be last and the last first (Matthew 19:30) meant that God may not reward as man expects – even as the parable illustrated.
i. Some think this parable speaks of the way that people come to God at different stages of their life. They may come at the beginning of their life, in their youth, in adulthood, in old age, or at the very end. Others think it refers to how the gospel first dawned with John the Baptist, then the preaching of Jesus, then the preaching at Pentecost, then to the Jews, and finally to the Gentiles. It is best understood as a parable about grace and reward.
ii. The disciples should expect to be rewarded; but they should not be surprised if, when rewards are distributed, God will reward others in unexpected ways.
b. Last will be first, and the first last: This is the essence of God’s grace, when He rewards and blesses man according to His will and pleasure, not necessarily according to what men deserve.
i. The system of law is easy to figure out: you get what you deserve. The system of grace is foreign to us: God deals with us according to who He is, not according to who we are.
ii. It is important to see that the landowner did not treat anyone unfairly, though he was more generous to some than to others. We can be assured that God will never, ever be unfair to us, though He may – for His own purpose and pleasure – bestow greater blessing on someone else who seems less deserving.
iii. The point isn’t that all have the same reward – though all God’s people do go to the same heaven (where they will have reward in different measure). The point is that God rewards on the principle of grace, and we should therefore expect surprises. He will never be less than fair, but reserves the right to be more than fair as pleases Him. God’s grace always operates righteously.
iv. This parable is not a perfect illustration of God’s grace, because the principle of working and deserving is involved. The grace of God does not give us more blessing than we deserve – it gives blessing to us completely apart from the principle of deserving.
v. Living under grace is sort of a two-edged sword. Under grace, we can’t come to God complaining, “Don’t I deserve better than this”; because God will reply, “Does this mean that you really want Me to give you what you deserve?”
vi. Grace should be especially manifested in our service; it is of grace, not works.
· All our service is already due to God; it belongs to Him.
· The ability to serve God is the gift of His grace.
· The call to serve God is the gift of His grace.
· Every opportunity to serve is a gift of His grace.
· Being in the right state of mind to do the Lord’s work is a gift of grace.
· Successful service to God is the gift of His grace.
vii. “My last word to God’s children is this: what does it matter, after all, whether we are first or whether we are last? Do not let us dwell too much upon it, for we all share the honor given to each. When we are converted, we become members of Christ’s living body; and as we grow in grace, and get the true spirit that permeates that body, we shall say, when any member of it is honored, ‘This is honor for us’…If any brother shall be greatly honored of God, I feel honored in his honor. If God shall bless your brother, and make him ten times more useful than you are, then you see that he is blessing you — not only blessing him, but you. If my hand has something in it, my foot does not say, ‘Oh, I have not got it!’ No, for if my hand has it, my foot has it; it belongs to the whole of my body.” (Spurgeon)
c. For many are called, but few chosen: This was said in the context of this illustration of grace. Jesus emphasized that both the calling and the choosing of God is based on His grace – especially His choosing.
B. Jesus teaches about status in the kingdom.
1. (17-19) Jesus again reveals the fate waiting for Him at Jerusalem.
Now Jesus, going up to Jerusalem, took the twelve disciples aside on the road and said to them, “Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and to the scribes; and they will condemn Him to death, and deliver Him to the Gentiles to mock and to scourge and to crucify. And the third day He will rise again.”
a. Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem: This was not a surprise to the disciples. Even if Jesus had not specifically told them, their movement south from Galilee at about the time of the Passover feast made it easy to figure out that Jesus and the disciples would be in Jerusalem for Passover.
b. The Son of Man will be betrayed: Jesus again told the disciples what awaited Him in Jerusalem, but no reaction from the disciples is noted. A reaction might especially be expected when Jesus said He would be betrayed.
i. “This he said in the hearing of the disciple who would act the traitor: did no compunction visit his base heart?” (Spurgeon)
ii. “And still is he betrayed! If the gospel dies in England, write on its tomb, ‘Betrayed.’ If our churches lose their holy influence among men, write on them, ‘Betrayed.’ What care we for infidels? What care we for those who curse and blaspheme? They cannot hurt the Christ. His wounds are those which he receives in the house of his friend.” (Spurgeon)
iii. Seemingly, the disciples did not really listen when Jesus said these things. Their expectation was so focused on Jesus establishing an immediate political kingdom, and these words from Jesus were so contrary to that anticipation, these words just went over their heads.
iv. “But Luke saith, they understood none of these things; that is, surely they believed none of them, the saying was hid from them.” (Poole)
v. “When our Lord told the twelve that he would die, they imagined that it was a parable, concealing some deep mystery. They looked at one another, and they tried to fathom where there was no depth, but where the truth lay on the surface.” (Spurgeon)
vi. It is often more agonizing to contemplate the painful future than it is to actually live it. Jesus openly acknowledged the suffering and agony that awaited Him. Jesus thought about how He would fulfill the will of His Father in the future. There was value for Him to look at His coming trial, and to think and say, “I will complete what My Father has given Me to do. I will obey to the end.”
c. Betrayed… they will condemn Him to death… deliver Him to the Gentiles to mock and to scourge and to crucify. And the third day He will rise again: Jesus was remarkably specific in this announcement of His fate, and foretold many things over which He had no apparent control.
i. Will be betrayed: Conceivably, Jesus could have been delivered to the religious authorities without this. Certainly, He did not arrange His own betrayal. Yet He confidently said it would happen.
ii. They will condemn Him to death: Jesus confidently predicted that the religious leaders would do this; yet this was not something He could plan.
iii. Deliver Him to the Gentiles: Jesus knew that the religious leaders of the Jews did not have authority to carry out capital punishment themselves; yet sometimes they executed men despite this prohibition (Acts 7:54-60). Yet Jesus was confident that He would be delivered to the Gentiles.
iv. To mock and to scourge: Jesus predicted these specific aspects of His coming agony – which on a human level He could not arrange. “They plucked his hair, they smote his cheeks, they spat in his face. Mockery could go no farther. It was cruel, cutting, cursed scorn.” (Spurgeon)
v. And to crucify: Crucifixion was not the only way criminals were executed under the Romans, yet Jesus knew that this was how He would be put to death. “Here is the first mention of the mode of Jesus’ death and of the Gentiles’ part in it (only the Romans could crucify people).” (Carson)
vi. Taken together, the entire picture is one of great suffering.
· Suffering from the disloyalty of friends.
· Suffering from injustice.
· Suffering from deliberate insult.
· Suffering from physical pain.
· Suffering from great humiliation and degradation.
vii. And the third day He will rise again: Most important, this was something that Jesus had no apparent control over. Yet He confidently announced to His disciples that this would happen.
2. (20-21) The mother of James and John asks for a place of special status for her sons.
Then the mother of Zebedee’s sons came to Him with her sons, kneeling down and asking something from Him. And He said to her, “What do you wish?” She said to Him, “Grant that these two sons of mine may sit, one on Your right hand and the other on the left, in Your kingdom.”
a. The mother of Zebedee’s sons came to Him: This mother of James and John (Matthew 4:21) came with a request that would make a mother proud and the sons very happy.
i. She “was a regular member of the disciple group who accompanied Jesus (Matthew 27:56), so her involvement in her sons’ ambitious ideas is hardly surprising.” (France)
b. Grant that these two sons of mine may sit: Asking on behalf of her sons (note to whom Jesus replies in Matthew 20:22-23), she wanted prominent positions for them in the messianic administration of Jesus.
i. “The ‘right hand’ and ‘left hand’ suggest proximity to the King’s person and so a share in his prestige and power.” (Carson)
ii. “The promise of Matthew 19:28 forms the background to this request; the ‘thrones’ are already assured, leaving only the question of precedence.” (France)
3. (22-23) Jesus answers James and John: when you ask for a place of special status, do you know what you ask for?
But Jesus answered and said, “You do not know what you ask. Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink, and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” They said to Him, “We are able.” So He said to them, “You will indeed drink My cup, and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with; but to sit on My right hand and on My left is not Mine to give, but it is for those for whom it is prepared by My Father.”
a. Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink: Their answer (“We are able”) seems to come a little too quick. Jesus recognized that they didn’t really understand, but they would.
i. “But these men slept in Gethsemane, forsook the Master when He was arrested, and one of them at least failed Him at the cross…we can only follow Christ in his cup and baptism, after we have been endued with the Spirit of Pentecost.” (Meyer)
b. You will indeed drink My cup, and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with: Both James and John had to be baptized in suffering as Jesus was, but their “cups” and “baptisms” were different. James was the first martyr among the apostles, and John was the only apostle to not die through martyrdom – though not from a lack of trying.
i. James had to be ready to be the first to die among the disciples; John had to be ready to live the longest Christian life and testimony among them. “A Roman coin was once found with the picture of an ox on it; the ox was facing two things – an altar and a plough; and the inscription read: ‘Ready for either.’” (Barclay)
ii. This is a good example of the word baptism having the sense of “immersion” or being “swallowed up in.”
c. But to sit on My right hand and on My left is not Mine to give: Jesus here showed remarkable submission to His Father. He would not even claim the right to choose how His servants were rewarded, but yield that to His Father.
i. “He comes to do not his own will, but the will of him that sent him, and so he correctly says of rank in his kingdom, It is not mine to give. How thoroughly did our Lord take a lowly place for our sakes! In this laying aside of authority, he gives a silent rebuke to our self-seeking.” (Spurgeon)
4. (24-28) The disciples’ reaction; Jesus sets forth true greatness.
And when the ten heard it, they were greatly displeased with the two brothers. But Jesus called them to Himself and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those who are great exercise authority over them. Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you, let him be your servant. And whoever desires to be first among you, let him be your slave; just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.”
a. They were greatly displeased: The other ten disciples mistakenly thought that a unique honor had just been bestowed on James and John. They did not know that Jesus could have made the same promise of suffering to come to any of them (if they really wanted it!).
i. “The indignation of the ten doubtless sprang less from humility than jealousy plus fear that they might lose out.” (Carson)
b. Yet it shall not be so among you: Their desire for position and status showed they did not yet know the nature of Jesus in respect to leadership and power. The rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, but it should be different among the people of God.
i. Yet it shall not be so among you is a stinging rebuke to the manner in which the modern church looks to the world for both its substance and style. Plainly, the church isn’t to operate the way the world does.
c. Whoever desires to become great among you, let him be your servant: In the Kingdom community, status, money, popularity should never be the prerequisites for leadership. Humble service is the great prerequisite, as shown by Jesus’ own ministry.
i. “In the pagan world humility was regarded, not so much as a virtue, but as a vice. Imagine a slave being given leadership!” (Carson)
d. Just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve: Real ministry is done for the benefit of those ministered to, not for the benefit of the minister. Many people are in the ministry for what they can receive (either materially or emotionally) from their people instead of for what they can give.
i. “He received nothing from others; his was a life of giving, and the giving of a life…No service is greater than to redeem sinners by his own death, no ministry is lowlier than to die in the stead of sinners.” (Spurgeon)
ii. “He does not come to be served, but to serve. Does not this suit you, poor sinner — you who never did serve him, you who could not, as you are, minister to him? Well, he did not come to get your service; he came to give you his services; not that you might first do him honor, but that he might show you mercy.” (Spurgeon)
e. And to give His life a ransom for many: The death of Jesus – the giving of His life – purchased the freedom of His people. The idea is that His people were in bondage as slaves, and He paid their price.
i. Ransom “was most commonly used as the purchase price for freeing slaves.” (Carson) “Lytron (‘ransom’) and the preposition anti (‘for’, literally ‘instead of’) point clearly to the idea of his ‘taking our place’.” (France)
ii. These words of Jesus gave rise to an old and complicated theological question: to whom did Jesus pay the ransom? Origen said it was the devil; Gregory of Nyssa objected that this put the devil on the same level as God, and allowed the devil to dictate terms to God. Gregory the Great said that Jesus was like a baited hook meant to catch Satan, and Peter the Lombard said the cross was like a mousetrap to catch the devil, baited with the blood of Christ. All of this takes the simple picture Jesus gave too far. “A ransom is something paid or given to liberate a man from a situation from which it is impossible to free himself.” (Barclay)
iii. “Had all the sinners that ever lived in the world been consigned to hell, they could not have discharged the claims of justice. They must still continue to endure the scourge of crime they could never expiate. But the Son of God, blending the infinite majesty of his Deity with the perfect capacity to suffer as a man, offered an atonement of such inestimable value that he has absolutely paid the entire debt for his people.” (Spurgeon)
iv. “Most scholars have also recognized in ‘the many’ a clear reference to Isaiah.” (Carson) By His knowledge My righteous Servant shall justify many, for He shall bear their iniquities (Isaiah 53:11) He was numbered with the transgressors, and He bore the sin of many (Isaiah 53:12)
C. Jesus heals two blind men.
1. (29-31) Two blind men gain the attention of Jesus.
Now as they went out of Jericho, a great multitude followed Him. And behold, two blind men sitting by the road, when they heard that Jesus was passing by, cried out, saying, “Have mercy on us, O Lord, Son of David!” Then the multitude warned them that they should be quiet; but they cried out all the more, saying, “Have mercy on us, O Lord, Son of David!”
a. When they heard that Jesus was passing by: They knew this might be their last time to meet Jesus. They had the desperation appropriate for those who know that today is the day of salvation.
i. “It is the end of the account of Jesus’ itinerant ministry, and its setting as they went out of Jericho points forward to the next town on the road, Jerusalem.” (France)
b. Have mercy on us, O Lord, Son of David! The earnestness of these men was marvelous; they were desperate to be healed, and ignored the crowd that tried to quiet them (they cried out all the more).
i. “When the world and the devil begin to rebuke, in this case, it is a proof that the salvation of God is nigh; therefore, let such cry out a great deal the more.” (Clarke)
c. Lord, Son of David: However, in their desperation they glorified Jesus. They gave Him full honor with this title.
2. (32-34) Jesus heals the two blind men.
So Jesus stood still and called them, and said, “What do you want Me to do for you?” They said to Him, “Lord, that our eyes may be opened.” So Jesus had compassion and touched their eyes. And immediately their eyes received sight, and they followed Him.
a. Jesus stood still: Nothing could stop Him on His journey to Jerusalem; yet He stood still to answer a persistent plea for mercy.
b. What do you want Me to do for you? This is a wonderful, simple question God has not stopped asking. Sometimes we go without when God would want to give us something simply because we will not answer this question, and we do not have because we do not ask (James 4:2).
i. Jesus asked this question with full knowledge that these men were blind. He knew what they needed and what they wanted, but God still wants us to tell Him our needs as a constant expression of our trust and reliance on Him.
c. And they immediately followed Him: This was a great result. Not only were they healed, but they also followed the One who did great things for them.
i. “Reader, whosoever thou art, act in behalf of thy soul as these blind men did in behalf of their sight, and thy salvation is sure. Apply to the Son of David; lose not a moment; he is passing by, and thou art passing into eternity, and probably wilt never have a more favourable opportunity than the present. The Lord increase thy earnestness and faith!” (Clarke)
©2018 David Guzik – No distribution beyond personal use without permission