Matthew 20:1-16 and 20-28
Yesterday we saw Jesus telling us that the Kingdom of God’s values and views are the complete opposite of the world’s values and views. And Jesus illustrates the point that he though he made to his disciples and the rich young ruler by telling them a story that goes like this:
“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard.
“About nine in the morning he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. He told them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went.
“He went out again about noon and about three in the afternoon and did the same thing. About five in the afternoon he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?’
“‘Because no one has hired us,’ they answered.
“He said to them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard.’
“When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.’
“The workers who were hired about five in the afternoon came and each received a denarius. So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. ‘These who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’
“But he answered one of them, ‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’
“So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”—Matthew 20:1-16
In Jewish parables, authority figures like a wealthy landowner typically represented God and a denarius was the wage for a day’s work in the first century AD. And since those who worked only one hour received a denarius, in other words a full day’s wage, the other workers expected to be paid proportionally, in other words one denarius per hour of work. However, when their turn at the pay table came they received the same wages as those who had only worked for one hour, which led them to protest.
By now you should have figured out that the workers had no right to protest their pay since their wage was the normally accepted sum and, more importantly, because they had to work for the wage they were given in the first place. Just as the landowner was free to dispense his wealth as he saw fit, God is free to dispense his grace as he determines. The first workers hired represent people who consider themselves to be of greater importance to God, like the rich young ruler in Matthew 19:16-26, and the last workers hired represent people like the twelve disciples, who live sacrificially but will be rewarded far more generously than they expect or deserve.
What this parable is teaching us is that being part of God’s kingdom and taking part in his purposes is matter of privilege, not something we can earn. Through this story, Christ warns against three wrong attitudes: (1) Do feel superior because of a privileged position, assignment or opportunity. (2) Do not fail to share God’s concern and generous grace, his undeserved favor, love, help, kindness and mercy, to all. (3) Avoid an attitude of envy, which is jealousy, resentment or a desire to have what others have, toward the spiritual blessings of others.
And now we come to the last passage for today, which occurs almost immediately after Jesus told this illustrative story, and as you will see the message that he was trying to convey clearly did not take hold.
Then the mother of Zebedee’s sons came to Jesus with her sons and, kneeling down, asked a favor of him.
“What is it you want?” he asked.
She said, “Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom.”
“You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus said to them. “Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?”
“We can,” they answered.
Jesus said to them, “You will indeed drink from my cup, but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared by my Father.”
When the ten heard about this, they were indignant with the two brothers. Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Jesus had promised in Matthew 19:28-29 that his disciples would sit on twelve thrones ruling over Israel in the renewal of all things. James and John now sought, through their mother, to gain prominence over their fellows. We must remember that along with Peter, James and John were members Jesus’ inner circle and because Jesus had rebuked Peter in Matthew 16:23, they may have aspired to usurp Peter’s position of prominence as well.
The cup that Jesus is talking about here is a metaphor for suffering. Jesus’ question probed the disciples’ willingness to suffer for him like he would suffer for them. If you remember the parable in Matthew 20:1-16 demonstrated that the Father distributes rewards as he chooses, not according to merit, and Jesus here confirmed again the principle of the Father’s freedom to determine who will enjoy heavens greatest blessings.
And now we come to crux of today’s passage. If you remember we said that the parable we started out with warned against three wrong attitudes. And those attitudes were: feeling superior because of a privileged position, assignment or opportunity; the failure to share God’s concern and generous grace to all; and being envious of the spiritual blessings of others. Hopefully you will have by now picked up that all three of those wrong attitudes were present in the disciples in this passage. And this competition between the disciples exposed their pride. Jesus called his disciples to the same humble servitude the he modeled. The ultimate expression of his humility was his own sacrificial death that served as a ransom for believers.
To wrap all this up Jesus on top of warning us against the three wrong attitudes, he is also teaching us two very important lessons. The first is that in this world, those with the highest and most influential positions often “lord it over” others. However, in God’s kingdom greatness is not measured by authority over others, but by serving people and putting others above self. We as believers must not try to reach the top in order to achieve power and influence over others. We must remember that the greatest influence comes from humility and service. And for this reason, we as Christians must look for ways to help and benefit others, working for the spiritual good of all people.
And the second and last thing Jesus is teaching us is this: a ransom is a price paid to obtain freedom for others and as part of God’s plan to restore his relationship with people that had been broken by their sin, Jesus gave his own perfect life to pay the penalty for all humankind’s offenses against God. Christ’s sacrifice secured the release of men and women from sin’s power and control. And those who accept Christ’s sacrifice and entrust their lives to him are freed from guilt and condemnation, and sin and death. We must remember that this “ransom” was paid for all people and that there is nothing we can do to earn it.
Tomorrow’s Bible Readings:
Exodus 12:14-13:16, Matthew 20:29-21:22, Psalm 25:16-22 and Proverbs 6:12-15