A Bible Lesson on Matthew 20:1-28

Scripture taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. Copyright 2000; 2001, by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

The rich young ruler has come to Jesus and gone away sad because Jesus has demanded all that he values and thinks he is. Peter then chimes in for you and me wanting be sure we get our fair share. We’re right with Peter on this one. We’ve put our all on the line for the Gospel, surely we deserve! Jesus answers “Yes there’s reward, but let’s get something straight. The first shall be last and the last first.” And as explanation of that hard saying He offers this parable. Like most of what Jesus taught, this runs completely counter to our fallen thinking. It reveals our hearts and our wrong perspective in a way that pretty much leaves us speechless.

Stein said, “It is frightening to realize that our identification with the first workers and hence with the opponents of Jesus, reveals how loveless and unmerciful we basically are … God is good and compassionate beyond His childrens’ understanding!”

Matthew 20:1 “For the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard.

2 After agreeing with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard.

It’s 6 AM. A denarius was the standard rate of pay for a day laborer. It would sustain a poor family for a day, with little to nothing left over. It was what they needed. Barclay says that the situation of these guys was the most desperate of any class of people in this place and time. Even a household slave had more security. These people have none. If they fail to work today, their wives and kids will go hungry. The landowner may need guys to work in the vineyard, but these workers need the landowner far more than he needs them. The landowner agrees to a just wage for a day’s work and sends the men into the vineyard.

3 And going out about the third hour he saw others standing idle in the marketplace,

4 and to them he said, ‘You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you.’

Now as the day goes on, there is still room for additional workers. Some commentators point out that during the grape harvest it was a mad race against time to get the grapes in before the rains came and ruined the crop. At 9 AM there is still room for workers in the vineyard.

Notice that beginning here, there is no iron-clad contract between workers and landowner. They are relying upon his integrity. Almost surely, they are expecting at most 3/4 of a denarius. These guys, more than the ones that started at 6, realize that they are in no position to be dictating terms to the landowner.

5 So they went. Going out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour, he did the same.

The landowner comes again at noon and at 3 PM. We do well to think clearly about the situation of these guys. They’ve not been hired and the day is slipping away. This is no happy place to be. With every passing hour their situation is worse. In our fallenness we look at this story and think that the good deal here is not working and getting paid as if we had worked. Not so. Better to be employed, knowing that at 6 PM there will be wages paid, than to have no assurance of anything. These guys have no promise that the landowner will come, that the wife and kids will eat tonight. This is not leisure, this is desperation until the landowner hires them, and even then, what can they expect for wages?

6 And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing. And he said to them, ‘Why do you stand here idle all day?’

7 They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You go into the vineyard too.’

Even at 5 PM the landowner has a place for these fellows. By now they have no expectation of anything. They don’t bargain with the landowner. By all rights they can expect nothing more than 1/12 of a denarius, but they gladly go and work for the time that remains in the day.

8 And when evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last, up to the first.’

9 And when those hired about the eleventh hour came, each of them received a denarius.

Now here is grace. These fellows aren’t given what they’ve earned or deserve, they are given what they need. They need a denarius. The landowner graciously gives them a denarius. Not because they merit it, but because He is who He is.

10 Now when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more, but each of them also received a denarius.

Here are those who are senior in this enterprise. We know how they are reckoning. They are reckoning on the basis of their work. They have the mind that they deserve. But it isn’t like that in the kingdom. They get what they need. The landowner delivers on what He said He would provide. In other circumstances, they would have gone home content, glad to have worked and consequently to be able to provide for their families. But enter human nature and God’s revealing of our wrong thinking.

11 And on receiving it they grumbled at the master of the house,

12 saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’

Let’s admit what prompts this reaction. It is not how they have been treated. They have been treated well. It is envy regarding how others have been treated. And the fact is, that such will rot the soul. In our dealing with God, the question is essentially never someone else’s condition, it’s our own condition before a Holy and just Creator.

“We have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.” These guys are figuring that what they’ve done is twelve times as important as what the last guys hired have done and that they should be compensated proportionately. That may be true in the world of business, but not it the Kingdom of God. God gives people what they need, salvation. And His salvation is not in proportion to what they do for Him.

13 But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius?

God is not unjust because He is merciful. Forgiveness and salvation are His to give at 6 in the morning and they are His to give at 5 at night. In truth it is never our just desert. We fancy ourselves to be the ones who were there at 6. In truth, we’re every one among those that were sent to the vineyard at 5. God never promised to treat all “equally” according to our fallen standards of equality. He did promise to love us all and give us what we need. For that we should be eternally grateful. We should not be looking around to see how hard the person next to us is at work, or when they got on the job. Nor should we be checking to see if God seems to have been more generous with them than with us. That kind of attitude just reveals how little we appreciate the grace shown us.

Notice here how the landowner addresses the 6 o’clock guys in spite of their insubordinate, selfish attitude. He calls them “Friends” despite the fact that they have grumbled and called Him “you.” They’ve not addressed him with a courteous title or any respect.

14 Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you.

15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?’

Indeed. Don’t I have the right? We tacitly think our human measure of “fairness” is supreme and that we have the right to put God on trial, on trial for His generosity. The truth is that God made and sustains all. We have no place to stand outside His creation and accuse Him of injustice for His generosity. If we try to do so, we are simply out of line.

16 So the last will be first, and the first last.”

Jesus returns to where He began. His kingdom doesn’t run on human principles. If we reckon by our own standards, there are going to be what look to us like reversals. The problem is not with God, but with our own thinking. The Kingdom of God runs on His grace, not our works. Yes, Peter, there will be rewards. But don’t ever think in terms of what you “deserve” and don’t be surprised if the order you expect doesn’t hold up!

R.E. Nixon said, “The point is that in the kingdom men receive what they need … and this is eternal life (for there are differences in spiritual privileges, 19:29). This is given by God who is continually calling men of different moral attainment and spiritual privilege to His service, and therefore no-one has claim on Him for more than anyone else. There is nothing unjust about God’s dealing for He gives what He promises (v.13). He has the sovereign freedom to do as He pleases, for generosity may be added to justice.”

Ryle rightly cautions that we need to not only see what this parable says, but to be careful to not try to make it say things that it doesn’t say. For one thing, in no way (the 6 AM guys through the 5 PM guys) should we hear this parable suggest that salvation is in any way earned. Whatever a believer receives in this world or the next is a matter of grace, not works. God is never a debtor to us, in any sense whatsoever. When all is said and done, we are all “unprofitable servants.”

Luke 17:10   So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.’ ” …

Further, this parable doesn’t teach that all will have the same degree of glory in heaven.

1Corinthians 3:8   The man who plants and the man who waters have one purpose, and each will be rewarded according to his own labor. …

And, this parable in no way indicates that it is safe to presume upon God’s mercy, thinking tomorrow will be soon enough to accept His pardon, thinking “I’ll repent tomorrow.” The longer one remains a rebel, the less likely he or she is to ever repent.

2Corinthians 6:2 … ” I tell you, now is the time of God’s favor, now is the day of salvation.

Ryle said, “Few are ever saved on their death beds. One thief on the cross was saved that none should despair; but only one that none should presume.”

There follows here a passage that deals with the subject of true greatness in the Kingdom of God. The setting of these verses is especially poignant and striking. Jesus has had to correct Peter concerning his expectation of being better cared for in light of his early investment in Christ’s cause. Jesus speaks to the disciples about what awaits Him in Jerusalem.

17 And as Jesus was going up to Jerusalem, he took the twelve disciples aside, and on the way he said to them,

18 “See, we are going up to Jerusalem. And the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death

19 and deliver him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified, and he will be raised on the third day.”

The parallel passage in Mark says that those who followed were afraid. This is an intense time.

We ought to contemplate carefully here the remarkable calm and resolve of Christ in the face of clear knowledge of the suffering that was to be His. We can be beside ourselves with anxiety and dread over a comparatively small thing we know is inevitably coming our way (as for example, some necessary surgery or other nasty medical procedure). Christ new full well the inevitable horror of separation from the Father was waiting for Him in your place and mine, and He didn’t flinch or waver or question the will of the Father.

Now right on the heels of that come these verses. We see the disciples elbowing in, trying to secure the most important places in what they see as the coming earthly kingdom of Messiah.

20 Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came up to him with her sons, and kneeling before him she asked him for something.

The parallel verse in Mark puts this request in the mouth of the boys, rather than their mom. I’m not sure which way it is least offensive, least absurd. Either way, the boys are certainly there and in agreement with mom. It does seem somehow more unseemly for it to come from mom. It is nothing short of an amazing request, showing us how dense we really are and how hard are our hearts. Jesus has been talking about His sacrifice for us, and interrupt mom or the boys themselves asking for a blank cheque!? It’s amazing, just amazing … but completely true to who you and I are in the flesh. Jesus surely knows what they want, but gives them a chance to see the incongruity of what they’re asking and pull back. But they don’t engage their brains before speaking and just blurt it out.

21 And he said to her, “What do you want?” She said to him, “Say that these two sons of mine are to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.”

This is outrageous, and yet does show some conviction that Jesus does have the power to bring the Kingdom of God to pass. He has been talking both His own death and the coming of the Kingdom at once, and these folks have some understanding that there will be a kingdom. What they have no handle on at all, is the nature of that kingdom. They’ve heard the sermon on the mount, they’ve had 3 years to watch Jesus operate and hear him teach, they recently have been rebuked over arguing about who is the greatest, and have been told that the route to greatness is through servanthood. Still they think that they way to the top is by securing influence.

22 Jesus answered, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am to drink?” They said to him, “We are able.”

“the cup” is a favorite Old Testament figure for suffering, usually at the hand of God because of sin. Can you suffer with me? Can you be immersed in the sorrow that I am about to endure? … indeed James and John, you don’t know what you ask. If the nature of greatness in God’s Kingdom is servanthood and taking the low place, then it only makes sense that severe hardship must accompany the places of highest honor.

23 He said to them, “You will drink my cup, but to sit at my right hand and at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.”

These guys don’t yet really understand their human weakness. “We are able” is no proper answer. “Lord grant that by your grace and power we are able” comes closer. But Jesus is gentle with them. He doesn’t really call them on their brashness at this point. Rather, He simply says that they will indeed get their chance to suffer for Him. James was an early Christian martyr. John endured his share of beatings for the Gospel and deprivation such as imprisonment on Patmos, to say nothing of the anguish he endured as shepherd of the early Christian church as it was attacked by Romans and Jews and assaulted by false teachers.

Jesus is gentle enough with James and John, but He puts things in perspective for them. They’ve stepped out of their place by a long distance, but He will not act similarly. It is the Father whose right it is to grant honor in the Kingdom. And it will be at His doing, not because someone has gotten there and somehow gotten extra influence.

The reaction of the 10 is interesting.

24 And when the ten heard it, they were indignant at the two brothers.

They are indignant. Presumably they think that their indignation is righteous. But their problem with James and John is that the brothers had the idea first. The other 10 aren’t scandalized at the hardness of their peers, they’re worried about being cut out of the deal. A right response would have been to mourn over human selfishness. The fact that everyone is invited to the following teaching session shows that all 12 are in the wrong here.

25 But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them.

Once again, guys, God’s Kingdom doesn’t operate by the same principles as human society. The object here is not to have authority to call the shots. It can’t be!!! There is only one God who has that rightful place!! No …

26 It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant,

27 and whoever would be first among you must be your slave,

Ryle wrote, “The standard of the world, and the standard of the Lord Jesus are widely different. They are more than different: they are flatly contradictory one to the other.” There is a proper drive to be useful in the Kingdom of God, but it isn’t one that can be focused on ourselves. It must be focused on service to Christ and others. It’s not one that can be about “leadership.” It has to be one that is about “obedience” and “self-sacrifice.” Why? Because that is the nature of the Son of God. It could not be that we be part of His kingdom on terms other than those He chose for Himself.

We should wince at what is too often promoted and put in front of us as “leaders” and “teachers” and “important modern ‘christian’ authors.” They are too often people who are much too pleased to be where they are, who are far too self-aware and self-important, who are far too glad to be in charge and ready to dispense words of wisdom about that which they don’t know from life experience of following Him. They are too often people who really do not have a clue about what Jesus meant when He said “You do not know what you are asking.”

Bonhoeffer’s book Cost of Discipleship is a fine one. One of the things that is striking about the book is its German/original title. Bonhoeffer called it Nachfolge. Discipleship might come close as an English translation if we insist on a single word. But I think that something more like a literal Following Along After is more appropriate and true to “what is.” The book (and true discipleship) isn’t about some calculation of the personal expense involved in following Christ, so I’m not crazy about the standard English title. Discipleship alone probably wouldn’t do in our time, as we hear that as promising a program or plan, maybe a set of workbooks to fill out, maybe even a pyramid scheme, a command structure. Instead, Nachfolge is about the nature of hearing the call of the Master, in obedience dropping what we’re doing, and following along after Him. And in that scheme of things, there is no place for calling shots, having power, personally being a big deal, drawing or accepting the attention of fellow disciples. There is only time and room for running along behind the Master, doing what He’s doing. And that is inherently a matter of servanthood and humility.

28 even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

He, a solitary person, generously gave Himself for many. He, though He was Messiah and rightful King, came to serve. How then could it be otherwise for His followers?

The lesson of verses 17-28 is central, is fundamental. And probably because it is so opposed to our fundamental human sin of pride, is extremely hard for us to really “get” deep down. The disciples pretty quickly “got it” that Jesus was King. But He had to correct them repeatedly with reference to this understanding of what kind of a King He is and what that meant for them. In Matthew 18 the disciples were arguing about who was to be the greatest and He told them that they were to humble themselves like little children. In Matthew 19, they were turning the children away and He told them that the Kingdom belongs to such as the children. Here in Matthew 20, they are again vying for importance and He has to tell them that the Son of Man came to serve. One would think this might be enough, but remember that Luke tells us that after the institution of the Lord’s Supper the night before the crucifixion, they were still disputing about who was to be the greatest. Jesus’ response there was to wash their feet. This passage is not one to just blow by and presume that because we’ve read it, we’ve got it. This is one our old nature will fight against again, and again, and again.

Here is a .pdf of this lesson.

Scripture taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. Copyright 2000; 2001, by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s