Matthew 20 Commentary

Matthew 20:1-16

Jesus’ parable of the vineyard workers exposes the most common misconceptions about eternal life.  Heaven is not earned.  The Kingdom of God doesn’t operate on a seniority system nor is it based on good deeds.

Those who find Jesus at the very end of their life will receive the same reward as those who found Jesus in their childhood.

There are those who claim faith in Christ yet who still look at faith through the eyes of the world.  They think themselves better than others because of what they’ve done or the many years they have known Jesus.  So they demand that elders and deacons must be selected based on non-biblical traditions and social customs.  They believe that things like seminary training and being well-liked by other pastors are suitable substitutes for gentleness, respect, kindness and love.  They forget that the earliest deacons were amazingly effective with little formal training and they grumble when new Christians find their voice and calling when their ministries sputter.

Whether Jesus grants us salvation after hearing the Gospel for 9 days or 90 years we should be content with his grace.  And when we have it we should never presume that the mercy that Christ has shown us is greater than anyone else.

However, this parable isn’t about earning salvation. It’s about the heart that leads to salvation.  The grumbling workers in the vineyard despised their wages and work.  Originally, they may have been attracted by the prospect of earning a day’s wage, but now they have despised the kindness of the landowner because of his generosity.  Instead of rejoicing with their fellow labors good fortune, they despised them and the Master’s kindness.   They had only worked for a reward.  They did not work out of love for the work itself or out of gratitude to the Master who gave them the work.

There are many who claim Jesus who behave this way.  There are many who are jealous of others who come to Christ at the end of their lives.  Christ’s people are happy to receive the Gospel.  They happily work for the agreed price, and look forward to when their faith will allow them collect the great gift waiting for them on the last day.  They do not fault their Master’s generosity or question his motives.  They love him and his work, and they consider it a blessing to be able to work in his vineyard.

Matthew 20:17-19

Jesus is now giving his disciples regular reminders about his coming death. Before Jesus was vague about the details of how he will die, but now we see him beginning to fill in the particulars.  He will be betrayed to the religious authorities.  The chief priests will try him, mistreat him and hand him over to the Romans to suffer and die, and on the third day he will rise.

Some see Jesus’ willing embrace of the cross as weakness and foolishness.  They scoff at his resolve to die.   They lament at “the waste” of such a great mind and wit, and they are disappointed when they read about how he willingly surrendered himself to his enemies.

But here is what Jesus’ critics do not see.  They do not see that Jesus went to Jerusalem to fight, not to surrender.  They do not see that when Jesus went to Jerusalem, he overcame the religious elites and defeated his enemies.

When Jesus died on the cross, evil collapsed in on itself.  God defeated death, through the death of himself. He broke the power of sin by taking the sins of the world on his back.

Jesus was the catalyst that drew in all the necessary forces of evil to destroy their power.  Like an enormous wave drawn irresistibly to the shore, evil built up and crashed itself harmlessly on the Great Rock.  And here Christ is preparing his disciples for his greatest works.

Satan was about to have his hour.  But he would expend all his energies and would wind up powerless before God.  His one trump card would be taken away, as the Christ would die and then rise gloriously from the grave to conquer sin and death, and to wrestle from the devil the keys of hell.

Matthew 20:20-28

The sons of Zebedees’ mother made an ignorant request.  Still assuming that Jesus’ kingdom was to be a conventional superpower, the mother sought the highest places of honor for her two sons.  Though her request was bold, it was also arrogant and wrong.  Unknown to her, the Kingdom that Jesus spoke of was from haven and The Father himself was to sit to Jesus’ left as Jesus would take his seat at his right hand.

The behavior of the other disciples wasn’t any better.  They also assumed that Jesus’ coming was to overthrow the Romans and rule the world.  They too looked for places of honor in Jesus’ kingdom and craved his favor. So we can presume their scoffing at James and John was because they too thought that some of them might sit at his left hand.

And given their imperfect view of things we cannot blame any of the disciples or even this mother for making the request.  Old Testament Scripture often talks about the coming Messiah who will establish an eternal, earthly kingdom in Jerusalem.  But what the disciples did not see was that the preparation for Jesus’ final return went right through the cross.  They didn’t realize that they had a heart baptism to undergo and had much work to do. They could not see the dark days ahead that would test their faith, nor the centuries of work God had prepared through their sacrifices.

Jesus response to this request lays several cautions for us. First, the Kingdom of God is not claimed on a “first come, first served” basis. As the brother’s mother tried to claim seats for honor for her sons because they were among the first to follow Jesus, she was gently rebuked for her lack of understanding about the Kingdom.  Second, the Kingdom is found through humiliation (an understanding of one’s unworthiness) and humility (putting others, even enemies, before yourself).  Third, there are many who think that they can perfectly explain the last chapter of God’s plan through the Book of Revelation.  But we would do well to learn from the disciple’s mistakes through their limited understanding of Scripture. Finally, the greatest in Christ’s Kingdom are those who think themselves the least worthy to enter, and they live consistent with this view of themselves.  It is the greatest in God’s economy are those who do not think about their rank in the Church.  Rather they are those souls who are just grateful to have hold on to the One who made access to himself possible.

Matthew 20:29-34

The large crowd followed Jesus’ travels, but didn’t follow after his heart.  And though they followed a champion of justice and mercy, they did not seek justice and mercy for the poor and disabled.  They sought out Jesus for other reasons.  They sought him to be entertained and to share in his power.  So when the blind men called out as Jesus passed by the crowd tried to silence to them. But crying all the louder the two blind men appealed to Jesus’ mercy and his birthright.  They ignored the crowd’s shouts at them and they ignored their efforts to keep them quiet by yelling all the louder.  And in the end, they found mercy and became true followers of Jesus, because they had seen his heart.

The lesson for us is that when the world tries to drown out our cries to follow Jesus we must persist.  We should yell all the louder for her mercy and grace.  We should appeal to the Father on account of what Jesus has done.  We should evoke the cross and our rights through faith to boldly come before the Father’s throne. By faith, Christ our Advocate will hear us because he is merciful and kind.  He may require us to call out to him more than once and he may require us that we exercise patience as we wait for his answer.  But the Lord hears the prayers of his people and with them comes his kindness and grace and a fresh sight of his compassionate heart.


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