“According to Matthew”
A study of the Gospel of Matthew
Part 21: Yet More about Greatness.
We continue in Matthew to learn about kingdom greatness. We have seen that Jesus pictures the values of the kingdom as being the opposite of those of the kingdoms of the world. What is important are virtues such as trust and service. And we were left at the end of our last chapter with Peter expressing concern as to what kind of reward leaving everything to follow Jesus might offer and Jesus offering the reply, referred to in the Message Bible as 'The great reversal' that 'The first shall be last and the last shall be first”.
It is helpful to keep the conversations that have taken place in mind as we begin chapter 20 by reading verses 1 through 16.
"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."
During the busy harvest season it was not unusual for laborers seeking to be hired to assemble in a central location and seek for work. When I lived on Long Island, such a sight was not unfamiliar to us. The car park in Home Depot in Freeport, always had folk standing around, waiting to be hired.
A 'denarius' was not a particularly generous amount to be paid, but was sufficient for a days pay. If you didn't earn at least a denarius a day life could be hard. It would mean going without something, getting behind with a payment or even not having enough to eat. The laborers have gathered because they want to work. Those who are still there at the end of the day have just the same desire to work as those they arrived with early in the morning. They simply haven't been hired.
Those who are hired first agree to work for a set wage. Those who are hired a little later are told they will be paid 'whatever is right'. Those who are not hired till late in the day are offered no terms but seem happy to be able to earn whatever they can.
Those employed last are paid their wages first. One can only imagine their joy. They had arrived early in the morning hoping to be hired but nobody wanted them. They have waited and worried. They are grateful that at the last hour at least they had been given the chance to obtain a little something. Now here was the landowner paying them a whole days wages. This was an unexpected generosity.
When it comes to those who had worked all day, it appears they are observing the other workers receive their payment. One has the impression they have seen their joy and that they are anticipating that if the landowner is paying a days wages for only an hours work, then they are going to receive a bonus for having actually worked a whole day. That presumption is about to be shattered. They receive only the figure that they had agreed to work for.
They get mad about this. It wasn't fair. The landowner had made them equal to those who hadn't worked as long as them. How could that be right? The landowner reminds them that firstly, they had been paid exactly what they had agreed to be paid. Secondly, he tells them that they had no right to complain about his generosity as he had the right to do whatever he chose with his own money. And then comes the stinging question; Or are you envious because I am generous?' The Message Bible comments: "Here it is again, the Great Reversal: many of the first ending up last, and the last first."
Plainly this is not a tale meant to guide human economics or a suggestion to landowners as to how to make a profit and win popularity contests. So how can this story be understood? As you can imagine, a variety of interpretations have been offered.
Some suggest it is a warning that can be applied to individuals, churches, and even to nations.
To the most vocal critics of Jesus, those of the Pharisees and their like who believed that they were justified before God through their admirable pedigree and personal devotion to the law of God, this story was a warning for them not to despise those who were accepting the 'good news' of God's grace that Jesus was presenting to the common people. They thought themselves far more worthy of God's special attention on the grounds that they had put in far more time and effort to earn their place in God's favor. Jesus is telling them that it didn't work like that!
Many commentators point out that Matthew was writing for a church community that was coming into being. Within that church community would be long time saints and founding Mothers and Fathers, alongside new converts who did not share their history. It can be problematic for any establishment to accept newcomers, and the church has proved itself no exception to that rule. William Barclay observes;
“There are people who think that, because they have been members of a Church for a long time, the Church practically belongs to them and they can dictate its policy. They resent the intrusion of new blood or the rise of a new generation with different plans and different ways. In the Christian church seniority does not necessarily mean honor”
Others point out that when Christianity has become the national religion of a people or region then there can be a tendency towards arrogance. A famous quotation at the height of the days of the British empire (mentioned by a clergyman in the book 'Tom Brown's Schooldays') was "Remember that you are an Englishman, and have consequently already won the first prize in the lottery of life".
The temptation to believe that ones particular birthright or nation was undoubtedly blessed over and above every other nation on earth, whilst wonderfully assuring, flies in the face of facts. But why ruin a good story with the facts? It conferred upon those who held to such a notion the feeling they had a God given duty to tell the rest of the world where they were going wrong. Rome was the greatest empire the world had ever seen, but her fortunes, like those of empires that came before and afterward, were never seen as eternal and Rome would fall.
This had a particular application to those among the Jews of Jesus day who, on the grounds of believing they alone were the chosen people, despised their gentile neighbors. Barclay comments 'In God's economy there is no such thing as a most favored nation clause. Christianity knows nothing of the conception of a master race.” Greatness in kingdom terms is not about conquest but about service.
Matthew Henry's commentary sees the parable as a picture of salvation and the way that whilst people respond to Christ's call to discipleship at different stages of their life, all are received into glory. Some begin their work in the kingdom in their tender years. He mentions John the Baptist who was sanctified in his mother's womb to fulfill the task God laid upon him, and others such as the prophet Obadiah whom the Old Testament tells us 'feared the Lord from the days of his youth'
Others are only called into service at the third, sixth or ninth hour. He cites the example of the Apostle Paul whose life was forged in the life of the world before being used by God for a greater purpose than Paul had ever conceived, becoming a champion of a cause he once sought to destroy. It is a significant trend amongst those called into ministry in our own day that many do so later in life and sometimes in the midst of careers that they are doing comfortably well in. It is wonderful the way God is able to use their expertise in one area and apply it to another!
Then there are those who only respond to the call at the eleventh hour. Such as the thief on the Cross, who upon his right confession of Christ is told, 'Today you will be with me in paradise”.
Interestingly, the question is sometimes raised as to the fairness of this. Should not a long perseverant saint receive more of a reward than a rogue who's only virtue was a death bed confession? How does that relate to this saying about 'The first being last and the last being first?” And what does it have to do with greatness? Maybe we are asking the wrong questions! Maybe we should be asking what this passage tells us about the Master in the parable, who is traditionally pictured as being a representation of God. And how do the Master's actions benefit his employees?
Firstly, notice that the Master is in debt to nobody. He owes nothing beyond what he has agreed to pay. In a similar fashion God owes us nothing. The idea that God somehow has to answer to our standards and expectations is untenable. As Matthew Henry has it in his commentary 'God distributes God's rewards by grace and sovereignty, not out of debt.'
Secondly, notice the masters generosity. It exceeds all expectations. To some, those who worked under contract, this was a cause of offense. But to those who benefited from it, it was more than they ever dreamed of. This tells us something about the nature of work. Some work only for the pay. Everything is valued according to it's monetary value. Others are simply happy to be working! This parable favors those who see their daily toil as a gift rather than a right.
Thirdly, notice the compassion of God that is spoken of here. The master had every right to pay those who joined in the last hours only a percentage of a days wages. We saw earlier that a denarius was not a lot to live on. Just enough. It is admirable that the workers not first employed didn't just say, “Oh well. No work today. Might as well give in and go home” Instead they decide to stick it out. They are ready and willing to work. When they do get taken on they never even ask what the reward may be. Something was better than nothing. It was better to spend some of the day employed than spend the whole day idle, even though it may not bring home enough to live on. The Master has compassion on them. He recognizes their desire to work. He knows the inadequacy of anything less than a days pay. It is an act of mercy that they are sent home fully compensated. Such a message encourages us to be thankful for what we have rather than comparing our situation with those who seem to have more.
In the traditional list of seven deadly sins 'envy' has an important place. The ninth and tenth of Moses commandments warn us not to covet the blessings our neighbors enjoy, which is a roundabout way of telling us to be thankful for what we've got rather than worrying about things other people have that we lack.
Ultimately the parable of the workers in the Vineyard is a story about grace. Grace is the unmerited, undeserved favor of God. In these chapters about greatness we are told in a number of different ways that no matter how great we think our achievements or status may be, it is never great enough to guarantee us a place in the kingdom. The Kingdom is not obtainable through any measure other than acceptance of it as a wonderful gift of grace. As Jesus has told the disciples in the previous chapter, to enter into such a Kingdom through ones own efforts was impossible. BUT... “What is impossible for man is possible for God”.
In many of our hymns we rejoice in the fact that what we cannot do for our self, God has done for us through the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ. One of the children's hymns I remember, from both school assemblies and church services, was Cecil Frances Alexander's 'There is a green hill far away' (sadly absent from many U.S . hymnals).
There is a green hill far away,outside a city wall,
Where our dear Lord was crucified who died to save us all.
We may not know, we cannot tell, what pains He had to bear,
But we believe it was for us He hung and suffered there.
He died that we might be forgiven, He died to make us good,
That we might go at last to heaven, saved by His precious blood.
There was no other good enough to pay the price of sin,
He only could unlock the gate of heaven and let us in.
All of which conveniently leads us our next passage, verses 17 through 19;
Now Jesus was going up to Jerusalem. On the way, He took the Twelve aside and said to them, "We are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn Him to death and will hand Him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified. On the third day He will be raised to life!"
This is the third time Jesus has talked to His disciples about His approaching passion. He was not going to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover, He was going to become the Passover, offering His life as the lamb of God for the redemption of all peoples. Whilst this a repetition of what He has told them before, He adds further details, in particular that He shall be condemned and delivered to the Gentiles and that they shall mock him, flog Him and crucify Him. Again He tells them that all of this is a prelude to His being raised to life. This time nobody takes Him aside to try and 'put him right' as Peter tried to do on a previous occasion.
To me it seems as though Matthew places this reminder, that the purpose of Jesus was to travel to Jerusalem and be a sacrificial victim, to remind us that grace, whilst unmerited and undeserved, came at a price.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a Christian clergyman in Germany during the second world war who challenged Hitler publicly and, even though a pacifist, saw in him such manifest evil that he was part of an assassination plot to be rid of him. The Nazis arrested him in 1943 and he was put to death by hanging in April, 1945, just a few weeks before the liberation of his concentration camp. Thankfully his book, "The Cost of Discipleship", survived, although it was on the list of books the Nazi's wanted to burn and destroy. It contains a well known passage that compares 'cheap grace' with 'costly grace'.
'Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, (it is) baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate."
"Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will gladly go and sell all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake of one will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble; it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him.
Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock. Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner.
Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of His Son: "Ye were bought at a price," and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon His Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered Him up for us'.
Here was true greatness! That Christ died for our sins. But it still wasn't resonating with the disciples. They still want to know who was the greatest amongst their little band! Read 20 through 23.
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."
You can picture the scene. This very Jewish mother takes Jesus aside and bows before Him. “A question?” Jesus says. “I just got one little favor to ask” she says, “Not for me you understand, for my boys. When all this Kingdom stuff comes together, how about one of them sits to the right of your throne, the other on your left?”
Jesus beckons the boys over. 'Guys, have you any idea what mom is asking here! Are you capable of drinking the cup that I'm about to drink?" And they reply, "Sure, why not?" Maybe the only bit they heard about 'going up to Jerusalem' was that they were going to be sharing in the Passover meal. So probably they were thinking about drinking a cup of wine! Hey, we can do that, right?
But when Jesus is talking about a cup He's speaking about what we know as the communion cup. The cup that whenever we raise it we say, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, shed for you and for all, for the forgiveness of sins” Jesus is speaking of selfless sacrifice and suffering.
And it is, maybe with a slight sadness, that He adds “You will indeed drink from my cup”. James is traditionally acknowledged as the first of the apostles to face martyrdom. Acts 2:12 tells us that he was put to death by the sword by order of Herod. The tradition for John is that he lived a long, hard life, facing exile, persecution and constant opposition. In different ways they did indeed face trials that only Jesus could foresee. Notice Jesus tells them that they will drink from 'my cup' indicating that the trials they will face are both because of His witness and ones that He shares with them.
As to what rewards they may have, Jesus simply dismisses the question. '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.' Thinking about the parable of the servants with which we began, it seems a reminder that whatever position we have in this life or the next is a matter of grace, not of what we feel we may deserve through our own merit or status.
Not surprisingly, when the other disciples find out what's been going on, there's a right rumpus. Read 24-28.
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."
These words really consolidate the teaching of the last three chapters about kingdom greatness. But in the world, Jesus tells them, the great man is the one who controls others, at whose word people stand to attention. The world looked to the rich and the powerful as fulfilling everything one could desire.
In the Kingdom of God, service alone was the mark of authority. Greatness did not consist of telling others how to live, but in living in a way that showed respect and honor for others, a way that was guided by child-like trust in God to supply all that was necessary. The greater the service, the greater the honor. The key to this whole section is right here in verses 27-28 '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."
Notice that the place where they were to learn to serve was within the Christian community. They were to serve each other; be servants and slaves, not to those with whom they were unfamiliar or whom they normally didn't deal with, but in the context of relationships with people whom they knew. And that is a far more difficult challenge to accept than seeking to serve others in some abstract fashion.
But that's exactly what Jesus had done for them. According to John's gospel He will later demonstrate this by washing their feet, something some of them such as Peter were very uncomfortable with as he complains, “Lord, you shouldn't be washing my feet, I should be washing yours!”
And Jesus again drops the hint that He was going to Jerusalem to 'give His life as ransom for many' or as the Message Bible has it “To give away His life in exchange for the many who are held hostage." The Greek word used in 1 John is 'propitiation', which means 'getting somebody out of a mess they can't possibly get themselves out of'. Here in Matthew we find that stated in a different way; suggesting that we are 'hostages' whose only hope is the deliverance that Jesus would make by offering Himself for our redemption. Jesus gives His life away that we may be set free.
Now were the disciples finally getting it? Or Matthew's church community that he was writing for, were they getting it? Or even ourselves all these centuries later? Are we getting the picture about what greatness is in God's eyes? How can we? Maybe the final little story in these chapters gives us the answer. Let us read 29-34.
As Jesus and His disciples were leaving Jericho, a large crowd followed Him. Two blind men were sitting by the roadside, and when they heard that Jesus was going by, they shouted, "Lord, Son of David, have mercy on us!" The crowd rebuked them and told them to be quiet, but they shouted all the louder, "Lord, Son of David, have mercy on us!" Jesus stopped and called them. "What do you want me to do for you?" he asked. "Lord," they answered, "we want our sight." Jesus had compassion on them and touched their eyes. Immediately they received their sight and followed Him.
This story is similar to the story of blind Bartimaeus in Mark's gospel. The major difference is that here we have a story about two blind men, whilst in Bartimaeus case he was on his own. This could be Matthew working at being editor again. He is possibly linking this story of the healing of 2 blind men to the blindness of James and John... in their thinking that greatness could be defined by status, or who sat where, or who had the most control over others.
Matthew is dealing with accounts that have been passed on to him and presenting them within a particular framework. Just as the two sons of Zebedee in the previous story represent the disciples desires and ambitions, so here two blind men represent all of us who struggle to see clearly the demands of Kingdom discipleship.
What happens in this passage? Two men want to see, they want to be healed. They confess their faith that only Jesus, the Lord, the son of David can help them. Although the crowd seek to silence them they continue seeking the mercy and touch of Jesus. They hear the voice of Jesus calling them. They tell Him what their hearts truly desire. In compassion the touch of Jesus grants them a clearer vision.
Interpreting that to our personal search for spiritual clarity, what can we do? We can boldly confess our faith in Jesus Christ. We can seek His mercy. We can refuse to listen to the voices in the crowd that seek to silence us. We can allow the compassion of Jesus to transform us through the work of His Holy Spirit.
Such seems to be a fitting benediction for these chapters about kingdom greatness. Next time we draw near to Jerusalem, and the events we recall as Palm Sunday. We'll see the anger of Jesus at the abuses that were taking place in the temple. We'll here more about children. All this as our movie continues. It's been a while since we saw the opening credits and it will be a whilst longer before we ride off into the sunset anticipating a sequel.
So stay tuned! You don't want to miss a thing :-)