Archive for the ‘Matthew 20’ Category

This is a Sunday school lesson from last summer.
This parable is difficult to make sense of. I have spent quite a bit of time wrestling with it  over the years. We won’t have time to do it full justice either, that is, all the issues and possible interpretations. What I want to do is give you a point of view, and see if perhaps it makes sense to you as well. Here is the parable:

Matthew 20:1-16 – “[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. [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.’ [5] So they went. Going out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour, he did the same. [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.’ [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. [10] Now when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more, but each of them also received a denarius. [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.’ [13] But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? [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?’ [16] So the last will be first, and the first last.” 

Basic background

 These things are clear –

  • The vineyard owner hires day laborers in town 
  •  The workday at this time was 12 hours long. About 10 hours of actual work (then time for meals, prayers). The last worker only worked an hour.
  • A “denarius” equals a days wage (something like minimum wage today)
  • The workers get paid at the end of each day. For those who live hand to mouth, they must be paid so that they can feed their families (Deuteronomy 24:14-15).

There are also . . .

Some basics from the parable

 . . . that are fairly clear.

1. The point of the parable is clear. That’s because of a literary structure called an inclusion. This is when similar statements function like bookends. In this case we have similar statements just before and at the end of the parable, which reiterate the point of the parable.

  • 19:30 – “But many who are first will be last, and the last first”
  • 20:16 – “So the last will be first, and the first last” (this last phrase has “so,” or “thus” in front of it. In this way the last will be first. It offers an explanation for the saying of 19:30)

Also, the  language of last and first shows up throughout the parable itself  – vs. 8-9.  

Now, although in other places this phrase “the first will be last and the last will be first,” means reversal (Luke 13:30) . . .

2. Here “the first and the last” speaks of equalization. The last are treated like the first and the first are treated like the last – which is not about reversal.

The climax of the parable in verse 12 shows this. Those who worked the longest complained, “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.” The issue here is how all the workers were treated equally, even though some had done more work.

3. The basic identities of the first and the last

  • Verse 12 makes it clear that “the last” – refers to those hired last, who worked the least – the one hour workers.
  • Verse 10 makes it clear that “the first” are those who have worked all day – the 12 hour workers. They are the ones who complain about the last – the one hour workers.

This much is clear. But who, specifically, are the 12 hour workers and who are the one hour workers? What is the context of this? How should we apply it? What’s the point we are supposed to take away from this? As I said, there are many . . .

Different interpretations

  • The first = the Pharisees, and the last = tax collectors. And they are made equal.
  • Similarly, the first = Jewish Christians, and the last = Gentile Christians. Certainly this is possible, but these are not being discussed before or after this, and the idea doesn’t fit into the flow or context here, especially of  19:30.
  • Along similar lines, but more remote still – the first = long time Christians, and the last = those saved late in life
  • The parable is meant to teach – you shouldn’t serve Jesus for reward. Its about motivations. Its a rebuke to Peter, who in 19:27 asks “What then will we have?” But, as we will see, he is not boasting or serving for the wrong motives. He’s concerned about whether he will be saved or not.
  • The parable teaches that there are no levels of reward. We all get the same thing no matter whether we work much or little. But this goes against other teaching in Matthew, as we will see later, there are levels of reward in the kingdom.

The context of the parable is the key

That is, the preceding story of the rich young ruler in Matthew 19:16-30. Lets look at this:

1) The rich young ruler asked: “What good deed must I do to have eternal life?”- Matthew 19:16

2) After enumerating many of the commands, Jesus demanded that he sell his possessions and follow him. Then he will gain eternal life (19:16-22). Apparently Jesus saw that he had a problem with a desire for wealth and a desire to keep it for himself, which is not a loving of his neighbor. 

3) Jesus talks about how hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom. It is, basically, impossible (19:23-24). (This is not talking about an actual camel’s gate in Jerusalem. This interpretation comes from the middle ages. It is a proverb that expresses something that is impossible.)

4) The disciples are astonished by all this. They ask, “Who then can be saved?”

5) Jesus replies that God can make it possible (19:25-26). God can help those who have more than they need to give up self-indulgence and to share with the needy.

6) Peter is concerned about whether they (the twelve) will make it into the kingdom, because they are not doing as much as was demanded of the rich man. Peter said, “See, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?”  (Matthew 19:27). You told him to have life  he had to sell all. We have left all. Is that enough?

7)Jesus reassures them: Yes, they will enter the kingdom and will have 12 thrones and judge the people of God. Then he expands it beyond the 12 in Matthew 19:29. “And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life.”

So we have a situation where:

  • Jesus is more demanding of the young man – sell all and follow me, and
  • Jesus is less demanding of the 12 & others – leave everything behind and follow me

 Yet both would receive eternal life!

So I want to interpret the parable in this context, but before I do – let me say briefly that . . .

Side note

Jesus is not saying that we earn our salvation. That salvation is a gift is always assumed by Jesus for both the Old and New Covenants. But for Jesus, to enter the kingdom or to inherit life (to take part in the resurrection) you do have to obey God. He says this over and over again, constantly, and in different ways –

  • Jesus says, “If you would enter life keep the commandments” – 19:17
  • He also said, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” – 7:21

Our obedience is necessary, but it doesn’t earn the gift. As Jesus said in Luke 17:10 – “When you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.'” We have only done what we were obliged to do in the first place – obey God. There is no merit to that. We never have a claim on God.

Back to the meaning of the parable 

We learn from our context in Matthew 19 that God asks some to do more (by way of difficult obedience) and God asks some to do less to  enter the kingdom or inherit eternal life. This rightly raises the question – “Is this fair?”which is what the parable is all about. So lets interpret the parable in this context. 

  • The first are those whom Jesus demands much from – sacrifice and hard work (like the young man who has to sell all and work). They work 12 long hours in the heat of the day.
  • The midday workers are those whom Jesus demand something less from – (perhaps the 12 disciples who leave all – something less than what the first have to do)
  • The last are  those from whom Jesus demands relatively little (perhaps ordinary Christians who don’t even leave all. They stay at home and support those who do).

In a nutshell: We all have to obey (everyone in the parable worked some). But God requires of some more sacrificial obedience than others – yet all (who do what God calls them to do) will receive eternal life. The last is like the first and the first is like the last, in that they all enter the kingdom.

So the parable is a footnote to the conversation about the rich young ruler and wealth and the saying in 19:30 about the first and the last.  

The purpose of the parable

 #1 – It is a part of the reassurance of Jesus to the 12 (and others by extension – ordinary Christians) that even though they do less than others,  they too will enter the kingdom/have eternal life.

#2 – It is to warn those in the church who are called to greater sacrificial obedience, not to complain because of God’s generosity to others.

An example: Paul

Paul says in  1 Corinthians 9:16,  “For if I preach the gospel, that gives me no ground for boasting. For necessity is laid upon me. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!” For Paul preaching (a difficult ministry of preaching) is necessary to enter the kingdom – “Woe to me if I do not.” For others it is not. God has not laid that on them. It all has to do with God’s sovereign choice.

What about rewards?

 There are still differences in rewards based on what we do in the context of what God calls us to do. Jesus speaks of:

  • In Matthew 5:19; 11:11 he speaks of the least in the kingdom
  • In Matthew 5:19; 18:4; 23:11 some are great; or the greatest in the kingdom
  • In Matthew 19:28 he says some will  have thrones, and some are ruled by these
  • In Matthew 20:20-28 he says some are at the right and left hand of Jesus, and Jesus gives instructions for how to be great in the kingdom
  • In Luke 19 (a version of the parable of the talents) some are given rule over ten cities or five cities. 

So the question is, if, for instance you are called to preach – how well, or how hard did you do this? Or if you are called to support those who do full time ministry – how well, or how much did you do this?

William Higgins

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