Notes Matthew chapter 20
© copyright 1997 drs Gijs van den Brink
The Parable of the Labourers in the Vineyard 20:1-16
20:1. The division into chapters is not exact, because the parable which Jesus now begins to tell is linked to the last verses of Chapter 19. Peter asked a question in Matt 19:27 and Jesus answered him in vv.28-30. But we find a continuation of His answer in Matt 20:1-16. In this parable Jesus is not discussing exceptional rewards, which have been dealt with in Matt 19:28, but with the general reward of eternal life, the wages of grace (Matt 19:29-30). This parable may well be compared with the story of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32) and that of the Pharisee and the Publican (Luke 18:9-14) in the gospel of Luke. In all three parables Jesus justifies His attitude by God’s attitude and thus appears as God’s Representative.
to work in his vineyard. In this parable the Kingdom of Heaven is compared to the vine harvest. Grapes had to be picked at the end of September, and the gathering continued till the rainy season set in. If the yield was not stored away by then, nothing further would go right. For this reason there was always a sense of urgency. A working day lasted from sunrise (early morning) until the stars came out (‘when evening came’, v.8), i.e., some twelve hours (cf. John 11:9).
2. He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day. A denarius (a Roman coin, equivalent to the Greek drachma and half a Jewish shekel) was the usual day’s wages for both a labourer and a soldier (cf. Tob.5:15). During the period of the Emperors, the denarius bore the ‘likeness and inscription’ of the ruling Emperor (Matt 22:19-21). A lamb could be purchased for four such denarii.
The first workers to be accepted wanted to know the wages they get before beginning work. No such agreement was entered on with the rest of those who were hired. This indicates that the first were more concerned about their rights than the rest.
3. About the third hour he … saw others … doing nothing. The third hour fell between 8 and 9 a.m. That these men had no work, does not mean that they were idlers, but that they were day-labourers who were waiting in the market place (the Labour Exchange of the times) until someone hired them. As a rule the market place was somewhere near the city gate.
4. I will pay you whatever is right. No wages were discussed with these workers. They took the landowner at his word that they would receive what was reasonable and fair. they would have considered that their wages would be some fraction of a denarius.
5-6. The sixth hour was between 11 a.m. and noon; the ninth between 2 and 3 p.m., the eleventh between 4 and 5 p.m. There was then only a single hour of the working day left, which was seldom longer than twelve hours.
Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing? These workers had been unemployed for eleven of the twelve hours of the working day, and some amazement can be heard in the landowner’s question. That the owner was still recruiting his work force at the eleventh hour, indicates that the work was extraordinarily urgent. The grape harvest must be in before night fell. If the landowner had not come to these men, they would have been without work during the last hour.
7. ‘Because no one has hired us’. This answer was to be expected and shows that there was unemployment in those days. It is not said that these last were lazy. They had waited the whole day for someone to make use of them, but no one had hired them.
8. When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said … pay them their wages. According to Jewish law, the payment of wages had to take place during the evening of the working day (Lev 19:13; Deut 24:15). This did not always happen, but the worker had the right to demand it. The law protected poor workers against their employers.
beginning with the last ones. ‘That the payment in this story began at the ‘last ‘, may have to do with the landowner’s concern for the unemployed, the poor, but in any case it is necessary in order to confront the first with the wages of the last (see v.10)
9-10. and each received a denarius. Those who came last received the same wages as the landowner had agreed with the first-comers, namely, the full day’s wages. The workers now divided themselves into two groups, a satisfied group and a dissatisfied group. We clearly read both here and in v.12 what the first-comers find unjust. When they saw what the last-comers got, they were displeased that the lord of the vineyard gave them the same sum. These first workers remind us of the elder son in the parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32). They considered they had a right to much more than the others.
11. they began to grumble. When the first-comers received their wages they immediately began to complain that they had been badly treated. The Greek word for ‘grumble’ (gonguz) means complain as a sign of unwillingness (Bauer, s.v.).
12. The criticism of the first workers is based on two points: they have worked longer and under more difficult circumstances, i.e., during the heat of the day. ‘Heat’ (Gk. kausn) occurs fifteen times in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the OT), where it means the ‘burning heat’ of the east wind, the sirocco. The word comes from the Greek kau, ‘burn’, and can also mean the heat of the sun (James 1:11).
13. Friend, I am not being unfair to you. The workers omit the form of address (v.12), but the householder puts them to shame by saying ‘friend’. It is a familiar expression in general use when speaking to someone whose name one does not know.
The man to whom the lord addresses is one of those with whom wages of a denarius were agreed (v.2). For this reason the landowner could say ‘I am not being unfair to you’ (figure of speech: litotes), in other words, I am treating you absolutely correctly.
14. Take your pay and go. Literally the lord says ‘Take up’, as if the money lay before him on a table. It is possible that the man to whom he turns has refused to accept the payment.
I want to give the man who was hired last the same as I gave you. The lord wants to give the last the same as the first, i.e., a day’s wages, a minimum income. The wages for one hour’s work would not have been enough for their family’s sustenance. For this reason the parable does not simply picture the householder’s sovereignty, but also and principally his nobility, his goodness.
15. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? In this parable the lord is the Lord God and the wages eternal life (see commentary on v.1). Because everything is of grace, and hence undeserved, the Lord has the right to give as much as He sees fit when and to whom He wants to. We must take care not to criticize this goodness of God’s. No law or principle in heaven or on earth can forbid the free disposition of His grace. But God is not only free to exercise His power, He is also perfectly good. Hence the cause for criticism of the Lord God’s ways of acting is not His unrighteousness but His goodness, which evil mankind does not accept.
Or are you envious, litt. ‘or is your eye evil’. ‘The evil eye’ is a Jewish expression for an envious, egoistic, negative attitude (cf. Prov 23:6; 28:22).
In this parable we find two groups: the first and the last. By the last, who have obtained the full day’s wages without deserving it, we must understand the illiterate people and the sinners who believe in Jesus. By the first, who criticize God’s ways of acting and take objection to it, we must understand the Pharisees and all those who consider only themselves to be worthy (see commentary on 19:30 and 20:16).
16. “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” This verse, which concludes the parable, repeats Matt 19:30 (see commentary). The first, the critics, will be expelled while the undeserving last will be given the wages of grace.
It is obvious that the parable, together with its two framing verses (Matt 19:30; 20:16), are to be regarded as an answer to Peter’s question as to the rewards of discipleship (Matt 19:27) and are intended as a warning for them.
The Third Prediction of Jesus’ Suffering 20:17-19
17. This is the third time that Jesus has spoken to His disciples about the way of the cross (Matt 16:21; 17:22-23). This third time He told in detail what was going to happen. Nothing came as a surprise to Him. Mark also tells that the disciples felt a certain unease at this time, and Luke says that they did not understand what was happening (cf. Mark 10:32; Luke 18:34).
Now as Jesus was going up to Jerusalem. As a rule, the expression was ‘going up to Jerusalem’, because there was a difference in height of 1050 m between Jericho and Jerusalem. If Jesus was now going up to Jerusalem, it means that His journey through Perea was behind Him (see commentary on 19:1).
he took the twelve disciples aside. In contrast to the conversations in Perea (Matt 19:3-20:16), which were often held with outsiders (Matt 19:3,13,16) and which took place partly outdoors, partly indoors (Matt 19:10-12,13-15), the following conversations are held on the way to Jerusalem (‘going up to Jerusalem’) and almost exclusively with the disciples (‘he took the twelve disciples apart’, with exceptions, v.20).
18-19. They will condemn him to death and will turn him over to the Gentiles. The Jewish religious leaders (the Sanhedrin) could condemn to death, but they could not execute on account of the Roman rule. For this reason they had to deliver Jesus over to the Gentiles (= the Romans).
Jesus knew all these things beforehand. He knew that He would be mocked (by Roman soldiers, 27:27-31), flogged and crucified (for this the Roman governor Pilate was responsible, 27:26), but He also knew that His death would bring victory.
On the third day, see commentary on 17:23.
Although Jesus had previously spoken of His suffering (Matt 16:21; 17:22-23), and although these happenings were imminent (‘Take notice’), the disciples did not yet understand what He meant (Luke 18:34).
The Sons of Zebedee and the Disciples’ Ambitions 20:20-28
20. Then the mother of Zebedee’s sons came. The mother was apparently called Salome (compare Mark 15:40 with Matt 27:56). It is even possible that she was the sister of Mary, Jesus’ mother (compare John 19:25 with Matt 27:56). She was one of the women who continually followed Jesus (Matt 27:55-56).
On this occasion she was the spokeswoman for her sons and thought, as they did, that the Kingdom of God was very near at hand. They were indeed on the way to Jerusalem (v.17)!
21. sit at your right … in your kingdom. Despite the prediction of suffering (vv.17-19) James, John and their mother thought only of the coming rule by Jesus from Jerusalem (Matt 19:28). The place at the right hand was the most honourable (cf. Ps 110:1), the left hand second to that. Despite Jesus’ warning that one should not desire to be the greatest (Matt 18:1-6) this ambitious mother asks for thrones next to Jesus for and on behalf of her sons.
22. “Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?” He who prays, must know well what he asks and not pray thoughtlessly and inconsiderately, as happens here. ‘Cup’ is a common expression in the OT for judgment and suffering which come from God’s hand (cf. Ps 75:8; Isa 51:17,22; Jer 25:15; 51:7). In this image Jesus told of His suffering and crucifixion (vv.17-19). It emphasises His active obedience.
“We can”. From the sons’ short answer, ‘We can’, three conclusions may be drawn. Firstly, that both the disciples were the genuine questioners and not their mother (Mark 10:35). The mother was simply the one who put the question into words. Secondly, that they had not forgotten the prediction of death and the call to follow linked to it (Matt 16:21, 24-25). Thirdly, that they were extremely presumptious and were almost totally lacking in self-knowledge. For when Jesus was arrested they fled (Matt 26:56). In His greatest victory, when He died on the cross and redeemed the sins of the world, it was not the sons of Zebedee but two criminals who hung next to Him (Matt 27:38).
23. You will indeed drink from my cup. Jesus foresaw their sufferings. James was the first of the Twelve to suffer and die a martyr’s death (Acts 12:2), while John, the last to survive, had to undergo the ordeal of exile (Rev 1:9; Eusebius, HEIII.18.1). But Jesus was not able to allot the two places of honour in His Kingdom. This was reserved in the knowledge (cf. Matt 24:36) and the decision of the Father (cf. Matt 25:34).
24. the ten … were indignant with the two brothers. Here too it appears that the request did not originate with the mother but with the two brothers (cf. v.22). The other disciples had followed the whole conversation. It appears from the fact that they were indignant at the two brothers, the disciples were of the same inclination, in as much as they cherished ambitious thoughts and still had feelings of disapproval and jealousy (cf. Matt 18:1). Therefore Jesus called them all to Himself (v.25) to point out to them the true way to greatness and mastery (vv.26-28).
25. Mastery in the world is based on violent oppression and the desire for power, as is expressed in the Greek words for ‘lord’ and ‘exercise authority’. But other principles are valid in the Kingdom of God.
26-27. whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant. For Jesus’ disciples, who are called to rule with Him (Matt 19:28), the way to greatness is not made open by an overbearing attitude but by a disposition to serve. Servants and slaves are people subordinated to another, their better, and carry out his desires. Just as Jesus speaks in real terms about serving (now), He also speaks in real terms about ruling (in the future). Striving for greatness, for ruling with Jesus, is not rejected in itself, but ambitious striving coupled with jealousy and disapproval is rejected. Hence Jesus says that it is not the desire for honour or power (v.25) that lead to greatness, but a servant attitude, which expresses itself in self-denial and self-abasement.
28. the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve. To terminate His answer, Jesus gives the example of Himself. Here He speaks about the purpose of His coming to earth. His whole life was characterized by, and all His powers exerted towards, serving, i.e., ministering to men. But His greatest service will be to sacrifice His life. Here Jesus speaks for the first time of His death as substitutionary.
to give his life as a ransom for many. ‘Ransom’ is an expression borrowed from the administration of justice (Exod 21:30; 30:12; Num 35:31,32). A ransom was paid for example to free a prisoner of war or to purchase freedom for a slave. The word is used figuratively in the sense of ‘redemption from sin and death’ (Ps 49:7; Bauer, s.v. apolutrsis, cf. Rom 3:24; Eph 1:7; Heb 9:15). In Isa 53:10-11, on which our text is clearly based, the Hebrew word ‘shm is found for the Greek lutron, the former having the wider meaning of ‘atoning sacrifice’. This involvement with Isa 53 and the figurative sense of apolutrsis in the NT exclude the interpretation that the ransom is paid to Satan.
When it is said that Jesus’ life was a ransom for ‘many’, the word ‘many’ is a Semitic expression for ‘all’ (cf. Isa 53:6,12; Dan 12:2; Rom 5:12,19).
In these words Jesus witnesses that He is the ‘suffering servant of the Lord’ from Isa 53, who will die as a substitute for the redemption of all mankind.
The Healing of Two Blind Men 20:29-34
29. As Jesus and his disciples were leaving Jericho. It appears that Jesus is no longer in Perea (cf. Matt 19:1, commentary), but has crossed the Jordan and is ready to leave Jericho after a visit about which nothing is related. Many people were going to Jerusalem for the Passover. Jericho was the last stop on the journey for these pilgrims, and for this reason the city was crowded.
A large crowd followed Him. In contrast to the struggles of Jesus to be alone with His disciples, which comes increasingly to the fore from Matt 14:13 to here (the last time was Matt 20:17), we finally see Him again surrounded by a great crowd, from which He no longer withdraws (cf. Matt 21:8).
One difficulty in v.29 is that Luke writes that the healing took place as Jesus was approaching Jericho (Luke 18:35), while Mark (Mark 10:46) and Matthew say that it happened when Jesus was leaving the city. Different solutions to the problem have been proposed. One of the solutions is based on different usages of the name of the city, Jericho. Matthew and Mark were speaking of the old city of Jericho, but Luke was speaking of the new city of Jericho, built by Herod the Great to the south of the old city. The encounter then would have taken place between the two cities of Jericho. Another solution is that Jesus left Jericho without interrupting His journey (Luke 19:1) because no accommodation was to be found (cf. Luke 19:5). When He reached the other side of the city, He met Zacchaeus and went to that one’s home (Luke 19:1-6). It was there on the other side of the city, when He turned back with the tax-collector, that the blind men were healed.
30. Two blind men were sitting by the roadside. Mark and Luke tell that there was only one blind beggar, while Matthew tells of two blind men (cf. the two possessed men in Matt 8:28-34). Bartimaeus (Mark 10:46) was apparently the better known. There is no question of contradiction. It is possible to write that a certain person was healed, in this case Bartimaeus, when in fact two blind men were healed.
“Lord, Son of David, have mercy on us!” ‘Lord’ was the usual form of address for a teacher who also performed miracles. ‘Son of David’ is the popular name for the Messiah, of whom the people expected freedom from Roman domination. But that the blind should see is also one of the signs of the Messianic Kingdom (Isa 29:18; 35:5). ‘Have mercy on us’: the blind men do not appeal to their rights but to the mercy of the Lord Jesus.
31. The crowd rebuked them and told them to be quiet. This may be for different reasons. Either they disapproved of the blind men’s using the Messianic title on account of the Messianic secrecy (cf. Matt 8:4;9:30; 12:16; 17:9), or they did not want Jesus to be held up. It is also possible that the crowd were afraid the Pharisees would discover Jesus’ whereabouts (cf. John 11:57).
32. “What do you want me to do for you?” The question is not intended to elicit information, but rather to awaken their faith (cf. Matt 9:28). While in comparable situations Jesus turned away from such a mode of address (Matt 9:27-30; 15:22) and after hearing what was requested of Him enjoined silence or left immediately, He now calls the blind men to Him and heals them in the presence of all the people and permits them to follow Him. The time for remaining withdrawn is past. Jesus now wants to be hailed as the Son of David.
33. “we want our sight.” The blind men had first asked for mercy (vv.30-31), in some ways a vague and indeterminate prayer. Now they put things in quite concrete terms. They want their sight to be restored.
34. Jesus had compassion on them and touched their eyes. Only Matthew tells that Jesus touched their eyes when He healed them. The heart of the Lord Jesus was involved in what happened, for He was moved with compassion to His innermost being (cf. Matt 9:36). While He touched them, He spoke the words recorded by Mark and Luke.
and followed Him, i.e., they joined the crowd accompanying Jesus on His way to Jerusalem; but it may also imply a deeper meaning i.e., that they became His disciples (cf. Matt 16:24).