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Matthew 20:1-21:17

Following the teaching on marriage and children in Matthew 19:1-15 the rest of that chapter addresses the question of the cost of discipleship. Jesus challenges the rich young ruler to sell all that he has, give to the poor, and to come and follow him (verses 16-22). Jesus then gave the saying that it would be harder for a rich person to enter the kingdom than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle (verses 24-26). Then Peter raised the question of how the commitment he and the other disciples had made would be recognized (verses 27-30). Concluding his reply, Jesus stated in verse 30, "Many who are first will be last, and the last will be first." These puzzling words, with the clauses reversed will reappear in Matthew 20:16 at the conclusion of the parable of the workers in the vineyard. Thus, this saying ties chapters 19 and 20 together around the theme of commitment and what it is worth to follow Christ.

A Parable of the Vineyard -Matthew 20:1-16

Few parables of Jesus have been as misunderstood as the parable of the workers in the vineyard. Francis Beare calls it "The Eccentric Employer." The common reaction of modern Western readers is to denounce the landowner as "unfair." In fact, when the parable is correctly understood it answers Peter’s question in Matthew 19:27 though it does so quite indirectly.

The parable reflects the economic conditions and practices of small rural villages in Galilee at the time of Jesus. Most of the property was owned by wealthy landowners who leased land to tenants to farm. The landowner would keep a large section of the best farmland for himself. Though he would have owned servants, the labor demands were seasonal. Only during planting and harvest would he need to hire additional workers. Tenant farmers who had already brought in their small harvest and the unemployed would gather early each morning in the village marketplace hoping a wealthy landowner would need harvest help. If the landowners came by and they were not hired these would-be workers would go to the next village marketplace hoping for a job later in the day. The standard day’s wage was a denarius.

So, when the landowner agreed with the first workers for the usual daily wage they were expecting a denarius. When the workers hired later in the day agreed to work for "whatever is right" they expected some proportionate fraction of a denarius. It was also customary to pay the workers at the end of the day. Many were so poor that the denarius enabled them to buy flour on their way home from which would be baked the bread they would eat the next day.

The literary skill of Jesus as a parable teller also appears in this parable. The opening verses of the parable exactly reflect the way of life in Galilee at that time. Listeners would have nodded in agreement at each detail of the parable as Jesus told of the hiring of workers and the agreements that the landowner made with each group. Even the fact that the manager had the job of paying the workers was part of the customs of that time. The familiarity of all these details enticed the listeners into the story. Everything was so familiar that they became emotionally involved in and committed to this story.

The first "clue" of the surprise ending came when the landowner ordered the manager to pay first those who had come to work last. The custom was to pay those who had worked all day first so they could go home first since they would be the most tired. Thus, this unusual instruction alerts the listener to pay close attention. When those who had "signed on" at the last hour received a full day’s pay, a denarius, a murmur passed through the crowd of Jesus’ listeners. What would the rest be paid if those who worked only one hour received the full reward?

Here we see Jesus’ purpose in having the landowner order the manager to pay those first. Everyone will see and will wonder. Everyone will see and will develop their own expectations of what the rest of the workers should be paid. By constructing the parable so that all the workers are paid the same, Jesus pushes every listener into a response. The nature of the response reveals a great deal about the heart of the listener. Will they rejoice with the workers who received a full day’s pay for one hour’s work or will they grumble with the workers who complained?

Verses 13-15 explain the viewpoint of the landowner. He has done no wrong. The workers who worked all day received the denarius for which they had agreed. Everybody else received more, in some cases much more, than they had expected. No one received less than he had expected. As owner, the landowner had the right to be generous with some if he wished. Only the most perverse logic would refuse him that right.

In its original historical setting in the ministry of Jesus, the parable spoke specifically of the generosity of God’s grace. Christ may well have first spoken it in response to Pharisees and scribes who objected to his (Jesus’) invitation to the sinners and tax collectors to enter the kingdom. From that original historical context, we learn important lessons about God and about grace. None of us deserve the benefits of the kingdom. Others have worked longer and harder than we have. Some have suffered incredible persecution, but the reward of the heavenly banquet is offered to all without regard to our work(s) or the price we have paid to be part of the kingdom.

While all of that is true, in the context of Matthew’s gospel there is another function of the parable. That is to answer Peter’s question in Matthew 19:27.Peter had first made a claim and then asked his question. The claim was, "We have left everything and followed you." The question was essentially, "What reward are we going to get for our special loyalty and love?" Peter’s assumption is that he and the other disciples deserved a greater reward because of the greatness of their commitment to Christ. Jesus’ reply makes it clear that God does not judge based on what is deserved, but on the basis of grace.

Peter’s question shows that he had not understood the parable of the unforgiving servant. The parable of the workers in the vineyard gave him another chance to comprehend the incredible grace that characterizes the kingdom of God and characterizes God himself. The saying with the reversed clauses in Matthew 19:30 and 20:16 mark the boundaries of the parable. The saying also reveals the mind-boggling reversal of values that is part of the kingdom of God.

Third Passion Prediction -Matthew 20:17-28

The journey to Jerusalem has been under way for some time. Matthew 19:1 recorded the beginning of that journey. Now Jesus repeats the brief prediction of what lay ahead for him in Jerusalem: suffering, harassment, and death. The first such prediction of his passion had been given in Matthew 16:21. Peter had completely missed the point of Jesus’ saying and had rebuked him forcefully. The second prediction is recorded in Matthew 17:22-23 and the disciples were distressed.

Now we find the third prediction of Jesus’ death. In comparison with the first two predictions, this third (and final) prediction is marked by more details. For the first time Jesus states that he will be "condemned." This word envisions both the trial of Jesus and the formal rejection of him by his own Jewish people. For the first time, Jesus mentions that he will be handed over to the "Gentiles." This is another way of saying that Romans will carry out his death sentence. Thus, it is not surprising, though this is the first time Jesus mentions it, that he will be mocked, scourged, and crucified. Those elements were standard procedure with the Roman sentence of death by crucifixion. Lest the disciples have any doubt, Jesus’ forthcoming death will not be one of "glorious martyrdom, but an ugly, sordid butchery." (France, p. 291)

What is missing from the previous announcements of his death is the note that this horrible death "must" happen. Jesus is no longer attempting to persuade the disciples. Rather, they are on the journey to Jerusalem with him; he is simply informing them of what lies ahead. For Jesus, part of being first means leadership on the way to the cross, which is the fate of those who quite literally are last. The reversal of values that Jesus was teaching in chapter 19 and in the parable of the workers in the vineyard is illustrated by the way he accepted and embraced the cross. On the other hand, the fact that he will be raised after the third day points to reversal by which the last (those condemned to the cross) become first again.

As happened at the first passion prediction Jesus’ announcement is followed by an inappropriate response from the disciples. In Matthew 16, the inappropriate response had come from Peter. Here it comes from James and John who use their mother to request the highest positions in the coming kingdom. Jesus had promised that the disciples would sit on twelve thrones to judge the twelve tribes of Israel. James and John aspired to the top thrones.

It is possible to understand the role of their mother in two different ways. Some see her request as less shameful than having the sons make the request directly. After all, she had not received all the teaching that they had received. On the other hand, one can see her role as exposing both the weakness and the hypocrisy of the sons of Zebedee. Women were not highly regarded in the ancient world. For James and John to stoop to have their mother make their request reveals the pitiful lack of initiative and backbone on their part. Despite the low view of women generally in that culture, the theme of a manipulative mother scheming for power and prestige for her sons was common in ancient literature. However, such women were not regarded positively, nor were their weak-willed sons.

Jesus’ response was directed to the two sons. Four points emerge in verses 22-23. First, Jesus states that the two brothers "do not know what [they] are asking." In a kingdom marked by the reversal of human values, the positions of honor are quite different from the normal human expectations. Second, Jesus asks if they are able to "drink the cup that I am about to drink." The Old Testament contains numerous references to the "cup" as a metaphor for a destiny of suffering. (See Isaiah 51:17 and 22; Jeremiah 25:17-29; and Ezekiel 23:31-34 for examples.) By the time Matthew’s narrative reaches the Garden of Gethsemane the full meaning of the "cup" that Jesus was about to drink becomes clear. The sons of Zebedee confidently claim their ability to drink that cup. This led to Jesus’ third point. In fact, they will drink of the same cup of suffering. Acts 12:2 records James’ death for the sake of Christ and tradition mentions imprisonment, exile, and being boiled in oil as part of the price John would ultimately pay for his faith. However, regardless of their willingness to drink the same cup of suffering, the glory of kingdom honors is not given to Jesus to bestow. That most delightful duty of the final judgment is reserved to God the Father. In affirmation of God’s omniscience Jesus states that God has already prepared those positions in anticipation of that great day.

Jesus’ response to James and John appears gentle but firm. He will not allow them (or their mother) to entangle him in a scheme where the self-centered values of this world prevail. The other ten disciples are less charitable. Their response upon discovering the scheme of James and John is anger. The context makes it clear that it was not righteous indignation, but raw jealousy that occasioned their anger. Their hearts were not more pure than James and John; rather they were upset that the sons of Zebedee had beaten them to the punch.

Their indignant response provided a further teaching opportunity for Jesus. He pointed out what they already knew quite well. This world operates on the basis of power, prestige and status. However, verse 26 proclaims, "It will not be so among you." To be a follower of Jesus is to renounce the schemes of self-advancement, status and power that are so common in our world. Rather, spiritual leadership involves servanthood. The reversal of values alluded to in the strange saying of the first being last and the last being first must be lived out in Christian relationships. First among followers of Jesus are those who become slaves to all the rest.

If that were not clear enough, in verse 28 Jesus reminded the disciples of his own mission. He had not come to be served but to serve. Then, using the language of Isaiah 53 he points to his forthcoming death. He will give his life as a ransom for many.

Healing the Blind Men - Matthew 20:29-34

The healing of the blind men on the outskirts of Jericho has often generated more questions than most miracle stories in the gospels. In terms of the literary flow of Matthew’s gospel this story occurs at the exact same place in Jesus’ ministry as the healing of blind Bartimaeus recorded in Mark 10:46-52. Whether this is a separate incident or Matthew simply doubled the number of beneficiaries of the miracle has been strongly debated.

Also, Matthew himself has already told the story of the healing of two blind men in Matthew 9:27-31 in which the dialogue is almost identical to that found here. The question of the relationship of these two very similar healings has not been completely solved by biblical scholars.

Unfortunately, these questions have often caused scholars to miss some important insights from this paragraph. First, like Mark, Matthew seems to be thinking of the way this miracle could apply in the spiritual realm. Verse 34 states that the blind men followed Jesus immediately upon receiving their sight. Thus, part of the issue is the meaning of discipleship. James and John had proven to be blind in their understanding of the reversed values of the kingdom. Now we find healing grace for spiritual blindness in the word of Jesus.

Further, Daniel Patte (p. 284) points out two sets of contrast that mark Matthew’s narration of this healing story. First, there is a contrast between the two blind men who are crying out for help and the crowd that wants them to be silent. Second, in contrast to the crowd that rebukes the blind men, Jesus calls them. These contrasts are instructive for disciples who are following Jesus on the way to the cross. The way of discipleship is always in contrast to the crowd. That is one of the results of the reversal of values that characterizes the followers of Jesus. However, the opposition of the crowd can never be the determining factor for a disciple. Rather, it is the call of Jesus that invites us out of the crowd and into the kingdom.

These insights into discipleship from the healing of the two blind men are particularly important because of the position of this story. This is the final event of Jesus’ ministry that Matthew will tell before his entry into Jerusalem and the beginning of Passion Week. As his ministry began in Matthew 4:18-22 with the calling of disciples, it comes to its climax still calling disciples.

The Triumphal Entry - Matthew 21:1-11

Jesus’ "triumphal entry" into Jerusalem is extremely important by every measure that can be applied to it. Historically, it marked a very significant point in Jesus’ life and ministry. From that point on there was no turning back from the destiny God had prepared for him in Jerusalem. From a literary viewpoint the entry into Jerusalem stands as a pivot point in all four gospels. Theologically the entry enabled the gospel writers to proclaim truth about Jesus that could not be as effectively communicated in any other way.

Matthew’s account focuses on the question of Jesus’ identity. This has often been his literary strategy at turning points in his gospel. The issue is most directly raised by the city of Jerusalem that asks in verse 11, "Who is this?" Though the crowds (presumably from Galilee) answer in verse 12, "This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee," the careful reader has already learned much more about Jesus from the earlier verses in this account.

The story begins as Jesus and his entourage arrive at Bethphage, an eastern suburb of Jerusalem. Jesus directs two of his disciples to go ahead to the next village (perhaps Bethany) to find a donkey that can be used for Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. Though Matthew has abbreviated the account from Mark, the emphasis still lies on either Jesus’ divine foreknowledge of the available donkey or the arrangements that he had previously made.

It is the donkey that is the key to understanding Jesus’ identity here, however. Garland notes (p. 209) that this is not a "triumphal entry" since there is no white horse, no trophies, no military language or imagery. Rather, this is a "royal entry." "The heir of David who was to be anointed as king rode a donkey to his coronation." That was true of Solomon (1 Kings 1:32-40) who gained David’s throne as well as others who sought it like Absalom (2 Samuel 18:9) and Mephibosheth (2 Samuel 19:27). With unmistakable symbolism, Jesus lays claim to being the authentic Son of David coming to Jerusalem to be anointed as the messianic king.

Matthew highlights this understanding by noting the way in which this "royal entry" fulfilled the prophecy of Zechariah 9:9. There Scripture itself identifies the coming king as one who will ride a donkey. The emphasis on the donkey is common to all four gospels, but Matthew shifts to mention both the donkey and a colt of a donkey. (In fact, verse 7 states that Jesus rode on both animals at once.) Most scholars believe that the mention of both animals arises from the quotation from Zechariah though there is little agreement as to why Matthew found the references to both the donkey and its colt to be important. An early Christian debater (Justin Martyr, about A.D. 150) thought the donkey symbolized Jesus’ ministry to the Jews while the colt symbolized his ministry to the Gentiles who had not yet been "tamed" by submission to the Law. Garland (pp. 210-211) suggests the donkey symbolized Jesus’ royal identity as king of Israel. The colt symbolized Jesus’ identity as the suffering servant described in Isaiah 53. Cementing the sense of Jesus’ identity as the true messianic king, the crowds began singing from Psalm 118. This psalm had originated as a royal psalm to celebrate the enthronement of the king. Though Jerusalem did not know who Jesus was, the reader can have no doubt.

Cleansing the Temple - Matthew 21:12-17

The entry into Jerusalem turned directly to an entry into the temple area. Jesus encountered and evicted those buying, selling, and changing money in the temple area. In a single verse (12), Matthew sums up the cleansing of the temple. The most detailed account appears in John 2:13-22. Each of the gospel writers has his own understanding of the significance of this action that is revealed by slight nuances of language. Matthew’s view seems to be that Jesus was proclaiming the failure and thus the end of the sacrificial system of worship at the temple. There is no suggestion here for the popular modern view that Jesus was offended by the dishonesty of those selling animals and changing money. Rather, Jesus threw out both the buyers and the sellers and he rid the temple area of the money exchangers necessary for temple worship as it was then practiced. His appeal in verse 13 is that the temple be a house of prayer. For at least a day, Jesus had made it impossible to be a place of sacrifice.

Further, verse 14 states that the blind and the lame came to him in the temple and he healed them there. Such handicapped persons had been denied access to the temple by the decree of David in 2 Samuel 5:8. Now David’s greater son restores to such ones access to the house of prayer. (No wonder verse 15 notes that the priests were angry.) In response to the priestly complaint, Jesus quoted Psalm 8:2 that God had prepared praise for himself from such ones. Then, having accomplished enough for one day he returned to Bethany to spend the night. Because of all that happened that day, the world would never be the same again.

Study Questions for Reflection and Discussion

These readings and study questions are in preparation for next week's lesson.

As you study each day ask the Lord to help you understand the Scriptures and to apply its meaning to your own heart and life.

First Day: Read the notes on Matthew 20:1-21:17. Look up the Scripture references given.

1. Identify one or two new insights that seemed important to you. Why are they important?

2. Is there a spiritual truth in this section that is especially significant for you? Write it down and explain why it is important for you.

3. Write a brief prayer asking God to heal you of any spiritual blindness in your life. Ask him to enable you to both understand and live out the reversed values of the kingdom of God.

Second Day: Read Matthew 21:12-32. Now focus on Matthew 21:18-27.

1. How does the placement of the "cursing" of the fig tree right after the cleansing of the temple provide insight into its meaning? Even if the event literally took place what it symbolic meaning does it have in this context?

2. What lesson about prayer does Jesus draw from the "cursing" of the fig tree? How does this teaching on prayer still relate to the cleansing of the temple story and Jesus’ authority over the temple?

3. What does the question of verse 23 reveal about the chief priests and elders? What has been their role in chapter 21 thus far? In what ways could we be in danger of falling into a pattern like theirs?

Third Day: Read Matthew 21:18-44. Focus in on Matthew 21:23-32.

1. Why do you think Jesus refused to answer the question of the chief priests and elders about the source of his authority? Would it have been helpful had he answered the question? If so who would have been helped?

2. How does the parable of the two sons relate to the question of whether Jesus should answer the authority question posed by the chief priests and elders? For whom does Jesus ultimately have authority?

3. What role does John the Baptist play in the two paragraphs (the question of authority and the parable of the two sons)? How did the combination of the ministries of Jesus and John the Baptist create a problem for the chief priests? What warning of spiritual danger is there for us in the problem they had with Jesus and John?

Fourth Day: Read Matthew 21:18-44. Focus your attention on Matthew 21:33-44.

1. What elements in the parable of the vineyard might cause you to think that Jesus was telling it about the Jewish leaders and their opposition to him and his ministry? What "threat" does the parable make to the Jewish leaders of that day?

2. Verse 42 quotes from Psalm 118:22-23. Read Psalm 118:19-27. What elements of the Psalm passage relate to Christ? How does Jesus use the Psalm quotation to support his identity and his argument?

3. Read Romans 9:32-33 and 1 Peter 2:4-8 carefully, along with verses 42 and 44 in the focus verses of Matthew 21. How does the New Testament compare Jesus to a stone? Which of these comparisons is most meaningful to you? Why?

Fifth Day: Read Matthew 21:45-22:22. Now focus in on Matthew 21:45-22:14.

1. What elements in the parable(s) of Matthew 22:2-14 seem to apply to the Jewish leaders of Jesus’ time? How do verses 45 and 46 of chapter 21 help prepare the way for our understanding of the following parable(s)?

2. What elements in the parable(s) of Matthew 22:2-14 have important application for our lives today? What is that application that is important for us?

3. What is the point of verses 11-14? In other words, if the parable stopped at verse 10, what would you understand to be its main point? How is that modified by verses 11-14?

Sixth Day: Read Matthew 22:1-22. Now focus on Matthew 22:15-22.

1. Do you think Jesus intended to support the paying of taxes to Caesar or to oppose the paying of taxes to Caesar in his response given in verse 21? Why? How do you think his message should be applied today?

2. How do the Pharisees and Herodians describe Jesus in verse 16? Do you think they were being sincere or sarcastic? Why? To what degree can those words be applied to believers in our time? Should they apply?

3. Write a brief prayer asking the Lord to grant you grace and wisdom when you are under fire like the grace and wisdom demonstrated by Jesus in these verses. What changes in your life do you want along these lines?

-Roger Hahn, Copyright © 2011, Roger Hahn and the Christian Resource Institute
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