Tag Archives: Matthew 20

Matthew 20: 17-28 Greatness in the Kingdom

Domine, quo Vadis? by Annibale Carracci, 1062

Matthew 20: 17-28

Parallels Mark 10: 32-45; Luke 18: 31-34, 22: 24-27

17 While Jesus was going up to Jerusalem, he took the twelve disciples aside by themselves, and said to them on the way, 18 “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death; 19 then they will hand him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified; and on the third day he will be raised.”

20 Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came to him with her sons, and kneeling before him, she asked a favor of him. 21 And he said to her, “What do you want?” She said to him, “Declare that these two sons of mine will sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.” 22 But Jesus answered, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?” They said to him, “We are able.” 23 He said to them, “You will indeed drink my cup, but to sit at my right hand and at my left, this is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.”

24 When the ten heard it, they were angry with the two brothers. 25 But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. 26 It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; 28 just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

Central to the organization of the last three chapters of Matthew’s gospel has been a response to ‘greatness’ in the kingdom of heaven. Jesus is not a Messiah (king) like the kings of the nations but instead is one who comes to serve instead of serving. The world imagined by the kingdom of heaven is an alternative to the worldview of the nations of the earth, and in this world reoriented has drastic implications for these disciples of Jesus as they consider the shape of their own lives. Even as we stand at the threshold of closing Jesus’ ministry of teaching and prepare to enter the narration of the final week in Jerusalem the disciples and those around them continue to require a conversion of their imaginations (to use Richard B. Hays’ terminology) to embody this new society as an alternative to the ways of the nations.

The section begins with the final foretelling of Jesus’ coming betrayal, condemnation, humiliation, and crucifixion. Two previous times[1] (three if you count the words spoken to Peter, James, and John after the Transfiguration) Jesus has foretold the events that will occur in Jerusalem and been met with resistance, distress and now misunderstanding. As people who are able to read and hear this narrative repeatedly and who understand the narrative in light of the resurrection it is easy to become judgmental of the disciple’s inability to understand a crucified and resurrected messiah, but the disciples, like all the other characters of Matthew’s gospel, attempt to make sense of Jesus’ identity, actions, and words from within the worldview they inherited from their society. Perhaps one of the reasons that Matthew’s gospel is more charitable to the disciples than Mark’s is a pastoral understanding (in the sense of the responsibility for the forming of a community) of the need for patience as the kingdom’s worldview slowly begins to transform the engrained ways of the nations.

In Matthew’s gospel it is the mother of James and John who makes the request rather than the two disciples themselves. This, perhaps for Matthew, provides a little space between the disciples in the narrative who have just heard for the fourth time (since James and John were at the Transfiguration) about the upcoming death of Jesus. The mother comes and prostrates herself before Jesus which may be simply ‘bowing down or paying honor’ but within Matthew’s continued usage of the Greek proskuneo it is also used at times in an ambiguous way where ‘worship’ is implied and there is a revelation of Jesus being ‘God with us.’[2] Regardless the mother of James and John shows some openness to who Jesus is, but she and her sons continue to construct that identity in terms of the rulers of the nations. She comes to ask ‘a certain thing/something’ of Jesus (translations often translate this as a favor but this ritualistic request has a greater weight than asking for a favor) and Jesus responds to her request with “What is your will/desire?” (the Greek theleo is often translated as wish, but wishing in English is more ephemeral than this term for willing something to be) Her request for positions of high honor in the coming kingdom of Jesus for her sons shows both insight into a portion of Jesus’ identity and a misunderstanding of greatness in the kingdom of heaven. A ritual request for a declaration is a powerful and binding thing, and so if Jesus makes this statement he, as a king, is bound to it.[3] Jesus could deal with her, her sons, and later the disciples in a harsh way, but Jesus instead uses the moment as one more opportunity to talk about greatness in the kingdom of heaven.

Jesus addresses the request by trying to help James and John understand the request that is made. In the context of having foretold his own death in Jerusalem we are introduced to the idea of ‘drinking the cup’ that Jesus is about to drink. This will be resonant image in both the Hebrew scriptures and in the passion narrative that will begin in the coming chapter. In the Hebrew Scriptures drinking the cup (particularly the cup of the LORD) often used in the prophets as the language of suffering[4] but as Warren Carter notes it can also denote the LORD’s provision or deliverance.[5] (Carter 2005, 402) It may seem paradoxical that suffering and salvation are joined together in an image, but this is after all a kingdom where those who ‘want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.’ (16:25 emphasis on life is intentional, see below) In the coming passion narrative the cup will feature in both the last supper (26:27-29) and a Gethsemane. (26:39-46) Ultimately Jesus, after asking if they are powerful enough to drink the cup he is to drink, partially grants their request in an odd way. James and John will share both the suffering and the life that is to come, but their ability to fill the spots to the left and right of Jesus in his kingdom are not his to grant. Matthew’s linkage of this scene with the crucifixion is also echoed by the placement of the bandits who are crucified with him, “one on his right and one on his left.”

The response of the remaining ten disciples to James and John is often translated as ‘angry’ or ‘indignant’ which are typically used to translate the Greek aganakteo, but I am going to risk using a more precise word ‘resentful.’ While indignant may be a word that expresses anger or annoyance at unfair treatment, I think it is a word that is outside most of our emotional vocabulary. I do think we need to work on teaching the skill of “labeling our emotions with a nuanced vocabulary.” (Brackett 2019, 19) and anger is a large emotion which covers many of what Marc Brackett describes as low pleasantness high energy emotions. Resentful is a word in English that most people understand that captures the anger or annoyance at unfair treatment that the older indignant represents. I also think that it is an understandable emotion in terms of the requested honor and partially favorable response that James and John have received. All of the disciples are still viewing Jesus’ message from within the worldview they inherited from their parents and the society around them, and even now Jesus continues to patiently reorient them to the very different values of the kingdom of heaven.

Jesus directly engages the worldview of the nations and their perceptions of greatness and contrasts them to the values of the kingdom of heaven. Instead of the values of the nations where the rulers lord it over their followers and the great ones exercise authority over (this doesn’t have the negative implication in modern English that tyrants does: the Greek is a conjunction of the prefix kata (according to) and ekousia (authority)) the great in the kingdom of heaven are servants and the first is a slave. Throughout this section the disciples have been told they need to be humble like a child placed in their midst (18:4) instead of a rich young man (19:16-30 a person who has every advantage in that society) who would need to give away his possessions to embrace the kingdom. Jesus embodies these values for his disciples and his serving instead of being served will be the model for them to emulate.

Early in my ministry I once caused a minor controversy in a class I was teaching when I stated that Mark (and Matthew) by extension did not have any atonement theology where Christ died for our sins to redeem us. Ultimately Matthew and Mark do not have any type of atonement theology like Anselm of Canterbury talks about in Cur Deus Homo (Why God Became Man one of the classic texts of medieval classic atonement theology) but here in 20:28 we do have the only introduction of the idea of ransom in Matthew (and its parallel in Mark). In the Hebrew scriptures the idea of ransom is often used in the context of freeing the people of Israel from their captivity under other nations (Exodus 6:6; Isaiah 43:1-7; 44:22) and while this may be connected with the sins of the people which led to their exile, this is not an individualistic salvation from one’s sins. Throughout Matthew, from the beginning when the angel of the Lord tells Joseph, “he will save his people from his sins” (1:21) I have written about this in terms of Jesus bringing about the end of the exile of the chosen people. Although Stanley Hauerwas comments on this passage are an interesting place to begin discussion:

Rather, he has ransomed us from the very temptations he resisted in the desert, to make possible our participation in the only politics that can save us. He has brought to an end our slavery to the politics based on fear of death, making it possible for us to be servants to one another and the world. (Hauerwas 2006, 179-180)

The temptation to define power in the ways of the nations of the world is to fall into the devilish temptation that Jesus avoided. Jesus’ kingdom does not involve the death and destruction of his enemies, but for those he has patiently worked upon to transform their values and worldview it is the beginning of a new way of understanding power. The great in the kingdom of heaven are the servants of the world, the first are slaves. Or in Martin Luther’s famous paradox from the Freedom of a Christian:

A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all (Luther 1989, 596)

What the Son of Man uses in ransom in his psuche which is normally translated elsewhere as ‘soul’ but as I discussed in 10:39 and 16: 25-26  in Hebrew thought the soul is not detachable from one’s life but is the very essence of it. There is no body/soul duality that would become engrained in later Christian vocabulary. To give up one’s psuche is to give up everything of oneself. Just as the disciples earlier could state they gave up everything in following Jesus while thinking of their possessions and relationships, now Jesus demonstrates a world where one’s entire being is placed completely in the service of God. As Paul could say in his letter to the Romans:

I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God. Romans 12: 1

[1] Matthew 16:21; 17:22-23 (17:12)

[2] See the fuller discussion in Matthew 14:22-33

[3] At least in terms of the rulers of the nations: think for example of how the words of King Ahasuerus throughout the book of Esther bound him or how King Darius in Daniel 7 is bound by his own ordinance. These stories would be a part of the worldview of both the mother and the sons in this story.

[4] Isaiah 51: 17; Jeremiah 25:15-38; Jeremiah 49:12; Ezekiel 23: 32-34; Habakkuk 2: 15-16; see also Psalm 75:8

[5] See particularly Psalm 16:5 and Psalm 116:3

Matthew 20: 1-16 The Good House Master

the Parable of the Vineyard,by Andrey Mironov, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=24843092

Matthew 20: 1-16

“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2 After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. 3 When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; 4 and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. 5 When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. 6 And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ 7 They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ 8 When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ 9 When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. 10 Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. 11 And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 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 the usual daily wage? 14 Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ 16 So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

This parable, which is unique to Matthew’s gospel, expands on Jesus’ paradoxical proverb about many who are first being last and the last being first. In Matthew, this parable is the final parable prior to entering Jerusalem and is preceded by the parable of the lost sheep and the unforgiving servant in Matthew 18. The world imagined in the parable is jarring for those committed to the capitalistic worldview of our time or the worldview of the nations in Jesus’ time. Each of the three parables in Matthew 18-20 are told specifically in answer to the disciples’ questions about greatness or forgiveness and unlike earlier parables are not explained by Jesus. We are invited not only into the worldview of the disciples of Jesus, but into these short stories which are designed to challenge their assumptions as they begin to embody a different kind of society amidst the nations.

I am making several translational choices that make the story less readable to a casual modern reader but highlight some of the different assumptions and values of the world Jesus spoke to. Our imagination around land and time are different than the ancient world, especially for those who dwell in cities and whose primary place of income is a workplace that is no longer connected with agriculture. For most of history the home was the primary place where economics occurred, and the ‘house master’ was responsible for the stewardship of the economics of their land. What many translations render as a ‘landowner’ is the Greek oikodespotes (oikos- home, this is the word at the root of the modern idea of economy and economics and despot-where our modern word despot comes from, meaning ruler, lord or master) I am rendering more literally as ‘house master.’  Jesus has been referred to himself a ‘house master in 10:25 when he states, “If they have called the master of the house (oikodespotes) Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household.” This term will also appear in Matthew 24:43 in the context of Jesus warning his disciples to stay awake like a house master who does not know when a thief is coming.

While the house master is responsible for both household and land, this does not indicate that the house master will be wealthy or elitist. We may think in modern terms of a person with land and property as the master of an estate with servants to do their bidding, and while that might be the case of this house master we need not assume that it is the case. We only hear of one person who works directly for the house master in this parable, and while many interpreters assume that the house master is wealthy and going into the marketplace to hire workers would be below him, that is an assumption that the house master oversees a large household with many servants or slaves that work for him. It is worth remembering that a part of the Jewish hope is for everyone is to live securely in their own land. Whether 1 Kings 4: 25 is accurate that under Solomon everyone had their own vine and fig tree, the prophetic hope resonates with this image:

But they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid; for the mouth of the LORD has spoken. Micah 4:4, see also Zechariah 3: 10

Regardless of the whether the house master is wealthy or merely owns a vineyard, we will see in the parable that this individual acts in a way that is very unusual in the disciples’ worldview and in ours.

In the modern western culture we imagine time in the way we measure it on a clock, watch or cell phone with the day broken into precise hours, minutes and seconds, and while many work hours outside of the eight hour, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. we often think of the forty hour week as a standard for work. The workday in the ancient world is constructed around daylight hours, and here in the world of this parable we have an approximately twelve-hour workday. The house master goes out during the fourth watch (before dawn) into the marketplace to find workers, and while some translations smooth the agreed upon wage to ‘the usual daily wage’ I believe most readers can understand the agreement for a concrete price, a denarius, even if they may not be able to precisely fix the value of this payment in modern equivalents. The agreement for a specific payment by both the house master and the workers is important to this story. To render the times when the house master returns to the market place as nine o’clock, noon, three o’clock and five o’clock assumes our precise relationship with time and can give the illusion of something resembling our normal workday, the more literal third hour, sixth hour, ninth hour, and the eleventh hour, reminds us that the workday is long and it may remind us that time was not measured by clocks, but by the movement of the sun.

A vineyard, unlike grain crops sown in a field, require constant tending. Most commentators assume that the house master has gone to bring in workers for the harvest, but that may not be the assumption of those in Jesus’ time hearing this parable. The reality that there are workers throughout the day who are without work (most English translations place a value judgment on their translations on the laborers when they state they are ‘standing idle’ but the Greek agroi literally means without work) the laborers answer that no one was hiring along with the quick agreement on a wage may indicate a time where the supply of workers exceeded demand. Also, as Amy Jill-Levine notes, “The householder continues to go to the market, but the parable makes no explicit mention of the need for more labor.” (Levine 2014, 226) Perhaps, something very strange is happening with this house master who continues to bring more workers into their vineyard to work. The harvest may indeed be great, or the house master may indeed be generous.

Sometimes this parable is quickly allegorized to talk about grace and ‘salvation’ or the assumption is made that those who are in the vineyard early are the Pharisees and/or Sadducees but reading the context of the story I want to suggest two different frames for this story. All of the parables in Matthew 18-20 are in response to the questions of the disciples, and this parable follows Peter’s question, “What then will we have?” so likely Matthew is not concerned with groups outside the followers of Jesus, but precisely the imagination and actions of those whom Jesus has called from the fishing boats, marketplace or wherever they have come from to follow him. But it is also helpful to remember that Jesus is using a commonly used image for Israel, the vineyard (see Isaiah 5, Jeremiah 7) to tell a very Jewish parable. Christians may be conditioned to continually question ‘what thing we might do to have eternal life’ (see my discussion of this question in the previous section) but rather than spiritualizing the parable to concern the afterlife, what if it is concerned with how members of the kingdom of heaven relate to one another. As Dr. Levine can again state insightfully, “To those who ask today, “Are we saved?” Jesus might well respond, “The better questions is, ‘Do your children have enough to eat?’ of ‘Do you have a shelter for the night?’” (Levine 2014, 216)

I am going against the grain assuming that the ‘house master’ is good, since many would side with the workers in the parable around issues of fairness or justice. When the parable is spiritualized to be about the afterlife is removes the scandal from the parable, but it also misses the fruit that is hanging from the vines to be gathered. When the house master orders his steward to pay the workers at the end of the day he is acting in accordance with the expectations of the law (Lev. 19: 13, Deut. 24: 14-15) and Deuteronomy 24: 15 is particularly worth noting in this context:

You shall pay them (poor and needy laborers) daily before sunset, because they are poor and their livelihood depends on them; otherwise they might cry to the LORD against you and you would incur guilt.

In our capitalistic worldview a person who works longer should receive a better payment, and the first should not be treated as equal with those who came last but should receive better compensation for more time spent in labor. When the lord (and the Greek here is kurios which is normally translated lord) of the vineyard calls his steward to distribute payment beginning with the last and going to the first we receive a verbal cue that something is about to be turned upside down. Those who the house master sent into the vineyard at the eleventh hour receive a denarius setting up the expectations of earlier workers and the listeners of a greater reward for those present from early morning. Yet, there is something different in this house master who acts according to the vision of the kingdom of heaven, and who can claim to be good (this is the Greek agathos which is translated good twice in the previous story and the translation of generous in many translations obscures the linkage with the character of God, see previous section) This parable invites us into a world where the lord of the vineyard, which is now closely linked to the LORD the God of Israel (who is good) models a world where a house master goes continually in the marketplace looking for workers to ensure they have work that pays in a timely manner and ensures that children have enough to eat and workers can find shelter for the night. Perhaps this kingdom of heaven is about a world where all the laborers can have enough to eat, and God provides sufficiently for all instead of a world where laborers are only satisfied in the afterlife. When we hear a person address another as ‘friend’ we may assume intimacy, but in Matthew’s gospel the term ‘friend’ is used in a setting of formality when another has acted improperly. (see also 22:12, 26: 50) What is smoothly translated ‘are you envious’ is the phrase ‘or is the eye of you wicked/evil’ and the ‘evil eye’ in ancient cultures was to curse or wish harm on another, but here the house master declares that this action, which in opposition to the good, is uncalled for. In the values of the kingdom of heaven, where the last are first and the first are last, the master of the house goes out to ensure that as many workers as possible receive the opportunity to work, to provide for their families, and to have shelter for the night. Until a time when all can rest under their own vines and fig trees the house master works to provide out of their goodness for the laborers in the marketplace.

We live in a society that is very defensive of its individualistic and capitalistic values and is quick to label things that value the needs of the society above the individual or the workers above profit as socialist, communist, or Marxist. Ultimately the values that Jesus points to are older than either capitalism or Marxism, or the individualism that evolved from the Enlightenment. Jesus’ vision of the kingdom of heaven conflicts with all of the ways we are used to framing our identity in our post-Enlightenment, modern (or postmodern) secular age. It does not fit neatly into our labels and titles but instead invites our imaginations into a new way of viewing our world, our society, and our neighbors. Although Jesus does point to a reality beyond this world, his teaching and parables are mainly concerned with how we live in relation to others within life. Jesus’ suggestion of a house master who provides out of his goodness for the laborers in the marketplace conflicts with our ideas of fairness. Yet, the richness of these short narratives that Jesus tells is the way they poetically challenge our imaginations to conceive of the world in a new way, with a different set of principles and visions. Disciples who look at the world hierarchically have to be reoriented to a world where the last are first and the first are last. Disciples, ancient and modern, have struggled with their inability to embrace the world imagined in the kingdom of heaven.

Gracefully Unfair

The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard, Codex Aureus Epternacensis, 11th Century

The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard, Codex Aureus Epternacensis, 11th Century

It’s not fair, this may be what I signed up for but it’s not fair
That in this crazy mixed up world of grace the last are first and the first last
Where a person can work from sunup to sundown laboring in the vineyard
Bearing the brutal rays of the sun beating down upon their backs
Getting up early to be the early bird that gets called out into the fields
Being the ant who works all day every day unlike those others
Those others who might look different, party different, act different, smell different
So that they get left behind among the other laborers, for it is about my skills
The sweat of my brow, the skill of my hands, the pain in my back from the harvest
And yet others work less, coming in later, leaving earlier, getting the same recompense
In a world of continually increasing worker productivity and efficiency
What is this inefficient master doing in the distribution of grace
Don’t I deserve more for my labor, for my conscientious and diligent striving
For I could manage the field better than this crazy master and the world would know no rest
For everyone would work as hard as I do or they would never work at all.
Yet maybe in this crazy and gracious world a new and strange master emerges
One who challenges the lords of commerce and time or wage and resource
One who sees the people left behind in the world of competition
Those in the market at 9 o’clock and noon and even at 3 or 5 o’clock
Those who no one sees or cares about, those who no one will hire
Those who wait all day in the hope that they too might enter into the fields
Perhaps in this crazy mixed up world of grace they are seen and valued and fed
They receive the same in some injustly and unfairly gracious manner
And why does my heart grow angry against those for whom the master’s heart breaks
Neil White, 2014