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Bible Commentaries

Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
Matthew 20

 

 

Verse 1

XX.

(1) For the kingdom.—The division of the chapter is here singularly unfortunate, as separating the parable both from the events which gave occasion to it and from the teaching which it illustrates. It is not too much to say that we can scarcely understand it at all unless we connect it with the history of the young ruler who had great possessions, and the claims which the disciples had made for themselves when they contrasted their readiness with his reluctance.

To hire labourers into his vineyard.—The framework of the parable brings before us a form of labour in some respects lower than that of the “servants,” or “slaves,” who formed part of the household, and had been bought or born to their position. The labourers here are the “hired servants” of Luke 15:17, engaged for a time only, and paid by the day. Interpreting the parable, we may see in the householder our Lord Himself. It was indeed a title which He seems to have, as it were, delighted in, and which He applies directly to Himself in Matthew 10:25; Matthew 13:27; Matthew 13:52. And the “vineyard” is primarily, as in Isaiah 5:1, the house of Israel, which the Anointed of the Lord had come to claim as His kingdom. The “early morning” answered accordingly to the beginning of our Lord’s ministry; the “labourers” He then called were the disciples whom, at the outset of His ministry, He had summoned to follow Him. He had promised them a reward. Though at the best they were unprofitable servants, He yet offered them wages, and the wages were the kingdom of heaven itself (Matthew 5:3; Matthew 5:10); in other words, “righteousness, and peace, and joy;” in other words, yet again, “eternal life, seeing and knowing God” (Matthew 5:8; John 17:3). We may trace, I believe, something of a subtle and peculiar fitness in our Lord’s choice of this form of labour, as distinct, on the one side, from free and willing service, and, on the other, from the task-work of slaves. It was not in itself the best or most adequate symbol of the relation of the disciples to their Lord, but as their question, “What shall we have, therefore?” implies, it was that on which their minds were dwelling, and therefore He chose it, adapting Himself so far to their weakness, that He might teach them the lesson which they needed.


Verse 2

(2) A penny a day.—Measured by its weight, the “penny—i.e., the Roman denarius, then the common standard of value in Palestine—was, as nearly as possible, sevenpence-halfpenny of our coinage. Its real equivalent, however, is to be found in its purchasing power, and, as the average price of the unskilled labour of the tiller of the soil, it may fairly be reckoned as equal to about half-a-crown of our present currency. It was, that is, in itself, an adequate and just payment.


Verse 3

(3) About the third hour.—Reckoning the day after the Jewish mode, as beginning at 6 A.M., this would bring us to 8 A.M. The “market-place” of a town was the natural place in which the seekers for casual labour were to be found waiting for employment. In the meaning which underlies the parable we may see a reference to those who, like St. Matthew (Matthew 9:9) and the disciples called in Matthew 8:19-22, were summoned after the sons of Jonas and of Zebedee.


Verse 4

(4) Whatsoever is right.—The absence of a definite contract in hiring the labourers who did less than the day’s work obviously involved an implicit trust in the equity of the householder. They did not stipulate for wages, or ask, as the disciples had asked, “What shall we have therefore?” The implied lesson thus suggested is, that a little work done, when God calls us, in the spirit of trust, is better than much done in the spirit of a hireling.


Verse 6

(6) About the eleventh hour.—The working day, which did not commonly extend beyond twelve hours (John 11:9), was all but over, and yet there was still work to be done in the vineyard, all the more urgent because of the lateness of the hour. The labourers who had been first hired were not enough. Is there not an implied suggestion that they were not labouring as zealously as they might have done? They were working on their contract for the day’s wages. Those who were called last of all had the joy of feeling that their day was not lost; and that joy and their faith in the justice of their employer gave a fresh energy to their toil.


Verse 7

(7) Because no man hath hired us.—This, again, is one of the salient points of the parable. The last called labourers had not rejected any previous summons, and when called they obeyed with alacrity. They, too, came in full unquestioning faith.


Verse 8

(8) When even was come.—It was one of the humane rules of the Mosaic law that the day-labourer was to be paid by the day, and not made to wait for his wages (Deuteronomy 24:15). This law the householder keeps, and his doing so is a feature in his character.

Beginning from the last unto the first.—The order is not without its significance. It was a practical illustration of the words which had introduced the parable, that the last should be the first.


Verse 9

(9) Every man a penny.—The scale of payment rested on the law of a generous equity. The idleness of the labourers had been no fault of theirs, and the readiness with which they came at the eleventh hour implied that they would have come as readily had they been called at daybreak, and therefore they received a full day’s wages for their fraction of a day’s work. The standard of payment was qualitative, not quantitative. In the interpretation of the parable, the “penny,” as before, represents the eternal life of the kingdom of heaven. No true labourer could receive less; the longest life of labour could claim no more.


Verse 10

(10) But when the first came, they supposed that they should have received more.—Up to this time we may think of the disciples as having listened with an eager interest, yet only half-perceiving, if at all, the drift of the parable, looking, it may be, for some payment to the first-called labourers proportionate to the duration of their service. Now, unless they were altogether blind, they must have seen their own thoughts reflected in the parable. They too, as their question showed, had been expecting to receive more. Eternal life was not enough for them, without some special prerogative and precedence over others. The fact that the first labourers were paid their wages gives a touch of gentleness to what would otherwise have seemed the severity of the parable. The presence of a self-righteous, self-seeking spirit mars the full blessedness of content; but if the work has been done, it does not deprive men altogether of their reward. The labourers who murmured are, in this respect, in the same position as the elder son in the parable of the Prodigal, who was told, in answer to his complaints, that all that his father had was his (Luke 15:31).


Verse 11

(11) They murmured—i.e., as the Greek tense shows, with repeated and prolonged murmurs.

The goodman of the house.—Better, householder. The Greek word is the same as in Matthew 20:1, and the archaic English phrase is a needless variation.


Verse 12

(12) But one hour.—Literally, in what was probably the technical language of labourers, made but one hour:

The burden and heat of the day.—The word rendered “heat” is elsewhere used—as in James 1:11, and the LXX. of Jonah 4:8—for the “burning wind” that often follows on the sunrise, and makes the labour of the first half of the day harder than that of the latter.


Verse 13

(13) Friend.—The word so translated (literally, comrade, companion) always carries, with it in our Lord’s lips a tone of reproof. It is addressed to the man who had not on a wedding garment (Matthew 22:12), and to the traitor Judas (Matthew 26:50).

I do thee no wrong.—The answer of the house holder is that of one who is just where claims are urged on the ground of justice, generous where he sees that generosity is right. Had the first-called labourers shared this generosity, they would not have grudged the others the wages that they themselves received, and would have found their own reward in sympathy with their joy. This would be true even in the outer framework of the parable. It is à fortiori true when we pass to its spiritual interpretation. No disciple who had entered into his Master’s spirit would grudge the repentant thief his rest in Paradise (Luke 23:43). No consistent Christian thinks that he ought to have some special reward because he sees a death-bed repentance crowned by a peace, the foretaste of eternal life, as full and assured as his own.


Verse 14

(14) Take that thine is, and go thy way.—The tone of dismissal is natural and intelligible in the parable. The question, What answers to it in God’s dealings with men? is not so easy to answer. If the “penny” which each received was the gift of eternal life, did those who answered to the murmuring labourers receive that, or were they excluded by their discontent from all share in it? Was the money which they received as “fairy-gold” that turned to a withered leaf in the hands of its thankless possessor? The answer is, perhaps, to be found in the thought that that reward lies in the presence of God to the soul of the disciple, and that this depends for its blessedness on the harmony between the character of the believer and the mind of God. Heaven is not a place, but a state, its happiness is not sensual but spiritual, and those who are in it share its blessedness in proportion as they are like God and see Him as He is. It is only perfect when their charity is like His.


Verse 15

(15) Is it not lawful . . .?—The question is not that of one who asserts an arbitrary right; it appeals tacitly to a standard which none could question. As far as the labourer was concerned, the householder had a right to give freely of what was his own. He was responsible to God only. In the interpretation of the parable, God was Himself the Householder, and men ought to have sufficient faith in Him to accept the gifts to some which wrought no wrong to others as in harmony with absolute righteousness.

Is thine eye evil?—The “evil eye” was, as in Proverbs 28:22, that which looked with envy and ill will at the prosperity of others. In Mark 7:22, it appears among the “evil things” that come from the heart. Popularly, as the derivation of the word “envy” (from invidere) shows, such a glance was thought to carry with it a kind of magic power to injure, and was to be averted, in the superstitious belief which still lingers in the East and many parts of Europe, by charms and amulets.


Verse 16

(16) So the last shall be first.—This, then, is the great lesson of the parable, and it answers at once the question whether we are to see in it the doctrine of an absolute equality in the blessedness of the life to come. There also there will be some first, some last, but the difference of degree will depend, not on the duration of service, nor even on the amount of work done, but on the temper and character of the worker. Looking to the incident which gave rise to the parable, we can scarcely help tracing a latent reference to the “young ruler” whom the disciples had hastily condemned, but in whom the Lord, who “loved” him (Mark 10:21), saw the possibility of a form of holiness higher than that which they were then displaying, if only he could overcome the temptation which kept him back when first called to work in his Master’s vineyard in his Master’s way. His judgment was even then reversing theirs.

For many be called, but few chosen.—The warning is repeated after the parable of the Wedding Feast (Matthew 22:14), and as it stands there in closer relation with the context, that will be the fitting place for dwelling on it. The better MSS., indeed, omit it here. If we accept it as the true reading, it adds something to the warning of the previous clause. The disciples had been summoned to work in the vineyard. The indulgence of the selfish, murmuring temper might hinder their “election” even to that work. Of one of the disciples, whose state may have been specially present to our Lord’s mind, this was, we know, only too fatally true. Judas had been “called,” but would not be among the “chosen” either for the higher work or for its ultimate reward-Interpreting the parable as we have been led to interpret it, we cannot for a moment imagine that its drift was to teach the disciples that they would forfeit their place in the kingdom. A wider interpretation is, of course, possible, and has been often applied, in which the first-called labourers answer to the Jews, and those who came afterwards to converts in the successive stages of the conversion of the Gentiles. But this, though perhaps legitimate enough as an application of the parable, is clearly secondary and subordinate, and must not be allowed to obscure its primary intention.


Verse 17

(17) And Jesus going up to Jerusalem.—The narrative is not continuous, and in the interval between Matthew 20:16-17 we may probably place our Lord’s “abode beyond Jordan” (John 10:40), the raising of Lazarus, and the short sojourn in the city called Ephraim (John 11:54). This would seem to have been followed by a return to Persea, and then the journey to Jerusalem begins. The account in St. Mark adds some significant facts. “Jesus went” (literally, was going—implying continuance) “before them.” It was as though the burden of the work on which He was entering pressed heavily on His soul. The shadow of the cross had fallen on Him. He felt something of the conflict which reached its full intensity in Gethsemane, and therefore He needed solitude that He might prepare Himself for the sacrifice by communing with His Father; and instead of journeying with the disciples and holding “sweet converse” with them, went on silently in advance. This departure from His usual custom, and, it may be, the look and manner that accompanied it, impressed the disciples, as was natural, very painfully. “They were amazed, and as they followed, were afraid.” It was apparently as explaining what had thus perplexed them that He took the Twelve apart from the others that followed (including probably the Seventy and the company of devout women of Luke 8:2) and told them of the nearness of His passion.


Verse 18

(18) Behold, we go up to Jerusalem.—The words repeat in substance what had been previously stated after the Transfiguration (Matthew 17:22), but with greater definiteness. Jerusalem is to be the scene of His suffering, and their present journey is to end in it, and “the chief priests and scribes” are to be the chief actors in it, and “the Gentiles” are to be their instruments in it. The mocking, the spitting (Mark 10:34), the scourging, the crucifixion, all these are new elements in the prediction, as if what had before been presented in dim outline to the disciples was now brought vividly, in every stage of its progress, before His mind and theirs.


Verse 19

(19) And the third day he shall rise again.—This, as before, came as a sequel of the prediction that seemed so terrible. The Master looked beyond the suffering to the victory over death, but the disciples could not enter into the meaning of the words that spoke of it. St. Luke, indeed (as if he had gathered from some of those who heard them what had been their state of feeling at the time), reports that “they understood none of these things, and this saying was hid from them, neither understood they the things that were spoken” (Luke 18:34). All was to them as a dark and dim dream, a cloud upon their Master’s soul which time, they imagined, would disperse.


Verse 20

(20) Then came to him the mother of Zebedee’s children.—The state of feeling described in the previous Note supplies the only explanation of a request so strange. The mother of James and John (we find on comparing Matthew 27:56 and Mark 15:40, that her name was Salome) was among those who “thought that the kingdom of God should immediately appear” (Luke 19:11); and probably the words so recently spoken, which promised that the Twelve should sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel (Matthew 19:28) had fastened on her thoughts, as on those of her sons, to the exclusion of those which spoke of suffering and death. And so, little mindful of the teaching of the parable they had just heard, they too expected that they should receive more than others, and sought (not, it may be, without some jealousy of Peter) that they might be nearest to their Lord in that “regeneration” which seemed to them so near. The mother came to ask for her sons what they shrank from asking for themselves, and did so with the act of homage (“worshipping Him”) which implied that she was speaking to a King.


Verse 21

(21) The one on thy right hand.—The favour which had already been bestowed might, in some degree, seem to warrant the petition. John was known emphatically as “the disciple whom Jesus loved” (John 13:23; John 19:26; John 20:2), and if we may infer a general practice from that of the Last Supper (John 13:23), he sat near Him at their customary meals. James was one of the chosen three who had been witnesses of the Transfiguration (Matthew 17:1). Both had been marked out for special honour by the new name of the Sons of Thunder (Mark 3:17). The mother might well think that she was but asking for her sons a continuance of what they had hitherto enjoyed. The sternness of our Lord’s words to Peter (Matthew 16:23) might almost justify the thought that his position had been forfeited.


Verse 22

(22) Ye know not what ye ask.—The words come to us as spoken in a tone of infinite tenderness and sadness. That nearness to Him in His glory could be obtained only by an equal nearness in suffering. Had they counted the cost of that nearness?

To drink of the cup that I shall drink of.—The words that follow, “to be baptised with the baptism that I am baptised with,” are not found in many of the best MSS., and have probably been added to bring St. Matthew’s narrative into harmony with St. Mark’s. For the sake of completeness, however, they will be examined here. And (1) we have the question, How did the two disciples understand our Lord’s words? We are familiar with their meaning. Was it equally clear to them? As far as the cup is concerned, there can be little doubt that any reader of the Old Testament would at once recognise it as the symbol of a good or evil fortune. There was the “cup running over” of Psalms 23:5, the “wine-cup of fury” of Jeremiah 25:15, the “cup of astonishment and desolation” of Ezekiel 23:33. The meaning of the “baptism” was, perhaps, less obvious (see Note on Matthew 20:29, on our Lord’s use of the symbolism), yet here also there were the overwhelming “proud waters” of Psalms 124:5, the “waves and billows” of Psalms 42:7. The very verb, “to baptize” (i.e., to plunge into the deep), was used by Josephus for the destruction of a city (Wars, iv. 3, § 3), by the LXX. for “terrifying” in Isaiah 21:4. Our Lord Himself had already used it in dim mysterious reference to His coming passion (Luke 12:50, where see Note). There was enough, then, to lead them to see in their Master’s words an intimation of some great suffering about to fall on Him, and this is, indeed, implied in the very form of their answer. “We are able,” they say, in the tone of those who have been challenged and accept the challenge. That their insight into the great mystery of the passion went but a little way as compared with their Master’s, lies, of course, in the very nature of the case. When the beloved disciple, in after years, taught by his own experience and by his brother’s death (Acts 12:2), thought over the words, “Let this cup pass from Me” (26:39), he must have seen somewhat more clearly into its depth of meaning.


Verse 23

(23) Is not mine to give.—The words in italics are, of course, not in the Greek, and they spoil the true construction of the sentence. Our Lord does not say that it does not belong to Him to give what the disciples asked, but that He could only give it according to His Father’s will and the laws which He had fixed. Considered as a prediction, there was a singular contrast in the forms of its fulfilment in the future of the two brothers. James was the first of the whole company of the Twelve to pass through the baptism of blood (Acts 12:2). For John was reserved the weariness and loneliness of an old age surviving all the friendships and companionships of youth and manhood, the exile in Patmos, and the struggle with the great storm of persecution which raged throughout the empire under Nero and Domitian.

To them for whom it is prepared of my Father.—He does not say who these are; but the reappearance of the same words in Matthew 25:34, throws some light on its meaning here. The kingdom is reserved for those who do Christ-like deeds of love; the highest places in the kingdom must be reserved for those whose love is like His own, alike in its intensity and its width.


Verse 24

(24) Against the two brethren.—Literally, concerning, or about. The context shows that it was not a righteous indignation, as against that which was unworthy of true followers of Jesus, but rather the jealousy of rivals, angry that the two brothers should have taken what seemed an unfair advantage of our Lord’s known affection for them and for their mother.


Verse 25

(25) Ye know that the princes of the Gentiles.—No words of reproof could more strongly point the contrast between the true and the false views of the Messiah’s kingdom. The popular Jewish expectations, shared by the disciples, were really heathen in their character, substituting might for right, and ambition for the true greatness of service.

Exercise dominion over them.—Better, as in 1 Peter 5:3, lord it over them. It is not easy to find a like forcible rendering for the other word, but we must remember that it, too, implies a wrong exercise of authority, in the interest, not of the subjects, but of the rulers.


Verse 26

(26) Whosoever will be great.—Better, whosoever wisheth to be great. The man who was conscious, as the disciples were, of the promptings of ambition was at once to satisfy and purify them by finding his greatness in active service; not because that service leads to greatness of the type which natural ambition seeks for, but because it is in itself the truest and highest greatness.


Verse 27

(27) Whosoever will be chief.—Better, first, as continuing the thought of Matthew 20:16. The “servant” (better, slave) implies a lower and more menial service than that of the “minister” of the preceding verse, just as the “chief” or “first” involves a higher position than the “greatness” there spoken of. We introduce a false antithesis if we assign the “service” to this life, and the “greatness” as its reward to the life after death. The true teaching of the words is that the greatness is the service.


Verse 28

(28) Not to be ministered unto.—The words found a symbolic illustration when our Lord, a few days afterwards, washed the feet of the disciples who were still contending about their claims to greatness (John 13:3-4); and the manner in which St. John connects the act with our Lord’s manifested consciousness of His supreme greatness, seems to show that the words which we find here were then present to his thoughts. The Son of Man seemed to the beloved disciple never to have shown Himself so truly king like and divine as when engaged in that menial act. But that act, we must remember, was only an illustration; and the words found their true meaning in His whole life, in His poverty and humiliation, in the obedience of childhood, in service rendered, naturally or super-naturally, to the bodies or the souls of others.

To give his life a ransom for many.—The word rightly rendered “ransom,” is primarily “a price made for deliverance,” and in this sense it is found in the Greek version of the Old Testament for “the ransom” which is accepted instead of a man’s life in Exodus 21:30, for the “price of redemption” accepted as an equivalent for an unexpired term of service in Leviticus 25:50, for riches as the “ransom of a man’s life” in Proverbs 13:8. No shade of doubt accordingly rests on the meaning of the word. Those who heard could attach no other meaning to it than that He who spake them was about to offer up His life that others might be delivered. Seldom, perhaps, has a truth of such profound import been spoken, as it were, so incidentally. It is as if the words had been drawn from Him by the contrast between the disputes of the disciples and the work which had occupied His own thoughts as He walked on in silent solitude in advance of them. It is the first distinct utterance, we may note, of the plan and method of His work. He had spoken before of “saving” the lost (Matthew 18:11): now He declares that the work of “salvation” was to be also one of “redemption.” It could only be accomplished by the payment of a price, and that price was His own life. The language of the Epistles as to the “redemption that is in Christ Jesus,” our being “bought with a price” (Romans 3:24; 1 Corinthians 6:20), “redeemed by His precious blood” (1 Peter 1:19), the language of all Christendom in speaking of the Christ as our Redeemer, are the natural developments of that one pregnant word. The extent of the redemptive work, “for many,” is here indefinite rather than universal, but “the ransom for all” of 1 Timothy 2:6 shows in what sense it was received by those whom the Spirit of God was guiding into all truth. Even the preposition in, “for many” has a more distinct import than is given in the English version. It was, strictly speaking, a “ransom” instead of, in the place of, ( ἀντὶ not ὑπὲρ) “many.” Without stating a theory of the atonement, it implied that our Lord’s death was, in some way, representative and vicarious; and the same thought is expressed by St. Paul’s choice of the compound substantive ἀντίλυτρον, when, using a different preposition, he speaks of it as a ransom for ( ὑπὲρ, i.e., on behalf of) all men (1 Timothy 2:6).


Verse 29

(29) As they departed from Jericho.—Looking back to Matthew 19:1, which speaks of our Lord having departed “beyond Jordan,” we may believe that He crossed the river with His disciples at the ford near Jericho (Joshua 2:7). On this assumption, the imagery of Matthew 20:22 may have been in part suggested by the locality. The river recalled the memory of His first baptism, by water; that led on to the thought of the more awful baptism of agony and blood.


Verse 30

(30) Behold, two blind men sitting.—Two difficulties present themselves on comparing this narrative with the accounts of the same or a similar event in St. Mark and St. Luke. (1.) The former agrees with St. Matthew as to time and place, but speaks of one blind man only, and gives his name as “Bartimseus, the son of Timaeus.” (2.) The latter speaks of one only, and fixes the time of the miracle at our Lord’s entry into Jericho. The probable explanation of (1) is, that of the two men, the one whom St. Mark names was the more conspicuous and better known, and of (2), that St. Luke, visiting the scene and having the spot pointed out to him outside the gates of the city, was left to conjecture, or was misinformed, as to the work having been done when our Lord drew nigh unto it. The fact that St. Luke alone records the incident connected with Zacchæus (Luke 19:1-10) indicates either that he had been on the spot as an inquirer, or had sought for local sources of information. The assumption that he recorded a different miracle from St. Matthew and St. Mark is possible, but hardly probable, and certainly needless, except on a very rigid and a priori theory of inspiration. It is possible, again, that St. Luke’s local inquiries may have made his narrative more accurate than the recollection on which St. Matthew’s and St. Mark’s rested.

O Lord, thou son of David.—The blind men probably echoed the whispered murmurs of the crowd that was sweeping by, or, in any case, used (as did the woman of Canaan, Matthew 15:22) the most popular and widely diffused of the names of the Messiah. They were beggars, and they appealed to the pity of the King.


Verse 31

(31) The multitude rebuked them.—The silence of our Lord, the hushed reverence of the multitude, led men to look on the eager, clamorous supplication as intrusive. The entry of the Prophet about to claim His kingdom was not to be thus disturbed. But they were not to be silenced, and the litanies of Christendom for centuries have been modelled on the Kyrie Eleïson (“Lord, have mercy upon us”) which came from their lips.


Verse 32

(32) Jesus stood still, and called them.—Or, as in St. Mark, “bade them be called,” the message being given specially to Bartimæus. St. Mark gives, with a graphic fulness, the very words of the message, “Be of good cheer, arise; He calleth thee,” and adds that the blind man flung off his outer cloak, or mantle, and leapt up and came to Jesus. All three Gospels give our Lord’s question in the same, or nearly the same, words. He sought, as with the clear insight of sympathy, to know what was the special grief that weighed upon the man’s spirit.


Verse 33

(33) Lord.—St. Mark (Mark 10:51, in the Greek), after his manner, gives the Hebrew word, Rabboni (comp. John 20:16), which Bartimæus actually uttered.


Verse 34

(34) So Jesus had compassion.—Literally, and Jesus. It was not His purpose to meet the popular demand for signs and wonders, but compassion drew from Him the work of power which otherwise He would have shrunk from here. And then the two followed Him, glorifying God. In St. Luke’s narrative the incident is followed by the story of Zacchæus and the parable of the Pounds. Possibly (see Note on Matthew 20:30) they preceded it.

 


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Bibliography Information
Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on Matthew 20:4". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/ebc/matthew-20.html. 1905.

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