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Bible Commentaries
Matthew 20

Orchard's Catholic Commentary on Holy ScriptureOrchard's Catholic Commentary

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Verses 1-34

XX 1-16 Parable of the Vineyard Labourers (Mt only) —1. Not the householder but the whole situation in which he figures is comparable to the Kingdom, 13:24, note. He goes to the bazaar at daybreak (?µa p???+~) to find men standing waiting for hired work. Since we are in parable and not in allegory (see note to ch 13) it is unnecessary to seek an individual significance for the ’vineyard’, though in the allegory of Isaiah 5:1-7 it represents Israel.

2. After the usual bargaining, no doubt, the day’s wage is formally agreed upon (a circumstance to be remembered in view of what transpires)—a denarius, 17:24, note.

3-5. At nine, noon and three p.m. (the hours are reckoned from 6 a.m.) the man returns to the bazaar. His first visit was presumably at 6 a.m. The times, however, are merely schematic and should not be scrutinized for hidden meanings. No sum is now mentioned other than a ’fair wage’. In human affairs one would expect three-quarters, one half, one quarter of a denarius respectively.

6-7. One hour before sunset (the time-scheme is violently broken into to emphasize the lesson) the man hires the last of the unemployed— more, it would appear, from pity than from need.

8. The foreman is evidently given two unusual instructions. The first, though this is mentioned later to suspend the interest, is to give the same wage to all— and herein lies the point of the parable. The second is to begin with the ’last’, with the late-comers. The purpose of this odd procedure is to hold back the firstcomers as witnesses, hostile and critical, who will make objection and thus pave the way to the master’s reply. This reply, 13-15, holds the lesson of the parable.

9-12. The disgruntled bystanders complain only of the most extreme case of ’injustice’, though they might have complained of the other later groups. These ’last’ have worked for one hour, and that in the cool of the evening!

13-15. The master addresses the chief grumbler. His gentle tone (’friend’) recalls that of the Prodigal’s father addressing the elder son, Lk 15-31, nor is there irritation in ’go thy way’ (against KNT: ’away with thee!’; ?pa?e;cf. e.g. 8:4). He calmly reminds him of the agreement, duly observed by both parties. ’It is my wish’, he says, ’to give the last what have given to the first’. When justice has been done, should anyone complain if kindness plays its part? The eye (of the mind) should not see evil where there is only good. If it does, it must be a diseased eye.

16. Jesus has explained by parable his initial epigram: ’Many there shall be: first, last, and last, first 19:30, and concludes: ’It is in this way (DV ’so’) that the last shall be first and the first last’. It may be that we have in this parable only’ a striking picture of the divine generosity which gives without regard to the measures of strict justice’, Dodd, 122. In this case the parable insinuates a mistrust of works for their own sake (perhaps as a corrective to the reward promised in 19:27-29) to the advantage of the divine liberality. The concluding sentence, stripped of the violent contrast imposed by paradoxical form, implies simply that ’first’ and ’last’ (long or short service) merge into one another before God—not that he is indifferent to the distinction but that his mercy refuses to be restrained. (The ominous: Many are called but few are chosen, is perhaps not authentic here—Mark omits—but drawn from 22:14, where see note.) The ’murmurers’ of 11 do not necessarily figure the Pharisees; they may appear only with a parabolic purpose (8 note) similar to that of the Elder Brother in Luke 15:25 ff. This general lesson may not exhaust the parable. In Luke 13:30 the dictum of Matthew 20:16a is connected with the personnel of the Kingdom to which there may also be reference here. If so, the late-comers are the Gentiles (cf.Luke 13:29) who will flock to the Kingdom ahead of the mass of Israel; cf.Romans 11:25 f. And this because, although the whole Jewish race has been ’called’ to the Kingdom, only a few—the ’remnant’ spoken of by the prophets, e.g.Isaiah 1:9—have deserved to be ’chosen’ to belong to it; cf. Feuillet, RSR 34 ( 1947) 303-27.

E. Jerusalem XX 17-XXV 46. XX 17-19 Third Prediction of the Passion (Mark 10:32-34; Luke 18:31-34)—17. Passing from the plain across Jordan (19:1-2, note) our Lord hurries ahead of his apprehensive disciples and of others who follow (Mk) towards Jerusalem which lies on the western mountains before him. He turns to them as they follow and, for the third time (cf. 16:21; 17:22-23), speaks to the disciples alone (?at ’?d?a?) of his coming Passion and Resurrection.

18-19. The prophecy is more detailed than before. The death-sentence is to be engineered by the Sanhedrin and executed by the Romans. Mocking, scourging and (Mt only) crucifixion appear now for the first time. For the Apostles our Lord evidently wishes to soften the harsh notion of such an inglorious Messias by showing that he goes to his death consciously and freely. There is no remonstrance this time; cf. 16:23. It is clearly useless.

20-28 Ambition of the Sons of, Zebedee (Mark 10:35-48; Luke 22:25-26)—20. Zebedee’s wife, probably the Salome of Mark 15:40 (cf. Matthew 27:56), falling on her knees before Jesus (KNT; DV ’adoring’) has evidently some great favour to ask. Her presence suggests that of the other holy women whom we find later at the Cross and at the tomb.

21. Mother-like she is interested in her sons’ career, but it appears, that she profoundly misreads its true character. Our Lord’s ’kingdom’ though doubtless spiritual is for her, as for the expectant Jews in general, a place also for honours as the world knows them—a Religion-State. For James and John (cf. 4:21) she asks the first and second rank in the King’s hierarchy.

22. The mother has asked but the sons are answered: presumably they had confided their hopes to her, possibly even prompted her to ask. Though there is ambition here to be corrected, our Lord does not display the indignation he reserves for the Pharisees, 23:6. It must, therefore, have something of simplicity in it. Moreover, it is accompanied by docility since the brothers profess themselves ready to drink our Lord’s own bitter cup; cf. 26:42. The ’cup’ is a Hebrew metaphor for destiny—happy, as in Ps 15( 16) 5, or unhappy, as in Ps 74( 75) 9. 23. Like all our Lord’s worthy followers, 10:38 f., the brothers are to share his cross—an imitation of Christ which does not always suppose a martyr’s death. James was in fact beheaded in a.d. 44; John suffered torture and exile; cf.PL 2:49; 26:143. Nevertheless our Lord, speaking as the envoy of his Father, reserves to the Father’s eternal decree the honours of the Kingdom. He himself has already designated the primate of the Kingdom on earth, 16:18 f., but here he answers the question as it has been put, Mark 10:37, and speaks of the Kingdom in its final, glorious stage.

24-27. Nor will Jesus tolerate the spirit of ambition in his kingdom on earth. This spirit shows itself in the indignation of the ten even more than in the request of the two. It is a commonplace of political kingdoms that rulers are heavy-handed and their ministers officious (’their great ones domineer’ WV). There will be rank in our Lord’s kingdom, 16:18 f.; 19:28, but it must not be used for selfish ends. Let all know who would seek that rank that it is the rank of servant, 26, even of slave, 27.

28. In this too (cf. 22) our Lord is the model—Lord by nature, servant by deliberate choice, John 13:13 ff. He has already hinted, 18, 19, 22, the lengths to which he is prepared to go in this service; now he states it clearly, and his phrase contains, in germ, the whole dogma of redemption later developed by Paul. The Servant is to give his life in ransom (DV ’redemption’)—one life for the many. The Greek word used (??t???) is found twenty times in LXX where its meaning is variously the sum offered either in compensation for injury, or for the purchase of an object, or as the price of a slave’s manumission. It is the term used (in Numbers 3:12; LXX) even of human beings—the Levites, substituted for the firstborn in the temple-service. The evidence of contemporary profane Greek literature shows that the most natural sense of the word in our Lord’s time was certainly that of a slave’s ransom; see texts quoted in DBV(S) 3, 126. The idea of a human life offered as ransom (??Gt???) found in the 1st cent. a.d. (Philo of Byblos). Moreover, our Lord’s phrase must be read in the light of contemporary Jewish thought not unfamiliar with the idea of an expiatory death, 2 Mac 7:37 f. The same idea of expiation is found in Isaiah 53:10 where, as here, the expiation is the function of a Servant—the ’Servant of Yahweh’.

29-34 The Blind Men of Jericho (Mark 10:46-52; Luke 18:35-43)—29. Our Lord, making his way from Peraea, 19:1, towards Jerusalem, 20:17, passes through Jericho, the beautiful garden-town adorned architecturally by Herod the Great and by Archelaus. It lies little more than 5 m. to the W. of Jordan and 15 to the E. of Jerusalem but in the plain 3,300 ft below the capital. The approach of the Paschal season brought crowds to the neighbourhood. 30-31. On the way out of the town two blind men sit begging. Hearing that the passer-by is Jesus, the wonder-worker from Nazareth, they cry loudly for pity and refuse to be quieted. They address him as ’Son of David’, an indubitably Messianic title, and Jesus this time does not enjoin silence (contrast 9:30; see note). Open proclamation of Messiahship is no longer untimely: our Lord is himself about to enter Jerusalem as Messias, 21:1-9; he is himself to raise the question of the Messias in public, 22:42 ff., to speak openly as Israel’s saviour, 23:37-39, and solemnly to declare himself, 26:64. 32-34. The faith of the blind men is encouraged by our Lord’s call and by his gentle question, and they dare to give definite shape to their vague hopes. As at Capharnaum, 9:29, the fingers of the Light (cf.John 9:5-6) touch the blind eyes. Note on the Synoptic accounts: There seems no reasonable doubt that Mt, Mk, Lk all speak of the same incident though only one blind man is mentioned in Mk, Lk. It is probable that Mk, consciously or unconsciously, omits the second because he is interested in the first whom he evidently knows (’Bar-Timaios’ Mark 10:46). Lk, though here somewhat independent of Mk, follows him in this detail. The exact place of the miracle is uncertain: going out of Jericho (Mt, Mk), approaching Jericho (Lk). It may be ( Prat 2, 182, with hesitation) that one was healed on the way in, the other on the way out. Or ( Pirot, La Sainte Bible, Paris 1946, IX, 532) Lk may refer to the Herodian Jericho, Mt, Mk, to the old, deserted site a mile or two NNW. and through which our Lord would pass to the inhabited Jericho. It is perhaps more likely that the inspired authors are content with a vague indication (’near Jericho’)—an attitude which they so often adopt towards the chronological order of events; cf. Lagrange, L’Evangile, 418, footnote 2.

Bibliographical Information
Orchard, Bernard, "Commentary on Matthew 20". Orchard's Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/boc/matthew-20.html. 1951.
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