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Bible Commentaries

The Church Pulpit Commentary

Matthew 20

Verse 1


‘An householder … went out early in the morning to hire labourers into his vineyard.’

Matthew 20:1

Consider the details of this parable:

I. Labourers required.—The Lord requires labour, not idleness, on the part of those whom He sends into His vineyard: for ( a) He goes out early in the morning to hire labourers ( Matthew 20:1-2), and again and again hires more ( Matthew 20:3; Matthew 20:5-6), and ( b) He chides those standing ‘idle’ in the market-place ( Matthew 20:3; Matthew 20:6).

II. Not the criterion of reward.—Yet labour is not the criterion of reward, for He sets aside the supposition which the first-called entertained, that they should have received more than the last, because ( a) they had laboured so much longer, and ( b) had endured so much more hardship ( Matthew 20:10; Matthew 20:12).

III. The reward is of grace.—It is a gift, not earned by labours, though accompanied with loving labours: Matthew 20:14, ‘give.’ The gift flows from ( a) God’s sovereign will,—‘ I will give’; ( b) from God’s goodness,—‘I am good’ ( Matthew 20:15); ( c) therefore bargaining hirelings have no real share in it ( Matthew 20:2); nor boasters who rely on their length of labour and sacrifices ( Matthew 20:12); nor murmurers against God, who also are grudgers towards their fellow-labourers ( Matthew 20:11-12; compare Jude 1:16, James 5:9). They get their reward indeed, for God will be a debtor to no man: ‘Take that thine is’; ‘Didst not thou agree with me for a penny?’ ( Matthew 20:2; Matthew 20:13-14). But it is not the everlasting reward. So ( d) the warning and at the same time the comforting conclusion from the whole follows, ‘the last shall be first and the first last: for many be called, but few chosen’ ( Matthew 20:16).

—Canon A. R. Fausset.


‘Without attempting to apply every detail, it may well be pointed out how the parable represents the rejection of the Jews and the call of the Gentiles; how the Jews in the days of Abraham, Moses, and the prophets had repeated calls to work in God’s vineyard, while the Gentiles, without knowledge of God, had stood idly outside; how the Jews, by pride, hypocrisy, and self-seeking, merited rejection; how the Gentiles at the eleventh hour were to be called, notwithstanding the envy and opposition of the Jews. Thus, historically, the first were to be last, and the last first.’

Verses 1-34


‘Why stand ye here all the day idle? They say unto him, Because no man hath hired us.’

Matthew 20 part Matthew 20:6-7

This parable is one of the most difficult in the New Testament, because, at first sight, there seems to have been a serious miscarriage of justice. But the householder represents God, and such an imputation is therefore impossible. Two considerations diminish the difficulty.

I. Motive of sacrifice.—Our Lord taught that God estimates sacrifice by ( a) the motive which prompts it, ( b) the spirit that graces it, ( c) the ‘character’ that is evolved from it. The first labourers who came forward had to be bargained with; a definite agreement was struck—and adhered to—a penny a day. Those who came at the eleventh hour seem to have been of different character; less mercenary, more trustful; and they are treated generously in return.

II. Lack of opportunity.—Listen to their reason for being idle—‘because no man hath hired us.’ Here, then, is a conspicuous instance, not of injustice, but the great and infinite justice of God, Who will not treat a lack of opportunity as a lack of service. If you have had no chance, but have longed, and sought, and hoped to serve Him, but failed to find opportunity, when the hour comes, God will accept your good intentions and sincere desires; there is only one thing He will not accept, but punish, that is lack of willingness to do anything.

III. ‘Go, work.’—If there is one aspect of the Gospel more than another put before us in this parable, it is the aspect of work. It is not ‘Come and save your souls,’ but ‘Go ye and work!’ The world is full of unflagging energy; the one anomaly is the man who is idle. A man may not have to work for his living, and yet he may ‘work in God’s vineyard,’ by devoting his money, talents, time, and himself to the service of his country, the Church, and God. Idleness, in the Bible sense of the word, is the non-realisation that life is a service. All have not the same, some not many, some very few, gifts; but the honest doing of the smallest service for God, if according to our power, will hallow all the life.

IV. The hire given.—‘Call the labourers and give them their hire.’ When the quick and dead shall answer to that call, God grant that we may appear before Him, not as idlers, but as labourers, even though we be the last amongst the last.

Prebendary J. Storrs.


‘ “Why stand ye here all the day idle?” Very few of us can say, “Because no man hath hired us.” We are living in the midst of a thousand necessities. The cry, calling for us to work for God, comes from all sides, from undermanned parishes, from the underfed masses, and indeed the overfed classes; from many of our own clergy, crushed by penury, to the breaking of the spirit and the clouding of the brain; from the countless thousands of the lost and tempted, the sick and the suffering. It is for us to keep ears and eyes open, and hearts in touch with our fellows, and then the opportunity will arise, the call, in some form, will come.’



This fragment of the parable is itself a parable. Let us separate from the rest of the parable these five words: ‘No man hath hired us.’

I. God’s care.—The text shows us that there is a God Who concerns Himself about us, Who comes in, as it were, day by day to notice and to question—nay, who rather does not need to come in, for He is here—here in necessity of a Divine omnipresence.

II. God’s call.—God has a work going on everywhere. The work for which He employs men is the work of man’s moral culture. He has to form in man a God-like character. All His redeemed are the workmen. The work which God permits to every man is a twofold work.

( a) Each individual soul is a vineyard, and he has charge of it—the weeding and tending of that heart out of which issues the life.

( b) Life itself is a vineyard—the life of a man as it is lived amongst his fellows. The life of the family in which each one of us is a son, a brother, a daughter, a sister—here is a sheltered spot of the vineyard in which God bids us work, and in which many stand in God’s sight all the day idle.

III. What answer are we making?—We are here some of us in the early morning of life, and some have reached the eleventh hour. Still the same call, patient and long-suffering, is in all our ears. Honestly, are we really at work in God’s vineyard, or are we in God’s sight still standing idle? The selfish life is an idle life.

The Rev. A. Clark.


‘There must of necessity be great variety in the work to be done by each in the vineyard of life, but amidst all this variety there is unity. Go where you may, you cannot escape the call to be God’s workman. God bids clergyman to go into the vineyard, but call to him is not substantially different from the call to any other man. God calls the soldier, the lawyer, the business man to work in His vineyard. Neither is sex any restriction. God calls the woman in her many duties to work in His vineyard. God bids us set before ourselves in youth as in age this one object—so to live as to make others better, so to live as to make God known.’

Verse 8


‘When even was come, the lord of the vineyard saith unto his steward, Call the labourers and give them their hire.’

Matthew 20:8

The householder goes out early in the morning, and then, when eventide is come, he, the owner of the vast and beautiful vineyard, calls the labourers.

I. The call.—The voice and the call of the Householder have come to us. They came in the morning of life. Can you remember that morning, you who are stricken in years, you who are toiling in mid-day life? Can you not remember when your dreams, like Joseph’s, were made of such stuff as godly ambition is made of; when you felt that the whole world was before you, and you heard God’s voice bidding you, ‘Go, work,’ in His vineyard. Illustrate from Moses, Samuel, Isaiah. You may remember faintly still how you went forth. But behind it all you feel that the great Householder was He Who determined your lot, and the decision was with the Lord.

II. The work.—Are there not twelve hours of the day in which it behoveth man to work? You went forth to your work, and now each season asks, ‘How are you doing it? Now that one hour and another and another are striking over your head, are you fulfilling the work which you then, with best resolves, intended to do?’

III. The unity in life.—Our early feelings and joys blend with our later ones. At any hour, ‘something attempted, something done’ gives joy.

IV. At eventide.—There is such a thing as a dark, dreary, godless old age; a sunset dark with gathering clouds. The eventide is coming. The Householder is continually calling. Keep the eventide in your thoughts, the reckoning in your faith, that you may hear the Master’s ‘Well done.’

—Canon Rowsell.

Verse 16


‘So the last shall be first, and the first last; for many be called, but few chosen.’

Matthew 20:16

St. Peter tells us there are many things in the Bible hard to be understood. This is one of them. It is necessary to read the whole discourse in the midst of which it comes. The young man’s question, ‘What shall I do that I may inherit eternal life?’ led to the Lord’s warning of the danger of earthly riches. He explained to the disciples the reward of those who fully follow Him, and added, ‘Many, therefore, that are first shall be last, and the last first.’ This solemn truth He explained by the homely parable of the labourers in the vineyard.

I. The dangerous practical perversion to which the parable is liable is twofold. It may foster sloth (people saying, ‘I must wait till I am called before I set to work at all’) or presumption (people thinking that they will fare just as well at the great payment of wages if they begin to work at the eleventh hour).

II. Every baptized Christian is ‘called,’ and the Apostle in his exhortation ‘to walk worthy,’ etc. gives the practical rules for daily life and work. Who then can say that God has not given him enough to do? God has called us to Holiness: our duties await us every morning.

III. God measures our claims upon His favour by our earnestness and our opportunities. He will not ask us how long we have known His will, but whether, since we have known it, we have done it.

IV. Your work never done.—In spiritual things a day is a lifetime. On this side of the grave it is all work; on the other it will be all rest.

—Bishop Fraser.

Verses 21-22


‘Grant that these my two sons may sit, the one on Thy right hand, and the other on the left, in Thy kingdom. But Jesus answered and said, Ye know not what ye ask. Are ye able to drink of the cup that I shall drink of, and to be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?’

Matthew 20:21-22

This mother of the two sons who had such high expectations for her boys was the type of many a mother before and since,

I. The purpose of life is character.—The purpose of life is not what the world calls happiness, but character. The real purpose, then, of the training of the boys on whom we think to-day is far higher than appears at first sight. To be successful barristers, brave soldiers, useful administrators is one thing: to be characters fitted to live for ever with God and the holy angels is not contradictory to the first, but is quite another.

II. Christ the pattern.—Having once grasped the first truth, it is not very difficult to grasp the second. Christ was the Pattern for all ages of the training of a perfect son for a deathless future. He learned obedience, we are told, by the things that He suffered. He was perfected through suffering. ‘For their sakes I sanctify myself,’ He said Himself, ‘that they also might be sanctified through the truth’; and here is the second great truth of life. In not a single instance is a son to-day asked to drink any cup which the Perfect Son did not drink first Himself.

III. Heaven-sent discipline.—There must be, then, some connection between drinking of cups and sitting on the right hand of God, and good reason for our belief that the mother’s prayer was not disregarded but answered, as so often happens, in a different way; and the connection is this: If heaven is formed by character, character is formed by discipline, and the drinking of the cups is heaven-sent discipline which perfects the character. O mother at thy prayers, O father whose heart is set upon the future of your boy, look not thou down but up! Leave him in the Lord’s hand to mould him.

And what is the spirit of that prayer as applied to our own time? Surely it is, that our boys may have grace given to them that they may day by day live near to Jesus Christ. The storms of temptation may break upon them, but if they are living in the realised Presence of Jesus all will be well with them—well with them here and well with them hereafter.

Bishop A. F. Winnington-Ingram.


‘None of the mothers of to-day need fear to pray the Lord to let their boys be as near Him as they can, and as high up in the Kingdom of Grace, and afterwards of Glory, as it is possible for them to be. He gives the mother’s love, He hears the mother’s prayers, and knows that nine-tenths of the goodness among men in the world to-day is due to the faith, and prayer, and influence of their mothers who have made them what they are.

Verse 22


Are ye able to drink of the cup …? They say unto Him, We are able.’

Matthew 20:22

It is a grand answer. Both these disciples are accepted. There is no promise given of crown or rule, but they shall be with Him in His sufferings.

I. The promise fulfilled.—Both had the cup. Was it more bitter to one than the other? St. James was called to drink very soon after the Lord was gone, killed by the sword of Herod. By the baptism of blood he went to Jesus. St. John’s reward was different. It was his lot to wait, until when he was a hundred years old the call name, and he entered into the kingdom for which he had so long before desired. They drank, they were baptized, and they are with their Lord.

II. Its modern application.—Jesus Christ is in the world still, and still He calls men to follow Him. Some have the thought of serving Him in His priesthood, others of entering the religious life as Sisters or Brothers. Some may have in mind service in the missions of the Church, not held back by the knowledge that many have there suffered and died. Others whose life is to be lived at home may have seen a light that pointed them to more faithful service there in devotion to Jesus, in the lot where He has called them. It is the cup of Jesus they all desire; it is work, suffering, danger for Him, and He will be with them in it. There is a thought for us all, not to be afraid of enthusiasm in our religion, not to be ready to check it in ourselves or others. Many fail; they have not learnt to say, ‘We are able.’ And how many there are who have not responded to some special vocation of God we shall never know.

III. Not always the same cup.—The cup was not the same for both the Sons of Thunder. So now there are different ways in which prayers are answered, and the gifts of God come in different ways. If another seems to have a special call, do not be jealous. God has a call for you, whether greater or less you do not know. Be true to your own call.

—Bishop E. W. Osborne.


‘The night before his consecration a Bishop of Mashonaland was presented with a beautiful cross engraved with the Greek word Dunametha, “We are able.” No man has greater need of enthusiasm in his work, far off in the interior of Africa. Think what that cross must be to him. In long journeys by train or in bullock-waggons, by the side of gold mines, amid, perhaps, reckless Europeans, or in native kraals, amid untaught, copper-coloured men and women; in heat by day and freezing cold by night, when baptizing with joy many followers of Christ, or hearing some sad story of dejection or disappointment, the cross and its message are ever there, “We are able.” It tells him of the two great souls who first said the words, and were accepted. It tells him of the call that came to him, and of his response when God chose him for a bishop, and so awakes in him, again and again, the spirit of enthusiasm, of devotion. And if ever in weariness and sorrow he waits on his knees for help, the cross upon his breast will tell him of the nearness of Him for whom he carries it, and he too will hear the voice, “You shall indeed drink of My cup; but fear not, for I am with you.” Will he not again rise up, and, joining himself in spirit with the other two, say humbly and confidently, “We are able”?’

Verse 28


‘The Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister.’

Matthew 20:28

It is true not only of the first beginnings of our Lord’s reign on earth, when He was the despised and rejected of men, but all through.

I. To whom did He minister?—To all men, and to the whole man, body, soul, and spirit; no one, nothing, was outside the sphere of His ministration.

II. Why did He minister?—Because He would help the helpless; For us men and for our salvation He came down from Heaven.’ He came to give the glorious liberty of the children of God in place of sin’s slavery; to replace the tyranny of evil by the freedom of Divine Grace.

III. Through what channel did He minister?—Through the channel of a common humanity. ‘He was made like unto His brethren.’ He was and is the ‘Son of man.’

IV. In what spirit did He minister?—A spirit of humility, self-sacrifice, patient endurance, and toil.

V. How did He minister?—Through the law of association. He did not only deliver a message and proclaim a Gospel, but He built a Church, a city of God, where they might go in and out and find safety, a Kingdom, a concrete fact, a visible reality, in which all men might be gathered in.

—Dean Ridgeway.

Verses 32-33


‘Jesus stood still, and called them, and said, What will ye that I shall do unto you? They say unto Him, Lord, that our eyes may be opened.’

Matthew 20:32-33

An ordinary day; an ordinary Eastern scene; a great multitude; a central Figure, and at the fringe of the crowd, sitting by the wayside, two blind men. Let us change the scene: an ordinary day? No! This is Sunday. Nor is this an ordinary place; it is God’s house, and Jesus is in our midst. Some here, it may be, are silting in the darkness and in the shadow of death, feeling their need—their need of light, seeking relief, yet they are hindered by the multitude. It matters not whether the multitude be your thoughts or be the things concerning you, or your neighbours right and left. Lift up your voice; you have at least one listener in the midst.

I. Causes of blindness.—There are various causes for physical blindness; there are various causes for spiritual blindness. Some are blind spiritually through pride— pride of birth it may be. And there are others who are blind because of the pride of wealth. Some are blind through pride of person. Some are spiritually blind through covetousness (e.g. Judas Iscariot). And some are blind spiritually from pleasure.

II. The compassionate Saviour.—Jesus to-day in our midst stands still and has compassion. He shall touch the blind souls of men again to-day and there shall be an eternal dawn. It was a new world which opened to the blind men of Jericho; it is a new world which opens to every human soul that realises the love and the touch and the compassion of Jesus.

III. The result of opened eyes.—The first result will be that you will see invisible things. Elisha’s servant is an illustration to us of one whose eyes were opened. When our eyes are opened we realise that we fight not only against flesh and blood, but against principalities and powers, the unseen forces that are against us. But while we realise the danger, we also realise that He Who is with us is more than all that be against us. We see Jesus, and He becomes the centre of our lives. And, lastly, the result of opened eyes is not only that we see invisible things, not only that we see Jesus, but also that we follow Him.

Bishop J. Taylor Smith.

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Bibliographical Information
Nisbet, James. "Commentary on Matthew 20". The Church Pulpit Commentary. 1876.