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THE MASTER SEEKS HIS WORKERS ( Matthew 20:1-16 )
20:1-16 "For the situation in the Kingdom of Heaven is like what happened when a householder went out first thing in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. When he had come to an agreement with them that they would work for 4 pence a day, he sent them into his vineyard. He went out again about nine o'clock in the morning, and saw others standing idle in the market-place. He said to them, 'Go you also into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.' And they went. He went out again about twelve o'clock midday, and about three o'clock in the afternoon, and did the same. About five o'clock in the evening he went out and found others standing there, and said to them, 'Why are you standing here the whole day idle?' They said to him, 'Because no one has hired us.' He said to them, 'Go you also to the vineyard.' When evening came, the master of the vineyard said to his steward, 'Call the workers, and give them their pay, beginning from the last and going on until you come to the first.' So, when those who had been engaged about five o'clock in the afternoon, came, they received 4 pence each. Those who had come first thought that they would receive more; but they too received 4 pence each. When they received it, they grumblingly complained against the master. 'These last,' they said, 'have only worked for one hour, and you have made them equal to us, who have home the burden and the hot wind of the day.' He answered one of them, 'Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not come to an agreement with me to work for 4 pence ? Take what is yours and go! It is my will to give to this last man the same as to you. Can I not do what I like with my own money? Or, are you grudging because I am generous?' Even so the last shall be first, and the first shall be last."
This parable may sound to us as if it described a purely imaginary situation, but that is far from being the case. Apart from the method of payment, the parable describes the kind of thing that frequently happened at certain times in Palestine. The grape harvest ripened towards the end of September, and then close on its heels the rains came. If the harvest was not ingathered before the rains broke, then it was ruined; and so to get the harvest in was a frantic race against time. Any worker was welcome, even if he could give only an hour to the work.
The pay was perfectly normal; a denarius or a drachma was the normal day's wage for a working man; and, even allowing for the difference in modern standards and in purchasing power, 4 pence a day was not a wage which left any margin.
The men who were standing in the market-place were not street-corner idlers, lazing away their time. The market-place was the equivalent of the labour exchange. A man came there first thing in the morning, carrying his tools, and waited until someone hired him. The men who stood in the market-place were waiting for work, and the fact that some of them stood on until even five o'clock in the evening is the proof of how desperately they wanted it.
These men were hired labourers; they were the lowest class of workers, and life for them was always desperately precarious. Slaves and servants were regarded as being at least to some extent attached to the family; they were within the group; their fortunes would vary with the fortunes of the family, but they would never be in any imminent danger of starvation in normal times. It was very different with the hired day-labourers. They were not attached to any group; they were entirely at the mercy of chance employment; they were always living on the semi-starvation line. As we have seen, the pay was 4 pence a day; and, if they were unemployed for one day, the children would go hungry at home, for no man ever saved much out of 4 pence a day. With them, to be unemployed for a day was disaster.
The hours in the parable were the normal Jewish hours. The Jewish day began at sunrise, 6 a.m., and the hours were counted from then until 6 p.m., when officially the next day began. Counting from 6 a.m. therefore, the third hour is 9 a.m., the sixth hour is twelve midday, and the eleventh hour is 5 p.m.
This parable gives a vivid picture of the kind of thing which could happen in the market-place of any Jewish village or town any day, when the grape harvest was being rushed in to beat the rains.
WORK AND WAGES IN THE KINGDOM OF GOD ( Matthew 20:1-16 continued)
C. G. Montefiore calls this parable "one of the greatest and most glorious of all." It may indeed have had a comparatively limited application when it was spoken for the first time; but it contains truth which goes to the very heart of the Christian religion. We begin with the comparatively limited significance it originally had.
(i) It is in one sense a warning to the disciples. It is as if Jesus said to them, "You have received the great privilege of coming into the Christian Church and fellowship very early, right at the beginning. In later days others will come in. You must not claim a special honour and a special place because you were Christians before they were. All men, no matter when they come, are equally precious to God."
There are people who think that, because they have been members of a Church for a long time, the Church practically belongs to them and they can dictate its policy. Such people resent what seems to them the intrusion of new blood or the rise of a new generation with different plans and different ways. In the Christian Church seniority does not necessarily mean honour.
(ii) There is an equally definite warning to the Jews. They knew that they were the chosen people, nor would they ever willingly forget that choice. As a consequence they looked down on the Gentiles. Usually they hated and despised them, and hoped for nothing but their destruction. This attitude threatened to be carried forward into the Christian Church. If the Gentiles were to be allowed into the fellowship of the Church at all, they must come in as inferiors.
"In God's economy," as someone has said, "there is no such thing as a most favoured nation clause." Christianity knows nothing of the conception of a herrenvolk, a master race. It may well be that we who have been Christian for so long have much to learn from those younger Churches who are late-comers to the fellowship of the faith.
(iii) These are the original lessons of this parable, but it has very much more to say to us.
In it there is the comfort of God. It means that no matter when a man enters the Kingdom, late or soon, in the first flush of youth, in the strength of the midday, or when the shadows are lengthening, he is equally dear to God. The Rabbis had a saying, "Some enter the Kingdom in an hour; others hardly enter it in a lifetime." In the picture of the holy city in the Revelation there are twelve gates. There are gates on the East which is the direction of the dawn, and whereby a man may enter in the glad morning of his days; there are gates on the West which is the direction of the setting sun, and whereby a man may enter in his age. No matter when a man comes to Christ, he is equally dear to him.
May we not go even further with this thought of comfort? Sometimes a man dies full of years and full of honour, with his day's work ended and his task completed. Sometimes a young person dies almost before the door of life and achievement have opened at all. From God they will both receive the same welcome, for both Jesus Christ is waiting, and for neither, in the divine sense, has life ended too soon or too late.
(iv) Here, also, is the infinite compassion of God. There is an element of human tenderness in this parable.
There is nothing more tragic in this world than a man who is unemployed, a man whose talents are rusting in idleness because there is nothing for him to do. Hugh Martin reminds us that a great teacher used to say that the saddest words in all Shakespeare's plays are the words: "Othello's occupation's gone." In that market-place men stood waiting because no one had hired them; in his compassion the master gave them work to do. He could not bear to see them idle.
Further, in strict justice the fewer hours a man worked, the less pay he should have received. But the master well knew that 4p a day was no great wage; he well knew that, if a workman went home with less, there would be a worried wife and hungry children; and therefore he went beyond justice and gave them more than was their due.
As it has been put, this parable states implicitly two great truths which are the very charter of the working man--the right of every man to work and the right of every man to a living wage for his work.
(v) Here also is the generosity of God. These men did not all do the same work; but they did receive the same pay. There are two great lessons here. The first is, as it has been said, "All service ranks the same with God." It is not the amount of service given, but the love in which it is given which matters. A man out of his plenty may give us a gift of a hundred pounds, and in truth we are grateful; a child may give us a birthday or Christmas gift which cost only a few pence but which was laboriously and lovingly saved up for--and that gift, with little value of its own, touches our heart far more. God does not look on the amount of our service. So long as it is all we have to give, all service ranks the same with God.
The second lesson is even greater--all God gives is of grace. We cannot earn what God gives us; we cannot deserve it; what God gives us is given out of the goodness of his heart; what God gives is not pay, but a gift; not a reward, but a grace.
(vi) Surely that brings us to the supreme lesson of the parable--the whole point of work is the spirit in which it is done. The servants are clearly divided into two classes. The first came to an agreement with the master; they had a contract; they said, "We work, if you give us so much pay." As their conduct showed, all they were concerned with was to get as much as possible out of their work. But in the case of those who were engaged later, there is no word of contract; all they wanted was the chance to work and they willingly left the reward to the master.
A man is not a Christian if his first concern is pay. Peter asked: "What do we get out of it?" The Christian works for the joy of serving God and his fellow-men. That is why the first will be last and the last will be first. Many a man in this world, who has earned great rewards, will have a very low place in the Kingdom because rewards were his sole thought. Many a man, who, as the world counts it, is a poor man, will be great in the Kingdom, because he never thought in terms of reward but worked for the thrill of working and for the joy of serving. It is the paradox of the Christian life that he who aims at reward loses it, and he who forgets reward finds it.
TOWARDS THE CROSS ( Matthew 20:17-19 )
20:17-19 As he was going up to Jerusalem, Jesus took the twelve disciples apart, and said to them, while they were on the road, "Look you, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be delivered to the chief priests and the Scribes, and they will condemn him to death, and they will hand him over to the Gentiles to mock, and to scourge, and to crucify; and on the third day he will be raised."
This is the third time that Jesus warned his disciples that he was on the way to the Cross ( Matthew 16:21; Matthew 17:22-23). Both Mark and Luke add their own touches to the story, to show that on this occasion there was in the atmosphere of the apostolic band a certain tenseness and a certain foreboding of tragedy to come. Mark says that Jesus was walking ahead by himself, and that the disciples were amazed and afraid ( Mark 10:32-34). They did not understand what was happening, but they could see in every line of Jesus' body the struggle of his soul. Luke, too, tells how Jesus took the disciples to himself alone that he might try to compel them to understand what lay ahead ( Luke 18:31-34). There is here the first decisive step to the last act of the inescapable tragedy. Jesus deliberately and open-eyed sets out for Jerusalem and the Cross.
There was a strange inclusiveness in the suffering to which Jesus looked forward; it was a suffering in which no pain of heart or mind or body was to be lacking.
He was to be betrayed into the hands of the chief priests and Scribes; there we see the suffering of the heart broken by the disloyalty of friends. He was to be condemned to death; there we see the suffering of injustice, which is very hard to bear. He was to be mocked by the Romans; there we see the suffering of humiliation and of deliberate insult. He was to be scourged; few tortures in the world compared with the Roman scourge, and there we see the suffering of physical pain. Finally, he was to be crucified; there we see the ultimate suffering of death. It is as if Jesus was going to gather in upon himself every possible kind of physical and emotional and mental suffering that the world could inflict.
Even at such a time that was not the end of his words, for he finished with the confident assertion of the Resurrection. Beyond the curtain of suffering lay the revelation of glory; beyond the Cross was the Crown; beyond the defeat was triumph; and beyond death was life.
THE FALSE AND THE TRUE AMBITION ( Matthew 20:20-28 )
20:20-28 At that time the mother of Zebedee's sons came to him with her sons, kneeling before him, and asking something from him. He said to her, "What do you wish?" She said to him, "Speak the word that these two sons of mine may sit, one on your right hand, and one on your left, in your Kingdom." Jesus answered, "You do not know what you are asking. Can you drink the cup which I have to drink?" They said to him, "We can." He said to them, "My cup you are to drink; but to sit on my right hand and my left is not mine to give, but that belongs to those for whom it has been prepared by my Father." When the ten heard about this, they were angry with the two brothers. Jesus called them to him and said, "You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you, but whoever wishes to prove himself great among you must be your servant; and whoever wishes to occupy the foremost place will be your slave, just as the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many."
Here we see the worldly ambition of the disciples in action. There is one very revealing little difference between Matthew's and Mark's account of this incident. In Mark 10:35-45 it is James and John who come to Jesus with this request. In Matthew it is their mother. The reason for the change is this--Matthew was writing twenty-five years later than Mark; by that time a kind of halo of sanctity had become attached to the disciples. Matthew did not wish to show James and John guilty of worldly ambition, and so he puts the request into the mouth of their mother rather than of themselves.
There may have been a very natural reason for this request. It is probable that James and John were closely related to Jesus. Matthew, Mark and John all give lists of the women who were at the Cross when Jesus was crucified. Let us set them down.
Matthew's list is:
Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the
mother of the sons of Zebedee ( Matthew 27:56).
Mark's list is:
Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James the Younger and of
Joses, and Salome ( Mark 15:40).
John's list is:
Jesus' mother, his mother's sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and
Mary Magdalene is named in all the lists; Mary the mother of James and Joses must be the same person as Mary the wife of Clopas; therefore the third woman is described in three different ways. Matthew calls her the mother of the sons of Zebedee; Mark calls her Salome; and John calls her Jesus' mother's sister. So, then, we learn that the mother of James and John was named Salome, and that she was the sister of Mary the mother of Jesus. That means that James and John were full cousins of Jesus; and it may well have been that they felt that this close relationship entitled them to a special place in his Kingdom.
This is one of the most revealing passages in the New Testament. It sheds light in three directions.
First, it sheds a light on the disciples. It tells us three things about them. It tells us of their ambition. They were still thinking in terms of personal reward and personal distinction; and they were thinking of personal success without personal sacrifice. They wanted Jesus with a royal command to ensure for them a princely life. Every man has to learn that true greatness lies, not in dominance, but in service; and that in every sphere the price of greatness must be paid.
That is on the debit side of the account of the disciples; but there is much on the credit side. There is no incident which so demonstrates their invincible faith in Jesus. Think of when this request was made. It was made after a series of announcements by Jesus that ahead of him lay an inescapable Cross; it was made at a moment when the air was heavy with the atmosphere of tragedy and the sense of foreboding. And yet in spite of that the disciples are thinking of a Kingdom. It is of immense significance to see that, even in a world in which the dark was coming down, the disciples would not abandon the conviction that the victory belonged to Jesus. In Christianity there must always be this invincible optimism in the moment when things are conspiring to drive a man to despair.
Still further, here is demonstrated the unshakable loyalty of the disciples. Even when they were bluntly told that there lay ahead a bitter cup, it never struck them to turn back; they were determined to drink it. If to conquer with Christ meant to suffer with Christ, they were perfectly willing to face that suffering.
It is easy to condemn the disciples, but the faith and the loyalty which lay behind the ambition must never be forgotten.
THE MIND OF JESUS ( Matthew 20:20-28 continued)
Second, this passage sheds a light upon the Christian life. Jesus said that those who would share his triumph must drink his cup. What was that cup? It was to James and John that Jesus spoke. Now life treated James and John very differently. James was the first of the apostolic band to die a martyr ( Acts 12:2). For him the cup was martyrdom. On the other hand, by far the greater weight of tradition goes to show that John lived to a great old age in Ephesus and died a natural death when he must have been close on a hundred years old. For him the cup was the constant discipline and struggle of the Christian life throughout the years.
It is quite wrong to think that for the Christian the cup must always mean the short, sharp, bitter, agonizing struggle of martyrdom; the cup may well be the long routine of the Christian life, with all its daily sacrifice, its daily struggle, and its heart-breaks and its disappointments and its tears. A Roman coin was once found with the picture of an ox on it; the ox was facing two things--an altar and a plough; and the inscription read: "Ready for either." The ox had to be ready either for the supreme moment of sacrifice on the altar or the long labour of the plough on the farm. There is no one cup for the Christian to drink. His cup may be drunk in one great moment; his cup may be drunk throughout a lifetime of Christian living. To drink the cup simply means to follow Christ wherever he may lead, and to be like him in any situation life may bring.
Third, this passage sheds a light on Jesus. It shows us his kindness. The amazing thing about Jesus is that he never lost patience and became irritated. In spite of all he had said, here were these men and their mother still chattering about posts in an earthly government and kingdom. But Christ does not explode at their obtuseness, or blaze at their blindness, or despair at their unteachableness. In gentleness, in sympathy, and in love, with never an impatient word, he seeks to lead them to the truth.
It shows us his honesty. He was quite clear that there was a bitter cup to be drunk and did not hesitate to say so. No man can ever claim that he began to follow Jesus under false pretences. He never failed to tell men that, even if life ends in crown-wearing, it continues in cross-bearing.
It shows us his trust in men. He never doubted that James and John would maintain their loyalty. They had their mistaken ambitions; they had their blindness; they had their wrong ideas; but he never dreamed of writing them off as bad debts. He believed that they could and would drink the cup, and that in the end they would still be found at his side. One of the great fundamental facts to which we must hold on, even when we hate and loathe and despise ourselves, is that Jesus believes in us. The Christian is a man put upon his honour by Jesus.
THE CHRISTIAN REVOLUTION ( Matthew 20:20-28 continued)
The request of James and John not unnaturally annoyed the other disciples. They did not see why the two brothers should steal a march on them, even if they were the cousins of Jesus. They did not see why they should be allowed to stake their claims to preeminence. Jesus knew what was going on in their minds; and he spoke to them words which are the very basis of the Christian life. Out in the world, said Jesus, it is quite true that the great man is the man who controls others; the man to whose word of command others must leap; the man who with a wave of his hand can have his slightest need supplied. Out in the world there was the Roman governor with his retinue and the eastern potentate with his slaves. The world counts them great. But among my followers service alone is the badge of greatness. Greatness does not consist in commanding others to do things for you; it consists in doing things for others; and the greater the service, the greater the honour. Jesus uses a kind of gradation. "If you wish to be great," he says, "be a servant; if you wish to be first of all be a slave." Here is the Christian revolution; here is the complete reversal of all the world's standards. A complete new set of values has been brought into life.
The strange thing is that instinctively the world itself has accepted these standards. The world knows quite well that a good man is a man who serves his fellow-men. The world will respect, and admire, and sometimes fear, the man of power; but it will love the man of love. The doctor who will come out at any time of the day or night to serve and save his patients; the parson who is always on the road amongst his people; the employer who takes an active interest in the lives and troubles of his employees; the person to whom we can go and never be made to feel a nuisance--these are the people whom all men love, and in whom instinctively they see Jesus Christ.
When that great saint Toyohiko Kagawa first came into contact with Christianity, he felt its fascination, until one day the cry burst from him: "O God, make me like Christ." To be like Christ he went to live in the slums, even though he himself was suffering from tuberculosis. It seemed the last place on earth to which a man in his condition should have gone.
Cecil Northcott in Famous Life Decisions tens of what Kagawa did. He went to live in a six foot by six-foot hut in a Tokyo slum. "On his first night he was asked to share his bed with a man suffering from contagious itch. That was a test of his faith. Would he go back on his point of no return? No. He welcomed his bed-fellow. Then a beggar asked for his shirt and got it. Next day he was back for Kagawa's coat and trousers, and got them too. Kagawa was left standing in a ragged old kimono. The slum dwellers of Tokyo laughed at him, but they came to respect him. He stood in the driving rain to preach, coughing all the time. 'God is love,' he shouted. 'God is love. Where love is, there is God.' He often fell down exhausted, and the rough men of the slums carried him gently back to his hut."
Kagawa himself wrote: "God dwells among the lowliest of men. He sits on the dust heap among the prison convicts. He stands with the juvenile delinquents. He is there with the beggars. He is among the sick, he stands with the unemployed. Therefore let him who would meet God visit the prison cell before going to the temple. Before he goes to Church let him visit the hospital. Before he reads his Bible let him help the beggar."
Therein is greatness. The world may assess a man's greatness by the number of people whom he controls and who are at his beck and call; or by his intellectual standing and his academic eminence; or by the number of committees of which he is a member; or by the size of his bank balance and the material possessions which he has amassed; but in the assessment of Jesus Christ these things are irrelevant. His assessment is quite simply--how many people has he helped?
THE LORDSHIP OF THE CROSS ( Matthew 20:20-28 continued)
What Jesus calls upon his followers to do he himself did. He came not to be served, but to serve. He came to occupy not a throne, but a cross. It was just because of this that the orthodox religious people of his time could not understand him. All through their history the Jews had dreamed of the Messiah; but the Messiah of whom they had dreamed was always a conquering king, a mighty leader, one who would smash the enemies of Israel and reign in power over the kingdoms of the earth. They looked for a conqueror; they received one broken on a cross. They looked for the raging Lion of Judah; they received the gentle Lamb of God. Rudolf Bultmann writes: "In the Cross of Christ Jewish standards of judgment and human notions of the splendour of the Messiah are shattered." Here is demonstrated the new glory and the new greatness of suffering love and sacrificial service. Here is royalty and kingship restated and remade.
Jesus summed up his whole life in one poignant sentence: "The Son of Man came to give his life a ransom for many." It is worth stopping to see what the crude hands of theology have done with that lovely saying. Very early men began to say, "Jesus gave his life a ransom for many. Well, then, to whom was the ransom paid?" Origen has no doubt that the ransom was paid to the devil. "The ransom could not have been paid to God; it was therefore paid to the Evil One, who was holding us fast until the ransom should be given to him, even the life of Jesus." Gregory of Nyssa saw the glaring fault in that theory. It puts the Devil on a level with God; it means that the Devil could dictate his terms to God, before he would let men go. So Gregory of Nyssa has a strange idea. The devil was tricked by God. He was tricked by the seeming helplessness of Jesus; he took Jesus to be a mere man; he tried to retain hold of Jesus, and in trying to do so, he lost his power and was broken for ever. Gregory the Great took the picture to even more grotesque, almost revolting, lengths. The Incarnation, he said, was a divine stratagem to catch the great leviathan. The deity of Christ was the hook; his flesh was the bait; the bait was dangled before leviathan; he swallowed it and was taken. The limit was reached by Peter the Lombard. "The cross," he said, "was a mousetrap (muscipula) to catch the devil, baited with the blood of Christ."
All this is what happens when men take the poetry of love and try to turn it into man-made theories. Jesus came to give his life a ransom for many. What does it mean? It means quite simply this. Men were in the grip of a power of evil which they could not break; their sins dragged them down; their sins separated them from God; their sins wrecked life for themselves and for the world and for God himself. A ransom is something paid or given to liberate a man from a situation from which it is impossible for him to free himself. Therefore what this saying means is quite simply--it cost the life and the death of Jesus Christ to bring men back to God.
There is no question of to whom the ransom was paid. There is simply the great, tremendous truth that without Jesus Christ and his life of service and his death of love, we could never have found our way back to the love of God. Jesus gave everything to bring men back to God; and we must walk in the steps of him who loved to the uttermost.
LOVE'S ANSWER TO NEED'S APPEAL ( Matthew 20:29-34 )
20:29-34 When they were leaving Jericho, a great crowd followed him. And, look you, two blind men were sitting by the roadside, and, when they heard that Jesus was passing by, they shouted out, "Lord, have pity on us, you Son of David!" The crowd rebuked them, so that they might be silent. Jesus stood and called them. "What do you want me to do for you?" he said. "Lord," they said, "what we want is that our eyes should be opened." Jesus was moved with compassion to the depths of his being, and touched their eyes; and immediately they recovered their sight and followed him.
Here is the story of two men who found their way to a miracle. It is a very significant story, for it paints a picture of the spirit and of the attitude of mind and heart to which the most precious gifts of God are open.
(i) These two blind men were waiting, and when their chance came they seized it with both hands. No doubt they had heard of the wondrous power of Jesus; and no doubt they wondered if that power might ever be exercised for them. Jesus was passing by. If they had let him pass, their chance would have gone by for ever; but when the chance came they seized it.
There are a great many things which have to be done at the moment or they will never be done. There are a great many decisions which have to be taken. on the spot or they will never be taken. The moment to act goes past; the impulse to decide fades. After Paul had preached on Mars Hill, there were those who said, "We will hear you again about this" ( Acts 17:32). They put it off until a more convenient time, but so often the more convenient time never comes.
(ii) These two blind men were undiscourageable. The crowd commanded them to stop their shouting; they were making a nuisance of themselves. It was the custom in Palestine for a Rabbi to teach as he walked along the road; and no doubt those around Jesus could not hear what Jesus was saying for this clamorous uproar. But nothing would stop the two blind men; for them it was a matter of sight or blindness, and nothing was going to keep them back.
It often happens that we are easily discouraged from seeking the presence of God. It is the man who will not be kept from Christ who in the end finds him.
(iii) These two blind men had an imperfect faith but they were determined to act on the faith they had. It was as Son of David that they addressed Jesus. That meant that they did believe him to be the Messiah, but it also meant that they were thinking of Messiahship in terms of kingly and of earthly power. It was an imperfect faith but they acted on it; and Jesus accepted it.
However imperfect it may be, if faith is there, Jesus accepts it.
(iv) These two blind men were not afraid to bring a great request. They were beggars; but it was not money they asked for, it was nothing less than sight.
No request is too great to bring to Jesus.
(v) These two blind men were grateful. When they had received the boon for which they craved, they did not go away and forget; they followed Jesus.
So many people, both in things material and in things spiritual, get what they want, and then forget even to say thanks. Ingratitude is the ugliest of all sins. These blind men received their sight from Jesus, and then they gave to him their grateful loyalty. We can never repay God for what he has done for us but we can always be grateful to him.
-Barclay's Daily Study Bible (NT)
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Barclay, William. "Commentary on Matthew 20". "William Barclay's Daily Study Bible". https://www.studylight.org/
the Second Week after Epiphany