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Matthew 20:1. For, etc.—The division of the chapters 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 (Plumptre).
Matthew 20:2. A penny.—The foreign term ought to have been retained in English, as Matthew retained the Latin denarius in Greek. The English version is here peculiarly unfortunate, and makes a false impression on the common reader. A penny would be a poor reward indeed, but a denarius is worth more than seven English pence or fifteen American cents, and was a liberal day’s wages at that time. About two-thirds of a Roman denáry (not a full denáry, as generally stated) was the daily pay of the Roman soldier. Cf. Tacitus, Annal., i. 17. Polybius (ii. 15) mentions that the charge for a day’s entertainment in the inns of Cisalpine Gaul was only half an ass, or one-twentieth of a denarius. Shilling would be a far better popular equivalent for denarius than penny (Schaff). The purchasing power of the coin must be taken into account. I’lumptre says it may fairly be reckoned as equal to about half-a-crown of our present currency.
Matthew 20:3. The third hour.—The Jewish day began with the rising of the sun, and ended with sunset. It always consisted of twelve hours, whether the day was at its longest, as in midsummer, or at its shortest, as in mid-winter. Hence the hours varied a little in length at the different seasons of the year; and thus the “third hour”—the conclusion of the first quarter of the day—would correspond to nearly our eight or nine o’clock a.m., according as it might be summer or winter (Morison).
Matthew 20:6. The eleventh hour.—The various hours may he referred in the first instance to the call of a Paul, a Barnabas, or a Timothy, who adopted the cause later than the Twelve. In a secondary and less immediate sense they seem to indicate the successive periods at which the various nations were admitted to the church of Christ. Was it unjust that European nations should have equal privileges with the Jews in the church of Christ, or that Paul should be equal to Peter? (Carr).
Matthew 20:8. 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) (Plumptre).
Matthew 20:11. The goodman of the house.—The householder (R.V.). Same word in the Greek as in Matthew 20:1.
Matthew 20:12. Heat of the day.—The scorching heat (R.V.). Workmen who live in so temperate a climate as that of Great Britain can have but little conception of the furnace-like fervour of heat to which workmen in Palestine are exposed when the sun is overhead. The eleventh hour workmen would be employed only in “the cool of the day”—the comparatively delightful coolness of the approaching evening (Morison).
Matthew 20:13. Friend.—Is almost too strong for the Greek ἑταῖρε (comrade, companion, fellow), while “fellow,” as now used, would be too disrespectful. It is here used as a term of cautious respect, with reproving import (Schaff). Cf. Matthew 22:12; Matthew 26:50.
Matthew 20:15. Is thine eye evil?—The belief in the evil eye still prevails in the East. The envious or malevolent glance is thought to have an injurious effect, Here the sense is: Art thou envious because I am just? (Carr).
Matthew 20:16. Many be called, etc.—See Matthew 22:14. Omitted here in better MSS. and R.V. “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” (Plumptre).
MAIN HOMILETICS OF THE PARAGRAPH.—Matthew 20:1-16
The kingdom of grace.—Two things may help to guide us in attempting to deal with this confessedly difficult parable. One is of a negative kind. Those who have undertaken to explain and apply its many minutiæ differ from each other so widely and hopelessly as to warn us against ourselves attempting so apparently hopeless a task. The other is to be found in the fact that the parable as it stands is both headed and followed by the very same words (Matthew 19:30; Matthew 20:16). From this we see that the truth there expressed was in the Saviour’s mind both when He began and when He concluded this piece of instruction; and, therefore, apparently, was not far from it all the way through. We would use this inference as a probable key to its true meaning all the way through; and would apply it so, first, to those general terms of agreement of which it speaks, to begin; and, secondly, to that broad method of settlement of which it afterwards tells us.
I. The terms of agreement.—These, in the main, were but two. On the one hand, there was the agreement made with the labourers hired at the beginning of the day. This agreement was formal, legal, precise. The labourers on their part were to work for so long. The householder on his part was to pay them so much. Also, the exact amount both of time and wages was specified in each case (Matthew 20:2). Nothing could be at once clearer to, or more binding on, both. On the other hand, there were the agreements made with the different relays of labourers hired at later hours of the day. These, in substance, were all exactly alike. What the householder did in this matter of hiring with the third-hour labourers he is said to have done with the sixth-hour and the ninth-hour labourers too (Matthew 20:5). As much is implied, also, about those sent into the vineyard at the “eleventh hour” of the day. These successive agreements in substance were all similar to that made with those hired at the first. Practically, what was promised to the first labourers was a usual day’s wage (a penny a day) for a usual day’s work; in other words, such an amount as was felt, on all hands, to be “right.” Practically, also (see Matthew 20:4, etc.), this was what the house holder promised in all subsequent cases. The great difference, therefore, if not the only difference, between that earliest and these later agreements, lay in the matter of expression. What was clearly defined in the one case was only implied in the others. First a clear “compact”—then a succession of “understandings”—at the rate of so much a day.
II. The method of settlement adopted.—The great thing to be noted about this—looking at it in the same general way—is that it went beyond almost all the preceding agreements. This comes out, very clearly, in the case of those labourers who were last called but first paid; and it seems, indeed, to have been with the view of bringing this out thus plainly, that the order in question was decided on. These men, it is evident, according to that “which was right,” having only laboured for one hour in the day, had only earned something like one twelfth part of the stipulated denarius. Yet they each and all received the whole of it from the hands of the steward. So, also, of course, in varying proportion, of all except the first called. All of them in turn received more than they had actually earned. The same is shown, also, in a kind of back-handed way, by the very murmurs of those earliest-called ones when they came at last to be paid. What they murmured at, it seems very noticeable, was the bountifulness of their master. His justice, indeed, they could scarcely complain of. He had done nothing unjust—not even to them (Matthew 20:13). What they complained of was that he had paid so much in excess of their due to so many beside (Matthew 20:12). Even their very complaints, therefore, were an acknowledgment of the fact that he knew how to be liberal when he thought fit. Lastly, we see the same in the way in which the householder himself answered those who murmured against his way of proceeding. There is nothing injurious to thee in what I am doing. I am not giving less to thee because I give more to “this last” (Matthew 20:14). Neither is there anything “unlawful” or contrary to right in what I am doing. No one can complain if I take of “mine own” to give unto him (Matthew 20:15). Rather, in doing so, I am acting on a principle which is undoubtedly “good”; the principle, viz., of giving more than has been in any way earned. There is more than no injustice—there is kindness in this. Why shouldest thou complain of my showing “mercy” to any? Taken thus broadly, we seem to see here, in conclusion:—
1. A picture of Israel under the law of Moses.—Understood in the letter, very definite and precise was its compact with them. “This do, and thou shalt live” (Ezekiel 20:11). “The man that doeth these things shall live in them” (Romans 10:5). For his day’s work a day’s wage as it were,—permission to live. Nothing more formal, nothing more “legal,” could very well be. So we may understand, therefore, of those labourers “first called” into the vineyard.
2. A picture of the Gentiles under the law of nature.—“These having no law were a law, it is said, to themselves” (Romans 2:14). In one sense they were ἀνόμοι—men without law (Romans 2:14). They were without the advantage possessed, in this respect, by the Jew (Romans 3:1-2). But they had that in their consciences, and in the teachings, perhaps, of some of their teachers, which was a kind of unwritten law—an unspoken “call” to them to obey and serve God—a law which in its essence went on the same principle as the written law of the Jews, viz., that of obtaining righteousness by their works; in other words, shall we say, of being paid at the rate of a penny a day. These seem to correspond, therefore, to those various later labourers of whom we read here.
3. Of the church under the gospel.—How revolutionary its proceedings! (Matthew 20:16; Matthew 8:11; Matthew 21:31). How loud the complaints they give rise to! (Matthew 9:10-11; Luke 19:7, etc.). How blessed the principle by which they are justified! (Romans 4:4-5, etc.). These are the points which seem to come out in the settlement, points precious indeed to all those who know their true state before God!
HOMILIES ON THE VERSES
Matthew 20:1-16. The labourers in the vineyard.—
I. The hiring of the labourers.
II. The times of the hiring.
III. The payment which they receive.—W. Sanday, D.D.
First last and last first.—The parable is intended to show us the difference between work done in a bargaining spirit and work done in trust; between the reward given to work which in quantity may be very great, but in motive is mercenary, and the reward given to work which in quantity may be very small, but in motive is sound. That we are meant to see this difference of spirit in the labourers is obvious:—
I. From the terms of their respective engagements.—Those who were hired early in the day made an agreement to work for a stipulated sum. This sum was the usual day’s wage of the period; a fair wage, which of itself was sufficient inducement to work. These men were in a condition to make their own terms. They ruled in the market. But in the evening the tables are turned. The masters now have it all their own way. “Go ye also into my vineyard, and whatsoever is right, that shall ye receive.” In no condition to make a bargain, they most gladly trust themselves to one whose words have the ring of truth.
II. From the distribution of the wages.—Those who had barely got their work begun were first paid, and were paid a full day’s wage. There must, of course, have been a reason for this. It was not mere caprice, but was the result and expression of some just idea. We are thrown back for the explanation on the hint given in the hiring—viz., that those who wrought merely for the sake of pay received the pay they looked for, while they who came to the vineyard conscious that they had wasted their day, and not daring to stipulate for any definite wage, but leaving themselves confidently in the hands of a master they believed in, were gladdened by the unmerited reward of the fullest wage.
III. From the temper shown by the last paid men.—Peter must have felt himself gravely rebuked by the picture here drawn of the man who had listened to the first call of Christ, but who, after a full, honest day’s work, was found to be possessed of a selfish, grudging spirit that filled him with discontent and envy. It was now plain that this early-hired labourer had little interest in the work, and that it was no satisfaction to him to have been able to do twelve times as much as the last-hired labourer. He had the hireling’s spirit, and had bean longing for the shadow and counting his wages all day long. The difference in the spirit of the workers which is thus brought out in the parable will be found, says our Lord, in the church, and it will he attended with like results at the time of judgment and award. Here, also, “Many that are first shall be last.” This parable, read rightly, gives no encouragement to late entrance into the Lord’s service. To think of this service as that which we can add at any convenient time to the other work of life is to mistake it altogether. The service of Christ should cover the whole of life; and what is not done as a part of His work may, in some respects, as well not be done at all. All outside His vineyard is idleness.—M. Dods, D.D.
Matthew 20:1-7. The hiring of the labourers.—
I. Who hires them?—God is the great Householder, “whose we are, and whom we serve.” As a householder He has work that He will have to be done, and servants that He will have to be doing. God hires labourers, not because He needs them or their services, but as some charitable, generous householders keep poor men to work—in kindness to them.
II. Whence are they hired?—Out of the market-place, where, till they are hired into God’s service, they stand idle (Matthew 20:3), all the day idle (Matthew 20:6).
1. The soul of man stands ready to be hired into some service or other.
2. Till we are hired into the service of God we are standing all the day idle.
3. The gospel call is given to those who stand idle in the market-place.
III. What are they hired to do?—To labour in His vineyard.
1. The church is God’s vineyard; it is of His planting, watering, and fencing, and the fruit of it must be to His honour and praise.
2. We are called upon to be labourers in this vineyard. The work of religion is vineyard work—pruning, dressing, digging, watering, fencing, weeding. We have each of us our own vineyard to keep, our own soul; and it is God’s, and to be kept and dressed for Him. In this work we must not be slothful, not loiterers but labourers, working and working out our own salvation. Work for God will not admit of trifling. A man may go idle to hell, but he that will go to heaven must be busy.
IV. What shall be their wages?—Whatsoever is right. Never any lost by working for God.—M. Henry.
Matthew 20:1-16. Equality and differences.—The equality and the difference in the outward form of the kingdom of God:—
I. The equality and the difference of the labourers.—All are called to be servants in the kingdom; but one class consists of those who are merely called, or who are external and legal labourers, while the others are also chosen, their labour being internal and free.
II. The equality and the difference of their work.—Their service is one of simple obedience; but in the one case there was the advantage of priority, while at the same time some (not all of them) seem to have felt the service a burden. The others were engaged for a shorter period, but laboured in confidence and joy.
III. The equality and difference of the reward.—All received the shilling. The external blessing attaching to service in the kingdom of heaven remains the same. All have part in the church, in its fellowship and its privileges. But to some this appears a scanty hire, if not a kind of punishment; while to those who receive it in faith it is a sign of infinite grace.—J. P. Lange, D.D.
Matthew 20:6. The life of Christianity.—Idleness is a crime against the Christian conscience, against the laws of the kingdom, and is for several reasons peculiarly anti-Christian.
I. Idleness defeats the object of the kingdom here on earth.—For that kingdom is come here to sift and test us for our place in its further development hereafter, and that place is determined by one decisive standard—character—and character is evoked and proved and established only under the pres sure of work; character discloses itself in face of obligations that it has to satisfy, tasks that it must fulfil, responsibilities that it is bound to face.
II. Idleness is a sin against love.—Love perishes in inactivity; it cannot be love and not be busy, for love is the energy of service; it exists only in ministering. Love must go out of itself and spend itself in labour for others—only in work can it breathe freely and move in gladness. God is love. God therefore is the energy of work; God is the great workman.
III. Idleness is a sin against God and against the body of Christ, the body of the new manhood, of which the brotherhood of believers is the realised pledge of that prophetic first-fruit. In Christ we are all recognised as members one of another, through membership in Him who wore the flesh of all. And such membership involves us in endless intimacies of brotherly activity by the sheer necessity of our bond in Christ through the Spirit. We cannot be in Christ and not be implicated in these responsibilities. For every limb, organ, fibre, nerve of the body is concerned in the health and life of the whole; and if one of the members suffer, all the members suffer. If one member is idle, all feel it; his debt, due to the general well-being, is unpaid; his sluggishness is a weight of which others feel the burden.—Canon Scott-Holland.
Spiritual idleness.—Voluntary idleness or sloth is one of the most shameful of vices, so much so that the world censures and scorns it with more severity than it awards to some others which are essentially more heinous. Avarice, e.g. is more criminal, but sloth is usually treated with more contempt and reprobation.
I. I press the remonstrance of our text on the unconverted.—
1. Your idleness does not arise from your having no need of that wealth which spiritual industry secures.
2. Nor that you have no opportunity to work, or that it would be vain for you to begin now, since the day has declined so far and the night is so near—“the eleventh hour.”
3. The reason of your idleness cannot rationally be that there is yet plenty of time—that you need not be in a hurry—that you are young, with many hours for amusing yourself before the eleventh.
4. Your reason for persistent, reckless idleness would not be reasonable should you plead that you are not qualified, and through inveterate habits in sin and unescapable companionships which you cannot shake off, and various other circumstances, are disabled for such spiritual work. The effectual aid of the Holy Spirit is provided for every humble petitioner. Positive reasons for it:
(1) That you are so busy with other work that you have no time for this.
(2) That you do not relish the work, but have a strong dislike of it.
II. I turn to remonstrate with those who, although not entirely idle in the spiritual work, do it but partially and with no animation or zeal.—Why so slow?
1. It cannot be because you are finding much satisfaction in those worldly engagements which consume so much of your time and attention, and leave so little for the honour of God and the interest of your precious soul.
2. Nor because you think you have cultivated your heart already as much as is necessary.
3. Is it because you think you are doing enough for the Master?
4. It cannot be because you calculate that anything you might do Christward and heavenward above what you consider to be the measure of your necessity would be profitless. Why then so slow? I’ll tell you. It is because of an insidious unbelief; a want of a clear realisation of the heavenly hope; a seeing of the kingdom only dimly through the fog and haze of the cares and pleasures of this world; yea, in many cases, a secret misgiving of heart that after all there is any reality in this heavenly kingdom; a mingling with faith of suspicions, of myths and antiquated traditions, and fancies of enthusiastic prophets.—Wm. Anderson, LL.D.
Matthew 20:8-16. Eventide.—The signs of a sad evening-time:—
I. Murmuring on looking back on the labour and its results.
II. An evil eye with reference to our neighbour and his success.
III. Self-contradiction and the merited rebuke.
IV. The loss of the capacity of enjoying the blessing in peace and gratitude.—J. P. Lange, D.D.
Matthew 20:10. Spiritual rewards.—“And they likewise received every man a penny.” Observe:—
I. In the kingdom of God the work and the wages are the same thing.
II. In the kingdom of God there can be no such thing as competition. The enriching of one never impoverishes another.—D. Strong, M.A.
Matthew 20:12. The justice of the award.—Man does not here acquiesce in the Judge’s decision, as in the parable of the debtors
(18). What is just does not at first seem just, but, as in science many things that seemed untrue are proved to be true, what seems unjust will be proved just when we know all. Further, time is not the only element in service. An act of swift intelligence or of bravery wrought in the space of a single minute has saved an army or a people, and merited higher reward than a lifetime of ordinary service.—A. Carr, M.A.
Matthew 20:15. The evil eye.—
I. The nature of envy.—It is an evil eye. The eye is oftentimes both the inlet and outlet of sin (1 Samuel 18:9; 1 Samuel 18:15). What can have more evil in it? It is grief to ourselves, anger to God, and ill-will to our neighbour; and it is a sin that has neither pleasure, profit, nor honour in it.
II. The aggravation of envy.—It is “because I am good.” Envy is un-likeness to God, who is good, and doeth good, and delights in doing good; nay, it is an opposition and contradiction to God; it is a dislike of His proceedings, and a displeasure at what He doth and is pleased with. It is a direct violation of both the two great commandments at once; both that of love to God, in whose will we should acquiesce, and love to our neighbour, in whose welfare we should rejoice. Thus man’s badness takes occasion from God’s goodness to be more exceeding sinful.—M. Henry.
Matthew 20:16. The last first and the first last.—The meaning of the interpreting utterance, Matthew 20:16, is as follows:—
1. Those labourers in God’s kingdom to whom, by the peculiarity of their calling, only a relatively insignificant work was assigned on earth, will in God’s future kingdom be treated in the matter of reward as if the greatest work had been assigned them.
2. They who were above all the rest in respect of the magnitude and weight of the work assigned them on earth by Divine calling, will not on that account merely, be treated differently in the matter of reward from those standing farthest below them in this respect. This by no means implies that despite great diversity in service all labourers in God’s kingdom will, as respects reward, be placed on a level in the next world. On the contrary, the presupposition in the utterance of Jesus is that in God’s kingdom of the future there is a manifoldly diverse reward for service of diverse worth in this life. But, this presupposition being understood, it is affirmed that the standard for determining the difference in the reward will not be the difference among the labourers of God’s kingdom first striking the eye in this life, namely, the difference in the magnitude and weight of the different functions to which individuals are assigned in this life by a different Divine calling, and the consequent difference in the outward amount of service. Of those who in this respect were the last or first it is said that in the matter of future reward neither the one will be injured nor the other privileged by their position in this life. The future reward of grace, instead of being adjudged to each according to the difference in the outward amount of service, obvious to human eyes and open to human calculation, will rather, as may here be supplementarily added, be adjudged according to the difference in the inner worth of the service known only to God—i.e. according to the different degree of self-sacrificing fidelity with which every one has laboured in the function assigned to him, whether small or great, and has borne corresponding fruit within the sphere of influence, great or small, allotted to him.—S. Goebel.
The service that God regards.—One hour of trustful, humble service is of greater value to God than a lifetime of calculating industry and self-regarding zeal. A gift that is reckoned by thousands of pounds, an ecclesiastical endowment that makes a noise through a whole generation, a busy, unflagging, obtrusive zeal which makes itself seen and felt throughout a whole land, these things make a great impression upon men—and it is well if they do not make a great impression on the parties themselves who do them, and prompt them inwardly to say, “What shall we have therefore?”—but they make no impression upon God unless animated by a really devoted spirit. While men are applauding the great workers who ostentatiously wipe the sweat from their brows and pant so that you can hear them across the whole field, God is regarding an unnoticed worker, who feels he is doing little, who is ashamed that anyone should see his work, who bitterly regrets he can do no more, who could not name a coin small enough to pay him, but who is perfectly sure that the Master he serves is well worth serving. It is thus that the first become last and the last first.—M. Dods, D.D.
Unselfishness of true Christian service.—English sailors have been known to be filled with pity for their comrades whose ships only hove in sight in time to see the enemy’s flag run down or to fire the last shot in a long engagement. They have so pitied them for having no share in the excitement and glory of the day that they would willingly give them as a compensation their own pay and prize-money. And the true follower of Christ, who has listened to the earliest call of his Master and has revelled in the glory of serving Him throughout life, will from the bottom of his heart pity the man who has only late in life recognised the glory of the service, and has had barely time to pick up his tools when the dusk of evening falls upon him. It is impossible that a man whose chief desire was to advance his Master’s work should envy another labourer Who had done much less than himself. The very fact that a man envies another his reward is enough of itself to convict him of self-seeking in his service.—M. Dods, D.D.
Matthew 20:17. 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) (ibid.).
Matthew 20:18-19. Behold, we go up to Jerusalem, etc.—Observe the exactness of the prediction; the Sanhedrin shall condemn but not kill, the Gentiles shall scourge and crucify (Carr).
Matthew 20:20. The mother of Zebedee’s children.—Sons (R.V.). Salome. Cf. Matthew 27:56 with Mark 15:40. Worshipping.—Rendering such obeisance as was appropriate towards One who was expected shortly to occupy a throne.
Matthew 20:21. Grant.—Command (R.V.). Salome desired that the Lord should utter a word of authority on the subject, in order that all disputings among the disciples might be foreclosed, and her sons’ future pre-eminence secured (Morison). One on Thy right hand, etc.—The first place of honour was the right hand of the sovereign; the second the left band. See Josephus, Ant., VI., xi. 9 (ibid.). The sternness of our Lord’s words to St. Peter (Matthew 16:23) might almost justify the thought that his position had been forfeited (Plumptre). In Thy kingdom—Salome was probably expecting, like so many others, that the Lord was about to establish His kingdom “with observation” and in worldly pomp (Morison). Possibly our Lord’s words in Matthew 19:28 had influenced Salome and her sons in presenting their request.
Matthew 20:22. Ye.—Salome represented her sons, so Jesus addresses Himself directly to them. Are ye able, etc.?—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? (Plumptre). Baptised with the baptism, etc.—Omitted in best MSS. and R.V. Added probably to bring St. Matthew’s narrative into harmony with St. Mark’s.
Matthew 20:23. Drink indeed of My cup.—James was slain by the sword of Herod Agrippa I. (Acts 12:2). John suffered many persecutions, but died a natural death. The rebuke of Jesus is very gentle; His soul knew what suffering was in store for the two brothers (Carr). Is not Mine to give, etc.—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. So taken, the words present a striking parallel to John 5:19 (Plumptre). To them for whom it is prepared.—Hath been prepared (R.V.). He does not say who these are; but the reappearance of the same words in Matthew 25:34 throws some light on their 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 (ibid.).
Matthew 20:24. The ten.—Amongst these was the candid Evangelist himself (Bengel). Moved with indignation.—Not in the sense of holy indignation, but as partaking of the same spirit of ambition which had prompted the request (Lange).
Matthew 20:25. The princes of the Gentiles.—The popular Jewish expectations, shared by the disciples, were really heathen in their character, substituting might for right, and ambition for the true majesty of service (Plumptre).
Matthew 20:26. It shall not be so among you.—The order and succession in His kingdom was not to be settled according to any legal determination. Jesus had introduced a new and spiritual life, in direct opposition to secular monarchies and hierarchies (Lange). Whosoever will be great.—Whosoever would become great (R.V.). “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 (Plumptre).
Matthew 20:28. For.—ἀντὶ = instead of, in the place of. Many.—The word “many” is not put definitely for a certain number, but for a large number, for the Saviour contrasts Himself with all the rest of men. And in this sense the word is used in Romans 5:15, where Paul does not speak only of a portion, of men, but of the whole human race (Calvin).
MAIN HOMILETICS OF THE PARAGRAPH.—Matthew 20:17-28
A twofold study.—This portion of Scripture may be compared to an act in a drama. In the first scene (Matthew 20:17-19) we see the Saviour taking His disciples apart, and teaching them what to expect about Himself in the end. Next (Matthew 20:20-23) we see two of those disciples, with their mother, presenting a request to Him which has to do with their view of the end. In the last scene (Matthew 20:24-28) we see the Saviour giving instruction and admonition to all. The whole shows us, in various ways, first, what were their thoughts; and, secondly, what were His thoughts—at this particular time.
I. The thoughts of the disciples.—How far they were, first, at this time, from even understanding His words! Some time before (Matthew 16:21) He had “begun” to “show” them that He was to suffer and die. He had repeated this warning to them soon after, when they had come down from the “mount” (Matthew 17:12). Again, when in Galilee (Matthew 17:22) He had added the momentous and affecting particular that this was to be brought about by “betrayal.” Now He has gone further still (Matthew 20:18-19) in letting them know that He was to suffer, as already foretold, by the hands of the “Gentiles,” and with every circumstance of anguish and shame. Yet see how far some two at least of them, and those two men who thought themselves qualified to be leaders of all, seem to have been from attaching any definite meaning to what He has said. “I am about to die,” so He has virtually said, “as a malefactor.” They address Him as about to reign as a king. He has spoken of shame. They want to share in His “glory” (Mark 10:37). Evidently His words have been little more than “idle tales” in their ears. How far, again, were the thoughts of the other disciples from being in the spirit of Christ! When the “ten” heard of what the “two” had been doing, they were greatly aggrieved (Matthew 20:24). Aggrieved partly, in all probability, because of the apparently clandestine and secret way in which the two had made known their request. Going as they did, with the intervention of their mother, and without the knowledge of any one else, was like trying to steal a march on the rest. They were aggrieved also, it can hardly be doubted, because of the fact that their own hearts were secretly set on much the same thing. The earnest way, in fact, in which the Saviour afterwards warns the whole body of His disciples on the subject of worldly ambition seems to prove this of itself. All must have been in need of the two-fold caution which He proceeds to give to them all. Be not, He says to them, like the “Gentiles,” to whom “lordship” and “authority” over other men are such special objects of desire (Matthew 20:25). Be rather, He says unto them, like unto Me, whose great ambition it is to be of service to others, even at the cost of My life (Matthew 20:26-28). Wonderfully striking, therefore, is the contrast here between them and Himself. It is the Master here who is desirous of serving. It is the servants here who are ambitious of ruling. In other words, what is farthest from His wishes is nearest to theirs.
II. The thoughts of the Saviour.—These can be described generally, as they were at this time, in a very few words. They were full of the cross. Full, on the one hand, of what He saw in it. Of its exceeding indignity, to begin. Being condemned by His own, being delivered by them to strangers, being treated by them as a malefactor, and that of the worst (Matthew 20:18-19). Of its unspeakable bitterness, next. “Can ye drink of the cup that I am to drink of?” How much is implied in that question! As though the drinking it fully were something more than mere human nature could bear. See also Matthew 26:38-39. Of its wonderful power, in the last place. How it was to be followed by His “rising again” (end of Matthew 20:19). How it was to “minister” to the service of mankind! How it was to be a “ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28). Full on the other hand, of what He distinguished behind it. This was, first, the hand of His Father. Behind the hatred of man, behind the priests, behind the betrayer, behind the Gentiles, behind all the instruments in this matter, there was the appointment of His Heavenly Father. This signified by the mention made of it as a “cup” (Matthew 20:22; also John 18:11; Acts 2:23). This an awful mystery indeed! But not out of place, if we think of it, in that most mysterious region in which it is found. This partly explained, also, by what He here shows us behind His cross, viz., His own resolute will. This death of His was what He “came for” into the world—what He had made up His mind for—from which nothing could turn Him—which He meant to endure. Closer now than ever before to His cross, this thought of a “ransom” still carries Him on (see Hebrews 12:3).
These pictures may show us yet further:—
1. How completely alone the Saviour was, so far as man is concerned, in His work of atoning for man.—Of all He foresaw in His death His disciples saw nothing. Even His repeated announcement of it was not taken in by their minds. And so far from being a help to Him in regard to it, they were rather a hindrance, so far as they went. Never, at this time, absent from His mind, it seems to have been never present to theirs. Nothing is more profoundly solitary than companionship such as that!
2. How exclusively He is to be looked to in regard to salvation.—These, though of all men nearest to Him, never shared in working it out. How, therefore, should they help in it afterwards except by pointing to Him? How much less should any do so who are farther off than they were?
3. How completely He may be trusted to complete our salvation.—What devotion, what perseverance, what sufficiency, can be greater than His?
HOMILIES ON THE VERSES
Matthew 20:17-19. Christ foretelling His death and resurrection.—In Christ’s forewarning the disciples of His sufferings and that in the way while He went the last time to Jerusalem, learn:
1. How necessary it is that the doctrine of the cross be often inculcated, that being provided for before, it may trouble us less when it shall come; for this is it which in sundry times before Christ had told them.
2. The often foretelling of our Lord’s passion doth serve to confirm us of the resolute willingness of the Redeemer to suffer for us, for He knew all that He had to suffer and was never dashed.
3. It is necessary that we never separate the consideration of the cross from the issue, nor Christ’s death from His resurrection which followed, lest we be overcome and stumble at the cross; for Christ doth always join the mentioning of both together.—David Dickson.
Matthew 20:19. Christ foretelling His resurrection.—He still brings this in:—
I. To encourage Himself in His sufferings and to carry Him cheerfully through them (Hebrews 12:2).
II. To encourage His disciples and comfort them, who would be overwhelmed and greatly terrified by His sufferings.
III. To direct us, under all the sufferings of this present time, to keep up a believing prospect of the glory to be revealed.—M. Henry.
Matthew 20:20-28. Intelligent prayer.—It is important that we know what we mean by the terms used in the study or discussion of any subject; that we know, too, what our aim or object is in any such study or discussion or inquiry; and further, that we know the conditions and limitations of knowledge, method, and success. In like manner, it is most important that we should, as far as possible, have clear notions of our meaning, objects, and possible success in all religious study, discussion, inquiry, and effort. This passage furnishes a most striking illustration of what has been now laid down. Learn:—
I. That we should know what we ask.—
1. These petitioners thought they knew what they asked. In an imperfect sense they did know, but it was not so as our Lord would have them know.
2. His putting the question, “What wilt thou?” is fitted to set the petitioner thinking what the precise meaning of the prayer is or is to be.
3. The prayer should be definite, clearly conceived in the mind, simply expressed in words (Ecclesiastes 5:2).
4. God is not vague or confused in His thoughts and words: His Holy Spirit (who “helpeth our infirmities”) will clear our thoughts and words, making them orderly and precise.
II. That we should know why we ask.—
1. The motives more important than the words and actions in the sight of God, who searcheth the heart.
2. The motives in the case of James and John appear to have been more or less earthly and vainglorious; this is to be inferred from the Lord’s warning in Matthew 20:25-26; Matthew 27:3. The motives of the Son of man are our perfect examples: lowliness, service in love, glorifying God therein—these imitated will make us like Him.
4. Great petitions may be offered in earnest prayer from little and unworthy motives; on the other hand, small things may be asked of God from high and holy motives.
5. Our prayers for others should be prompted by love for our neighbour; our prayers for ourselves should be in trust that our Father in heaven knows and is willing to give us what is best for us; all our prayers should be offered to God in the love of God.
III. That we should know of whom we ask.—
1. God has promised to give what we ask, believing and through His Song of Song of Solomon 2:0. But He has many purposes to carry out, many petitions to grant, many other things to do, beside what we ask for.
3. His promise to grant our prayers is limited by the condition, “if we ask anything according to His will He heareth us” (1 John 5:14).
4. He loves best to give what in His love He knows to be best for our spiritual good.
5. “God is a Spirit,” God is holy. The best prayers are those which ask definitely for spiritual and holy blessings.
(1) The sons of Zebedee knew not aright—what, or why, or of whom they asked.
(2) Yet they were of Christ’s chosen and beloved ones.
(3) Christians, indeed, may err as these disciples erred, but they should go on to full spiritual knowledge.
6. We can never err in asking for greater faith, love, hope, grace for bringing forth more fruit; for perfect pardon through the perfect sacrifice of the Lamb of God; for perfecting holiness by the Spirit of God indwelling, working, transforming into the likeness of the perfect Son.—Flavel Cook.
Matthew 20:20-23. Salome’s request.—Comparing St. Matthew and St. Mark’s accounts we see that it was the mother and sons together who made the request.
I. It is a homely human picture of ambition.—Hers for them and herself in them; theirs for themselves though with an eagerness, stimulated, it may be, by the desire to delight and elevate her. The childlike simplicity with which the request is made, in evident unconsciousness of its deep and solemn connections, is very notable and attractive. They wanted the promise beforehand. They wanted, as it might seem, to surprise Him into granting their request, as a confiding child may seek, half in earnest, half in sport, to entrap a tender and indulgent parent. They knew not what they asked, but there is a charm, there is even something of example, in the freedom of their asking.
II. There is no favouritism, no partiality, no promotion by interest in the kingdom of Christ.—The inheritance belongs to a certain character, so does the precedence; every single citizen of the heavenly Jerusalem has his place prepared for him, not only for what, but by what he is. There is a character now forming amid the turmoil and conflict of this lower world, for which eternal precedence is prepared by the necessary self-executing law of spiritual life in which the will—that is the character—of the Father of spirits is reflected. The nearest to Christ in His glory will be those who are nearest Him in action and character.
III. This incident as a whole contains no condemnation of ambition.—There is an ambition which belongs to the true disciple, which exercises the Christian virtues and does Christ’s work in the world. It is an ambition not for place, but for character. It aspires not to have, but to be; and to be that it may work, that it may serve, that it may impart even of its very self. If it be the case that many of us are wanting in this ambition, if aspiration after the closest possible nearness to Christ, under the sense that nearness means likeness, be almost unknown to us, if we are satisfied with the hope of freedom from suffering and enjoyment of happiness, this will go far to account for the insufficient power of Christianity to leaven society, as well as for the poverty of individual Christian life.—W. Romanes.
Matthew 20:20-23 Sharing Christ’s throne.—Now comes the question, in the light of the answer to which, must be read all that our Saviour said to James and John on the present occasion. What is it to participate with Him in His throne? He neither denies that He Himself was destined to occupy a throne, nor that there would be those to whom it should be given to share the occupation. He assents, in fact, to both these ideas, but intimates that the subject was not understood by the Apostles; that in asking to have seats awarded them beside Him when He came in His glory, they knew not what it really meant that they asked. And do we know what it means? We ought. In the light of such declarations concerning Christ, as that He is “exalted to be a Prince and Saviour, to give repentance and remission of sins,” that power is His “to give eternal life” to men, that being made perfect He has become “the author of salvation” and is “able to save to the uttermost,” that He has been “raised up to bless us in turning away every one of us from his iniquities”—in the light of such declarations as these we must perceive that the throne to which He looked forward for Himself, and which He has acquired, is the throne of moral influence, of the highest and most beneficent moral influence. We are enthroned then, together with Him, according to the measure in which we grow capable of quickening, guiding, or helping toward righteousness, according as we become powerful in ministering to the rectification and purification of others, powerful to assist, inspire, or stimulate them in the direction of the good and true. There is no throne like that. There is no other royal throne. He is a king, and He only, who is able in some degree to promote the progress of human souls on the road to everlasting blessedness and perfection, who is exerting some healthy, useful, gracious influence in human hearts and lives around him, who is contributing in one way or another, to redeem men from evil, and to bring them nearer to God and His ideal. If to any extent it be thus with us, we are now already, to such extent, seated with Christ upon His throne. We have known poor, sick, bedridden people with whom it was thus; whose constant smiling patience, and simple childlike faith told healingly, purifyingly, refiningly upon the whole house, and to visit whose chamber was to have the better soul in you stirred up and nourished, to be spiritually strengthened and refreshed. We have known mothers and elder sisters with whom it was thus; whose daily personal expression had a beautifully controlling, inspiring, elevating effect upon all the family, whose very presence and breathing were always helpful to keep you right, to constrain you onward and upward, to make you ashamed of acting unworthily, and strong to resist temptation; to live with whom was to be gently educated out of selfishness and weakness, and taught, almost imperceptibly, to be brave, loving, and generous. We have known friends with whom it was thus; intercourse with whom seemed ever to set you aspiring more loftily, to give you higher and more earnest views of life, to enable you to bear your burdens more manfully and meekly, and to feel the heavens more nigh. These, and such as these, are sitting with Christ in His kingdom.—N. R. Wood.
Matthew 20:22-23. Law and prayer.—I. From these words of our Lord we get a principle which the students of physical phenomena are perpetually asserting as though it were their peculiar discovery, that the Almighty has chosen to proceed in His dealings with His creatures according to a regular and uniform order; that He does not break this order or interfere with this method or give up His will simply because a frail, foolish mortal may ask Him to do so.
II. The question is not of God’s omnipotence but of His will.—The existence of God being granted, every man, whether he be a Christian or not, makes no doubt that God can do whatsoever pleaseth Him. In our ignorance we often make the mistake which was made by Salome, and ask for that which may not be ours. If our ignorance be our misfortune and not our fault, He who looks “with larger, other eyes than ours,” to make allowance for us all, will not treat us sternly because we have made a child’s blunder.
III. Prayer is not a mere piece of mental machinery for obtaining some temporal advantage for which material appliances are insufficient. The kingdom of heaven is not a mere union-house, from which the idle and the improvident, and indeed all comers, may get a passing relief. Prayer is the communion of the soul with God, its repose upon infinite love.—W. Page Roberts, B.A.
Matthew 20:22. Undue self-assertion.—
1. When the ministers of the gospel hunt for high places in the world they wot not what they are doing, nor how foolish they are in so doing. “Ye know not what ye ask.”
2. The preferment and kingdom which we should affect is in another world, and we must prepare us for the cross with Christ, ere we come to the kingdom with Him. “Are ye able to drink?” etc.
3. From the two disciples’ undertaking learn that men least acquainted with the cross are most confident undertakers, for they say “We are able.”—David Dickson.
Matthew 20:23. Suffering for Christ.—It is but a cup, not an ocean; it is but a draught, bitter perhaps, but we shall see the bottom of it; it is a cup in the hand of a Father (John 18:11). It is but a baptism; if dipped, that is the worst of it, not drowned; perplexed, but not in despair.—M. Henry.
Matthew 20:25-27. The Christian ideal.—What a revolution of thought is involved in this simple contrast! Of how much that is great and noble has it been the seed! The dignity of labour, the royalty of service, the pettiness of selfish ambition, the majesty of self-sacrificing love; the utter condemnation of the miserable maxim “Every man for himself”; the world’s first question, “What shall we have?” made the last; and its last question, “What shall we give?” made the very first—such are some of the fruits which have grown from the seed our Lord planted in so ungenial soil that day. We are, alas, still very far from realising that great ideal; but ever since that day, as an ideal, it has never been quite out of sight. Early Christianity, under the guidance of the Apostles, strove, though with all too little success, to realise it; the chivalry of the middle ages, with its glorification of knighthood, (the knight was originally a Knecht, a servant, or slave), was an attempt to embody it; and what is the constitutionalism of modern times but the development of the principle in political life, the real power being vested not in the titular monarch, who represents ideally the general weal, but in a ministry, so designated to mark the fact that their special function is to minister or serve, the highest position in the realm bearing the humble title of Prime Minister, or first servant of the state? It is of value to have the principle before us as an ideal, even though it be buried under a tombstone of a name, the significance of which is forgotten; but when the kingdom of heaven shall be fully established on the earth, the ideal will be realised, not in political life only, but all through society. If only the ambition to serve our generation according to the will of God were to become universal, then would God’s kingdom come and His will be done on earth even as it is in heaven.—J. M. Gibson, D.D.
Matthew 20:26-28. True greatness.—
I. The nature of true greatness.—Though Christ does not ignore intellects, or even riches, He yet regards these things, and all things like these, as but instruments; and he is, in the gospel sense of the word, the greatest who uses all such gifts or possessions in the service of mankind. If this view of the case be correct, one or two inferences of importance follow from it.
1. He who wins this greatness does not win it at the expense of others.
2. We may win this greatness anywhere.
3. This greatness is satisfying to its possessor.
II. The model of true greatness.—“Even as the Son of man,” etc. In one point of view the greatness of God is that of service. The highest of all is the servant of all. But striking as the nobleness and the Divinity of service appear, when we look thus at the universal ministry of God we have a more impressive illustration of the same thing in the mission and work of the Lord Jesus. In creation and providence God lays nothing aside. But in redemption it was different. To deliver man from the guilt and power of sin it was needed that the Son of God should become a man, and, after a life of obedience should submit to a death of shame; and there was sacrifice. When that was done Jehovah rendered the highest service to humanity and gave a pattern of the loftiest greatness.
III. The motive of true greatness.—The reference which Christ makes to His death, as an example, brings before every Christian’s mind the magnitude of the obligation under which He has laid him.—W. M. Taylor, D.D.
Matthew 20:28. The purpose of Christ’s life and death.—
I. The name by which Christ calls Himself.—“The Son of man.”
II. His pre-existence and voluntary entrance into human conditions.—“Came”
III. The broad distinction between the merciful ministering of His life and the mysterious ransom of His death.
IV. His death as the price paid for our liberty, purchasing us for His own.—“Ransom”
V. His death as substitutionary.—“For,” i.e. instead of.
VI. The wide sweep of the purpose of His death.—“Instead of many,” contrasting the one offering with the great multitude which no man can number, who are actually redeemed to God thereby. The “many” in so far as the purpose and scope of His death are concerned might be the “all.’—A Maclaren, D.D.
Christ a Servant.—
I. The title He assumed.—“Son of man.”
II. The homage He declined.—“Not to be ministered unto.”
1. Not the utterance of disappointment.
2. Man usually desires power.
III. The character of the service He rendered.—“To give His life,” etc.
1. Its beginning in the distant past.
2. Its progress through the eventful present.
3. Its consummation in the glorious future; when He, “the servant of all,” shall reign as Lord and King.—J. C. Gray.
The death of Christ.—According to the teaching of the New Testament, dogmatically regarded, there are five propositions concerning the death of Christ which are again and again repeated.
I. It is declared that the death of Christ is not of small concern as compared with His life.
II. That it is in some way a death for the human race.
III. That it is in some way a death for the sin of the human race.
IV. That it in some way obtains the forgiveness of the sins of the human race.
V. That it in some way neutralises the effects of the sins of the human race.—Principal Cave, D.D.
Christ a ransom.—This word ransom or redemption was familiar to every Jew. Under the law, the method of commutation by the payment of a ransom was employed in all cases where things were due to God which from some ineligibility could not be themselves presented. Sometimes this ransom was a payment in money and sometimes in kind. The male firstborn, who had been spared in Egypt, and whose lives were therefore forfeited to God, were “ransomed,” “redeemed,” by silver shekels; the first-born of unclean cattle, which were legally unqualified for sacrifice, were “ransomed “by the payment of their value or by the substitution of a clean animal. There were also instances of the ransoming of human lives under the law; and when our Lord spoke of the ransoming the lives of many by a gift of life, His hearers would understand His words by the analogy of those national customs in which they had been born and bred. However difficult the application of Christ’s words, and the comprehension of their mysterious suggestions, the meaning of them would be clear enough to the disciples. They would understand that there were many first-born whose lives would be spared because His life would be surrendered, or, as in the case of the man whose ox had gored a Hebrew to death (Exodus 21:30), there were many forfeited lives which should be restored, because His life should vicariously bear their punishment and be taken away.—Ibid.
Matthew 20:26-28. The joy of ministry.—The least complicated and shortest rule of morals is this: Get others to work for you as little as possible and work yourself as much as possible for them; make the fewest calls upon the services of your neighbours and render them the maximum number of services yourself. The observance of this rule gives coherence to our acts, imparts a meaning to our lives, confers a blessing on our persons, solves all doubts and difficulties that perplex us, and causes all the factors of our existence, including intellectual activity, science, and art, to fall naturally into their proper places. This is why I never feel happy or even content, unless when quite certain that my work is helpful to others. As for the satisfaction of those for whose behoof I labour, I take no thought of that; it is a superfluity, a satiety of bliss, which does not enter into my calculations, and is utterly powerless to influence the choice of my actions. My firm conviction that the work I am spending myself in is not harmful nor worthless but beneficial to others, is the taproot of my happiness. And this is precisely the reason why the genuinely moral man instinctively puts physical toil above scientific and artistic work.—Count Tolstoi.
Matthew 20:28. Giving life for others.—The city of Marseilles was once visited by the plague. The ravages were fearful. Parents deserted their children, and children forgot their parents, to take care of themselves. The city became a desert. Everyone who remained was sad, for no one could stop the ravages of the plague. The doctors consulted together, but they could find no remedy. They agreed that it was necessary for one of them to open the body of someone who had died to find out the nature of the plague. But who would do this, for it was certain that the one who did it would himself die soon after? There was a pause. Suddenly one of the most celebrated physicians, a man in the prime of life, rose and said—“Be it so; I devote myself to the safety of my country. I swear, in the name of humanity and religion, that to-morrow at the break of day, I will dissect a corpse, and write down as I proceed what I observe.” He went home, made his will (for he was a rich man), and spent that evening in religious exercises. During the night a man died of the plague. Guyon, the physician, entered the room next morning, and made the examination. As he went on he wrote down all he saw, then left the room and put the paper into vinegar, so that it would not convey the plague to others. He then went to a convenient place, where he died within twelve hours.—“Nuntius.”
Matthew 20:29. Jericho.—See p. 480.
Matthew 20:30. Two blind men.—Here occurs one of the most marked of the apparent discrepancies of the Gospels. According to Matthew, Jesus healed two blind men on departing; according to Mark, one blind man on departing; according to Luke, one blind man on entering the city. The older Harmonists assumed that there were two miracles; that one blind man was healed at the entrance, and two at the departure, of Christ; and that Mark gave prominence to Bartimæus as the better known of the two persons. Ebrard thinks that Matthew combined the two accounts of Mark and Luke, and placed them in the departure from the city. (So also Wieseler.) It may simplify the matter if we consider that Jesus did not enter Jericho by the Jordan gate from Peræa, but came from Ephraim, and therefore probably made His exit by the same gate through which He entered. The blind man cried out upon Jesus, was threatened and restrained; he cried louder, and Jesus then regarded and healed him. But the Lord might have kept the blind man waiting till His return, to test him; and thus the Evangelists record the same event—the one, however, connecting it with the entrance, the other with the exit. Further, it is not difficult to suppose that in the interval another blind man joined company with the first, Bartimæus; and that both encouraged each other in the louder cry (Lange). The discrepancy does not in the slightest degree affect the credibility of any of the witnesses; it only serves, together with the other variations, to show the independence of the different accounts (Gibson).
Matthew 20:31. The multitude.—The caravan of Galileans and others going up to Jerusalem for the passover (Carr).
MAIN HOMILETICS OF THE PARAGRAPH.—Matthew 20:29-34
A lesson in prayer.—Much has been written on some of the minor details in which this story and the parallel stories of St. Mark and St. Luke appear, at first sight, to differ. Judging from what has happened in regard to other parts of the Bible, we are content to believe that, if only our information on the subject were fuller than it is, we should find these to be points on which their agreement was only concealed for a time. 2 Kings 5:7; Daniel 5:0 end of Matthew 20:16; and Luke 2:2, are cases in point. What was supposed in these passages, at first sight to be proofs of inaccuracy, have since been seen, with fuller light on the subjects discussed, to be evidences of correctness. It is certainly not unfair, therefore, to suppose something similar to he true in this case; and, if we do nothing more, at least to suspend our judgment till all the evidence has been heard. Passing, therefore, to those more important features in regard to which all the stories are found visibly to agree, we shall find that they teach us the three following great lessons as to the great duty of prayer—that it must be believing in its origin; urgent in its character; specific in its aim.
I. Believing in its origin.—This was evidently so in the case of the first prayer recorded in this story. As they sit by the wayside, near the city of Jericho, the blind men hear sounds which greatly excite their attention. Many voices are heard speaking, multitudes of feet are heard passing, as they sit there. Naturally, they ask some among those passers-by to tell them what it all means. When they learn what it is, they are naturally excited very much more. Evidently they had heard before of Jesus of Nazareth—of His character, as full of mercy—of His greatness, as full of power—of His claims, as Son of David. Evidently they believe, also, in what they have heard. “Faith,” in their case, has come by “hearing” (Romans 10:17), and therefore it is that they cry out in the manner they did—appealing to Christ for that mercy of which they have heard—relying on Him to display that power of which they have heard—calling upon Him by that title which they hear He has claimed (Matthew 20:30). In every way, therefore, we see that their prayer proceeded from faith. How, indeed, if we think of it, can any true prayer do anything else? As the Scripture has said (Hebrews 11:6), “He that cometh to God” at all “must believe that He is, and that He is the rewarder of them that diligently seek Him.” Much more is this true of those who come in supplication. How can they think of praying except to One whom they believe able to hear it? How are they likely to do so except to One whom they believe willing as well? And why should they do so unless they also believe that He can do what they ask? This is prayer, therefore—this is the root of it—asking in faith.
II. Urgent in character.—It is with prayer as it is with a stream. There are sure to be obstacles in the way of a stream, wherever it flows. But these obstacles never do more than check its flow for a time. The continual weight—the continually increasing weight—of the water behind, continually tends to press forward the water before. The greater, in fact, the obstacles in its way, the greater is the increase in the amount of water behind; and the greater, therefore—ever increasingly greater—its consequent pressure and weight. The more you check it, in fact, the more strong it becomes. Even if not much at first, by trying to stop it, you make it formidable indeed in the end. Just so it is with that true prayer which has its source in true faith. That there will be obstacles, sometimes, in the way of its immediately succeeding, follows, as it were, from the mere fact that it is offered in faith. There would be no call for faith if there were no difficulties, no hindrances, in the way. But such hindrances never eventually check the flow of true faith. They only arouse in the heart that offers it a greater sense of its need, a deeper perception of the nature of the emergency, a profounder conviction that the only way out of it is by perseverance in prayer. And they only, as it were, therefore, by the increasing pressure of these feelings, give greater strength to its flow. This is strikingly exhibited in the next thing to be noticed in the story before us. The multitude try to stop the blind men from pressing their request upon Jesus. They even go so far as to rebuke them for applying to Him at all. But it has no effect in the way of stopping them—none in the least. They do not pray less, they pray more, than before. If the multitude will not listen, all the more reason for still appealing to Jesus. If others will not assist them, all the more reason for exerting themselves. If others bid them be silent, all the more reason for “crying out” more (Matthew 20:31). We see what it is. “They know in Whom they have believed”—where their only help is, their only hope, their only prospect of good. Greater, therefore, is the energy behind than all the impediments in their path.
III. Specific in aim.—For success in prayer this is just as essential as perseverance and faith. There must be a correct aim as well as a strong bow if the arrow is to arrive at its mark. Where we have a definite need there must be a definite description of it if we are to obtain our desire. It pleases God, as a general rule, to be inquired of by us before He grants our requests. This is brought out strongly in the last thing of which we are told in this story. There was everything in the case and attitude and behaviour of these men to show what it was they desired. Their evident blindness—their well-known helplessness, their sightless eyeballs, their eager countenances, their persevering outcries, told this plainly enough. But for all this, before Jesus grants it to them, they must express it in words. They have come up to Him. They are standing before Him. The multitudes also far and near are standing around. All are listening, all looking on, all awaiting the issue. Then, before them all, and in the hearing of all, the Saviour makes His inquiry: “What will ye that I should do unto you?” Then, in the same silence, and the same hearing, they make their reply. “Lord, that our eyes may be opened.” And then at last, and then immediately, their desire is fulfilled (Matthew 20:34). Why so? Because now nothing more is required. To their faith they have added perseverance. To their perseverance they have added definiteness. There is nothing more to be done. It is like a man who has succeeded in finding the right key to a door; and who has subsequently made his way with much expenditure of time and trouble to the door of that house; and has finally put the key into the lock of that door, and shot back its bolt. He has nothing to do now but go in!
What is that we, individually, desire and need at Christ’s hands? Let us think of it now in the light of these truths. Let us think of it in faith. Do we believe Him to be willing and able to grant it? To grant it exactly in the shape that we ask? Or in some other equivalent and perhaps much better shape? Have we asked for it as long and as earnestly and in the face of as many difficulties as the men in this story? And have we as yet succeeded in putting our request into as definite and clear a shape as they finally did with their prayer? Perhaps if we think of these questions, and the lessons they involve, and try to put them into practice, we too shall be able, as was done by these men, to turn delay into promptness, and hindrances into helps, and disappointment into hope, and hope into fruition, and darkness itself into light.
HOMILIES ON THE VERSES
Matthew 20:29-34. The cure of two blind beggars.—
I. Their address to Christ (Matthew 20:29-30).
1. The circumstances of it are observable. As Christ and His disciples were departing from Jericho, in the presence of a great multitude. Two blind men concurred in the request; these joint sufferers were joint suitors, etc.
2. The address itself is more observable. “Have mercy on us, O Lord, Thou Son of David”; repeated again (Matthew 20:31).
(1) Here is an example of importunity in prayer; they cried out as men in earnest. Cold desires do but beg denials.
(2) Of humility in prayer. Only have mercy; they ask not for silver or gold, though they were poor; but mercy, mercy.
(3) Of faith in prayer. It is of excellent use in prayer to eye Christ in the grace and glory of His Messiahship; remember that He is the Son of David, whose office it is to help and save; and plead it with Him.
(4) Of perseverance in prayer, notwithstanding discouragement (Matthew 20:31).
II. The answer of Christ to this address of theirs. The multitude rebuked them; but Christ encouraged them. It were ill for us if the Master were not more kind and tender than the multitude.
1. He “stood still and called them” (Matthew 20:32).
2. He inquired further into their case.—“What will ye, etc.?” Which speaks:
(1) A very fair offer. “Here I am; let Me know what you would have, and you shall have it.”
(2) A condition annexed to this offer, which is a very easy and reasonable one, that they should tell Him what they would have Him do for them.
3. He cured them.—He did not say, “Seek in vain.” What He did was an instance of
(1) His pity;
(2) His power. “They followed Him.” None follow Christ blindfold; He first by His grace opens men’s eyes, and so draws their hearts after Him. They followed Christ as His disciples, to learn of Him; and as His witnesses, eye-witnesses, to bear their testimony to Him, and to His power and goodness.—M. Henry.
Matthew 20:29. Jericho.—On the way to Jerusalem lay the beautiful city of Jericho. The place now called by that name is such a wretched assemblage of miserable hovels that it is difficult for the traveller to realise that the Jericho of the days of our Lord was not only the most luxurious place of resort in Palestine, but one that might vie with its fashionable rivals throughout the Roman Empire. Since the days of Herod the Great it had been the winter residence of the Court. Jerusalem being on the cold hill-top, it was convenient to have within easy reach a warm and sheltered spot in the deep valley of the Jordan; and with a delightful winter climate and a rich and fertile soil, Jericho needed only the lavish expenditure of money to make it into “a little Paradise,” as Josephus calls it. With its gardens of roses and groves of palm, it was, even before the time of Herod, so beautiful a place, that, as a gem of the East, Antony bestowed it on Cleopatra as an expression of his devotion; after it passed into the hands of Herod, a theatre was erected and an amphitheatre and many other noble and costly buildings; and during the season it was thronged by the rich and the great of the land, among whom would be distinguished visitors from foreign parts. What effect would all this grandeur have on Christ and His disciples as they passed through it on their way to Jerusalem? We are not told. Two things only are noted as worthy of record; the salvation of a rich publican (Luke 19:1-10), and the healing of two poor blind men. Not the gardens and palaces of the city, but its sins and sorrows, engage the Saviour’s thoughts and occupy His time.—J. M. Gibson, D.D.
Matthew 20:31. Crowds around Christ.—Crowds gathered daily around Jesus Christ. He was thronged, pressed, almost persecuted, by the ever-accumulating multitudes. It is evident that this was not always, if it was ever, an advantage. The crowd was rather hindersome than helpful.
I. What of the crowds around Jesus Christ to-day?—Who are they, and what is their social effect? There is a crowd:
1. Of nominal followers.
2. Of bigots.
3. Of controversialists.
4. Of ceremonialists.
II. See how difficult it is for a simple-minded and earnest inquirer to find his way to Jesus Christ through such throngs.—
1. As a question of mere time they make it difficult.
2. They distract the inquirer’s thoughts.
3. They chill the inquirer’s love.
III. Against this set the glorious fact that there is no crowd, how dense or turbulent soever, through which, an earnest inquirer may not find his way.—There is a way to the Master; seek and thou shalt find; the Master, not the crowd, must redeem and pardon the sons of men.—J. Parker, D.D.
Matthew 20:30-34. Jesus gives sight (A children’s sermon).—
I. Let us talk about these two men.—Notice three things concerning them.
1. They were blind. Many ways in which people lose their sight: accident, sickness, etc. Very likely these men had been born blind. Better to be born blind than to lose one’s sight afterwards. I think such people are happier because they really do not know what they lose in not having sight. Although these men were blind they were not dumb. They used their tongues in order to get eyes.
2. They were not only blind, but poor. Some blind, but not poor; e.g. late Professor Fawcett.
3. They were not only blind and poor, but beggars. Luke tells us that one was a beggar (Luke 18:35), and I think we may conclude that his companion was a beggar also.
II. The Person to whom they spoke.—Jesus. The right Person.
III. They asked the right Person at the right time.—When a life-boat comes out to a vessel that is sinking in the sea the poor sailors who are clinging to the rigging feel that now or never they must leap on board. What was it that made these blind men cry out so loudly, “Have mercy on us,” etc.? Was it not because they felt that if they did not get their sight now they might be blind all their days?
IV. They would not leave off crying to Jesus until He noticed them.—The people told them to be quiet.
V. Let me now speak to you about the power of these men’s prayers upon the Lord Jesus.—They made Jesus stand still. He touched their eyes, etc.
Learn: I. Whatever your trouble may be, Jesus is the right Person to whom to go for help.
2. Now is the time to go to Jesus.
3. Never leave off praying because somebody tells you to do so.
4. Make the same use of your eyes as the blind men did. They “followed Jesus in the way.” We follow people when we try to do as they do.—W. Harris.
Matthew 20:32-34. The compassionate Christ.—
1. Christ taketh notice of such suppliants as the multitude doth despise. He standeth still to hear these blind men’s suit.
2. Where there is faith and sincerity the Lord will draw it forth to open view, for His own glory and the good of the believer; therefore He asketh what they would have, that it might be known that they did not seek money, but the fruit of His Divine power.
3. When misery is laid forth in faith before Christ, He meeteth it with compassion, as here in these blind men.
4. It is easy for Christ to do every greatest work, as here, to open the eyes of the blind, and to give sight to them; for He touched their eyes and they immediately received sight.
5. It is reason that what gift we get of Christ, we employ it for His honour, for their eyes received sight, and they followed Him.—David Dickson.
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Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on Matthew 20". Preacher's Complete Homiletical Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/
the Third Week after Epiphany