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A two-fold sense and interpretation is given of this parable; but both analogical.
One of which relates to the calling of the Gentiles. The Jews were the first people that God had in the world: they were hired into the vineyard betimes in the morning, the Gentiles not till the day was far spent; yet shall the Gentiles, by the favour and bounty of God, receive the same reward of eternal life, which was promised to the Jews who bore the heat of the day, while the Gentiles stood idle.
In the other analogical sense we may understand all persons indefinitely called by the gospel into the visible church, those that are called last, shall be rewarded together with the first; and accordingly the design and scope of this parable, is to shew the freeness of divine grace, in the distribution of those rewards which the hand of mercy confers upon God's faithful servants.
The vineyard is the church of God, the husbandman is God himself; the labourers are particular persons.
God's going at diverse times into his vineyard, imports the several ages of man's life; some are called early in the morning, some at noon, others at night. Now when God comes to dispense his rewards, those that entered first into the vineyard and did most service for God, shall be plentifully rewarded by him; and such as came in later, but did faithful service, shall not miss of a merciful reward.
Learn, 1. That so long as a person keeps out of Christ's vineyard and service, he is idle. Every unregenerate man is an idle man.
2. That persons are called by the preaching of the gospel at several ages and periods of life into God's vineyard; that is, into the communion of the visible church.
3.That such as do come, though late, into God's vineyard, and work diligently and faithfully, shall not miss of a reward of grace at the hand of free mercy.
Here observe, 1. That the time of God's full rewarding of his labourers, is the evening of their days; that is, when their work is done. When the evening was come, the lord of the vineyard called his labourers, and gave them their hire; not but that they have part of their reward in hand, but it is chiefly laid up in hope.
Observe, 2. That though God makes no difference in his servants wages for the time of their work, yet he will make a difference for the degrees of their service. Undoubtedly, they that have done most work, shall receive most wages. He that soweth bountifully, shall reap bountifully: God will reward every man according to his works; that is, not only according to the nature and quality, but the measure and degree, of his work. All shall have equity, but all shall not have equal bounty.
Observe, 3. That all inequality in the distribution of rewards, doth not make God an unjust accepter of persons; he may dispense both grace and glory, in what measure and degree he pleases, without the least shadow of unrighteousness. Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own?
Observe, 4. That when we have done much service for God, by labouring longer than others in his vineyard, it is our duty to have a low esteem both of our services and of ourselves, for the first shall be last, and the last first: that is, they that are first and highest in their own esteem, shall be the last and least in God's account.
This is now the third time that Christ had acquainted his disciples very lately with his approaching sufferings, and bloody passion. He did it twice before, chapters 16 and 17, yet now he mentions it again, that they might not be dismayed, and their faith might not be shaken to see him die, who called himself the true Messias and the Son of God.
The first time he told his disciples of his death in general; the second time he declares the means, by treason; now he tells them the manner, by crucifying: that he should be scourged, mocked, spit upon, and crucified: all this he did, to prevent his disciples' dejection at his sufferings.
Learn thence, that it is highly necessary that the doctrine of the cross be often preached to us; that so being armed with the expectation of sufferings before they come, we may be the less dismayed and disheartened when they come.
Our Lord's frequent forewarning his disciples of his death and sufferings was to fore-arm them with expectation of his sufferings, and with preparation for their own.
To sit on the right hand, and on the left, is to have the most eminent places of dignity and honour after Christ. This the mother might be encouraged to ask for James and John, because of their alliance to Christ, and because Christ had admitted them with Peter to be with him at his transfiguration. However, the rest of the disciples hearing of this ambitious request of the two brethren; and being as desirous and in their own opinions as deserving of the same honour, they had indignation against them.
Whence note, That none of the disciples did imagine that Christ had promised the supremacy to Peter, by these words, Tu es Petrus, Thou art Peter; for then neither James nor John had desired it, nor would the rest have contended for it.
Observe here, 1. The persons making this request to Christ, Zebedee's children, that is, James and John, by the mouth of their mother. They spake by her lips, and made use of her tongue to usher in a request which they were ashamed to make themselves.
Observe, 2. The request itself, Grant that these two may sit, the one on thy right hand, and the other on thy left hand.
Where note, How these disciples did still dream of Christ's temporal kingdom, (although he had so often told them, That his kingdom was not of this world) and ambitiously seek to have preference and pre-eminence in the kingdom. See here how these poor fishermen had already learnt craftily to fish for preferment. Who can wonder in seeing some sparks of ambition and worldly desires in the highest ministers of Christ, when the apostles themselves were not free from aspiring thoughts, even when they lay in the bosom of their Saviour? Ambition has all along infested churchmen, and troubled the church, even from the very first original and foundation of it.
Observe, 3. Both the unseasonableness and unreasonableness of this request made by his disciples. Christ speaks of his sufferings to them and they sue for dignity and great places from him, in optimis nonnihil est pessimi; the holiest, the wisest, and the best of men, in their imperfect state, are not wholly free from passionate infirmities. Who would have expected that when our Saviour had been preaching the doctrine of the cross to his disciples, telling them that he must be mocked, scourged, spit upon, and crucified for them, that they should be seeking and suing to him for secular dignity and honour, pre-eminence and power? But we plainly see, the best of men are but men, and the none are in a state of perfection on this side of heaven.
As if Christ had said, "You do but abuse yourselves with fond and idle dreams; there is other work cut out for you in the purpose of God, than sitting upon thrones and tribunals; to think of suffering, would do you more service."
And accordingly our Saviour, in his answer, tells these disciples,
1. That they were greatly ignorant of the nature and quality of his kingdom, which was not secular but heavenly: but the carnal notion of a glorious earthly kingdom upon earth, in which they should be delivered from the Roman power, was so deeply imprinted in their minds, that they frequently declared their expectation of it, notwithstanding all the assurances which Christ had given them of the contrary.
Observe, 2. The course which our Saviour takes to cool the ambition of his disciples; he tells them, they must expect here, not crowns on their heads, but a cross on their backs; they must first taste of his sufferings, before they talk of his glory; and patiently suffer for him, before they expect to reign with him; plainly intimating, that the cross is the way to the crown, suffering the way to reigning, and that those that suffer most for Christ, shall partake of highest dignity and glory from him.
Observe, 3. The presumptuous confidence which the disciples had of their own strength and ability for sufferings. Are ye able, says Christ, to drink of my cup? They replied, We are able. Alas! poor disciples! when it came to the trial, they all cowardly forsook him and fled. A bold presumption makes us vaunt of our own ability; holy jealousy makes us distrustful of our own strength. Those that are least acquainted with the cross, are usually the most confident undertakers.
Observe here, Our blessed Saviour's wonderful mildness and goodness towards his disciples; he doth not with passion, much less with indignation, reprehend them, either for their ambition or presumption, but makes the best of their answer, and encourages their good intentions; he tells them, they should have the honour to share with him in his sufferings, to pledge him in his own cup, and after a conformity to him in his sufferings, they might expect to be sharers with him in his glory.
Yet observe, That when Christ says, That to sit at his right hand, was not his to give; he means, as he was man, or as he was mediator; for elslewhere, as God, we find him asserting his power to dispose at the kingdom of heaven; I give unto them eternal life John 10:28
However, the Arians of old, and Socinians of late, do from this text infer, that God the Father has a power reserved to himself, which he hath not committed to Christ his Son; from whence they would conclude, that he is not the same God which the Father is, because he hath not the same power which the Father has.
Answer, But if Christ be here supposed to deny his power to himself, he must then manifestly contradict himself, when he says, I appoint to you a kingdom, and All power in heaven and earth is given to me. When Christ therefore saith, he could only give this to them for whom it was appointed of his Father; this doth not signify any defect in his power, but a perfect conformity to his Father's will, and that he could not do this, unless the divine essence and nature abided in him. This the words rather shew, than that there is any want of power in Christ.
Note here, 1. That Christ by these words doth not forbid the exercise of civil dominion and lawful magistracy; for then all order, all defence of good men, and punishment of evil doers, would be taken away. Magistracy is God's ordinance, and the magistrate is God's minister for the good of human society, and consequently not here censured or condemned by Christ. True, when Christ was here on earth, he refused to execute the magistrate's office, because his kingdom was not of this world, and because he would give no umbrage to Caesar or the Jews; and because he would leave us an example of humility and contempt of worldly grandeur, and not because the office of civil magistracy was unlawful.
Note, 2. That Christ by this text doth not condemn the exercise of ecclesiastical government, that being as necessary in the church, as the former in the stae. The welfare of the church necessarily depends on the exercise of ecclesiastical discipline.
Note, 3. Christ here forbids only the exercise of that dominion which is attended with tyranny and oppression, and is managed according to men's wills and lusts. Now, says Christ, you shall have no such government, you shall command nothing for mere will and pleasure, but your whole office shall consist in being ministers to the good of others; and herein ye shall resemble me the Son of man, who came not to be ministered unto, but to minster.
And accordingly, that Christ might effectually quench those unhappy sparks of ambition which were kindled in his apostles' minds, he tells them, that supremacy and dominion belongs to secular princes, not to evangelical pastors, who ought to carry themselves with humility towards one anothher; not that Christ directs to a parity and equality amongst all his ministers, and forbids the pre-eminency, is that which our Saviour disallows.
Learn, 1. That so far ought the ministers of Christ to be from affecting a domination and superiority of power over their fellow brethren, that in imitation of Christ their Lord and Master, they ought to account themselves fellow-servants, I am amongst you, saith Christ, as one that serveth.
2. That such ministers as do love and affect pre-eminency and superiority are most unfit for it; and they deserve it best, who seek it least.
3. That the dignity and honour which the ministers of Christ should chiefly and only affect, is in another world; and the way to be greatest and highest there, is to be low and humble here, mean in our own eyes, and little in our own esteem. Whosoever will be chief, says Christ, let him be your servant.
To encourage his disciples to the forementioned condescending humility one towards another, our Saviour propounds to them his own instructive example, I am not to be ministered unto, says Christ, but to minister to the wants and necessities of others, both for soul and body. "O what a sight will it be, as if our Lord had said, to behold an humble God, and a proud creature; an humble Saviour, and an haughty sinner!"
Yea, our Lord urges his example farther, that as he laid down his life for us, so should we be ready to lay down our lives for one another. Did Christ lay down his life for us, and shall we not lay down a lust for him? our pride, our ambition, our affectation of dignity and superiority over others?
Note here two things; 1. Whereas it is said that Christ gave his life for a ransom for many; it is elsewhere affirmed, that he tasted death for every man, even for them that denied the Lord who brought them. The word many in other places of scripture, is not exclusive of some, but inclusive of all.
Thus Many that sleep in the dust shall arise Daniel 12:2: answer, All that sleep in the grave shall hear his voice John 5:28-Joel :. Thus, Through the offence of one many died Romans 1:15; answer, In Adam all died 1 Corinthians 15:22.
There is a virtual sufficiency in the death of Christ for the salvation of mankind, and an actual efficacy for the salvation of them that repent, and believe, and obey the gospel.
Note, 2. From these words, He gave his life a ransom. That Christ suffered in our stead, and died in our place, and gave his life instead of ours. It was the constant opinion both of the Jews and Gentiles, that their piacular victims were ransoms for the life of the offender, and that he who gave his life for another, suffered in his stead, to preserve him from death.
And who can reasonably suppose, but that our Lord intended by saying he gave himself a ransom, that he gave his life instead of the lives of those for whom he suffered? Vain are the Socinians, when they say, this price was to be paid to Satan, because he detained us captive.
True; the price is to be paid to him that detains the captive, when he doth this for gain to make money of him, as the Turks detain the Christians captive at Algiers; but when a man is detained in custody for violation of a law, then it is not the gaoler, but the legislator, to whom the price of redemption must be paid, or satisfaction be made.
Accordingly this price was paid to God; for Christ became our ransom, as he offered up his life and blood for us: now he offered himself without spot to God, Hebrews 9:14. he therefore paid the price of our redemption to God.
This chapter concludes with a famous miracle, wrought by Christ upon two blind men, in the sight of a great multitude which followed him.
Where observe, 1. The blind men's faith in acknowledging Jesus to be the true Messias, for so much the title of the Son of David signifies.
Observe, 2. Their fervency, in crying so earnestly to Christ for mercy and healing; Have mercy upon us, thou Son of David. A true sense of want will make us cry unto Christ for help earnestly, and with undeniable importunity.
Observe, 3. The great condescension of Christ towards these poor blind men: He stood still, he called them, he had compassion on them, he touched their eyes, and healed them. A mighty instance of Christ's divine power. He that can open blind eyes with the touch of his finger, and that by his own power, is really God, his touch is an omnipotent touch.
Observe, 4. Although Christ well knew the condition of these blind men, yet before he will restore them to sight, they must sensibly complain of the want of sight, and cry unto him for mercy and healing.
Learn hence, That although Christ perfectly knows all our wants, yet he takes no notice of them till we make them known to him by prayer.
Observe, 5. The best way and course which the blind men take to express their thankfulness to Christ for recovered sight, they followed him.
Learn thence, That mercy from Christ is then rightly improved, when it engages us to follow Christ. This should be the effect of all salvation wrought for us. He praiseth God best, that serveth and obeyeth him most; the life of thankfulness consists in the thankfulness of the life.
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Burkitt, William. "Commentary on Matthew 20". Expository Notes with Practical Observations on the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 20 / Ordinary 25