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Bible Commentaries

Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible
Matthew 20

 

 


Verse 1

“For the kingly rule of heaven is like to a man who was a householder, who went out early in the morning to hire labourers into his vineyard.”

Here we have a further description of what the Kingly Rule of Heaven is like. Compare Matthew 13:24; Matthew 13:31; Matthew 13:33; Matthew 13:44-45; Matthew 13:47; Matthew 18:23-35; Matthew 22:1-14; Matthew 25:1-13. Note that it is like something that is continual through the lifetimes of His listeners. In other words the Kingly Rule of Heaven is being experienced as a present experience. This is the obvious way of reading it unless we have to manipulate it in order to fit a theory.

And what is the Kingly Rule of Heaven like? It is like a man who is a householder/estate owner and owns a vineyard (compare and contrast Matthew 21:33). And this estate owner goes out early in the morning to hire labourers into His vineyard. Thus He is calling them to come under the Kingly Rule of Heaven so that they might serve Him. Here we have the indication that all His disciples are now being recruited for His mission (Matthew 9:37-38), and will continue to be so. They are to be sent out to bring in the harvest.

In those days those who had no strips of land, or insufficient strips of land, of their own, would hire themselves out to the more wealthy landowners in order to earn a living. And this was done by standing in the market place or the great square around the gate of the city and waiting for the hirers to come along. This was necessary for them so that they could earn money so as to put food into their childrens’ mouths. And a denarius was a normal days pay for such workers. It was in fact all that larger families could do to survive on such a small amount. And workers like this were despised and looked down on. They were seen as almost penniless and little better than slaves. They subsisted on whatever work they could get.

‘Early in the morning.’ This would be at dawn, indicating the commencement of the new Day. There is here a further indication of the commencement of the new age.


Verse 2

“And when he had agreed with the labourers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard.”

In this case the estate owner agreed with the workers whom He hired from those who were standing there, a fair wage for a day’s work, one denarius. Then He sent them to work in His vineyard, no doubt under His manager (Matthew 20:8). The labourers were quite satisfied. He had offered them the usual rate for the job. That was important. God cheats or underrates no man.


Verse 3-4

“And he went out about the third hour, and saw others standing in the marketplace idle, and to them he said, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and whatever is right I will give you.’ And they went their way.”

Presumably the work was falling behind with the result that His manager informed Him that more workers were needed. Or perhaps we are to see in it simply the goodness of heart of the estate owner although in that case why not hire all at once? But the purpose of the details is not in order to explain the estate owner’s reasons but in order to get over the idea of a gradually ongoing situation. So He again goes out to look for labourers, this time at roughly 9:00 am. And in the marketplace He finds that there are still many labourers who have not found work. So He again selects out some workers. They would have been there from early morning, but no one had previously hired them (Matthew 20:7). To these He promises that He will pay ‘whatever is right’. To this they agree, for they know that they cannot expect a full denarius, and they are desperate to get work. And like the others they go to work in His vineyard. Note the deliberate emphasis on the fact that they are to trust the estate manager to do what is right.


Verse 5

“Again he went out about the sixth and the ninth hour, and did the same.”

Again perhaps His manager twice warns Him that with the workforce that they have the work will not be finished by the evening. But whatever the reason He goes out around noon and then again around 3:00 pm. (15:00 hours). And again He hires labourers on the same terms as the previous ones at 9:00 am, the terms of trust and obedience. His operations are to go on all through the day.


Verse 6

“And about the eleventh hour he went out, and found others standing, and he says to them, ‘Why do you stand here all the day idle?’ ”

But still the workers prove insufficient and the call comes for more workers (compare Matthew 9:38). So at around 5 pm (17:00 hours), at ‘the eleventh hour’, He goes out and He still find labourers whom no one has hired. And He asks them why no one has hired them. The purpose of the question is in order to demonstrate that they are not layabouts, but have genuinely been there all day waiting for work. By this time they were aware that for that day at least, their children would go hungry.

It should be noted here that the assumption is that those who are not labouring for the estate owner are ‘idle’ (not working). It visualises only one occupation that is worthwhile in this coming new age, that of serving the Lord of the vineyard.


Verse 7

“They say to him, ‘Because no man has hired us.’ He says to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ ”

So they inform the landowner that the reason that they are still there, (having stood there be it noted through the heat of the day), is because no one has hired them. We can imagine how they were feeling, and even more their great delight when the landowner hires them at a time when they were past hope. Their pay for work at the end of the day might be small, but it will be better than nothing, and they are grateful. It may at least buy some stale barley bread for their families to feed on.


Verse 8

“And when evening was come, the lord of the vineyard says to his steward, ‘Call the labourers, and pay them their hire, beginning from the last to the first.’ ”

Then when evening comes the Estate Owner calls to His manager and tells him to line up the labourers so that they can receive their pay. Paying at the end of the day, on the same day, was a requirement of the Law (Leviticus 19:13). And He tells him to pay the last who were employed first. His gracious treatment continues to the end.


Verse 9

“And when those came who were hired about the eleventh hour, they received every man a denarius.”

When the men who had been employed at the eleventh hour came forward they expected very little, and they must have been astounded when He paid them a denarius. This was not what they had anticipated at all. They had expected only a fraction of a denarius. But we are to gather that the estate owner was a good and righteous man, and recognised that they had been without work through no fault of their own. And He also recognised that they would have families to feed. Thus He had determined to pay them enough to feed their families. The generosity of heart is intended to indicate that he is like God (compare Matthew 5:45), and that He will meet sufficiently the needs of all His people (compare Matthew 6:30). We are left to imagine the overflowing gratitude and praise that would fill their hearts.


Verse 10

“And when the first came, they supposed that they would receive more, and they likewise received every man a denarius.”

When the men who had worked all day saw this their eyes would glisten. Clearly they would be paid much more than a denarius. And they came forward confidently to receive their due. But they too only received a denarius.

The intermediate workers are not mentioned in the final payout, and the assumption is that they too were paid a denarius. But their importance in the parable is in the indication that the estate owner continued to call on people to work in His vineyard all through the day, and called on them to trust Him to deal rightly with them in the end.

We must remember that this is a parable. It is not saying that all who commence work at the very beginning will be dissatisfied at the end, or that none of the others will be dissatisfied. It is using extremes to bring out a lesson. We may in fact happily assume that some would in real life be content with their denarius.


Verse 11-12

“And when they received it, they murmured continually against the householder, saying, ‘These last have spent but one hour, and you have made them equal to us, who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ ”

The workers who had worked all day were furious and muttered among themselves, pointing out to each other that they had worked throughout the whole day, bearing the burden of the greater part of the work, and working even when the sun was hottest. And yet this mean-minded, ungrateful rich estate owner had only paid them the same as He had paid those who had only worked from 5:00 pm to nightfall. (They ignored the fact that these others had waited hopelessly in the sun all day with only despair in their hearts). They did not consider it fair. And our hearts are so hardened that we tend to agree with them, for we all like to think in terms of what we deserve, failing to recognise that if we too got what we deserved our case would be hopeless. But the question that will now be answered is, was their attitude right? (Note that this is not a parable about wage negotiations and fairplay. It is a parable about a gracious and good Estate Owner in His dealings with unfortunates and the fact that our attitude should be the same).


Verse 13

“But he answered and said to one of them, ‘Friend, I do you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius?’ ”

The estate owner, who was a good man, then gently took one of them aside, and calling him His ‘friend’, an act of graciousness in itself, He pointed out that He had done him no wrong, for He had paid him exactly what he had agreed. Why then was he grumbling when he had received the amount agreed in their contract?


Verse 14

“Take up what is yours and go your way. It is my will to give to this last, even as to you.”

Then He pointed out that what He had done what in accordance with His own will, and that was to pay a living wage to everyone regardless of their misfortune at not finding work until late on (in fact a good Union principle). This stress on the owner’s ‘will’ is a further indication that he represents God Who does according to His own will, and we should ever be grateful for the fact that it is His will not to give us what we deserve, but to benefit even the least deserving.


Verse 15

“Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with my own? Or is your eye evil, because I am good?”

Then He explained His purpose. His money was lawfully His, so that He could do with it what He would. And because He was a good man He had decided to pay the unfortunates who had not been able to find work until late sufficient to feed their families. This was an act of His own goodness, not a matter of what was deserved. (He had not withheld part of their denarius with which to help others). For His purpose had been in order to ensure that none went without. Thus He had performed His will, and He had done what was right, but He had also gone further. He had done what was more than right, He had done what was ‘good’ (compare Matthew 19:17). This clearly identifies him as representing God, and not just any benefactor.

‘Is your eye evil.’ This metaphor almost certainly has in mind Deuteronomy 15:9 where it represents the eye that is ungenerous towards the needy. It is a rebuke indicating that with all their claims to what was lawful their hearts were not set to obey the Law as promulgated in Deuteronomy 14:28 to Deuteronomy 15:11, the Law of generosity to the poor. It also brings out the principle on which the Estate Owner was working, that of benefiting and providing for the poor and needy. The evil eye, ungenerous itself, was looking at One Who was truly good, and therefore it could not understand. But how glad we should be that God is like this. For few of us, even if we survive the burden and heat of the day, do it without some failure. How wonderful then it is to know that in the end we will still hear His ‘well done’.


Verse 16

‘So the last will be first, and the first last.’

And thus the story tells us that because of God’s goodness and graciousness, and because our spirits can so easily become jealous and hardened, it is often the last who become first, while the first become last. This is a warning, not a threat. The sad thing in the parable is that it was the men who had worked hardest who came out worst, not because they were not fairly paid, but because they were ungracious and mean-spirited and finished up dissatisfied.

It is interesting how often commentators at this point cite stories where a man who only worked a short time did as much in that short time as those who had worked all day. It emphasises our sense of fair play. But that is almost to cancel out the point of the story. For the point of the story is not that we get what is due because of what we have accomplished, but that if we have done our best God is so gracious that we all get far more than we deserve, regardless of how much we have done. The point is that God is generous beyond deserving to those who seek to serve Him and that we should not be looking at what others get, but wondering at His graciousness in giving us so much when we are the least deserving.

For the real emphasis of the story is not the workforce, nor on what they received, but is on how we should conceive the goodness and graciousness of God, and on the fact that we will all come out of His vineyard with far more than we deserve, because of how good and generous He is. It is that our rating does not depend on what we deserve, but on His goodness alone. Once again they learn that the new world is upon them, a world unlike any known before, a world where the only criterion is the good, and where men receive far more than they deserve. (In fact, of course, God had always been like this, but now it is revealed as the very basis of the new age).

Thus the idea that ‘the last will be first, and the first last’ warns against presumption when we are dealing with Someone Who is the very opposite of all our reasoning, because He does not think in terms of what we deserve, but in terms of love. Thus none can set himself up above any other, and the Apostles least of all. If this was not intended to prevent the Apostles getting the wrong idea about their ‘thrones’ we do not know what else would have been. And shortly we shall learn how necessary it was (Matthew 20:20-28).


Verse 17

‘And as Jesus was going up to Jerusalem, he took the twelve disciples apart, and on the way he said to them, “Behold, we go up to Jerusalem, and the Son of man will be delivered to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death.” ’

‘As Jesus was going up to Jerusalem.’ Matthew does not want us to miss the context. What is to follow must be seen in the light of that fact that Jesus had His eyes fixed on a cross in Jerusalem.

Eager that His chosen twelve Apostles should be prepared for what was coming, He took them to one side on the journey and again emphasised what His fate was going to be. And He makes clear that it will happen to Him as ‘the Son of Man’. The picture of the Son of Man emerging from suffering and going on the clouds of Heaven to receive kingship and glory was by now well known to them. But He stresses it again. And again reminds them that it will be at the hands of the Jewish leaders, the Chief Priests and the Scribes, those upstanding leaders of religion in Jerusalem. Such a suggestion was in accordance with the Scriptures - see Isaiah 50:6; Isaiah 53:7-8. It would have caused no surprise to Jeremiah (e.g. Jeremiah 19:1; Jeremiah 20:1-2; Jeremiah 26:11).

‘Will be delivered.’ The verb is impersonal. It thus probably signifies that it is God Who will deliver Him up. All that is happening is within the will and purpose of God.

‘And they will condemn him to death.’ Jesus knew what His fate must be for He was walking in the way of the Suffering Servant (Matthew 20:28; Isaiah 53). He is indicating that this will be an official sentence of the Sanhedrin. This is suggested both by the verb and by the Chief Priests and the Scribes sharing one definite article, demonstrating that in spite of their enmity towards each other they would be acting together. While they could not carry out the sentence, they could certainly pass such a sentence, and regularly did.


Verses 17-28

Those Who Follow Jesus Are Not To Be Self-seeking But Selflessly Seeking To Serve All, In The Same Way As He As The Servant Is Doing Among Them, Something Especially Revealed In His Giving Of His Life As A Ransom For Many (20:17-28)..

Had the evangelists not been fully truthful in all that they wrote this story would have been passed over. Here are two of the greatest of the Apostles and they behave so abominably that we can only blush for them and hang our heads in shame. And it is not hidden in a footnote. Matthew in fact milks it for all he is worth, not out of a spirit of jealousy, but in order to bring out the great contrast at this point between the Apostles and Jesus. As He was going forward to a cross of shame, their eyes were fixed on their own glory. They would let Him down to the end. And we have been letting Him down in the same way ever since.

The account is to be read in the context of Jesus’ words about the twelve sitting on twelve thrones (Matthew 19:28), which enflamed their imaginations so that they had to be put sharply right (Matthew 20:25-27), and the parable of the labourers in the vineyard which they blatantly ignored (Matthew 19:30 to Matthew 20:16), accentuated by the fact that Jesus has set His face to go to Jerusalem (Matthew 20:17) and has just informed His Apostles again of the terrible end that awaits Him there (Matthew 20:18-19), something which has clearly passed them by. For us the readers it is quite clear which words of Jesus were prominent in their minds, and which words should have been.

Indeed their perfidy is brought out even more by their use of their mother as their messenger. She was well known to Jesus (and would later behave much more nobly) and they probably hoped that her influence would sway things their way. So little were they aware of the momentous things that they were dealing with.

But what the story does bring out most of all is the total contrast between their own self-seeking and what Jesus was calling on them to be. For He brings out that He does not want them to be thinking about prestigious thrones. He wants them to be thinking about true service, and that in terms of His own service as the Suffering Servant. If this does not indicate that His words about twelve thrones have at this point been totally misinterpreted we do not know what could. (After all if they were to be taken literally there is some excuse for the behaviour of the two, they were after all two of the chosen three. All they would then be doing was pre-empting Peter. But this was not what Jesus had meant at all).

Analysis.

a As Jesus was going up to Jerusalem, He took the twelve disciples apart, and on the way He said to them, “Behold, we go up to Jerusalem, and the Son of man will be delivered to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death” (Matthew 20:17-18).

b “And will deliver Him to the Gentiles to mock, and to scourge, and to crucify, and the third day He will be raised up” (Matthew 20:19).

c Then came to him the mother of the sons of Zebedee with her sons, worshipping him, and asking a certain thing of him (Matthew 20:20).

d And He said to her, ‘What is your wish?’ She says to him, ‘Command that these my two sons may sit, one on your right hand, and one on your left hand, in your kingly rule’ (Matthew 20:21).

e But Jesus answered and said, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?” (Matthew 20:22 a).

f They say to Him, “We are able” (Matthew 20:22 b).

e He says to them, “You will indeed drink my cup” (Matthew 20:23 a).

d “But to sit on my right hand, and on my left hand, is not mine to give, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared of my Father” (Matthew 20:23 b).

c And when the ten heard it, they were moved with indignation concerning the two brothers (Matthew 20:24).

b But Jesus called them to Him, and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would become great among you shall be your servant, and whoever would be first among you shall be your slave (Matthew 20:25-27).

· “Even as the Son of man came, not to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28).

Note that in ‘a’ we are told that Jesus was voluntarily going up to Jerusalem to be condemned to death and in the parallel that he has come to give His life as a ransom for many. In ‘b’ we learn of the behaviour and ways of the Gentiles, and in the parallel the disciples are to be the very opposite of that. In ‘c’ the mother of ‘my two sons’, the sons of Zebedee exposes her self-seeking, and in the parallel the Apostle reveal their self-seeking (they were not angry at the request, they were angry at its implications for them) and their anger at ‘the two brothers’. In ‘d’ she pleads that they may sit on His right hand and His left, and in the parallel He says that to sit on His right hand and His left is not His to give. In ‘e’ He points out that they do not know what they are asking. They are asking to share His cup. And in the parallel He declares that they will indeed share His cup. And in ‘f’ the writer brings out emphatically the total unawareness of the Apostles of what they are asking, for they boldly declare that they ‘are able’, when we all know that they will actually forsake Him and flee (Matthew 26:56). Although, of course, in the end they did come through triumphantly and serve Him nobly regardless of the cost.


Verse 19

“And will deliver him to the Gentiles to mock, and to scourge, and to crucify, and the third day he will be raised up.”

The fact that He must die means that Jesus is aware from the beginning that it will be at the hands of the Romans, for they alone had the power to carry out the death sentence. But here it is spelled out for the first time, as is the fact that His death will be by crucifixion. This would come as no surprise to One who had constantly spoken of taking up the cross. Indeed the whole process simply indicates the normal expectation for a condemned Jewish criminal, mockery, scourging and crucifixion. Jesus would have heard of it being carried out on the followers of Judas the Galilean when He was a lad, and He may well have witnessed such incidents Himself. The only unusual feature, given that He is to be executed, is that He will be raised on the third day. For this see on Matthew 16:21. The resurrection of the Suffering Servant is assumed in Isaiah 53:10-12, and implied in Daniel 7:13-14.


Verse 20

‘Then came to him the mother of the sons of Zebedee with her sons, worshipping him, and asking a certain thing of him.”

In the context of His speaking of His death the mother of two of His disciples, James and John, seeks Him out, accompanied by her two sons. She bows humbly before Him and indicates that she has a request to make. The mother of the two sons of Zebedee (see Matthew 27:56) was probably called Salome (Mark 15:40). She may well have been Jesus’ aunt (John 19:25). This last would explain why she feels that she can intervene here, and why Jesus commits His mother to his cousin’s care at the cross.

Matthew has no motive for introducing their mother here (Mark does not mention it) and it therefore suggests an eyewitness testimony by one who was there. ‘Asking a certain thing of Him’ indicates that he had noticed the delicacy of her approach. She had probably learned of Jesus’ comment about the Apostles as soon to sit on twelve thrones overseeing Israel, and like all mothers she no doubt felt that no one could be more suitable than her boys for a place of honour. So she seeks to ensure that they will have every opportunity. The act is typical of a strongminded mother and she may well have been Mary’s elder sister (I could visualise my mother doing the same). But Matthew makes quite clear that James and John are deeply involved, and it is with them that Jesus discusses the matter.


Verse 21

‘And he said to her, ‘What is your wish?’ She says to him, ‘Command that these my two sons may sit, one on your right hand, and one on your left hand, in your kingly rule.” ’

When Jesus indicates His willingness to hear what she has to say she asks Him to ‘command’ that her two sons have the places of privilege when He takes up His kingship, one on the right hand and the other on the left. She assumes that He will have autonomous power, and will be able to command what He wants. This suggestion fits well with Jesus having mentioned twelve thrones, for it indicates that she is not seeking a unique position for them, only one of special privilege among ‘equals’, which even now they appear partly to enjoy (and John will have the favoured place at the Last Supper). After all someone has to have them, why not then her sons? Her very request brings out the growing sense that was permeating the wider group that Jesus was planning something special when He arrived at Jerusalem.

For the idea of being on the right hand and on the left hand compare Nehemiah 8:4. See also Psalms 16:11; Psalms 45:9; Psalms 110:1; Matthew 26:64; Acts 7:55-56. In Josephus there is an example of a king whose eldest son sits on his right hand, and his army commander sits on his left. Matthew probably intends his readers to compare these words with his words in Matthew 27:38, where those who are on His right hand and His left may be seen as sharing in His sufferings. No wonder Jesus says, ‘you do not know what you are asking’.

The request indicates that at this stage at least, the Apostles had no conception of Peter as being in a settled position as their official leader, and the two might well have felt that his gaffes (Matthew 16:22-23; Matthew 17:4; Matthew 19:27) had opened up the way for them.

Note the mention of ‘two sons’ which parallels in the section chiasmus the later parable of the ‘two sons’ (Matthew 21:28), and in the local chiasmus the ‘two brothers’ (Matthew 20:24). While possibly a little embarrassed they are standing by hoping for the best. And it is therefore to them that Jesus turns in order to dispose of the question once for all. For He knows that they have been very much involved in their mother coming to Him.


Verse 22

‘But Jesus answered and said, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?” They say to him, “We are able.”

Jesus then turns to the two young men who are standing there, possibly a little embarrassed, but certainly hopeful. They are totally involved with the request. And He points out to them that they do not know what they are asking. For if they did they would have recognised that they were now seeking places of intense and continual suffering.

So He asks them whether they think that they really will be able to drink the cup that lies immediately ahead for Him (the ‘I’ is emphatic), the cup that He is about to drink and of which He must drink (Matthew 26:39; Matthew 26:42). This picture of the cup as a symbol of the drinking of suffering and of the undergoing of the wrath of God is a regular one in the Old Testament. The Psalmist declares, ‘In the hand of the Lord there is a cup and the wine is red’ and it is for all the wicked of the earth (Psalms 75:8). Isaiah tells us that Jerusalem had ‘drunk at the hand of the Lord the cup of His fury’ (Isaiah 51:17). God tells Jeremiah to ‘Take the cup of the wine of this fury at my hand and cause all the nations, to whom I send you, to drink it’ (Jeremiah 25:15). See also Jeremiah 49:12; Lamentations 4:21; Ezekiel 23:31-34; Habakkuk 2:16; Psalms 60:3; Isaiah 51:17; Isaiah 63:6; Obadiah 1:16). In the words of Job, ‘let him drink of the wrath of the Almighty’ (Job 21:20). A similar picture is taken up in the New Testament (Matthew 26:39; Matthew 26:42; Revelation 14:10; Revelation 16:19; Revelation 18:6). It is the cup that Jesus must drink to the full and it is to be given to Him by His Father (John 18:11). It is a cup the content of which we will never be able to appreciate in spite of all the information that we have been given and the passage of two thousand years of study.

But the two eager young men who stand before Him have no inkling of this. They think rather, either of the cup of the exertions and trials that will be involved in establishing the Messianic Rule, or the cup of authority and power which they will drink at the King’s table. And they feel capable of drinking both. So they boldly declare, ‘we are able’. The one thing that they had no thought of was an ignominious cup. However, these words will soon catch up with them, when they will be given the opportunity to prove them, for in a few days time, at the first whiff of His cup, they will forsake Him and flee along with the others. That at least the twelve were united about. But this must be said for them, that they remained together and did not flee from Jerusalem.


Verse 23

‘He says to them, “You will indeed drink my cup. But to sit on my right hand, and on my left hand, is not mine to give, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared of my Father.” ’

All this Jesus knows. But as He looks at them, He loves them, and He is indeed aware of what they must suffer for His Name’s sake. So instead of pointing out that they are mistaken and have no idea what they are promising, He descends to a certain extent to their level and acknowledges that they will indeed drink of His cup, at least to some extent. For both will in future be called on to suffer in the cause of Christ. Both will shortly endure regular imprisonment and beatings (Acts 4:3; Acts 5:18; Acts 5:40), and James will later be beheaded by Herod Agrippa 1 (Acts 12:2), while John will suffer in other ways, as will all the disciples. It would be a bold person indeed who would suggest that John would pass through the tribulations of the first century AD and remain unscathed, and the traditions of John’s sufferings in the mines on the Isle of Patmos may well contain some truth (compare Revelation 1:9).

This kind of enigmatic reply by Jesus is His regular way of avoiding going into detail over things about which the disciples are mistaken, (compare also Luke 22:38; Acts 1:6-7), but concerning which there is no point in giving an immediate explanation. He knew that there was much that they still had to learn and appreciate before they could be taught more fully.

But then He points out that, whatever they may feel themselves capable of, the privilege of being those closest to Him in authority is not within His gift. It is for those for whom the Father has prepared it. Initially at least we may well think that Acts reveals that it was Peter and Paul who were allocated these positions, with John taking one up once they were dead. But they did not see themselves in that way. And that was in a future that was at present not yet known. Jesus’ point, however, is that it is God Who will choose the future church leadership, not man, not even Himself. God prepares each man for the task that he has to do (John 15:16; Acts 13:2; Galatians 1:15).


Verse 24

‘And when the ten heard it, they were moved with indignation concerning the two brothers.’

When news reached the ears of the ten about this attempt to pre-empt the allocation of the most important positions, they were furious. Each of them felt that they had a right to stake a claim, and felt that this was an underhand way of going about it. But it was merely in each case an act of selfishness. All wanted to be equal, as long as they were among those who were more equal than others. For each wanted the most important ‘throne’ for themselves. And it is then that Jesus makes clear what is actually involved in occupying one of the thrones that He is offering.


Verse 25

‘But Jesus called them to him, and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them” ’

He points out to them that it is the way of the world, and especially of the Gentiles who are the very ones who will exercise their power against Him (Matthew 20:19), that rulers lord it over people, and great ones vaunt their authority over people. This is what sitting on a ‘throne’ means to them, and it is true even of the most benevolent. Thus anyone who seeks for such a position is behaving like the Gentiles, and behaving like the Gentiles is synonymous with the worst possible type of irreligious behaviour (Matthew 5:47; Matthew 6:7; Matthew 6:32; Matthew 7:6). It is to behave as one not involved in the Kingly Rule of Heaven.


Verse 26-27

“It shall not be so among you. But whoever would become great among you shall be your servant, and whoever would be first among you shall be your slave.”

But it is to be very different among the Apostles. That is why this seeking after positions is so unseemly. For the one who would be great among them must seek rather how they can serve, and the one who would be first among them (sitting at His right hand or His left) must recognise that it involves acting like a slave. This is what ‘sitting on a throne’ involves under the Kingly Rule of Heaven. And this attitude of heart, unnoticed by them, has been, and will continue to be, His constant theme (Matthew 20:1-15 - where they are common labourers; Luke 12:37 - where Jesus Himself serves at table for those who have humbly served Him as house servants; Luke 17:8-10 - where the servants acknowledge their unworthiness; Luke 22:27 - where they are to emulate His humble service).

It is evidence of the sinfulness of men’s hearts that religious people who want to emulate the Gentiles take such terms as ‘servant’ (diakonos) and turn them into titles of honour, and eagerly court them that they might be had in honour. But that is not Jesus intent here. The idea of Jesus is of genuine service, lowliness and humility (Matthew 11:28-30). The man who seeks to be a minister or a deacon so as to be had in honour, is not worthy of the position. And the one who thinks himself to be something when he is such simply demonstrates his unsuitability for ministry. For those who truly serve Him see themselves as the slaves of Christand the slaves of others(Matthew 20:27). They have no sense of superiority at all.


Verse 28

“Even as the Son of man came, not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

And they must take as their supreme example the Son of Man. He Who was destined to come out of suffering to receive the throne and the glory, had not come to exercise lordship and vaunted authority, nor to look to men to serve Him and cringe be humble before Him, nor to sit on a throne of pride. Rather He had come to serve, and His future throne would be a throne of service (Luke 12:37; Luke 22:27). And in the last analysis His service on earth would in His case involve Him in total humiliation and in giving His life a ransom for many. He would fulfil the sacrificial ministry of the Isaianic Servant.

That the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 50, 53 was in mind here can hardly be doubted. Jesus was declared to be the Servant after His baptism (Matthew 3:17) and at His Transfiguration (Matthew 17:5), while the context here is one in which the idea of lowly service is emphasised, and it comes at the end of Matthew’s ‘Isaianic section’, the section in which he cites Isaiah by name to the exclusion of all other Scriptural writers, see Matthew 3:3; Matthew 4:14; Matthew 8:17; Matthew 12:17; Matthew 13:14) prior to His presentation of Himself as the King (see introduction). But in this case, as Jesus has not specifically cited Isaiah, so nor will Matthew. Compare and contrast possible other references to Isaiah 53 in Matthew 26:27-28; Matthew 27:12; Matthew 27:57. Note further how ‘to give His life (soul)’ parallels ‘you make his life (soul)’ (Isaiah 53:10).

On top of this the idea of ‘the many’ is prominent in Isaiah 53:11-12, and the whole chapter is involved with His giving of His life as a lifegiving sacrifice, epitomised in the guilt offering in Isaiah 53:10, and thus as ransom, a price paid for deliverance. The idea of God’s deliverance of His people by ransoming them is found in Isaiah 35:10, where it results in deliverance from the enemies of God; in Isaiah 43:3-4 where He gives up other peoples as a ransom on His people’s behalf; in Jeremiah 31:11 where He ransoms and redeems His people, delivering them from a stronger than he (Jacob); in Job 33:24 where the ransom He has found delivers from the Pit; and in Hosea 13:14 where He will ransom His people from the hand of the grave. In Isaiah 53 this is portrayed in terms of a sacrificial offering so that God’s righteous demands are also satisfied. We can compare with this Jesus’ words at the Last Supper ‘this is my blood of the covenant which is shed for many for the forgiveness of sins’ (Matthew 26:28), where the reference is equally clearly to Isaiah 53:10.

‘Ransom (lutron)’ is used only here and the parallel passage (Mark 10:45), in the New Testament, although Paul uses ’antilutron in 1 Timothy 2:6. In secular Greek lutron was used for the ransom of a prisoner of war or of a slave. In LXX it was used of the price a man paid to redeem his life which was forfeit because his ox had gored someone to death (Exodus 21:30), the price paid for the redemption of the firstborn (Numbers 18:15), the price paid by which the next of kin obtained the release of an enslaved relative (Leviticus 25:51-53) or the price paid for the redemption of a mortgaged property (Leviticus 25:26). It was a payment made to obtain release and freedom, paid in substitution for what was obtained. Compare 1 Peter 1:18; Hebrews 9:12.

‘A ransom for many’ equals ‘lutron anti pollon’. This unquestionably refers to a substitutionary ransom (anti combined with the idea of ransom must be substitutionary), and thus a price paid for deliverance (compare 1 Corinthians 6:20; 1 Peter 1:18-19), while the ‘guilt offering’ (‘asam) of Isaiah 53:10 is the sacrificial equivalent of a ransom, as can be seen from the description of the vicarious guilt offering in Leviticus 5, and note also that there ’asam also indicates a compensatory payment. And indeed the whole of Isaiah 53 is the picture of someone giving Himself for His people. It is not difficult therefore to see in it the payment of a price for their deliverance.

Thus the theme of forgiveness and salvation continues. In Matthew 1:21 He was called Jesus because He would save His people from their sins. In Matthew 6:12 He has taught His disciples to pray for the forgiveness of their sins. In Matthew 18:23-35 He has revealed the hugeness of God’s forgiveness to the totally undeserving. In Matthew 26:28 He will reveal that His blood of the covenant will be shed for the forgiveness of sins. It is in these terms that we can see the payment of the ransom, for He comes as the One Who has come as the Servant on Whom our iniquities were laid (Isaiah 53:6), as the guilt offering offered on our behalf (Isaiah 53:10), that we might be forgiven (Leviticus 5:10), and as the One through Whom we will be accounted righteous because He has borne our iniquities (Isaiah 53:11) .

It is sometimes questioned how far this idea of a ransom paid can relate to the earlier context, in that it was not something in which His disciples could follow Him. But two things must be born in mind, firstly that He wishes to give an example for His disciples to follow of supreme sacrifice, and secondly that while, of course, it is true that His disciples could not emulate His sacrifice to its fullest extent, Paul certainly saw them as participating in it to some extent as they gave themselves up to suffering and tribulation in order to expand the Kingly Rule of God and win men to Christ (Colossians 1:24). And there is no doubt that elsewhere also Jesus saw His own self-sacrifice as the very pattern of true Christian love, and as thus an example of the love that His disciples should have for each other (John 15:12-13).


Verse 29

‘And as they went out from Jericho, a great crowd followed him.’

‘As they went out from Jericho.’ In other words, ‘next stop Jerusalem’, after climbing a thousand metres (three thousand feet) up the winding Jericho Road for about twenty five kilometres (sixteen miles). The great crowd would be of pilgrims flocking to Jerusalem, many from Galilee, and many of whom had attached themselves to Jesus’ party because of their respect and love for Jesus. Like many today they followed Him in a desultory but generally benevolent way, in contrast with those who were against Him, but they were not genuine followers in the fullest sense (compare John 2:23-25).


Verses 29-34

Among The Pilgrims On The Jericho Road Leading To Jerusalem Blind Men Declare Him To Be The Son Of David Preparatory To His Triumphal Entry (20:29-34).

As we have already seen, Matthew’s Gospel opened with an emphasis on the fact that Jesus was the Son of David (Matthew 1:1; Matthew 1:17; Matthew 1:20), and He was depicted as coming as ‘the King of the Jews’ (Matthew 2:2), and in the first two chapters the prophet on whom Matthew focused by name was Jeremiah (Matthew 2:17), (all other citations were anonymous), for it was from a background of gloom and judgment that He would come. But then from Matthew 3:2 onwards the focus turns on Isaiah, the prophet of deliverance. All named citations from this point to chapter 13 are from Isaiah (Matthew 3:3; Matthew 4:14; Matthew 8:17; Matthew 12:17; Matthew 13:14), and the coming King becomes also the Servant of Isaiah (Matthew 3:17; Matthew 8:17; Matthew 12:17). It is indeed mainly as the Servant that He now ministers among His people, although it is also made clear that He is the Son (consider Matthew 3:17; Matthew 11:27; Matthew 14:33; Matthew 16:16; Matthew 17:26 and all references to ‘My Father’) and His kingship is never far out of sight. But from this point on the main focus is decidedly turned back on Him as the King, and the Son of David (repeated twice and see Matthew 21:9; Matthew 21:15), although it is as the King Who has to suffer, and there are continuing indications of the Servant (Matthew 26:28; Matthew 27:57; and see Isaiah 50:3-8; Isaiah 53). Once again, however, the only prophet emphasised by name will be Jeremiah (Matthew 27:9), note the similar distinctive wording to Matthew 2:17) the prophet of bad tidings prior to final hope. All that Jesus had come to do in the beginning is coming to fulfilment.

We note in this story that follows that two blind men have their eyes opened, in contrast with the fact that Israel’s eyes are not opened (Matthew 13:15), and they thus see Jesus as the Son of David. It is a call to all to open their eyes in the light of what will follow (there is a further emphasis on the blind seeing in Matthew 21:14). Perhaps there was also a hint here that this opening of the eyes was also needed by the two ‘blind’ disciples just described in Matthew 20:20-23. They too were still partly muddling along in the dark.

One further thought we would add here. Blind men were a regular feature of Palestine at this time, and they were to be found begging wherever men went. Furthermore the Jericho Road at Passover time would have its fair share of blind beggars, and we need not doubt that many of them, aware of the special activity when Jesus was passing, would enquire as to what was happening. And when they heard that it was the great healing prophet who was widely reputed to be connected with Solomon, the son of David, they would naturally cry to Him for healing as ‘the Son of David’. Thus there may well have been a number of blind men healed that day.

This connection of the title ‘Son of David’ with Solomon (see introduction on the Titles of Jesus) may well explain why Jesus never tries to dampen down its use, as He does the title Messiah. It did not have the same overtones as ‘the Messiah’ even though also used of him. It was a title regularly found on the lips of those who sought healing and deliverance, for Solomon’s remedies were famous. Thus this scene may in fact have been repeated a number of times in the course of that day. It may be remarkable to us, but the disciples no doubt witnessed such scenes again and again, and the people who genuinely followed Jesus probably included among them their fair share of blind men who had been healed. Thus strictly speaking there is no reason why this should not have been a different healing from those mentioned in Mark and Luke, although performed around the same time. If Matthew was present at this healing Mark’s words may well have brought this particular event into his mind whether or not it was the same as Mark’s (as remembered by Peter). Indeed a hundred such healings which occurred over Jesus’ ministry could probably have been described in the same or similar words (compare Matthew 9:27-31).

For this healing is not described here because it was a particularly remarkable healing, but because it illustrated a point that the evangelists wanted to bring out, that while the Jerusalem that awaited Jesus was blind, those who were open to Jesus’ words, especially the humble and needy, would see. (Compare Matthew 21:14 and Mark’s clear use of the story of a blind man to illustrate the gradual opening of the disciples’ eyes in Mark 8:22-26).

Analysis.

a As they went out from Jericho, a great crowd followed Him (Matthew 20:29).

b And behold, two blind men sitting by the way side, when they heard that Jesus was passing by, cried out, saying, “Lord, have mercy on us, you son of David” (Matthew 20:30).

c And the crowd rebuked them, that they should hold their peace (Matthew 20:31 a).

d But they cried out the more, saying, “Lord, have mercy on us, you son of David” (Matthew 20:31 b).

c And Jesus stood still, and called them, and said, “What do you wish that I should do to you?” (Matthew 20:32).

b They say to Him, “Lord, that our eyes may be opened” (Matthew 20:33).

a And Jesus, being moved with compassion, touched their eyes, and immediately they received their sight, and followed Him (Matthew 20:34).

Note that in ‘a’ the great crowd followed Him, and in the parallel those who had had their eyes opened followed Him more fully. In ‘b’ the blind men cry for mercy, and in the parallel declare that what they want is for their eyes to be opened. In ‘c’ the crowd call on them to be quiet, and in the parallel Jesus calls on them to speak. Centrally in ‘d’ their cry is that the Son of David will open their eyes.


Verse 30

‘And behold, two blind men sitting by the way side, when they heard that Jesus was passing by, cried out, saying, “Lord, have mercy on us, you son of David.” ’

There would be many blind men begging outside Jericho, and these were but two of them, for this was a favourite spot for beggars at Passover time. One of these blind men mentioned here may well have been the one mentioned by Mark. But it should cause no surprise that there was more than one, for even beggars get lonely, and Matthew’s constant indication of companions for needy people whom they met (which would be perfectly natural) suggests an eyewitness, and possibly one with a deep awareness of what it meant to be left to oneself. Jericho at Passover time, being on the Jerusalem Road for those who came from Peraea, would be a prime begging site, and those who were begging there would tend to seek companionship.

Luke describes the healing of a blind man in similar circumstances prior to reaching Jericho. This may have been because there were in fact two Jerichos, old Jericho and new Jericho, and he was thinking of the modern one. Leaving behind the old Jericho would be especially significant to Matthew, for it was from Jericho that the conquest fanned out after the Exodus. Or alternately it may have been a different blind man, for with the beggars gathered on the Jericho Road there would no doubt be many healings that day. Jesus never refused any who called on Him.

‘They heard that Jesus was passing by.’ No doubt they had become aware of the huge cavalcade and had asked what was causing it. They had probably long hoped that they would come across Jesus. And now that time had come! So they cried out persistently, as those who would not be denied, “Lord, have mercy on us, you son of David.” ’ It was a deferential request, probably made to someone whom they knew was descended from Solomon, the son of David. Solomon was famed for his cures, and rumour had it that this prophet had some of his powers (compare how the title Son of David is regularly used in connection with the demon possessed and the blind - Matthew 9:27; Matthew 12:23; Matthew 15:22 and here). It was probably this rather than its Messianic significance that they mainly had in mind (as with the Canaanite woman). Son of David was, however, also a Messianic title and is found as such in the Psalms of Solomon. Thus their thoughts may have included both, for Passover was the week when the title of the coming Son of David was one everyone’s lips, and Matthew almost certainly sees it as preparing for His welcome into Jerusalem. That is why he reminds us that the words were repeated more than once.


Verse 31

‘And the crowd rebuked them, that they should hold their peace, but they cried out the more, saying, “Lord, have mercy on us, you son of David.” ’

The two blind men were clearly causing some uproar because the crowds told them to keep quiet. The respectable pilgrims accompanied in many cases by their families would not want beggars mixing with the crowds. But the more the crowd tried to shush them, so the more they cried out “Lord, have mercy on us, you son of David.” They recognised that this was the opportunity of a lifetime, and they were not going to miss it.


Verse 32

‘And Jesus stood still, and called them, and said, “What do you wish that I should do to you?” ’

Jesus was the One present Who was never too busy to hear the cry of distress, and He stopped on His journey and called them to Him, asking them what He could do for them. He could have had little doubt about what they wanted, but it was His practise to make people face up to what they were asking, and to make them express at least some faith.


Verse 33

‘They say to him, “Lord, that our eyes may be opened.” ’

Their request was simple, that their eyes might be opened. The idea of the ‘opening of the eyes’ has a double meaning. It could signify the making of a blind man to see, especially as a Messianic sign (Matthew 11:5 with Isaiah 35:5), but it could also signify the opening of spiritually blind eyes to the truth (Isaiah 42:7; Acts 26:18; Ephesians 1:18). They were actually asking the easier option, but Jesus gave them both.


Verse 34

‘And Jesus, being moved with compassion, touched their eyes, and immediately they received their sight, and followed him.’

For moved with compassion He touched their eyes and they immediately received their sight and followed Him. The personal contact was very much part of Jesus’ methods (compare Matthew 8:3; Matthew 8:15; Matthew 9:25; Matthew 9:29), and the compassion a constant feature of His ministry (Matthew 9:36; Matthew 14:14; Matthew 15:32), while the immediate total success of the healing was His trademark. So Jerusalem was receiving advanced warning that the time promised by Isaiah was here, and that it was at the hands of the compassionate and powerful ‘Son of David’.

 


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Bibliography Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Matthew 20:4". "Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/pet/matthew-20.html. 2013.

Lectionary Calendar
Wednesday, October 28th, 2020
the Week of Proper 25 / Ordinary 30
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