The Parable of the Workers (Matthew 20:1-16)
Matthew 20 opens with a parable of the kingdom designed to show that service for the Lord is to be rewarded according to opportunities embraced, not simply for the amount of work accomplished. As this parable is a likeness of the kingdom of Heaven in its mystery form, the householder necessarily represents the Lord Himself. The laborers are those who hear His call for service in the great harvest field.
With those first engaged the master agrees for a penny—that is, a denarius—a day. While this seems a very small amount—a silver coin a little less than a quarter in size—it was the regular wage for day-laborers at that time, and had much greater purchasing power than any similar piece of money today. Therefore the agreed payment was eminently fair and all that these men would have any expectation of receiving.
As the day wore on, the husbandman went to the market place on four other occasions: the third, sixth, ninth, and even the eleventh hours, answering to our 9:00 a.m., 12:00 noon, 3:00 p.m., and 5:00 p.m., the last being just an hour before the close of the day. Each time he hired any available laborers, telling them he would do what was right by them as to payment for work accomplished. Notice the reason the eleventh-hour workmen gave for unemployment: no man had hired them. They were ready to work but opportunity had not come their way. When it did come, they complied at once with the request to go and work in the vineyard.
After the toil of the day all were called to receive what was considered their due. To the surprise of the entire company those who had worked only one hour received a full day’s wage, and those in each group were paid the same. Those who had worked all day took it for granted they would receive a larger sum. When only a denarius was forthcoming, they registered a complaint on the ground that they had borne the burden and heat of the day, yet those who came later were made equal to them. They overlooked the fact that they had accepted the agreement to labor for a denarius a day. The lord of the vineyard made this clear, insisting that no wrong was being done to them inasmuch as he had kept his part of the bargain. It was his liberty to reward the others as he chose to do. He paid according to their needs and according to their readiness to embrace the first opportunity that came to them.
The principle is clear and is emphasized by the words, “So the last shall be first, and the first last: for many be called, but few chosen.” All are chosen who heed the call, so none can blame the employer if they are not given the opportunity to serve.
The lesson for us is evident. Every disciple of Christ is expected to obey His call to service. At the day of manifestation every man will be rewarded for his own work according to its character and not merely for the amount of time put in. Jesus Himself did not live long, but He lived deep; and in His three and a half years of service He accomplished far more than anyone else in a long life. In this, many of His followers have imitated Him.
It is sad to observe that, even after hearing this parable, the disciples were still concerned as to who should have prominence in the kingdom.
Dealing with Worldly Ambition (Matthew 20:17-28)
The teaching and healing ministry of Jesus was rapidly coming to an end. He had now steadfastly set His face to go to Jerusalem, where He was to make the supreme sacrifice on our behalf. The religious leaders, blinded by their selfishness and self-righteousness, were to add to all their other sins that of delivering Jesus up to the death of the cross. So far could mere religiousness, apart from spiritual life, carry its devotees.
Again and again our Lord definitely foretold His resurrection on the third day, yet it seemed to make little impression on the minds of His disciples (see Luke 18:31-34).
The mother of James and John evidently expected Jesus to proclaim Himself as the promised Messianic King in Jerusalem, and she was ambitious for her children to have two of the best positions in the new government. Mark told us that James and John themselves concurred in her request (Mark 10:35). She felt her sons were deserving of special recognition and, like many a mother since, she endeavored to push them forward, lest others should gain the choicest offices and they be overlooked.
“Ye know not what ye ask.” Jesus was to be rejected and crucified. To share with Him would mean to take the same path—to be spurned and hated rather than to be honored and praised. They were to participate in His cup of sorrow and to have part in His baptism unto death. As to recognition later on, when He would reign in righteousness, it was the Father who appointed His associates.
Christ’s Cup and Baptism. He referred to the cup of rejection and hatred He was to drink, and the baptism of death He was to endure. To a certain extent all His disciples share in both of these. There is another sense in which none but He could go through them. The cup of judgment that He drained to the dregs for us, and the baptism of the divine wrath against sin that He endured on the cross were His alone.
Those for Whom It Is Prepared. The displayed kingdom of God on earth will be the sphere in which His saints will reign with Him. In that kingdom each one will be rewarded according to the measure of his devotedness during the time of association with our Lord in His rejection. The Father has decreed that precedence will be given in that day of glory to those for whom it is prepared.
Angered at the temerity of James and John, the rest of the disciples nevertheless all cherished similar ambitions. They felt that an attempt had been made to get possession of places ahead of themselves. In earthly kingdoms men grasp for power and are honored by those beneath them because of their ability to rule and to subject others to their will. It is the very opposite in the kingdom of God. In the world the great man is the one of determined will and effective initiative who can triumph over his fellows. But in the kingdom of Christ true greatness is characterized by intense lowliness and a readiness to serve rather than rule.
In the heavenly kingdom it is meekness and unselfish service that have the pre-eminence. To prefer others before oneself, to minister in grace rather than to rule in power, is to exemplify the spirit of our royal leader. There is no room for earthly pomp or worldly glory in the circle of Christ’s followers. To seek for personal advancement and to endeavor to lord it over one’s brethren is thoroughly contrary to the spirit of Him who became servant of all, though He created the universe. The spirit of a Diotrephes (3 John 9) is far removed from the spirit of Christ and should be avoided by all His servants; but that of an Epaphroditus (Philippians 2:25-30) should be emulated. The spirit of Christ is demonstrated by a rivalry, not to be great but to be little, not to be highest but to be lowest. The principles of His kingdom are exemplified where service is at a premium and worldly ambition is frowned upon.
“To give his life a ransom for many.” Here our Lord tells us exactly why He came into the world. He did not leave the glory that He had with the Father before the world began (John 17:5) in order to seek for greater glory in this world. He came to serve mankind, not only in ministering to temporal or even spiritual needs day by day, but also in redeeming us from sin and its penalty by giving His life for us, dying a sacrificial death, to make propitiation for sins (1 John 4:10).
Our Lord Jesus Christ has given to mankind a new ideal. He has shown us that the truly great man is the one who seeks not his own good, but the blessing of others. Even here on earth the unselfish life is the most satisfactory one. To Baruch of old the message came, “Seekest thou great things for thyself? seek them not” (Jeremiah 45:5). This runs contrary to the pride and self-assertion of the natural man: “Men will praise thee, when thou doest well to thyself (Psalm 49:18). But after all is said and done, the truth abides that “for men to search their own glory is not glory” (Proverbs 25:27). Our Lord, because of His very nature, had every right to assert Himself and seek recognition and honor from the men whom He created. Yet He chose to take the place of servant of all. He humbled Himself to become man, but that was not enough. As man, He took the servant’s place, and at last gave Himself up to death for us in the sacrifice of the cross, that He might redeem us to God. He has glorified and exemplified the dignity of service and self-abnegation in such a way as to give an altogether new standard of greatness. He has stained the pride of all earthly glory (Isaiah 23:9) and shown it to be mere selfishness, and thus opposed to that which has the approval of God. The laudable ambition of all who know Him as Savior and Lord should be to serve, not for present gain, but to bless and help others. Thereby we express our gratitude to God for His grace and love so freely bestowed on us in Christ Jesus.
The things that are highly prized among men are often thoroughly opposed to the mind of God (Luke 16:15). It is the ambitious, energetic man, pressing to the front and striving to excel above his fellows, who has the admiration of men of the world. They suppose that present gain is the great thing to be desired, but Jesus taught us that it is the meek who inherit the earth (Matthew 5:5). The meek are content to be passed over and to be unnoticed by men. The approval of the Lord means more to them than all else; these are they who overcome the world by faith (1 John 5:4). They can afford to relinquish present advantage, for they know they shall find a sure reward at the judgment seat of Christ.
The Healing of the Blind (Matthew 20:29-34)
The Lord and His disciples were now well on their way toward Jerusalem. They had entered the city of Jericho. It was there Luke told us that Jesus met Zacchaeus, whose whole life was changed by coming to know Christ; and there two blind men received their sight.
To the casual reader there seems to be a discrepancy between the accounts given here and in Mark, and that given by Luke. The latter told us that “it came to pass, that as he was come nigh unto Jericho, a certain blind man sat by the way side begging” (Luke 18:35), whereas both Matthew and Mark told us that this incident occurred as they departed from Jericho. There is no confusion, however, if we understand that Bartimaeus sat by the wayside begging as Jesus drew near to Jericho, but the actual healing took place as He was departing from that city.
These seeming discrepancies in the Gospel records make it more certain that there was no collaboration on the part of the different writers, but that each related the incident according to information that he had and as guided by the Holy Spirit. It is a well-recognized principle in taking testimony in court that where several witnesses use exactly the same language, it is evident that they have been in consultation together or instructed by a lawyer as to what they should say. The same story may be related with minor differences that upon full investigation do not conflict with each other at all, but emphasize the viewpoint of the one giving the testimony.
Matthew told us here that there were two blind men sitting by the wayside, whereas Mark and Luke spoke of only one, and that one named Bartimaeus. There were two. The Holy Spirit guided Matthew from any error in regard to this, but it is very clear that Bartimaeus was the stronger character of the two, and the one on whom attention is focused in the accounts of Mark and Luke.
Learning that Jesus was passing by, these blind men cried out, “Have mercy on us, O Lord, thou son of David.” This was a recognition of His messiahship on their part. They believed Him to be in very truth the promised Son of David who would give sight to the blind and perform other marvelous works.
The multitude rebuked them, calling on them to be quiet, as though Jesus was not to be troubled by poor wretches such as they. But they refused to be silenced and cried out the more, pleading with Jesus for the help they needed so badly. He stood still and called them to Himself and tenderly inquired, “What will ye that I shall do unto you?” He knew well what they wanted, but He always likes to have people tell Him what is on their hearts. Without a moment’s hesitation they replied, “Lord, that our eyes may be opened.” In His infinite compassion Jesus granted their request. He touched their eyes and immediately they received their sight, and followed Him in the way. While the great and the mighty in Israel refused Him, these two, who for years had been blind mendicants, recognized Him as the rightful King of Israel and gladly owned Him as such.