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MATTHEW - Chapter 20

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Matthew 20

Supplemental Commentary:

I.   PUBLIC MINISTRY OF JESUS   3-25 (continued)

5.  Ministry on the Journey to Jerusalem  19-20 (continued)

20, 1-16:  Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard.  Only in Matthew.  This parable taken merely as a story presents no special difficulties.    2.  A denarius a day was the regular daily wage at that time.    3-8.  The day, considered as the period of time from sunrise to sunset, was divided into twelve "hours."  According to the varying length of daylight throughout the years these "hours" would be corresponding longer or shorter.  The sixth hour always began at midday.  The third hour began at the middle of the forenoon, the ninth hour at the middle of the afternoon.  These divisions formed four main periods of the day, so that "the third hour" meant the whole period up to the ninth hour, etc.  This fact is to be remembered in regard to the mention of the various hours in connection with our Lord's crucifixion (cf. Matt. 27, 45 f; Mark 15, 25.33; Luke 23, 44; John 19, 14).  The wages were paid every evening (cf. Lev. 19, 13; Deut. 24, 14 f).    15b.  Art thou envious . . .?: literally in the original, "Is thy eye evil . . .?"  The expression "to have an evil eye" is a Hebraism meaning "to look with envy" (cf. the same expression in the original of Deut. 15, 9; Prov. 23, 6; 28, 22; Ecclus. 31, 14; Mark 7, 22).  Note the different agreements made between the householder and the laborers: the first group of laborers are promised a specific wage, the middle groups a less definite promise of "whatever is just," the last group no promise at all.

The principle lesson intended by our Lord in giving this parable is not certain.  But it at least seems clear that the parable is given as an illustration of the truth that the last shall be first and the first last.  For this truth in enunciated both at the beginning and at the end of the parable (19, 20; 20, 16), and the conjunctions For (1) and Even so (16) show that the parable was meant to illustrate this truth.  Moreover, the preceding context concerning the reward for the faithful disciples of Christ (19, 27-29) and the importance of the wages (8) in the parable seem to indicate that the first and the last signify those who are in some way more highly favored or less favored in regard to the spiritual reward that they receive from God.  There is not the slightest reference to the distinction between Jews and Gentiles either in the parable or in the context, as there is in Luke, 13, 28-30.  Nor does it seem probable that the application of this parable is to be limited to the Apostles, the immediate hearers of these words, as if, e.g., it meant that St. Stephen would receive his reward before they would receive theirs.  Christ is probably speaking in general terms of all His followers who labor in His vineyard.  They all receive what is essentially the same reward, the beatific vision of God in heaven, even though there are different degrees of glory in heaven according to each one's merits (cf. 1 Cor. 15, 41).  In this regard God is not unjust to any one.  But from a merely human viewpoint He seems to be more than just to some.  Towards these He is extremely generous.  They have not bargained with Him about wages and rewards but accept His call to work in His vineyard on faith in His justice and goodness.  The main lesson therefore of the parable seems to be that God's bestowal of reward in not to judged too strictly according to man's idea of justice.

In the application of the parable no special emphasis is to be placed upon the various hours of the day when the laborers were called.  This is merely a device of the story to signify that those who may appear to men to be less deserving of reward will be more highly favored by God.  Those who worked for only one hour not only received as much as those who worked longer but they received their pay before the others, an additional advantage.  God gives His grace to whom He will.  He is good to all; but if He is more generous to some, the others have no reason to complain.  God's standards of judging even in purely spiritual matters are not necessarily the same as man's standards.    16b.  The words For many are called but few are chosen fit in with the interpretation given above, but they are not in the best Greek manuscripts here; they are probably taken over from 22, 14.

20, 17-19:  The Third Prediction of the Passion.  Parallels in Mark 10, 32-34 and Luke 18, 31-34.  Cf. the first two predictions of the Passion, 16, 21-23; 17, 21 f; and parallels.  This third and last of our Lord's predictions of His death and resurrection is by far the most detailed and explicit of all.  The Third Gospel adds Christ's words that all these sufferings had been foretold by the Prophets; Luke alone notes that the disciples did not understand this.  For the circumstances in which this prediction was made, see Commentary on Mark 10, 32.

20, 20-28:  The Mother of James and John.  Parallel in Mark 10, 35-45.    20.  Matthew had already mentioned that the sons of Zebedee were James and John (cf. 4, 21); therefore here, as also in 26, 37 and 27, 56, he does not repeat their names.  The name of their mother was very probably Salome (cp. 27, 56 with Mark 15, 40).  In Mark the petition is presented directly by James and John, but Matthew is more exact here.  No doubt this ambitious desire was shared both by the mother and by her sons.  Perhaps they thought it would look less self-interested, if the request was made by the mother; or they had more reliance on her feminine powers of persuasion.  Worshipping: cf. 15, 25.  She made a request: no doubt her words were essentially the same as those which Mark attributes to her sons, i.e., "Lord, grant me whatever I ask of thee."  She wished Christ to promise to grant her request even before she told Him what it was, just as Herod pledged himself to grant the daughter of Herodias whatever she would ask.    21.  To sit at the right hand of a king meant to have the highest place of honor after the king himself; the place at his left hand was the next best (cf. 3 Kgs. 2, 19; Ps. 109, 1).  The petition of the Apostles, which seems prompted at least in part by Christ's promise in 19, 28, really shows their unshaken faith in Jesus, for they firmly believe that, despite the humiliations and suffering and death that He was predicting for Himself, He would eventually come into His kingdom, "in glory" (Mark).

22 f.  In Matthew as in Mark the conversation is now directly between Christ and the sons of Zebedee.  It is not correct to say that Jesus rebukes them and refuses their petition.  Their prayer is heard and granted but in a better way than they had intended.  They had sought important positions in His kingdom on earth, His Church.  But God the Father, the Creator, has already determined this by giving to some better natural qualifications for these positions than to others.  Because Jesus had come, not to do His own will, but the will of Him who sent Him (cf. John 6, 38), He will not change this divine decree.  But He offers the sons of Zebedee a greater boon, an exalted position in His heavenly kingdom.  This does not necessarily correspond to the position held in His kingdom on earth (cf. 18, 4).  The closer one imitates the sufferings of Christ (22) and His spirit of self-sacrifice in the service of others (27 f), the greater one will be in heaven.  The cup is a metaphor for the lot in life to which God has destined one (cf. Ps. 22, 5), especially the lot of affliction (cf. 26, 39; Isa. 51, 17; Jer. 25, 15; 49, 12; Ezech. 23, 33 f).  This prophecy of Christ was fulfilled in the fact that St. James was the first of the Apostles to suffer martyrdom (cf. Acts 12, 2) and that St. John was scourged (cf. Acts 5, 40), exiled to Patmos (cf. Apoc. 1, 9), and according to Tertullian, immersed in a cauldron of boiling oil, from which he was miraculously delivered.

24-28.  Jesus teaches His disciples the nature of true greatness in His kingdom.  Luke 22, 25-27 has very similar words of Christ following a contention among the Apostles at the Last Supper.  Since the Church is a visible society there must be those who exercise authority in it.  But they must not imitate the pagans in this.  Those who have worldly authority use it to their own advantage and prestige.  But those who have spiritual authority in Christ's kingdom must imitate His humility and self-sacrifice in the service of others.  This alone constitutes true greatness in God's sight (cf. 18, 4).  Since the less authority a man has, the more easily he can practise these virtues, it is foolish to contend for higher authority.  Servant, slave: cf. 1 Cor. 9, 19.  The Son of Man has come . . . to give his life a ransom from many: this and the words of Christ at the institution of the Holy Eucharist (cf. 26, 28 and parallels) are the only references in the Synoptic Gospels to the redemptive value of Christ's Death.  The Apostles were not fully prepared to receive this great truth which they understood clearly only after they had received the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.  These authentic words of Jesus are of great value in refuting the heresy of the modern critics who claim that this doctrine was an invention of St. Paul.  Ransom: the same Greek word (in the plural) is used in the Septuagint in the sense of the "price" paid for the freeing of slaves (Lev. 19, 20) and captives (Isa. 45, 13) and of the "fine" imposed instead of the death penalty (Ex. 21, 30; Num. 35, 31 f).  Christ gave His life therefore for our spiritual freedom or "Redemption" (cf. 1 Cor. 6, 20; 7, 23; 1 Pet. 1, 18 f).  For many: literally in Greek, "instead of many"; for we of ourselves were unable to pay the price.  In such a sense the so-called "substitution theory" of the Redemption is correct, but it should not be over-emphasized or it will give a distorted picture of how Christ really redeemed us.  Our Redeemer won salvation for all men, but He uses the word many either: (a) in the sense of "all" but with special emphasis on the immense number of Adam's descendants (cf. Rom. 5, 15, where however the article is used with this adjective in Greek); or: (b) in reference to the actual effect, for "many," but not all men, co-operate with the grace by which the merits of Christ's death are applied to themselves.

20, 29-34:  The Blind Men at Jericho.  Parallels with more details in Mark 10, 46-52 and Luke 18, 35-43.  There are certain difficulties in harmonizing these three accounts.  (a) Matthew speaks of two blind men, Mark and Luke of only one blind man.  Cf. the similar difficulty in the expulsion of the devils at Gerasa (8, 28-34 and parallels).  (b) Both Matthew and Mark place this event as they were leaving Jericho, Luke says it happened "as he drew nigh to Jericho."  (c) The conversation between Jesus and the blind men is essentially the same in all three Gospels.

Various solutions are proposed.  (a) One blind man was cured before Jesus entered Jericho (Luke), another blind man was cured after Jesus left Jericho (Mark), and Matthew combines the two cures as taking place after the departure from that town.  But this seems unlikely, for the narrative of all three Gospels evidently treats of one and the same miraculous cure.  (b) As Jesus entered Jericho a blind beggar implored His help (Luke), but Jesus at first ignores his plea.  As our Lord and His companions pass through Jericho, the blind man follows them, continually crying out his prayer.  Somewhere along the line of march he is joined by another blind man (Matthew).  After leaving Jericho, Jesus stops and cures them (the conversation and cure as given by all three Gospels).  (c) There were two Jerichos at that time: Old Jericho, on the site of the Canaanite city that was destroyed by Josue (cf. Jos. 6) and rebuilt by Hiel (cf. 3 Kgs. 16, 34); and New Jericho, also known as Phasael, built by Herod the Great, which was about two miles to the south of the old city.  (The modern village of Jericho, er-Riha, is about two miles to the east; eight hundred and twenty-five feet below sea-level.)  This miracle then took place between Old and New Jericho.  The first two Evangelists, according to the Jewish custom, refer to the older city as Jericho; Luke, as a Gentile, refers to Herod's new city of Jericho.  Mark tells us the name of one of the blind men, Bartimeus, i.e., son of Timeus.  Probably he became a Christian and was known to the early Church (cf. Mark 15, 21).  Luke undoubtedly refers to the same man.  The other blind man was probably of less importance and is mentioned by Matthew only.

29.  A great crowd followed him: no doubt these people were mostly pilgrims from Galilee who were on their way to Jerusalem for the Passover.  These same enthusiastic Galileans gave Jesus a triumphant welcome at Jerusalem (cf. John 12, 12).    30 f.  Son of David: a Messianic title.    32.  Our Lord wishes that a prayer of petition be specific.    34.  They followed him not only "along the road" (Mark) but probably also as His disciples in the "Way" (cf. Acts 9, 2; 19, 9).

Confraternity Bible:

Parable of the Vineyard  1* "For the kingdom of heaven is like a householder who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard.  2* And having agreed with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard.  3* And about the third hour, he went out and saw others standing in the market place idle; 4* and he said to them, 'Go you also into the vineyard, and I will give you whatever is just.'  5* So they went.  And again he went out about the sixth hour, and about the ninth hour, and did as before.  6* But about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing about, and he said to them, 'Why do you stand here all day idle?'  7* They said to him, 'Because no man has hired us.'  He said to them, 'Go you also into the vineyard.'  8* But when evening had come, the owner of the vineyard said to his steward, 'Call the laborers, and pay them their wages, beginning from the last even to the first.'  9* Now when they of the eleventh hour came, they received each a denarius.  10* And when the first in their turn came, they thought that they would receive more; but they also received each his denarius.  11* And on receiving it, they began to murmur against the householder, 12* saying, 'These last have worked a single hour, and thou hast put them on a level with us, who have borne the burden of the day's heat.'  13* But answering one of them, he said, 'Friend, I do thee no injustice; didst thou not agree with me for a denarius?  14* Take what is thine and go; I choose to give to this last even as to thee.  15* Have I not a right to do what I choose?  Or art thou envious because I am generous?'  16* Even so the last shall be first, and the first last; for many are called, but few are chosen."

17 And as Jesus was going up to Jerusalem, he took the twelve disciples aside by themselves, and said to them, 18 "Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and the Scribes; and they will condemn him to death, 19 and will deliver him to the Gentiles to be mocked and scourged and crucified; and on the third day he will rise again."

The Mother of James and John  20* Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came to him with her sons; and worshipping, she made a request of  him.  21* He said to her, "What dost thou want?"  She said to him, "Command that these my two sons may sit, one at thy right hand and one at thy left hand, in thy kingdom."  22* But Jesus answered and said, "You do not know what you are asking for.  Can you drink of the cup of which I am about to drink?"  They said to him, "We can."  23* He said to them, "Of my cup you shall indeed drink; but as for sitting at my right hand and at my left, that is not mine to give you, but it belongs to those for whom it has been prepared by my Father."

24 And when the ten heard this, they were indignant at the two brothers.  25 But Jesus called them to him, and said, "You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them.  26 Not so is it among you.  On the contrary, whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant; 27 and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave; 28 even as the Son of Man has not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many."

The Blind Men at Jericho  29 And as they were leaving Jericho, a great crowd followed him.  30 And behold, two blind men sitting by the wayside heard that Jesus was passing by, and cried out, saying, "Lord, Son of David, have mercy on us!"  31 And the crowd angrily tried to silence them.  But they cried out all the louder, saying, "Lord, have mercy on us, Son of David!"  32 Then Jesus stopped, and called them, and said, "What will you have me do for you?"  33 They said to him, "Lord, that our eyes be opened."  34 And Jesus, moved with compassion for them, touched their eyes; and at once they received their sight, and followed him.


1-16: The laborers in the vineyard all receive the same reward.  God is master of His gifts and His grace may make one who has served Him only for a short time as worthy of supernatural rewards as one who has borne the burden of the day and the heat.  However, our Lord does not seem here to be speaking of the individual rewards of heaven.  The parable refers to the call of the Gentiles to share in the spiritual privileges of Israel.  Many are called, but few are chosen: the words appear to refer to the Jews, of whom relatively few came into the Church. --- 3. 5. 6: About the third...sixth...ninth...eleventh hour: i.e., about nine o'clock...noon...three...five o'clock.

20-23: James and John shall partake of our Lord's chalice, that is of His suffering.  But it does not belong to Him as the Messias, the envoy sent by the Father, to allot places in the kingdom.  As God, His action in this matter is the same as that of the Father.