Knowing God (20:1–16)
Matt. 20:1–16 contains the parable of the workers in the vineyard. This is one of 39 parables that Jesus told, and it is only recorded in Matthew’s Gospel. Matt. 20:1 is a key verse for this chapter, as we’re told Jesus began this parables saying, “The kingdom of heaven in like . . . .” It is clear, then, that this parable—indeed, this entire chapter—is focused on the theme of the Kingdom of God. In fact, Jesus has been teaching intermittently about the Kingdom of God since the disciples’ question about the topic at Matt. 18:1. Here in this parable, Christ describes the process of a landowner hiring day laborers to work in his vineyard. Such hiring usually occurred at daybreak, and a day’s labor regularly lasted from 6 a.m. until 6 p.m. The wage of a denarius/day was a common amount for a laborer in biblical times, and is equal to about $50–$75 in today’s economy.
In this parable the landowner hires workers five separate times during the day. For the later workers, he promised to pay them “whatever is right” (Matt. 20:4, 7). The surprising twist in this parable appears in Matt. 20:8–10, as each laborer received the exact same payment. In seeking to understand this event, we need to bear in mind the larger context. Back in Matt. 18:16 Jesus had been asked about the entrance requirements for becoming a kingdom citizen. Christ’s dialog with the rich, young ruler then sparked a question from Peter about the Kingdom. This parable is an explanation of Jesus’ response to Peter in Matt. 19:28–30. In short, while we may assume good works will lead to salvation, and those who serve God better will be more highly compensated, in this parable Christ teaches that God distributes salvation freely, not based upon human merit or worth.
Forsaking Ambition (20:17–28)
Matt. 20:17–19 gives an interesting narrative between Jesus and His disciples. Here in this short passages Jesus explicitly tells his disciples, for the third time (cf. Matt. 16:21; 17:22–23), about His impending crucifixion. At first glance, this reminder may seem out of place in this chapter; however, it is the perfect segue way between Jesus’ teaching in the parable of the workers about knowing God, and His instructions in Matt. 20:20–28 about personal ambition. The connection is that just as Jesus, who is God, was willing to lay down His life for the sake of the Kingdom, so Kingdom citizens should be willing to forsake personal ambition and to live for Christ. Further, we can note that living for Christ is often a matter of not gratifying fleshly desires. Indeed, as we follow Jesus, our desires change. David wrote, “He shall give you the desires of your heart” (Ps. 37:4).
At Matt. 19:28, Jesus had taught His followers that, with Christ, they would one day “sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.” This teaching undoubtedly sparked discussion among the prideful apostles. Consequently, at Matt. 20:21, James and John had their mother, whose name was likely Salome, ask if they could occupy the thrones nearest to Him (cf. Mark 10:35). Jesus’ response to this selfish request was kind, although He took the opportunity to teach that James and John would be baptized with His baptism. Baptism is a sign of identification; thus, Jesus was teaching that James and John would suffer as He did. Note that James was later beheaded (cf. Acts 12:2) and John was exiled to Patmos (cf. Rev. 1:9). Understandably, the other ten disciples were not pleased with the brothers’ request, which gave Jesus another chance to teach on service.
Petitioning Jesus (20:29–34)
Matthew’s account of Jesus’ teaching on having a Kingdom disposition continues in Matt. 20:29–34 as he records Christ’s healing of two blind men. This account is recorded in each of the Synoptic Gospels, and in Mark we learn that one of the blind men was named Bartimaeus (cf. Mark 10:46). In this narrative we learn that two blind men, who would have been social outcasts, learn that Jesus is passing by their location. Obviously, these men had heard of Jesus, and perhaps were even aware that Christ had healed the blind (cf. Matt. 9:27; 12:22. Therefore, they began crying out to Jesus for mercy, and continued petitioning Christ in spite of warnings from the crowd. Upon hearing their cry, Jesus stopped, dialogued with them, and healed the men out of compassion. These men show the opportunity Kingdom citizens have to let their requests be known (cf. Phil. 4:6–7).
- What does it mean to have a Kingdom disposition or a Kingdom mindset? In what ways should Christians think differently than non-believers?
- What is the Kingdom of God (cf. Matt. 4:23; Luke 4:43; 17:21; Rom. 14:17)? Is the Kingdom of God a present reality or a future hope?
- What is the relationship between good works and salvation? Does it seem unjust for God to reward both externally righteous and unrighteous people equally?
- How have your desires and ambitions changed as you have grown in your spiritual maturity?
- Like James and John, have you ever found yourself following Christ for selfish reasons? How can we balance Christian service and personal ambitions?