Matthew 20:1-28

Having Humility and Contentment in Our Service
Matthew 20:1-28

The Parable of the Laborers of the Vineyard (vv.1-16)

The Laborers of the Vineyard. This is eighth of the ten similitudes of the kingdom of heaven, which describe this time when Jesus is rejected. Why does the Lord give this as a similitude of the kingdom of heaven? He is teaching that servants of the Kingdom must be content, recognizing that the King is sovereign, any reward we might get is up to Him, and that He may expect things of us that don’t seem fair. Also, the Lord is more interested in the spirit in which we serve than how much we are doing for Him. This parable is only found in Matthew’s gospel (compare).
What is our motive in service? This parable is connected back with ch.19 v.27. “Peter answering said to him, Behold, we have left all things and have followed thee; what then shall happen to us?“. The Lord assures the twelve that they will be abundantly rewarded in the Millennial day. But then He immediately gives this similitude to guard against a wrong spirit in service. He wants us to serve in faith, not counting our wages ahead of time. We are reminded that “God is not unrighteous to forget your work and labour of love, which ye have shewed toward his name, etc.” (Heb. 6:10). Reward at the bema (judgement) seat is always put forward as an encouragement to one who is in the pathway of service. But there is a danger that we might labor for the purpose of getting a reward. No, it is appreciation for the love of Christ that ought to constrain us, not our love for His rewards. We are to serve out of a desire to produce fruit for God (e.g. Christ the perfect example), not to gain some reward for ourselves. Accordingly, the emphasis in this chapter is on the sovereignty of God, not so much the responsibility of man. God delights to reward His servants according to their labors, but He retains His sovereignty in the distribution of rewards. We cannot “contract” the Lord into giving us a reward; it just doesn’t work that way in the kingdom of heaven. But we can learn much about the attitude He wants to see in us as we serve.

The Five Groups of Laborers Hired (vv.1-7)

 For the kingdom of the heavens is like a householder who went out with the early morn to hire workmen for his vineyard. 2 And having agreed with the workmen for a denarius the day, he sent them into his vineyard. 3 And having gone out about the third hour, he saw others standing in the market-place idle; 4 and to them he said, Go also ye into the vineyard, and whatsoever may be just I will give you. And they went their way. 5 Again, having gone out about the sixth and ninth hour, he did likewise. 6 But about the eleventh hour, having gone out, he found others standing, and says to them, Why stand ye here all the day idle? 7 They say to him, Because no man has hired us. He says to them, Go also ye into the vineyard and whatsoever may be just ye shall receivevv.1-7 It is instructive to see that the earlier workers (6:00 AM) contracted their service for a certain amount, but those who came later (9:00 AM, 12:00 PM, 3:00 PM and 5:00 PM) all served in faith – without a contract – trusting that the householder would do right by them. The Lord isn’t looking for servants who want to work based on a legal arrangement. Another thing we can get from this is that the Master does not want to see His disciples stand idle. Idleness in the kingdom of heaven is not good. But take courage in this: even if a Christian has squandered part of the day, he can still use “the rest of his time in the flesh… to the will of God” (1 Pet. 4:2)! Even at the eleventh hour (one hour before closing) He recognizes the littlest service we might bring! What grace.

Rewards Given to the Laborers (vv.8-10)

8 But when the evening was come, the lord of the vineyard says to his steward, Call the workmen and pay them their wages, beginning from the last even to the first. 9 And when they who came to work about the eleventh hour came, they received each a denarius. 10 And when the first came, they supposed that they would receive more, and they received also themselves each a denarius. vv.8-10 Why did he pay the first last? Because he was dealing with their attitudes. If he had paid the first group first, the issue wouldn’t have come up. It is when the first group began comparing themselves to others that the flesh boiled out; for they started “comparing themselves among themselves” (2 Cor. 10:12) which is unwise. Even the Apostle Paul would “judge nothing before the time” of the judgment seat of Christ (1 Cor. 4:4-5). The ones that came in in the morning were really the better workers, but they were operating as if their service to the Lord was obligatory. When we have a legal attitude about service it is easy to start thinking about rewards that we deserve compared to others. That is when the difficulties come.

The Discontentedness of the Earliest Laborers (vv.11-12)

11 And on receiving it they murmured against the master of the house, 12 saying, These last have worked one hour, and thou hast made them equal to us, who have borne the burden of the day and the heat. vv.11-12 We can’t exactly say this is a scene at the judgment seat of Christ, because there will be no murmuring there. The Lord gives us this parable to check the attitudes of His disciples lest we should get a competitive spirit in our service for Him. If we see others who are idle, we cannot murmur against them. We need to leave it all up to the King. If we see one who is doing less than we are for the Lord (by outward appearances), we are not to compare ourselves to them. God retains His sovereignty to reward them as He sees fit.Shall not the judge of all the earth do right?” Often a legal spirit is is manifested when someone cannot rejoice with those that rejoice. They cannot be happy when someone else prospers. Why? They are measuring themselves again the law, and then measuring themselves against their fellow laborers. The result is hardness of heart. We need to have a humble attitude about our service; “So likewise ye, when ye shall have done all those things which are commanded you, say, We are unprofitable servants: we have done that which was our duty to do.” (Luke 17:10).

The Master’s Response to the Discontent Laborers (vv.13-15)

13 But he answering said to one of them, My friend, I do not wrong thee. Didst thou not agree with me for a denarius? 14 Take what is thine and go. But it is my will to give to this last even as to thee: 15 is it not lawful for me to do what I will in my own affairs? Is thine eye evil because “I” am good? vv.13-15 This is not saying that God will do something unrighteous. It is saying that we don’t see things as He does. When we do a job for someone we need to be sensitive to spirit of the employer/owner. These first workmen were not sensitive to see that the householder was operating under a spirit of grace. They began to dispute with the lord because they thought they were entitled to more than the others. Their “eye” or viewpoint was “evil” and the master was “good” instead of merely righteous. If he had been merely righteous, the others would have only gotten a fraction of a penny. But his goodness to the later workers caused him to give the others a much higher hourly rate, and the discontented ones had no appreciation for it. The point is this: they served all day long with a legal attitude, without appreciating their master’s grace.

Conclusion (v.16)

16 Thus shall the last be first, and the first last; for many are called ones, but few chosen ones. v.16 Matt. 19:30 and Matt. 20:16 are bookends to this similitude. In ch.19 where man’s responsibility was in view  it was “many that are first shall be last, and the last first” because man’s weakness will be brought to light in the day of reward. But in ch.20 where God’s sovereignty is in view it is “the last shall be first, and the first last” (order reversed) because in grace those who we might expect little of in this life will receive great reward. Demas is an example of one who was “first” in this life, but will suffer great loss at the judgment seat of Christ (be “last”) because he wasn’t willing to suffer reproach. The point is, the amount of our service isn’t everything; God wants us to share His spirit as we serve. The expression “many are called, but few chosen” is a difficult one to understand. The Lord says it again at the close of the 9th Similitude (Matt. 22:14), and it is easier to see why it is there. To be clear, this expression does not indicate that salvation is somehow earned by our service in the vineyard. But it does bring in an abstract statement of the principle of grace. It is a great comfort to us that whether it be salvation or rewards, all blessing is a result of God’s sovereign grace! Apart from that there would be no fruit for God, and no blessing for man.
A Dispensational Application. In a dispensational sense, the first group of laborers represent the Jews, who served God on a legal basis, and looked for reward on this earth according to their obedience to the law. The other laborers represent the Gentiles down through Church history. The protests of the earliest laborers reflect the attitude of the Jews toward the Gentiles coming into blessing. They weren’t happy for the Gentiles! The Lord is showing the great difference between the heart of God and the heart of the Jews.
Another Application. In another sense, we can consider ourselves to be the “last-hour laborers”. We have not “borne the burden and heat of the day”. We have not dispensed the truth of the Mystery, like the Apostle Paul. We have not singlehandedly defended the Trinity against Arianism, like Athanasius. We have not restored the truth of salvation by faith alone, like Luther and Zwingli. We have not recovered the scope of prophecy, the rapture, dispensational truth and Church truth, like J. N. Darby. We have come in after and enjoyed their labors. There is still much to be done, but the burden and heat of the day is passed. Yet we can take comfort that God retains His sovereignty, and will reward according to His pleasure. And there will be surprises at the judgement seat of Christ, not on account of what we have done, but on account of God’s goodness.

Humility in Service Determines Greatness in the Kingdom (vv.17-28)

The Perfect Example of Humility in Service (vv.17-19)

 17 And Jesus, going up to Jerusalem, took the twelve disciples with him apart in the way, and said to them, 18 Behold we go up to Jerusalem, and the Son of man will be delivered up to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death; 19 and they will deliver him up to the nations to mock and to scourge and to crucify, and the third day he shall rise again. vv.17-19 The Lord is not on His way to Jerusalem, the cross looming before Him. He is still in Perea however, for it would appear that He crossed the Jordan and passed through Jericho between v.28 and v.29. On this journey, evidently there was at least a small crowd with the Lord, for it says He pulled “the twelve disciples… apart in the way”. We find in Mark 10:32 that the disciples were amazed and afraid as the Lord led them to Jerusalem. They knew that this was a “bad idea” humanly speaking, to go to Jerusalem at this time. He had taught them about contentment in service, and now He presents Himself to them as the perfect example of the humble servant. This is now the third of four predictions given by the Lord concerning His death and resurrection. In two verses (vv.18-19) we have great details of the Lord’s passion. First, that His path would take Him “up to Jerusalem”. Second, that He would be “delivered up” (betrayed and incarcerated) to the Sanhedrin. Third, the Sanhedrin would “condemn him to death”. Fourth, the Jews would deliver Him to the Romans. Fifth, the Romans would abuse Him by “mocking and scourging” Him. Sixth, the Romans would “crucify” Him. Seventh, on “the third day” He would rise again. Thus, the order of His arrest and trials, the manner of His torture and death, and the timing of His resurrection are all laid out in one sentence. “Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: Who… humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross” (Phil. 2:5-8). Again, He calls Himself “the Son of Man”, which is His title in rejection.

Mrs. Zebedee’s Request: the Mind of Man vs. the Mind of Christ (vv.20-23)

 20 Then came to him the mother of the sons of Zebedee, with her sons, doing homage, and asking something of him. v.20 It would appear that what the Lord had just said about His sufferings had gone straight in one ear and out the other for the Zebedees, if not all the disciples. So often we listen selectively, hearing only what we want to hear. The idea of the Messiah suffering was completely foreign to the Jewish mind, although the Old Testament spoke of it to a great extent (1 Pet. 1:11; Luke 24:26). He was going to the cross to give His life, but Mrs. Zebedee comes asking something of Him”. We get the mind of man (asking, taking, seeking for self) contrasted with the mind of Christ (giving, offering, humiliating Himself). She comes doing homage, but her worship had strings attached. Selfish worship is not true worship.This was merely a show of reverence (“homage”), but it is totally different from worship as we get in John 4. True worship is the outflow of the heart in admiration and adoration of the Person of Christ.
21 And he said to her, What wilt thou? She says to him, Speak the word that these my two sons may sit, one on thy right hand and one on thy left in thy kingdom. v.21 She wanted a place of worldly greatness for her sons; and from Mark 10 we know they wanted it too. She had her eye on the coming glory, but did not comprehend the suffering that must come first. On a practical note, sometimes parents (even believers) can desire something for their child out of wrong motives, and get them in way over their heads. The Lord rebukes that strongly. This wife of Zebedee was likely the same person elsewhere called Salome, which can be seen by comparing Matt. 27:56 with Mark 15:40. Furthermore, by comparing with John 19:25, it would appear that she was the sister of the Lord’s mother. Here was the Lord’s aunt, asking Him to give the highest seats in the kingdom to His cousins! What a natural thought and ambition! She wanted the Lord to “speak the word”, and settle the matter of future position here and now. She thought the Lord was going to Jerusalem to establish His kingdom, and therefore any jostling for position in that kingdom must occur quickly. Quite the opposite, He was going to Jerusalem to be rejected and killed. 
22 And Jesus answering said, Ye know not what ye ask. Can ye drink the cup which “I” am about to drink? They say to him, We are able. v.22 What they didn’t know was that His glory was not independent from His sufferings. He could not circumvent the great obstacle in His path… the cross loomed ahead. The Zebedees thought Christ was going to Jerusalem for a kingdom, but He was really going for a cup. They did not know what they had asked (the extreme greatness of glory), and neither did they know what such a position would cost (the extreme depth of suffering). The “cup which I am about to drink” is the cup of shame and suffering that awaited Him. It couldn’t be the cup of sufferings in atonement, because we could never share with Him in that. Rather it is His sufferings in being rejected by man. Were they able to drink that cup in fellowship with Him? They wanted fellowship in His glory, but were they able to have fellowship in His sufferings? So hardly had the idea of Messianic suffering entered their minds that they reply quickly, “we are able”. The highest honor a Christian can have in this life is to share the sufferings of Christ. The Lord told Ananias concerning Saul of Tarsus that he was “a chosen vessel… for I will shew him how great things he must suffer for my name’s sake” (Acts 9:15-16).
23 And he says to them, Ye shall drink indeed my cup, but to sit on my right hand and on my left, is not mine to give, but to those for whom it is prepared of my Father. v.23 They were not humanly able to drink of the Lord’s cup, and they showed it later when “they all forsook Him and fled” (Mark 14:50). Yet they would “indeed” drink of it (He doesn’t say they were able)… and it would be only by the power of the Holy Spirit. But such was the humility of Christ that He would not take the position of giving special honors in the kingdom. This is His perfection as a man! This is the King Himself, refusing to insist on His rights. He would take nothing for Himself or even for those He loved, even though He had every right to do so as the Person of the Son. What perfection we see in His manhood! For the giving of glory, He left it all up to His Father. Christ can only offer you one thing… the cup of His sufferings. But for those who take that cup; “if we suffer, we shall also reign with him” (2 Tim. 2:12). Certainly, Christ will personally be the One who distributes rewards in His kingdom, but the rewards will be distributed to those whom the Father chooses.
Translational Note: The words and to be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with” are inserted in the KJV in both v.22 and v.23. There is sufficient manuscript evidence to believe these words were copied over from Mark 10:38-19 where they rightfully belong. Manuscripts that support this omission include the Codex Sinaiticus and the Codex Vaticanus, which are among the most reliable.

The Nature of Greatness in the Kingdom (vv.24-28)

24 And the ten, having heard of it, were indignant about the two brothers. v.24 Why we the ten disciples indignant? Because they were just as full of themselves as the sons of Zebedee. The Lord’s hadn’t even promised them a special place, but the others were angry that the two would even ask. They were angry about the pride they saw in the Zebedees, but they betrayed that their own pride was wounded. They were quick to condemn a self-seeking spirit in James and John, but they were guilty of the same spirit themselves, as the Lord explains.
25 But Jesus having called them to him, said, Ye know that the rulers of the nations exercise lordship over them, and the great exercise authority over them. 26 It shall not be thus amongst you, but whosoever will be great among you, shall be your servant; 27 and whosoever will be first among you, let him be your bondman; vv.25-27 The motive behind the Zebedees’ request and in the indignation of the ten was a worldly one. In the world, the greater a person is, the higher a position they take in the ranks. If you want to rise in the ranks, you must step on the heads of others. The corporate world is like that; it is sometimes called “dog eat dog”. Fundamentally, this is the wisdom of man. The Lord marks this as a sharp contrast to the character of greatness in the kingdom of heaven; “it shall not be thus among you”. If you want to go up in the kingdom, you must go down first. The Lord gives two examples. To be great you must be the minister (paid servant) of others. To be the greatest (“first among you”) you must be the bondman (slave) of others. In other words, if you want to be great you must get low… if you want to be the greatest you must get the lowest. The less of self we hold onto, the greater we are in the sight of God. Christ Himself is the ultimate example of this (v.28).
28 as indeed the Son of man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many. v.28 The Son of Man is the ultimate example of true greatness. He did not come to be served, but to serve… and more than that, He took the lowest place of all, “to give His life a ransom for many”. Many (the elect) were far from God, separated by their sins. But the Son of Man offered up His life as a substitutionary sacrifice to ransom their souls from eternal death. In vv.17-19 He had spoken of His death as a martyr at the hands of man, but here He speaks of it as laying down His own life as a vicarious sacrifice.
None of Self and All of Thee
by Theodore Monod
Oh, the bitter pain and sorrow
That a time could ever be,
When I proudly said to Jesus,
"All of self, and none of Thee."
Yet He found me; I beheld Him
Bleeding on th’ accursed tree,
And my wistful heart said faintly,
"Some of self, and some of Thee."
Day by day His tender mercy,
Healing, helping, full and free,
Brought me lower while I whispered,
"Less of self, and more of Thee."
Higher than the highest heaven,
Deeper than the deepest sea,
Lord, Thy love at last has conquered:
"None of self, and all of Thee."