Matthew 20–22: Being FIrst & Being Last

Read the Bible in 2023 ◊ Week 8: Saturday

“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard.”
Matthew 20:1 LSB

In today’s Bible reading of Matthew 20–22, Jesus foretells His crucifixion and resur­rection before entering Jerusalem on the back of a donkey. There He will have His final confrontations with the Jewish leaders.

Interspersed in the events of these chapters, three times Jesus will use a vineyard in parables. He tells the first parable to his disciples before entering Jerusalem. He tells the other two parables to the chief priests and elders in the temple after entering Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.

In chapter 20, the issue of importance and greatness in the kingdom of heaven resurfaces with the disciples. In chapter 18, they had already asked who is greatest in the kingdom, and Jesus said the one who humbles himself as a child will be greatest. At the end of Matthew 19, Peter brings up the issue again.

Then Peter answered and said to Him, “Behold, we have left everything and followed You; what then will there be for us?”
And Jesus said to them, “Truly I say to you, that you who have followed Me, in the regeneration when the Son of Man will sit on His glorious throne, you also shall sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or farms for My name’s sake, will receive one hundred times as much, and will inherit eternal life. But many who are first will be last; and the last, first.”
Matthew 19:27–30 LSB

That is the context in which Jesus begins His first parable of the vineyard in Matthew 20–22. R. T. France writes,

“Parables are characteristically open-ended, and a general rule for their interpretation is, ‘If the cap fits, wear it!’ But sometimes it is possible and helpful to envisage the situation which originally gave rise to them.”1

Jesus proceeds to tell the parable in which the owner of a vineyard hires workers at various times of the day. At the end of the day, they’re each paid the same no matter when they started working. The first-hired workers grumble at this. The landowner tells them:

“But he answered and said to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what is yours and go, but I wish to give to this last man the same as to you. Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with what is my own? Or is your eye envious because I am generous?’”
Matthew 20:13–15 LSB

Jesus concludes the parable with the same thing He said to Peter before He began the parable:

“So the last shall be first, and the first last.”
Matthew 20:16 LSB

The point Jesus is making is fairly clear! France comments:

“F. W. Beare appropriately entitles this story ‘The Eccentric Employer’. It is not meant to reflect normal economic practice, nor to be a pattern of labour relations.

“…Matthew has given us a more specific clue, by the way he has intro­duced the parable. It follows (and is concluded by) the statement that Many that are first will be last, and the last first, suggesting that the message is, in general terms, that God’s standards are not those of strict rewards for services rendered, so that none of us has a claim as of right on his goodness…

“It is a measure of our failure to share God’s values that we feel a natural sympathy with the complaint of v. 12, however much we accept the cool logic of vv. 13–15. ‘It is frightening to realize that our identification with the first workers, and hence with the opponents of Jesus, reveals how loveless and unmerciful we basically are. We may be more “under law” in our thinking and less “under grace” than we realize. God is good and compassionate far beyond his children’s understanding!’ (Stein, p. 128).”2

R. H. Stein also says,

“…the point of this parable lies in the interaction between the owner and the grumbling first workers…

“Again in this parable we see a description of the gracious character of God as portrayed by the owner of the vineyard. God is good, i.e., generous (Matt 20:15). His goodness and grace are such that we are simply incapable of accepting it.”3

Before He travels to Jerusalem, Jesus tells His disciples He will be betrayed, crucified, and rise again (20:17–19). However, before they get there, the next thing Matthew records is the mother of the sons of Zebedee coming to Jesus with her sons, James and John, to ask if they can sit on Jesus’ right and left hand in His kingdom. They have yet to receive and take to heart what Jesus has been saying! As you can imagine, the other ten disciples are indignant with James and John!

Jesus once again turns their idea of greatness upside down as He tells them the one who wishes to be first among them must be their slave.

But Jesus called them to Himself and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It is not this way among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave; just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.”
Matthew 20:25–28 LSB

First, humility (cf. Matthew 18:1–7), and now, slavery, define greatness in the kingdom of heaven. That’s not exactly what they wanted to hear!

After entering Jerusalem, Jesus has a series of confrontations with the chief priests, elders, and Pharisees. In Matthew 21, He tells them three parables. France writes:

“While these parables are distinct from one another, the placing of the three together as [sic] this point in Matthew’s Gospel adds greatly to their impact, and is an important point to note when interpreting each one individually. All are clearly directed against the Jewish leaders, and all are concerned with the question of who is really acceptable to God, who are his true people. The theme of the failure and rejection of official Israel which runs through these parables is one which recurs more prominently in Matthew’s Gospel than in the others, achieving its most explicit expres­sion in 21:43 [below]. We have noted this theme already in such passages as 3:7–10; 8:1112; 12:3842; 13:1017; 15:19; 16:512. It is also implicit both in the growing tension between Jesus and the establishment and also in some of his teaching, which suggests that the true Israel is now to be found in himself and in those who follow him…It is within this sustained build-up that these three parables occupy an important place.”4

In two of these parables, Jesus again uses a vineyard setting:

“But what do you think? A man had two sons, and he came to the first and said, ‘Son, go work today in the vineyard.’ And he answered and said, ‘I will not’; but afterward he regretted it and went. And the man came to the second and said the same thing; and he answered and said, ‘I will, sir’; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?”
They said, “The first.”
Jesus said to them, “Truly I say to you that the tax collectors and prostitutes will get into the kingdom of God before you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him; but the tax collectors and prostitutes did believe him; and you, seeing this, did not even regret afterward so as to believe him.
Matthew 21:28–32 LSB

Jesus follows up this parable with the parable of the vine-growers:

“Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who PLANTED A VINEYARD AND PUT A WALL AROUND IT AND DUG A WINE PRESS IN IT, AND BUILT A TOWER, and rented it out to vine-growers and went on a journey. Now when the harvest time approached, he sent his slaves to the vine-growers to receive his fruit. And the vine-growers took his slaves and beat one, and killed another, and stoned a third. Again he sent another group of slaves larger than the first; and they did the same thing to them. But afterward he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But when the vine-growers saw the son, they said among themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and seize his inheritance.’ And they took him, and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him. Therefore when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those vine-growers?”
They said to Him, “He will bring those wretches to a wretched end, and will rent out the vineyard to other vine-growers who will pay him the proceeds at the proper seasons.”
Matthew 21:33–41 LSB

Jesus finishes these two parables by quoting Psalm 118, about the stone rejected by the builders becoming the chief corner stone, and says:

“Therefore I say to you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people, producing the fruit of it. And he who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; but on whom­ever it falls, it will scatter him like dust.”
Matthew 21:43–44 LSB

The last of this trio of parables about the wedding feast is at the beginning of Matthew 22. Again, the Jewish leaders learn that those in the kingdom of heaven will not be who they assume.

These leaders next try to trap Jesus with their questions, only to find they are the ones who are trapped when He asks them a question. At the end of the chapter they have all been silenced:

No one was able to answer Him a word, nor did anyone dare from that day on to ask Him another question.
Matthew 22:46 LSB

The disciples were thinking of their work in the kingdom of God in terms of recognition and reward. The religious leaders assumed they were in the king­dom. Yet Jesus, the Son of God, who is the first and the greatest, did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.

Silvesterzug Laterne: Bk muc. (CC BY-SA 4.0).
Grapes, Gush Etsyon Regional Council: Yair Aronshtam. (CC0 1.0). Cropped.
1,2,4R. T. France, The Gospel According to Matthew (Wm B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids MI: 1985) 289, 289–290, 306.
3R. H. Stein, An Introduction to the Parables of Jesus (The Westminster Press, Philadelphia: 1981) 127.

I’m using Michael Coley’s Bible reading plan (one page PDF to print) to read through the Bible in 2023. Each day my posts are on different books because he divides Bible readings into seven categories, one for each day of the week: Epistles, The Law, History, Psalms, Poetry, Prophecy and Gospels. There’s more information on his plan and other ones at Read the Bible in 2023.

Copyright ©2011–2023 Iwana Carpenter

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