Matthew 20:1-16, Envying the Johnny-Come-Latelies

[September 21, 2014] I struggled with trying to figure out the application of this parable. The last verse of chapter 19, “Many who are first will be last, and the last, first,” and the concluding verse here, 20:16, “Thus the last will be first, and the first, last,” frame the parable, and therefore the parable illustrates this point. The parable itself shows that at the end, regardless of the length of one’s service, all will receive the same pay. In making this point it is a continuation of 19:27-29 where Jesus clearly says that those who have given up things (houses, siblings, parents, children, or land) for the sake of the Jesus’ Name “will receive a hundred times as much, and also inherit eternal life.” Jesus also makes the point that Peter and the rest of the Twelve, when the Son of Man sits on his throne of glory (25:31), will sit on twelve thrones to judge (or govern) the twelve tribes of Israel. Obviously there will, in the kingdom, be rewards and ranking (the nature of which being perhaps being incomprehensible because it spiritual), yet this parable makes the opposite point. Rankings based on time or service will be disregarded with a result that may seem unfair. Equal pay for those who worked all day meant that they were the poorest paid of all. If those who were hired at the beginning of the day knew how things were going to turn out, would they have thought that their labor was worth the effort? Would they not have waited until late in the day before they let themselves be hired?

The parable makes another point. Those who worked all day got what was agreed upon. “Have I no right to do what I like with my own? Why should you be envious because I am generous?” (Literally, “Is your eye evil because I am good?”) We might think of the elder brother in the Parable of the Prodigal Son. This would also be the message intended: Are you envious? In Luke 15 the “last” were the tax-collectors and sinners who came to Jesus. Coming to him they seem first: though they only enjoy what all enjoy, God’s lavish treatment of them makes it seem preferential. The judgmental Pharisees, like the elder brother, feel last. Is this Matthew’s meaning? The Pharisees are those who labor all day but these loafers come in at the last moment—like all deathbed conversions—and are treated the same, justified as much as the Pharisees considered themselves to be. Like the debtor in Matthew 18:24.

But is the parable about what Paul talks about in Romans, the justification of the sinner? Those Pharisees who expect to be rewarded as a debt owed for their righteous behavior, actually fall far short of being justified before God. The sinner is justified freely on the basis of Christ’s own faithfulness. Justification, to whom it is granted, is given to all freely and on the same basis, and no one is justified more than another. Matthew uses different language. For Matthew Jesus takes responsibility for those sinners whom he calls and makes disciples. They are “blessed” because they adhere to him; they come under the umbrella of his own blessedness. There may be something of that in this parable.

The parable and its introduction in 19:27-29 (which is the conclusion of the story of the rich young man whom Jesus told to “go and sell your possessions and give the money to the poor,” so that he could have treasure in heaven) also presages the request of the mother of Zebedee’s sons, to make her two sons sit at Jesus’ right and left hand in his kingdom. Jesus says that those who would be first among you must be your slave, like the Son of Man who came to serve and give his life (or soul) as a ransom for many. Can they drink the cup that he was about to drink? Still, this reward was not his to grant. The reward belongs to those to whom the Father has already allotted it.

Hmm. It is hard to reconcile all this. Justification is the same for all. But reward seems not to be, though in the parable it is. Rank, if distinct from reward, also seems to be based on self-giving service. In Matthew 25:14-30 the servants who did well with the different amounts with which they were entrusted received the same words of praise but the servant who did nothing with it was cast outside into the dark, “where there will be weeping and grinding of teeth.” Yet even here the servant who earned five talents (on the basis of the five talents he was given) was given even more, “for to everyone who has will be given more, and he will have more than enough; but anyone who has not, will be deprived even of what he has.”

Indirectly the parable makes this point: that our reward, if we receive any, will not be based entirely on our labor but will be gratuitous, an overflow of what Christ himself has merited. It will be more than any of us deserve, though there will be some correspondence to how we have lived and served. The parable also makes the point (in verse 15, and again in verse 23) that our reward is a matter of grace and the Father’s free choice, that the Father is under no obligation when it comes to the distribution of the divine generosity.

What is the parable referring to, though? What does Jesus mean by the length of time served or the time of day hired? That obviously has to do with the intent of the parable because some begin at dawn, some at midmorning, some at noon, some at midafternoon, and some late in the afternoon (five o’clock). This is what distinguished these workers. Obviously those who worked all day bore the burden of the day’s work through the pummeling heat. Those who came late hardly worked at all. Jesus obviously does not think God is unfair, so what is the point he is trying to make?

The parable is set at the end of a teaching series, perhaps as its conclusion. This series began at 19:1 when Jesus “left Galilee and came into the territory of Judaea on the far side of the Jordan. Large crowds followed him and he healed them.” 20:17-19 is Jesus’ third prophesy concerning his coming passion, so it separates this series from the little bit that follows. 19:1—20:16 follows 17:24—18:35 (the second prophesy about his passion came in 17:22-23), which was about how the privilege of being a disciple comes to nothing if we cause others to stumble; in particular Jesus is concerned about our despising the “little children who have faith in me,” little children being a euphemism for ordinary disciples with an emphasis on their vulnerability. In Matthew’s gospel these are all those whom Jesus has called and attracted from the margins of society, and in Matthew’s own context, they are the new gentile converts from the perspective of the Jewish church. All this follows from the narrative in 13:54—16:20.

19:1—20:16 follows from this, and we need to keep that in mind, because the audience and context changes. Despite the revelation of the church in 16:18 and it being the context of chapter 18, Jesus’ concern still has to do with the kingdom. The church seems to exist for the sake of the kingdom. 19:2 brings back the crowds and in verses 3-9 the Pharisees become Jesus’ dialogue partners again, with a commentary being given to the disciples in verses 10-12. In verses 13-14 people bring little children to him (no euphemism being involved here), not the disciples’ children but the children of the crowds. Then in verses 16-22 Jesus interacts with a rich young man, with another commentary being given to the disciples in verses 23-26 which follow. The first periscope is about marriage and divorce and “eunuchs” (a euphemism for those who choose not to marry, have no interest in it, or are physically not suited to it); the second is about little children (Jesus says, “It is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs”); and the third is about the problem with property with respect to entering into life. All of these topics have to do with the household, not the disciples’ households but everyone’s. Here again we see that the concern of the kingdom of the heavens is broader than the disciples themselves, it concerns all people.

Moreover, the story about the rich young man introduces not only eternal life but the idea of rewards. There is a call to discipleship: after the young man frees himself, Jesus says to him, “Then come, follow me.” But rewards concern more than the disciples themselves. There is such a thing as a righteous gentile, for they are the sheep in 25:31-46, and though they are not disciples, they are invited to “take as [their] heritage the kingdom prepared for [them] since the foundation of the world,” and Jesus says they go into eternal life. We saw these righteous people in 10:40-42 who shall by no means lose a disciple’s reward even though they only serve a cup of cold water to one of these “little ones.”

Where does that leave us when we come to 19:30—20:16? Perhaps the parable is about age and length of years. There are those who serve God all their lives and those who only turn to God on their deathbeds. Is the parable about this? That those who come last are rewarded the same as those who serve the Lord from their youth? In terms of labor and bearing the burden of the day’s heat, it certainly makes sense to wait. Of course, the Christian life is not this. It is a joy which those who wait miss, extending the long years of their misery without the fellowship of Christ. The reason we might choose this interpretation is because Jesus is still speaking to his disciples, and the ancient household (usually the entire patriarchal household converted at once) was often comprised of several generations.

But let us reconsider the comparison to Luke 15. “The tax collectors and sinners were all crowding round to listen to [Jesus], and the Pharisees and scribes complained saying, ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.’ So he told them [three parables].” Jesus did not always condemn the Pharisees. He saw himself as a fellow rabbi with them, all laboring in God’s vineyard (and some of them regarded him likewise). He was highly critical of many of them, but his condemnation was not categorical. Most of the time he agreed with them. He understood their concerns and so he often argued with them, argued, I might add, often on their own terms. He used language that the Pharisees themselves often used, in order to point out their hypocrisy (when it was called for).

God’s vineyard is typically Israel (as in 21:33-43). Since 13:54, as I have shown, Matthew has been concerned with showing the inclusiveness of the kingdom of the heavens. Those who “knew” him would not pay him any mind and the powerful in the world trivialized him. But the crowds flocked to him. Moreover, Jesus extends the “crowd” to include not only the poor and sick and maimed and demon-inhabited but the unclean and even the gentile. By the time we get to the end of the narrative in 16, Jesus is warning about the exclusiveness of the Pharisees and Sadducees and speaks specifically of the sign of Jonah, the preacher who was sent to the gentiles. Matthew was particularly interested in the inclusion of the gentiles. This was the new work that God was doing in his day, foreshadowed by Jesus’ own apostolate.

In Jesus’ apostolate, however, he was not only interested in the gentiles. They were only the “last frontier.” Earlier than that, in chapters 8—9 (8:2—11:1 is about the mission of the kingdom, the narrative in 8—9 being about Jesus’ apostolate and then in 10 he sends out his disciples), Jesus reaches out to an “unclean” and “untouchable” man (a leper), a gentile centurion, a person laid down with a fever, people afflicted with demons, the sick, a man who is severely harassed by demons living among “unclean” gentiles, a paralyzed sinner, a tax collector and his sinner friends, a woman rendered “unclean” and “untouchable” by a flow of blood, a twelve-year old who is dead (thus rendering her too “unclean”) and her parents, two blind men, a mute afflicted by a demon, and people with all kinds of diseases. The theme of uncleanness and therefore exclusion comes up again in chapter 15. The gentiles are among the “unclean,” but Jesus is concerned with all those who are on the margins of society, for whatever reason. These are among those who are attracted to him and put their trust and faith and allegiance in him.

In the midst of chapters 8—9 is an excursion by Jesus concerning why he and his disciples are not fasting (though Jesus is no stranger to fasting, and mourning, as we see in 4:1-11 and 5:5). It follows a passage in which Jesus and his disciples are at table enjoying a meal with a number of tax collectors and sinners. Tax collectors were hated by everyone and so the “sinners” that they associated with could only have been people similarly excluded from society, perhaps including sex workers who we know were among those who came to Jesus, even though the term “sinner” only implies that they had no interest in keeping the Halakah. “When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, ‘Why does your master eat with tax collectors and sinners?’” (9:11; compare Luke 15:2). This anxiety that ate at the Pharisees was pervasive in Jesus’ ministry. Jesus says in 11:19, “The Son of Man came, eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’”

So Jesus draws this analogy: “No one puts a piece of unshrunken cloth onto an old cloak, because the patch pulls away from the cloak and the tear gets worse. Nor do people put new wine into old wineskins; otherwise, the skins burst, the wine runs out, and the skins are lost. No; they put new wine in fresh skins and both are preserved” (9:16-17). Jesus was well aware that he was creating something new in Israel. This new thing that God was doing was the Messiah of Israel calling together his own qahal, or assembly, out of all the low and despised elements of society, those whom no one else wanted, those who thought that even God did not want them. Of course not only them, but the prophetic point is that the Messiah is particularly interested in the lost sheep. “There will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner repenting than over ninety-nine upright people who have no need of repentance.” “I came to call not the upright, but sinners” (Luke 15:7; Matthew 9:13).

The parable in chapter 20 is about generations, I think, but not the generations of the household nor the generations within the church, but rather about the generations of God’s work in Israel (the society of the gospel text). The older generation, those who began work early in the morning, represent the hardcore Pharisee, who unfortunately strove so hard to please God that he felt that God’s reward was something he merited entirely by his own efforts. The middle generations were all those good people who listened to the Pharisees teachings and the teachings of the other rabbis, and tried to please God but not so hard. They realized better than the Pharisees that their reward was more than they deserved. Those who came to work at the last minute were those whom not only the Pharisees but everyone else had given up on: the people whom Jesus was calling. For them there was no doubt that their reward was entirely a matter of grace, that they deserved nothing. In telling this parable, Jesus is incorporating the people’s own perspective: how they would see things. Jesus tells this parable to justify his own work. Yes, God is having mercy on such as these. “Go, you got what you worked for. But I [God] choose to pay the last-comer as much as I pay you. Have I no right to do what I like with my own? Why should you be envious because I am generous?”

This is the issue. Who was envious? The Pharisees were. They did not think it fair or even reasonable that God would grant repentance to sinners and indeed would love them just as much as those who strove so hard to keep all God’s laws. They certainly would not think it fair that God’s Messiah treat these outcasts—outcasts by their own doing, no less—as his privileged followers! To take this over to Matthew’s context when he was composing the gospel, the real late comers are the gentiles who know nothing of God. Should they be given full fellowship within the Messiah’s qahal without even converting to Judaism (via circumcision) and making any intention to follow the Halakah? They have done nothing, starting work only an hour before the day is done. They barely started in time to help with the cleanup!

So this young Jesus and his youthful followers must have seemed to the Pharisees, especially the zealous ones (probably the intolerant school of Shimmai). They must have seemed a cocky bunch of youth (Jesus refusing to fast and even comparing himself to a bridegroom; and his constant wise-cracking with pithy remarks and that ironic grin), this new youth movement. Matthew was one of those youth, but by the time he wrote the gospel the movement had matured. Nevertheless, it was as daring as ever, beginning a mission to gentiles in pagan lands.

I think this is the best interpretation of the parable. It follows 19:27-29 not to contradict it but to confirm it. The new people were giving up everything to follow Jesus. True, they were not great observers of the Halakah until then, some of them (Matthew himself) not at all. But at the last minute they threw their lot in with Jesus and gave up houses and families and land for his sake. “They will receive a hundred times as much and also inherit eternal life.” The Pharisees who are looking down their noses at them have no advantage over them, for what the Pharisees are trying to earn, these young people are receiving as a gift—just for forsaking all to follow Jesus. (I do not mean to minimize what “forsaking all” entails, but from the Pharisees’ point of view, they began their “forsaking all” for the sake of the Torah long before.) Moreover, they were not even mourning for their sins. They were enjoying the love and acceptance of God that the Pharisees strove so hard for. How were the Pharisees to believe that such easily gotten goods were genuine? It all seemed superficial.

So we always hear. But Jesus says, God can be generous if God chooses to be. It is not about how hard we work, though those who are grateful will work the hardest, but about the generosity of God. God chooses to show that generosity to those whom everyone else believes are the spiritually most impoverished. (In this way, that it is all due to God’s grace becomes almost obvious!) In reality, it is the Pharisees and the self-satisfied “righteous” people who are the most impoverished. The sinful are overcome by gratitude, and this is the reason they are able to drop everything, and why their hearts can be so completely taken over by their love for Jesus.

The parable is not then a theological statement about the Day of Judgment per se, implying that all will be rewarded equally. The laborers are not different degrees of believers (or how long a person has been a believer). Nor is it about Jew and gentile Christians being rewarded equally. (Commentaries often are reading into the gospels a rejection of Judaism, and this interpretation is a take on that.) No, it is about the surprising new people whom Jesus has called to be included in the kingdom of God. Jesus, even when he forms his own qahal, is still the Messiah of Israel, and his coming does not annihilate God’s promises to Israel. Already and in a time to come he fulfills them. The inclusion of gentiles on equal terms represents the superabundance of God’s grace, not a rejection of God’s covenant through Moses.

The confusion comes from commenters (and theologians) who misinterpret the Hebrew Scriptures the same way some of the Pharisees did. The New Testament interprets the Mosaic Covenant as God’s grace to Israel. As Paul says in Galatians 2:15-16, Jews are not justified in God’s sight by following the Law but only by the faithfulness of the Messiah, the same as any gentile. Peter says the same thing in Acts 15:11, “We believe that we are saved in the same way as they are: through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ.” They may not know it, but they are (so Christians believe). Keeping the Law is not forbidden to Jews by the Gospel (how could it be? Jesus and even Paul kept the Halakah), but rather it is a privilege, a sign of the grace that has received them as God’s own people. Just as it is wrong for Jews to think that their own adherence of the Halakah saves them and not God’s grace, so it would be wrong for a gentile to become a Jew in order to become acceptable to God. Nor have the gentiles been called to become Jews; that privilege is not given to them (though of course some gentiles do become Jews, which is God’s prerogative). Rather, gentiles, bound only by God’s covenant with Noah, have the privilege of the Messiah himself, his person, with which alone they ought to be satisfied. For us gentiles, all the privileges of being a Jew (that concern us) are contained in Christ. For us to also want to be Jews shows a lack of satisfaction in and appreciation of Christ and a misunderstanding of the Torah. God does not reject Judaism, not even as it has evolved to this day (after all God’s Spirit is at work among them).

Matthew 20:1-16 then, while spoken to the disciples, envisions their whole social context (the Pharisees and crowds of the preceding chapter). Jesus speaks of marriage and children and property and the proper attitudes and behaviors to have within each of these relationships, but also relativizes them all by speaking of being a “eunuch” and of giving up all one’s property (see the conclusion in 19:29). While this is Matthew’s version of the “household code,” it is still, as always—within the context of the domestic life of Israel—about the invitation to discipleship and adhering to Jesus (“for the sake of my Name”) as one’s only master. Those who come to work at the last hour are the “little children” whom Jesus has called. Let no one grumble because God has called lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people, and anyone else, and bestows on them the love that some may feel is only the entitlement of folks like them.

The next section, 20:17-34, is the conclusion of everything that has been narrated since 13:54. 20:20-28 capitulates Jesus’ message to his disciples in the light of everything he has said; 20:29-34 is a picture of the final repentance of Israel when the Son of Man comes in glory—they are not forsaken, but in the end they will be blessed with the gift of sight. “At once their sight returned and they followed him” (they being the two sticks, Israel and Judah). Before we learn about the judgment of the kingdom, this concludes the section about the embrace of the kingdom and the love, humility and service it calls us to.

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