Matthew 20. The House-holder.

Key Notes: The owner and the labor pool. Who gets the best seats?

This chapter takes the last sentence of 19:30 as its theme.
            “Many that are first will be last and the last first.”
That turns out to be a provocative saying with more than one application.

20:1–16 Jesus told a parable to illustrate the “first and last” concept. He described a vineyard-owner who was working evidently at harvest time, because he kept going back to the labor pool for more and more help. At 6AM he started out with one crew, promising them the usual day’s wage. Every three hours he went back for more, lastly at 5PM. These newer workers were not promised a particular amount, but were told that he would do right by them.

At quitting time, 6PM,  the steward paid them off, beginning with the last. Each was paid a day’s wages. I dare say they were surprised, and we know the earliest workers were because they only received the day’s wage that they had been promised. They complained that it was not fair to give them the same as those who had worked only an hour. They had endured the hot sun and twelve hours of hard labor: “…the burden of the day and the scorching heat”.

Someone in the class protested: "It wasn't fair!". We can see the dilemma. On one hand, every laborer went home with food-money. On the other hand, it did not seem fair to give so much to those who had done so little. But the owner asked if he should be challenged for his generosity. He was motivated by grace.

Summary. The last will be first, and the first last. What is the “pay”? The one thing all God-approved people receive is salvation. It is given by grace without regard to spiritual achievement. So the parable is not about being fair or unfair, but about grace which is given out of generosity based on need, not on works done, except for obedience. When He called, they came. How long they worked in His field was not relevant.

20:17–19 Then Jesus for the third time (Matt.16:21; 17:22) told his disciples in detail about the Cross.
He will be delivered to the chief priests and scribes. That implies betrayal by someone in the circle.
They will condemn Him to death.
There will be a Jewish trial, but they would not be able to carry out the sentence.
They will deliver Him to the Gentiles for Roman execution.
The third day He will be raised.

20:20–28. The mother of James and John, (who may be Jesus’ aunt) came on bended knee asking Jesus for the places of pre-eminence in His Kingdom for her sons. Immediately there was tension. This was no trivial request. What was their concept of the Kingdom? Obviously they believed in Jesus and His greatness. They had hope for the future. They wanted to be the best part of it.

Jesus said they did not know what they were asking. He indicated that the prime places would be given to martyrs. “The cup that I am to drink” is the cup of suffering, the cup of the wrath of God. They said they could suffer with Him. He said they would. James was executed a short time after Pentecost. (Acts 12:2). John survived persecution and lived in exile on an island (Patmos) to write the Revelation. But the places of honor were not the prerogative of the Son but of the Father.

The other ten disciples were appropriately annoyed when they heard about this petition.
Jesus calmed them down. They were not to be like the Gentiles that lord it over each other. The one who would be greatest must be servant of all. Jesus was servant to His disciples. He fed them, taught by word and deed, settled their arguments and challenged their weak faith.

But finally He said that He came into the world to give His life as a ransom for many.

20:29–34 Then Jesus did a final work of individual healing, restoring sight. A great crowd came out of Jericho and swept by two blind men sitting and shouting “Have mercy on us, Son of David.” Jesus stopped and called to them. “What do you want Me to do for you? “  “Lord, let our eyes be opened. “ Jesus in pity touched their eyes and their sight was restored. They joined the crowd.

This last recorded individual healing of Jesus’ ministry begs to be thought of as a metaphor for the whole problem of Israel—spiritual blindness. (There will be one more mass healing, in the Temple in Matt.21:14.) Spiritual blindness is also the subject of  Jesus’ last healing in John, chapter 9. There the Pharisees say “Are we also blind?”

The “first last, last first” concept (20:16) was applied in more than one setting.

I. Anyone cleansed of a demon who is not then filled with the Spirit of God ends up being demonized with a vengeance… “and the last state of that man is worse than the first.” (Matt.12:45). Jesus applied that to many in Israel. Those who came to John the Baptist but did not go on with Jesus, fell back into a worse condition of unbelief. That was fatal back-sliding. The tax-collectors and prostitutes, the last by all accounts, responded to Jesus and ended up first. Matt.21:31–32

II The same idea was put into another setting where Jesus was asked whether there would be few who are saved. Jesus said the Gentiles would outnumber the Jews in the Kingdom.
“There you will weep and gnash your teeth, when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the Kingdom of God and you yourselves thrust out. And behold, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.” Lk.13:28,30

III. The third time the expression is applied to the disciples, as we see in Matt.19:30; 20:16 in the parable of the wages of the workers. They must not presume that because they have been with Jesus from the start that they are guaranteed a better place in the Kingdom than others. I think that is also the point Jesus made with James and John about having their places near the throne.

What is proper behavior of a servant? Is it wrong to desire to be approved? Don’t we all want to hear “well, done, good and faithful servant”? But it is wrong to want to lord it over others. Unfortunately, it is possible to domineer by being the super-servant who does everything so that others have no role, but then complains because the work is not appreciated. A person struggling with a slave mentality may be extraordinarily resentful at being imposed upon or demeaned in any way. We are to study Jesus as servant and follow where He leads
" So you also, when you have done all that is commanded you, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’” (Lk.17:10). If God was our employer, would we keep our job?

Jesus came not to be served, but to serve (Gr. “diakonos”) and give His Life a ransom (Gr. “lytron”) for many. The word “lytron” means to release or deliver, and it comes into English as lysis,  as in the surgical lysis of adhesions. A ransom is the release of captives. It is common in the Third World to capture people, preferably rich people, for ransom. Sometimes, however, the ransom may be life for life, one person substituting for another, as in Dickens' ”Tale of Two Cities.” Barabbas was  ransomed in exchange for Jesus. (Matt.27:15–23). So it was that Jesus’ life was taken in place of Barabbas' life, and also our lives.

The Greek word may also be translated “redeem”. Usually we think of things being redeemed, like jewelry from a pawn shop. A different illustration comes from Ruth 4. Naomi’s property had to be sold to pay her upkeep. It was bought up—“redeemed”--- by Boaz, a near-relative and with it came Ruth as his wife—a great bargain. Ruth 4:1–10
“You know that you were ransomed {RSV} (or redeemed, NIV) from the futile ways inherited from your fathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot.” (IPet.1:18)
So we may think of our salvation as a price paid, the blood of Christ spilled for our redemption, or a ransom, the life of Christ given in exchange for our life.

Commentators do not always see the ransom in Jesus’ ministry clearly.
“To the evangelists he was mysterious and holy, and his presence evoked awe and wonder. Nevertheless the modern reader cannot avoid asking why Jesus went to Jerusalem. Perhaps he wished to appeal to the nation solemnly gathered for the festival, to follow his way, and so make possible the establishment of the kingdom of God on earth. Perhaps he wished to confront the leaders of the nation with the claims of that kingdom, so that they would either repent and follow its righteousness, or exhibit themselves as disobedient. Or it may be that he was simply carrying on as he had always done, and had no object different from that which had been his concern in Galilee.” (Citation omitted.)

On the contrary, the ransom was planned from before the foundation of the world. (Eph.1:4), We see it laid out in Matthew. Jesus was not a prophet wandering around, only to be  caught in a web of evil. We can identify many steps in the plan.

*He established His identity as the Son of God with the apostles. Matt.16:13–16
*He told them He was to die in Jerusalem. Matt.16:21
*Three disciples heard Moses and Elijah discussing His coming “Exodus” (Lk.9:31) in Jerusalem with Him on the Mount of Transfiguration.
*The disciples heard the second and third prophecy of the Cross, spelling out the events of betrayal, trial, and execution, with resurrection. Matt.17:23;20:18–19
*Could James and John drink the cup of suffering that He was to drink? Matt.20:22
*The Triumphal Entry announced His coming as king. Matt.21:1–11
*The leaders made three futile attempts to trap Him with words. Matt.22:15–34
*Jesus retorted with a denunciation of  the scribes and Pharisees. Matt.23
*Judas betrayed Him for his own reasons. Matt.26:14–15
*Passover was celebrated, creating the interpretation of His death. Matt. 26:26–29
*The final events unfolded as He had prophesied. Matt.26–28

The seed of the woman did bruise the serpent’s head, as God promised at the dawn of creation. Gen.3:15