Matthew 20 records the parable of the workers in the vineyard, and then goes on to another foretelling of Jesus’ death. In light of that, the mother of James and John requests that her sons may sit at the left and right hand of Jesus in His Kingdom. The chapter wraps up with the healing of two blind men on the road out of Jericho.
What do we make of this? This is the third prediction of the Cross and the Resurrection we see in Matthew, which tells us, again, that Jesus was not surprised by anything that happened in the Passion week. The second passage, requesting special treament in the Kingdom, connects with the laborers in the vineyard, so we’ll deal with those together In Focus. The last passage highlights that Jesus never overlooked people.
Let us put the opening story, Matthew 20:1-16, in focus. Jesus returns to an agrarian motif here, highlighting that the Kingdom of Heaven is like a farm with a harvest. The landowner, the one whose harvest it truly was, went and recruited workers. There was more harvest than workers, though, and so he went and got more workers. By the end of the day, there were many workers, and all received the same pay. The longest working were angered by this, but the landowner rightly highlights that it’s his business who he pays what.
First, consider this parable and its meaning. The best basic understanding has us seeing the Landowner as God Almighty, believers as the workers, and the world as the field. After all, we see this in other parables. It’s also the way the disciples saw it—James and John’s mother saw this as an opportunity, after all to ask for the payment she wanted for her sons in the Kingdom. The best way to make sense of it is that God is just and righteous in how He handles the payment of His laborers.
Keep in mind that this parable is taught shortly before the Crucifixion, and follows immediately after the disciples (through Peter) have asked about their reward for having followed Jesus from the beginning (Matthew 19:27-30). There are those who will be coming on board late, but Jesus is instructing that they are all in the same boat, on the same mission.
Practically, what do we do this? There is the first application, that those who come late to Christ still receive the blessing of eternity. And that we should be more concerned to welcome our fellow laborers than to bemoan their sharing in the rewards.
There is another angle to this parable. Note that the day ended, and the workers were paid. It is not that the harvest was finished. Too often, we want to receive our reward and call it a day, but the harvest is not done yet.
Further, we miss the point of recruiting more laborers. As we read this parable, there were laborers waiting for opportunities throughout the day. Each time, the landowner hired a few, more remained to be hired later. Why did their fellow laborers not bring them along?
Knowing us, it’s because first, they wanted to reserve opportunities for their friends or family members. Plus, by not encouraging those “other” workers to join them, they ensured plenty of work for themselves. After all, stable income was a necessity.
Yet harvests are a limited time event. If the work is going to get done, you need as many people as possible. And harvests are about the landowner and the crop—it is not for us to decide who works and who does not. Let the Lord of the Harvest hire who He will. Let us encourage others to join us in the harvest, that the land be fruitful!
First, note Matthew 20:15. The literal rendering would be “Is your eye evil because I am good?” We translate it as “envious” because that’s what the context supports, but recognize this: envy is evil. There’s not way to slice that.
Second, James and John think they are able to follow Jesus, but it takes them years to follow through with drinking the cup of suffering.
Third, a group that we should keep in mind as late-comers to the Kingdom are Jesus’ own brothers, like James and Jude. These came around to the faith later, yet God still used them well.