Matthew 20 – The Reverse Kingdom

Matthew 20 Bible with Endangered Species Dark Chocolate with Cranberries and Almonds

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Today’s PassageMatthew 20

The last chapter ended with Jesus reassuring Peter that the sacrifice of discipleship is worth it. In the age to come, he promises, the disciples “shall sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (19:28), and anyone who has to leave their family and their world for him is stepping into a bigger family and a bigger world. So, today’s chapter turns to matters of the kingdom of heaven, and it opens with a parable in the vein of chapter 13’s.

In this parable, Jesus compares the kingdom of heaven to a landowner who hires a bunch of laborers to work in his vineyard. The parable is meant to demonstrate his well-known saying, “The last shall be first, and the first last” (19:30, 20:16), as the different laborers work larger or smaller portions of the day, but they all receive pay for a full day’s work. It doesn’t seem fair to the workers who did a full day of work but got the same wages as those who worked an hour. But the landowner asks, “Is your eye envious because I am generous?” (20:15). The fact is, the landowner can do what he wants with his money, he’s giving a fair living wage to those who signed on in the early morning, and he’s giving a more than fair wage to those who signed on at 5 PM.

And I don’t know if I’m meant to read anything else into the parable, but it seems to me that the early workers may be getting the best deal. It’s easy to think of work as undesirable, especially physical labor, but I know I get tense and restless if I go for too long without burning some serious calories. Bodies are meant to be used, and I know some labor is grueling and painful, but sometimes it can be a gift. These guys agreed to the work, they were on board for it, and they’re working in the vineyard. Vineyards mean grapes, and grapes mean wine, and wine means party. People in Jesus’ parables often throw parties and celebrate with wine. I’m extrapolating a little, but these laborers may well be making an amazing celebration possible, and they might even be invited to it themselves. In their work, they’re involved in something bigger. The opportunity to work may be a reward in itself, right alongside the day’s pay.

Jesus then reiterates that he’ll die at the hands of Jerusalem’s religious leaders, this time mentioning that he’ll be crucified, and the kingdom of heaven is still the topic when the mother of James and John asks Jesus to give her sons a place of honor in the kingdom. Specifically, she says, “Command that in Your kingdom these two sons of mine may sit, one on Your right and one on Your left” (20:21). I found it interesting that she referred to it as “Your kingdom;” it seemed to me that overwhelmingly Jesus called it the kingdom of heaven.

So I did a search for the word “kingdom” in the gospel of Matthew. The word shows up fifty-four times, more than in any other gospel, and the majority of those are about the kingdom of heaven. In some cases Jesus calls identifies it as the Father’s kingdom (6:10, 6:13, 6:33, 13:43), but we’ve already seen two instances where Jesus indicates that the kingdom also belongs to the Son of Man: Matthew 13:41 and 16:28. James and John’s mother correctly infers that it’s Jesus’ kingdom. She’s picking up on the signs.

But it’s not as if Jesus has been subtle lately, especially with the bit about the twelve apostles on thrones. And as he responds with a parable about how honor in the kingdom is awarded to those who serve others, it seems James and John’s mother has missed an important point about the nature of the kingdom. I wonder: does she expect her sons to receive these seats of honor after Jesus dies and is resurrected? Or is she among those who might still disbelieve that Jesus is going to Jerusalem toward his own death, even as he predicts his crucifixion?

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