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The parable of the workers in the vineyard
Matthew chapter 20, verses 1-16
“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire men to work in his vineyard. He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard. “About the third hour he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. He told them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. “He went out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour and did the same thing. About the eleventh hour he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?’ “‘Because no one has hired us,’ they answered. “He said to them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard.’ “When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.’ “The workers who were hired about the eleventh hour came and each received a denarius. So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. ‘These men who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’ “But he answered one of them, ‘Friend, I am not being unfair to you. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the man who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
Jesus’ conversation with his disciples did not stop at the end of chapter 19 but continued with this parable of the workers in the vineyard. Notice how the last verse of chapter 19 is echoed in the last verse of this parable.
When Peter, speaking for all the disciples, said to Jesus, “We have left everything to follow you! What then will there be for us?” Jesus assured them that they would be most generously rewarded. “Everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life,” Jesus promised in chapter 19, verse 29. We are reminded of the seed that fell on the good soil and yielded as much as a hundred times what was sown (chapter 13, verses 8 and 23).
The seed cannot take credit for where it landed when it was sown. If the seed receives adequate rainfall (but not too much) and adequate sunshine (but not scorching heat), the bumper crop is due to circumstances that are entirely beyond the seed’s control. And so it is with the work we do in our Lord’s vineyard. His grace offers a job to the unemployed. The workers do not fill out an application; the owner of the vineyard goes out and finds them and invites them to come and work in his vineyard. Nor are salaries based on merit. All receive a denarius whether they work all day or only for an hour.
Most of the details of this parable are true to life, but there is something unreal about the generosity of the vineyard owner. A denarius was the usual daily wage, and it was common for a vineyard owner to hire extra help when the grapes were ready for harvest. It is not difficult to understand why the workers who labored all day were indignant when a denarius was given to those who had worked only one hour. How do you feel about professional athletes who make as much for one game as you make for working all year?
The parable begins with the words “the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner.” Jesus points out that God deals with us on the basis of his grace and love instead of on the basis of what we think is fair and just. If we complain about his generosity to others, we despise his grace. If we insist that God reward us on the basis of merit, we deprive ourselves of the abundant blessings of his grace. The consequences are both temporal and eternal.
Jesus again predicts his death
Matthew chapter 20, verses 17-19
Now as Jesus was going up to Jerusalem, he took the twelve disciples aside and said to them, “We are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will turn him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified. On the third day he will be raised to life!”
This is the third time Jesus predicted his death and resurrection. The first prediction came shortly after Peter’s great confession at Caesarea Philippi (chapter 16, verses 13-16). It must have taken them completely by surprise when Jesus “began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life” (chapter 16, verse 21). Peter was so upset that he tried to rebuke Jesus; Jesus’ response was equally emotional as he called Peter “Satan!”
The second prediction came shortly after the transfiguration (chapter 17, verses 1-9). Jesus did not really add any details to what he had told them the first time. But it seems that the message was beginning to sink in because their reaction was more subdued: “The disciples were filled with grief” (chapter 17, verses 22 and 23).
No “mountaintop experience” preceded this third prediction, but it was soon followed by the events of Palm Sunday, which Matthew describes in the opening verses of the next chapter. It is noteworthy that Jesus now says he will be handed over to the Gentiles. Rather than being stoned to death by the Jews (as subsequently happened to Stephen), Jesus would be crucified by the Romans.
Jesus refuses the request of the mother of James and John
Matthew chapter 20, verses 20-28
Then the mother of Zebedee’s sons came to Jesus with her sons and, kneeling down, asked a favor of him. “What is it you want?” he asked. She said, “Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom.” “You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus said to them. “Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?” “We can,” they answered. Jesus said to them, “You will indeed drink from my cup, but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared by my Father.” When the ten heard about this, they were indignant with the two brothers. Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
James and John must have been fiery personalities, especially in their younger days. Luke chapter 9, verses 51-56 tells us how they wanted to call down fire from heaven upon the Samaritans, and Mark chapter 3, verse 17 says Jesus gave them the nickname Boanerges, which means “Sons of Thunder.” Maybe they got some of that spirit from their mother, Salome. She was the one who approached Jesus and boldly requested that he give James and John the places of honor in his kingdom.
Salome was a very devoted follower of Jesus. She was an eyewitness of the crucifixion (Mark chapter 15, verse 40), and she was one of the women who got up very early on the first Easter Sunday and went out to Jesus’ tomb to anoint his body (Mark chapter 16, verse 1). And it is significant that she made no request for herself when she approached Jesus on behalf of her sons.
But Salome and James and John did not understand the true nature of Jesus’ kingdom. They realized that Jesus’ earthly life was about to reach its climax, but they failed to understand what that would involve. They were not thinking about Jesus’ recent prediction that the Son of Man was about to be mocked, spit upon, flogged, and killed (see Mark chapter 10, verses 33 and 34). They evidently expected Jesus to rise above his lowly circumstances and to ascend his glorious throne. Since they considered themselves to be the first to realize this, the first to honor Jesus as the King that he would soon be, and the first to make such a request of him, they expected their request to be granted.
Although this request was motivated partially by their desire for their own honor and glory, their ambition was by no means completely selfish and improper. They wanted to devote themselves completely to his service, so Jesus did not rebuke them. Instead, he attempted to show them what was in store for them as subjects of his kingdom.
Without realizing what they were saying, James and John quickly affirmed that they were able to drink the cup of suffering that Jesus was about to drink. Jesus responded, “You will indeed drink from my cup.” Not only was Jesus’ death closer than they knew, but only ten years after Jesus’ crucifixion, King Herod would put James to death by the sword (see Acts chapter 12, verses 1 and 2). And although John was the only one of the Twelve who did not die a martyr’s death, he was forced into exile on the island of Patmos (see Revelation chapter 1, verse 9).
Considering the fact that, in chapter 19, verse 28, Jesus had already promised his disciples that they would sit on 12 thrones judging the 12 tribes of Israel, the request that James and John should sit at Jesus’ right and left sounds ungrateful. They seem to have forgotten the wise advice of King Solomon: “Do not exalt yourself in the king’s presence, and do not claim a place among great men; it is better for him to say to you, ‘Come up here,’ than for him to humiliate you before a nobleman” (Proverbs chapter 25, verses 6 and 7).
Speaking about himself, Jesus said, “Now one greater than Solomon is here” (chapter 12, verse 42). When Jesus was eating in the house of a prominent Pharisee on the Sabbath and he noticed how the guests picked the places of honor at the table, he told them this parable: “When someone invites you to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honor, for a person more distinguished than you may have been invited. If so, the host who invited both of you will come and say to you, ‘Give this man your seat.’ Then, humiliated, you will have to take the least important place. But when you are invited, take the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he will say to you, ‘Friend, move up to a better place.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all your fellow guests. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke chapter 14, verses 8-11).
This was a lesson that James and John and Salome had yet to learn. And it is clear that the other ten disciples were no better. Their indignation with James and John would have been very much in place if it had meant that they regarded the request itself as inappropriate or misguided. But that was not the case at all. They were unhappy because James and John had gotten ahead of them. A spirit of competition rather than a spirit of cooperation prevailed.
Jesus patiently explained that the world’s authoritarian emphasis is alien to the church. People who aspire to be the boss are more concerned about themselves than about the people under their authority. But in the church we cultivate the attitude of Christ Jesus: “Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross!” (Philippians chapter 2, verses 6-8).
Another miracle: Jesus heals two blind men
Matthew chapter 20, verses 29-34
As Jesus and his disciples were leaving Jericho, a large crowd followed him. Two blind men were sitting by the roadside, and when they heard that Jesus was going by, they shouted, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on us!” The crowd rebuked them and told them to be quiet, but they shouted all the louder, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on us!” Jesus stopped and called them. “What do you want me to do for you?” he asked. “Lord,” they answered, “we want our sight.” Jesus had compassion on them and touched their eyes. Immediately they received their sight and followed him.
Luke chapter 18, verses 35-43 mentions only one blind man. Mark chapter 10, verses 46-52 likewise mentions only one blind man and tells us that his name was Bartimaeus. This does not mean there is a contradiction between Matthew and Mark and Luke. It is similar to the Easter story. Matthew and Mark tell us there was one angel who explained to the women why Jesus’ tomb was empty. Luke tells us there were two angels. To say that one person was there is not necessarily to deny that a second person was also there.
Matthew chapter 20, verse 29 and Mark chapter 10, verse 46 tell us that Jesus and his disciples were leaving Jericho when they met these two blind men, but Luke chapter 18, verse 35 says Jesus was approaching Jericho. At first that might sound like a contradiction. Jericho was a very ancient city located five miles west of the Jordan River and about 15 miles northeast of Jerusalem. The old city was largely abandoned, and a new city, south of the old one, was built by King Herod the Great. So Matthew and Mark tell us that Jesus was leaving the old city, and Luke tells us that Jesus was approaching the new city as he headed south toward Jerusalem.
There must have been a lot of traffic along that road, because Jesus and his disciples were not the only pilgrims going up to Jerusalem to celebrate the Feast of the Passover. Mark chapter 10, verse 46 tells us that Bartimaeus was sitting by the roadside begging. As he and his companion talked to the people who were passing by on their way to Jerusalem, maybe they heard reports about the miracles of healing Jesus had performed for other blind people.
The two blind beggars used two significant titles when they called out to Jesus. First of all they called him “Lord.” While the Greek word for “Lord” can also be translated “sir,” it seems to mean more than that here, because it is combined with “Son of David.” This was a popular Jewish title for the coming Messiah. Another pair of blind men had previously addressed Jesus as “Son of David” and had been healed (chapter 9, verses 27-31). Jesus subsequently healed a demoniac who had been blind and mute, and all the people were astonished and asked, “Could this be the Son of David?” (chapter 12, verses 22 and 23). So when blind Bartimaeus and his friend shouted, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on us!” we might well be reminded of Paul’s words, “No one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the Holy Spirit” (1st Corinthians chapter 12, verse 3).
The miraculous healing of these two blind men is another indication that Jesus is “the one who was to come.” And so we are encouraged to take to heart the message Jesus sent back to John the Baptist while he was in prison, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor. Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me” (chapter 11, verses 4-6).
Jesus enters Jerusalem on Palm Sunday
Matthew chapter 21, verses 1-11
As they approached Jerusalem and cam to Bethphage on the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go to the village ahead of you, and at once you will find a donkey tied there, with her colt by her. Untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, tell him that the Lord needs them, and he will send them right away.” This took place to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet: “Say to the daughter of Zion, ‘See, your king comes to you, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’” The disciples went and did as Jesus had instructed them. They brought the donkey and the colt, placed their cloaks on them, and Jesus sat on them. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and those that followed shouted, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” “Hosanna in the highest!” When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred and asked, “Who is this?” The crowds answered, “This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee.”
After Jesus was born in Bethlehem, the Magi came from the east to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews?” This disturbed King Herod greatly because he was obviously nearing the end of his life and was not entirely sure who would succeed him on the throne. Herod’s violent and bloody reign had demonstrated how determined he was to maintain his grip on power. So when Herod’s fear was aroused, all of Jerusalem was disturbed with him.
Thirty-three years passed between Christmas and Palm Sunday, and during that interval Matthew does not record a single time that Jesus was called a king. He was called “Son of David,” and that messianic title certainly had royal overtones (see 2nd Samuel chapter 7, verses 12 and 13), but it was not until the Palm Sunday parade that Jesus was proclaimed to be a king (see Luke chapter 19, verse 38 and John chapter 12, verse 13). And once again we are told that the whole city of Jerusalem was stirred.
When Jesus was 12 years old, he went up to Jerusalem with Mary and Joseph to celebrate the Feast of the Passover. This was something pious Jews did every year (see Luke chapter 2, verses 41 and 42). So we can assume that Jesus made many trips to Jerusalem to observe the Passover. But this time was different. Jesus was very much aware that he was going up to Jerusalem to die. Along the way he told his disciples at least three times that he was going to be handed over to the chief priests and condemned to death but that on the third day he would rise again (see Matthew chapter 16, verse 21; chapter 17, verses 22 and 23; chapter 20, verses 17-19).
The village of Bethany was located on the eastern slope of the Mount of Olives, about two miles from Jerusalem. For many travelers it was the final station on the road from Jericho to Jerusalem. Jesus and his disciples arrived at Bethany six days before the Passover (John chapter 12, verse 1). Evidently they enjoyed the hospitality of their friends Mary, Martha, and Lazarus for a few days. While they were there a special meal was prepared in Jesus’ honor in the house of Simon the Leper (Matthew chapter 26, verses 6-13).
As Jesus was about to enter Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover for the last time, he wanted the attention of all the people of Jerusalem to be focused on him. That is why he made special preparations before entering the city. As Jesus was coming from Bethany, he sent two of his disciples ahead to Bethphage to get the donkey he was going to ride. Because he did not wish to separate the mother from her colt, Jesus instructed his disciples to bring both animals. Both Mark chapter 11, verse 2 and Luke chapter 19, verse 30 tell us that Jesus wanted to ride the colt that no one had ever ridden. Matthew tells us this took place to fulfill the prophecy of Zechariah chapter 9, verse 9.
The daughter of Zion is the populace of Jerusalem, or the whole Jewish people. Their king would come to them “gentle and riding upon a donkey” so they could recognize him when he arrived. This was, of course, not the only sign by which they might recognize him; there were many others. His arrival on a donkey would not have been enough by itself to identify him positively, but it would have been plain if he had entered the city in a different manner that he could not be the promised Messiah after all, for all of the Old Testament prophecies concerning the coming Savior had to be fulfilled in him. And they were!
It was a strange way for Jesus to be acknowledged as the King of Israel. He rode upon an ordinary, lowly beast of burden rather than a magnificent white stallion, as other kings would have done. Jesus did not wear a kingly robe or a royal crown. There was no scepter in his hand. His attendants were mostly Galilean fishermen. It did not look much like a royal procession, yet there was an obvious and undeniable majesty about him. The multitudes were moved to shout, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!”
We sing the same song each time we pray the Communion liturgy. The familiar words of the Sanctus remind us that the same Jesus who rode into Jerusalem on a donkey comes to us in the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper. We would never guess that we are receiving the true body and blood of our Savior in the Sacrament, but Jesus says, “This is my body. . . . This is my blood.” Through the eyes of faith we see much more than bread and wine, because our ears have heard what Jesus said. And so it is with the original Palm Sunday parade; the words of the Old Testament prophets in Zechariah chapter 9, verse 9 and Psalm 118, verse 26 tell us what to look for, and our eyes are opened so that we can really see.
The manner in which Jesus entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday plainly showed that he had no intentions of setting himself up as an earthly king. The throne he would ascend would be a crude wooden cross. The crown he would wear would be a crown of thorns. He would establish his kingdom, not by shedding the blood of his enemies, but by shedding his own blood. Yet, through his lowliness and humiliation, through his innocent suffering and death, Jesus would establish a kingdom of greater glory and majesty than any earthly kingdom before or since. Jesus reigns over the kingdom that appeared in Nebuchadnezzar’s dream as a rock “cut out, but not by human hands,” which “became a huge mountain and filled the whole earth.” As Daniel explained, “The God of heaven will set up a kingdom that will never be destroyed, nor will it be left to another people. It will crush all those kingdoms and bring them to an end, but it will itself endure forever” (Daniel chapter 2, verses 34, 35 and 44).
When the crowds welcomed Jesus with shouts of “Hosanna,” we cannot say for sure how well they understood the significance of their own words. But it is unlikely that they really understood the true nature of Jesus’ kingdom. We certainly do not find any multitudes coming to Jesus’ defense on Good Friday when he was so horribly mistreated and condemned to death. We are told later that even the disciples did not grasp the full significance of the event as it was happening.
Yet, the fact remains that the Palm Sunday crowds proclaimed the truth. And to this day their words point to Jesus of Nazareth as the Savior of the world. Much the same thing goes on in our day. Each year, as we observe the season of Advent, the multitudes love to hear and sing the carols that proclaim “glory to the newborn King,” and in shopping malls and concert halls, the familiar strains of Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus” proclaim, “And he shall reign for ever and ever.” Many people do not really hear what the words are saying. Others hear the words but do not believe them. That is why they quickly lose interest after the holidays are over. Yet, the fact remains that many of the best loved Christmas carols proclaim the truth of the gospel.
We certainly are not unaffected by the spirit of our age. So we do well to concern ourselves with the kind of reception we are giving to our King. Paul Gerhardt’s magnificent Advent hymn teaches us to pray:
O Lord, how shall I meet Thee,
How welcome Thee aright?
Thy people long to greet Thee,
My Hope, my heart’s Delight!
Oh, kindle, Lord most holy,
Thy lamp within my breast
To do in spirit lowly
All that may please Thee best.
Thy Zion strews before Thee
Green boughs and fairest palms,
And I, too, will adore Thee
With joyous songs and psalms.
My heart shall bloom forever
For Thee with praises new
And from Thy name shall never
Withhold the honor due.
(The Lutheran Hymnal, hymn 58, stanzas 1 and 2)
Jesus cleanses the temple
Matthew chapter 21, verses 12 and 13
Jesus entered the temple area and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves. “It is written,” he said to them, “‘My house will be called a house of prayer,’ but you are making it a ‘den of robbers.’”
Jesus had done this same thing once before, at the very beginning of his public ministry (John chapter 2, verses 13-17). Now, after about three years, it was necessary for him to drive these people out of the temple again. Although it is easy to get the impression from Matthew that Jesus cleansed the temple right away on Palm Sunday afternoon, it is clear from Mark’s account that this did not take place until Monday of Holy Week.
It is remarkable that Jesus was able to drive all of them out single-handedly. When he overturned their tables and ordered them to leave, it must have been evident that this command did not come from any ordinary human being. They were compelled to obey—even though they did soon return to business as usual.
The Jews had to pay a regular temple tax, which had to be paid with a certain kind of coin. Those who came to Jerusalem from distant lands had to exchange their money for this particular coin. And the sellers of doves were there to provide the animals people needed for the sacrifices. Naturally, those who were the closest to the temple did the most business, so finally some of them moved right in. They were not in the sanctuary, but only in the outer courtyard, the Court of the Gentiles. They could not have transacted business there without the permission of the priests. What very likely happened was that the priests rented space to these merchants in the outer court of the temple. So it was a profitable venture for all concerned. But we can well imagine the confusion and the disturbance these activities caused in a place that was supposed to be set apart for prayer. They did not worry about the impression they were making on the Gentiles who came into the temple, who were not permitted to go beyond this Court of the Gentiles. They were interested only in their own profit.
When Jesus accused them of turning the temple into a “den of robbers,” he did not necessarily imply that they were dishonest in the business deals they carried on there. We may be certain that they saw to it that they made a good profit, but we do not know for sure that they were cheating their customers. A robbers’ den is not the place where the thievery is committed; it is rather the place where the robbers seek refuge after their crimes have been committed. Their den is where they feel safe.
An old adage says it is the preacher’s responsibility “to afflict the comfortable and to comfort the afflicted.” We most often think of Jesus as comforting the afflicted—and rightly so. But here we have an example of how he afflicted the comfortable. He was not the least bit gentle about driving them out of the temple. The words he spoke to them were “like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces” (Jeremiah chapter 23, verse 29).
The treatment these people received from Jesus ought to be a warning to us as well. Jesus does not want us to get the idea that our mere presence in the pew on Sunday morning will enable us to escape the wrath of God. The house of God is not a safe place for impenitent sinners. Jesus quotes the phrase “den of robbers” from the seventh chapter of Jeremiah. Jeremiah chapter 8, verses 6, 9 and 11 goes on to say, “I have listened attentively, but they do not say what is right. No one repents of his wickedness. . . . Since they have rejected the word of the LORD, what kind of wisdom do they have? They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious. ‘Peace, peace,’ they say, when there is no peace.”