THE GOSPEL OF MATTHEW
Lesson 20, Chapters 19-20
THE FINAL JOURNEY TO JERUSALEM
(Narrative 5: Jesus’ Ministry in Judea and Jerusalem)
The liturgical season of Lent is the Christian’s annual forty day journey to repentance and spiritual cleansing in preparation for the celebration of Christ’s glorious Resurrection on Easter Sunday. Every Lenten journey should bring about a change that leaves us, at the end of the journey, a more faithful and humble child of God. As we begin our study of Jesus’ last journey to Jerusalem, help us, Lord, to follow in His footsteps by denying selfish worldly interests, by humbly submitting ourselves to Your will for our lives and by being willing to take up the sacrifice of our individual crosses. We pray in the name of God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
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Happy the rich man found without fault, who turns not aside after gain! Who is he, that we may praise him? He, of all his kindred, has done wonders, for he has been tested by gold and come off safe, and this remains his glory. He could have sinned but did not, could have done evil but would not. So that his possessions are secure, and the assembly recounts his praises.
The fourth narrative of St. Matthew’s Gospel recorded the founding of the Church, those “called out” (ekklesia/ecclesia) ones of Jesus’ community who have left the world behind to follow the Son of God (Mt 13:54-17:28). It was followed by the fourth discourse, the Ecclesial Discourse, in which Jesus gave special instruction to His community of the faithful concerning how they were to live together, united in faith, humility, obedience, and love. The fourth discourse ended in 19:1 with the same formula statement as the other discourses, using the verb teleo (see 7:28; 11:1; 13:53;19:1; 26:1): When Jesus finished [teleo] these words … Instruction for Jesus’ disciples will be continued in the first part of the fifth narrative in Jesus’ teaching on the conditions of family life and service to the Kingdom (Mt 19:2-20:28). The fifth narrative begins in 19:2. It is Matthew’s account of Jesus’ final journey to Jerusalem and ends with Jesus’ condemnation of the failed shepherds of the Old Covenant Church in 23:1-39.
Structure of the Fifth Narrative: Jesus’ Ministry in Judea and Jerusalem:
Part I: Instructions for Christians (19:2-20:28)
- marriage and divorce
- wealth (encounter with the rich young man)
- service (Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard)
- third prediction of the Passion
- the petition of James and John Zebedee’s mother
Part II: Miraculous deeds and prophetic acts of the Messiah (20:29-21:22)
- healing of two blind men in Jericho
- Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem
- the second Temple cleansing
- cursing the fig tree
Part III: Hostile encounters with the Jewish leaders (21:23-22:46)
- dialogues with opponents
- three parables
- Parable of the Two Sons
- Parable of the Tenants
- Parable of the Wedding Feast
- questions and answers
Part IV: Denunciation of the Scribes and Pharisees (23:1-39)
- woes against the scribes and Pharisees
- lamentation over Jerusalem
When he left there, the scribes and the Pharisees began a furious attack on him and tried to force answers from him on innumerable questions, laying in wait to catch him out in something he might say.
Matthew 19:1-12 ~ The Pharisees Question Jesus on Marriage and Divorce
1 When Jesus finished these words, he left Galilee and went to the district of Judea across the Jordan. 2 Great crowds followed him, and he cured them there. 3 Some Pharisees approached him, and tested him, saying, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause whatever?” 4He said in reply, “Have you not read that from the beginning the Creator made them male and female’ 5 and said, For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? 6 So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore, what God has joined together, no human being must separate.” 7 They said to him, “Then why did Moses command that the man give the woman a bill of divorce and dismiss [her]?” 8 He said to them, “Because of the hardness of your hearts Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. 9 I say to you, whoever divorces his wife (unless the marriage is unlawful) and marries another commits adultery.”
Chapter 19 marks another turning point in the Gospel of Matthew. Jesus finished His ministry in the Galilee and began His journey to Jerusalem to complete all “those things” that must take place before the Old Law can be fulfilled (Mt 5:18). He traveled down the east side of the Jordan River to Perea and probably arrived at the site of St. John the Baptist’s ministry of baptism for repentance before crossing from the east to the west into the district of Judea. Jesus had traveled to Jerusalem before by passing through Samaria (Lk 9:52), but this time Jesus avoided Samaria by traveling through the Decapolis and Perea and then crossing over the river from the east to the west near Jericho (Mt 20:29; also see Mk 10:1; Lk 18:35; Jn 11:57). This was the route most pilgrims took traveling from Asia Minor and Mesopotamia for the pilgrim feasts in Jerusalem. It was safer than traveling through robber infested Samaria. On His journey, great crowds of people continued to follow Him, receiving His gift of healing, and the Pharisees continued to test Him, trying to discredit Jesus with the crowds of Jews who are following Him.
Question: What is the historical significance of Jesus (Yehoshua/Joshua) crossing the Jordan River from east to west and entering the Promised Land near Jericho? See Josh 1:1-2; 3:14-16.
Answer: It was near the same site where Joshua (Yehoshua) led the twelve tribes of the children of Israel across the river in the conquest of the Promised Land of Canaan.
Once again, as He did after His baptism on the east side of the Jordan, Jesus symbolically crosses the Jordan River as the new Joshua who will lead His people into the true Promised Land of heaven.
Matthew 19:3 ~ Some Pharisees approached him, and tested him, saying, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause whatever?”
The Pharisees approach Jesus again to “test” him, as Satan tested Jesus (Mt 4:1-11). As in the other times they have tested Jesus, the purpose is not to learn His true identity but to discredit Him with the people (Mt 12:13; ; Lk 11:52-53). It is ironic that it is their attempt to “test” Jesus and to reveal to the people that His true identity is not the Messiah, that they reveal their true identity as “children of Satan” who stand in opposition to God’s plan for man’s salvation.
Question: How is their question not only a test but a trap?
Answer: They are hoping they can maneuver Jesus to say something they can use against him. If He rejects divorce for any reason they can perhaps put Him in the same position as John the Baptist who was condemned to death for his criticism of Herod Antipas and Herodias’ divorces and their unlawful marriage. Or, if he approves of divorce without restrictions, they can accuse him of being like the heathen Gentiles.
Matthew 19:4-6 ~ He said in reply, “Have you not read that from the beginning the Creator made them male and female’ 5 and said, For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? 6So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore, what God has joined together, no human being must separate.”
In this passage Jesus quotes from the Book of Genesis and defines marriage as God intended marriage to be defined when He officiated at the marriage of Adam and Eve.
Question: How does Jesus turn their “test” against them? See Gen 1:27 and 2:24.
Answer: Jesus turned their test against them by quoting from Sacred Scripture, asking them if they did not know the passages fromGenesis 1:27 and 2:24. He asks them if they are they willing to dispute what God has commanded in those passages and interprets the passages to mean there can be no division/divorce when God has joined a couple in marriage.
In His declaration “what God has joined together, no human being [man] must separate” Jesus unequivocally affirms the sacred nature and the indissolubility of the marriage covenant between one man and one woman, and He affirms God as both the Creator of man and woman and the author of the institution of marriage. CCC 1614-16.
Question: In Jesus’ definition of marriage, what other forms of unions are rejected as not of God? See CCC 1645, 2357-59,2387-88, 2390-91, 2400.
Answer: Polygamy, homosexual unions, incest and free unions cannot be defined as marriage and are offenses against the dignity of marriage.
Matthew 19:7 ~ They said to him, “Then why did Moses command that the man give the woman a bill of divorce and dismiss [her]?” (emphasis added).
The Pharisees counter Jesus’ interpretation of the Biblical text by asking about Moses’ pronouncement concerning divorce in Deuteronomy 24:1-4 in which he permitted a man to divorce his wife for reasons of “unfitness.” The only prohibition concerned remarrying a divorced wife after she had been married a second time to another man. The problem was that Moses’ permission for divorce in cases of “unfitness” could be widely interpreted.(1)
Matthew 19:8 ~ He said to them, “Because of the hardness of your hearts Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. 9 I say to you, whoever divorces his wife unless the marriage is unlawful and marries another commits adultery.” The word Jesus used as justification for a bill of divorce is pornea. It is a term that can refer to:
- the wife’s sexual misconduct (adultery)
- a marriage that violated the forbidden degrees of kinship and was considered incest (Lev 18:6-18)
Question: The Pharisees interpret Moses’ decree in Deuteronomy as a commandment (see verse 7), but how does Jesus correct their interpretation of that passage? See verse 8.
Answer: Jesus tells them in verse 8 that it is not a command but a concession because of the hard hearts of the Israelite men.
Jesus does not disclose in what ways the men of Israel demonstrated “hard hearts” when Moses permitted divorce, but it has been suggested he permitted divorce to prevent a much greater sin. It is possible that men who did not want to support an elderly wife were taking matters into their own hands and elderly wives were dying from “accidents.”
The Old Covenant Law already addressed cases of adultery for men and women, but the penalty for adultery wasn’t divorce; it was death (Lev 20:10). Jesus teaching on divorce was very clear “to divorce a wife, unless the marriage was unlawful under the Holiness Code of Leviticus 18:6-18, and to remarry another was the sin of adultery, a violation of the Ten Commandments (Ex 20:14;Dt 5:18).
In the Christian Church’s first council in Acts chapter 15, the Apostles instructed faith communities in their Apostolic decree to avoid “pollution form idols, unlawful marriage, the meat of strangled animals and blood” (Acts 15:19-20), with “unlawful marriages” referring to marriages that were deemed incest. See CCC 1603, 1610.
Matthew 19:9-12 ~ Jesus’ teaching on celibacy
10 [His] disciples said to him, “If that is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.” 11 He answered, “Not all can accept [this] word, but only those to whom that is granted. 12 Some [for there are eunuchs who have been so] from birth are incapable of marriage because they were born so; some, [and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men] because they were made so by others; some,[and there are eunuchs who have made themselves s eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven] because they have renounced marriage for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Whoever can accept this ought to accept it.”In this passage Jesus uses the word “eunuchs” (eunouchos) five times in the literal translation of verse 12 (The Interlinear Bible: Greek-English, vol. IV, page 55-56).
Question: The disciples tell Jesus that His teaching on marriage is a hard. What is Jesus’ response?
Answer: Jesus responds that the call to matrimony is a call not everyone can accept and that commitment to matrimony is a gift granted by God.
Then in verse 12 He changes course by speaking about those who live a celibate life. Notice that there are only two choices to which men/women are called according to Jesus “marriage or virginity/celibacy.
Question: What are the three conditions Jesus gives for celibacy?
Answer: Physical impairment from birth, forced castration, a voluntary life choice for the sake of the kingdom.
It was a common practice in ancient times for men who were assigned to serve the ruler by protecting and serving the king’s wives to endured forced castration or willing submit to castration to serve as eunuchs in the king’s household.
Question: In verse 12 what is Jesus suggesting but not demanding?
Answer: Some men will accept the mission of living a celibate life in service to the kingdom, serving and protecting the Bride of Christ, His Church.
Notice that Jesus has discussed the sanctity of marriage and the free will choice of celibacy for the sake of the Kingdom in the same teaching. Both the Sacrament of Matrimony and a consecrated virginity for the sake of the Kingdom come from the Lord and are a gift of grace (CCC1618-20). The Catholic Church distinguished between lay and ecclesiastical celibacy (see922, 1579, 1618-19). In both cases the person chooses to remain chaste for religious reasons. Sexual intimacy outside of marriage is called “fornication.” It is an act of sexual intimacy between a man and a woman who are not validly married, although they are free to marry as opposed to adultery which is sexual intimacy with a person married legally to someone else who is still living (CCC 1755, 1852, 2353). All Christians are called to live a chaste life outside of marriage (CCC 1658) and to remain faithful to one’s spouse within the covenant bond of marriage (CCC 2380-81). Fornication, like adultery, is a mortal sin (Ex 20:14; Lev 20:10; Dt 5:18; Jer 7:9; 23:14; Mt 5:27-28, 32; 19:9, 18; Mk 10:11-12, 19; Lk 16:18; 18:20; 1 Cor 6:9; Gal 5:19;Jam 4:4) and could cost a person his/her eternal salvation (Rom 1:18-32; 1 Cor 6:9-10; Gal 5:19-21; Heb 13:4; Rev 22:14-15; CCC 1650, 1755, 1852, 2353, 2380.(2)
Matthew 19:13-15 ~ Jesus Blesses the Children
13 Then children were brought to him that he might lay his hands on them and pray. The disciples rebuked them, 14 but Jesus said, “Let the children come to me, and do not prevent them; for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” 15 After he placed his hands on them, he went away.
That the disciples did not consider children important enough to take up the Master’s time is rejected by Jesus. St. Luke tells us that people were even bringing their infants for Jesus to bless (Lk 18:15). St. Mark tells us that Jesus was indignant that His disciples tried to prevent parents from bringing their children to Him (Mk 10:14). The imparting of a blessing by the laying on of hands was a custom as early as the origin of the tribes of Israel when Jacob-Israel blessed his grandsons by laying his hands on their heads (Gen 48:8-16). As He did in 18:3, Jesus presented the little children as models for His disciples. The Kingdom of heaven belongs to little children not because of anything they have done but because salvation is a gift that the humble and innocent accept without question.
Matthew 19:16-30 ~ A Teaching on Material Wealth “Jesus’ Encounter with the Rich Young Man
16 Now someone approached him and said, “Teacher, what good must I do to gain eternal life?” 17 He answered him, “Why do you ask me about the good? There is only One who is good. If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.” 18 He asked him, “Which ones?” And Jesus replied, “You shall not kill; you shall not commit adultery; you shall not steal; you shall not bear false witness; 19 honor your father and your mother’; and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.'” 20The young man [neaniskos] said to him, “All of these I have observed. What do I still lack? 21 Jesus said to him, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to [the] poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” 22 When the young man heard this statement, he went away sad, for he had many possessions. 23 Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Amen, I say to you, it will be hard for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. 24 Again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” 25 When the disciples heard this they were greatly astonished and said, “Who then can be saved?” 26 Jesus looked at them and said, “For human beings this is impossible, but for God all things are possible.” 27 Then Peter said to him in reply, “We have given up everything and followed you. What will there be for us?” 28 Jesus said to them, “Amen, I say to you that you who followed me, in the new age (palingenesia = “rebirth”), when the Son of Man is seated on his throne of glory, will yourselves sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. 29 And everyone who has given up houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands for the sake of my name will receive a hundred times more, and will inherit eternal life. 30 But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first. [..] = literal translation (The Interlinear Bible: Greek-English, vol. IV, pages 56-57).
Notice the use of both “Kingdom of Heaven” and Kingdom of God” in verses 23 and 24. Up to this point St. Matthew has referred to Jesus’ kingdom only as the Kingdom of Heaven, probably as an act of piety. The other Synoptic Gospels refer to Jesus’ kingdom as the Kingdom of God. Here, Matthew uses both terms and both refer to Jesus’ Kingdom.
A young man (neaniskos, verse 20) has been listening to Jesus’ teachings and is concerned about his eternal salvation (it is not until verse 22 that we are told he is wealthy). He has everything he needs to enjoy this earthly life, but he understands that his wealth cannot buy his place in eternity. He respectfully approaches Jesus, calling Him “teacher.” St. Mark adds that he humbly kneels before Jesus and calls Him “good teacher (Mk 10:17). The young man asks Jesus what “good” he must do to attain eternal life.
Question: What does Jesus mean by His first response to the young man, answering his question with a question and stating that no one is “good” except “One.” What is ironic about His statement?
Answer: He asks the young man “Why do you ask me about good” and then tells the young man that no one is good, in other words that every man is a sinner. The only One who is “good” is God. The irony is that Jesus’ question is subtly asking the young man if he has discerned Jesus’ true identity as God, the only One who is good because He is without sin.
Next Jesus answers the young man’s question by telling him to keep the commandments, meaning the Ten Commandments and the other commands and prohibitions of the Law. Keep in mind that the young man is Jewish and the Old Covenant is still in effect and will continue to be in effect until Jesus’ death and Resurrection. Under the Old Covenant, obedience to the Law was the path to life: Salvation is far from sinners because they do not cherish your laws … I look for your salvation, LORD, and I fulfill your commands. I observe your decrees; I love them very much. I observe your precepts and decrees; all my ways are before you (Ps 119:155, 166-68).
Question: The young man asks for clarification, there were 613 articles of the Law. Which articles of the Law does Jesus list that are summarized in the Ten Commandments and what is the significance of the list; what commandments are missing? See Ex 20:2-17 and Lev 19:18.
Answer: Jesus list five commandments in verses 18-19, summing up the list with the statement you shall love your neighbor as yourself’ from Lev 19:18.These are not all the Ten Commandments but only those commandments dealing with love of neighbor, a command that is part of the Law of the covenant. Jesus has not included the commandments concerning love of God.
The young man responds that he has lived in accordance with those commandments and asks what is lacking in his life (verse 20); he is asking what he can do above and beyond obedience to the Law to please God. His answer must have been sincere because St. Mark tells us Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said to him, “You are lacking one thing … (Mk 10:21).
Matthew 19:21 ~ Jesus said to him, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to [the] poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
Question: What does Jesus tell the young man he must do if he wants to have a greater share in the Kingdom and what is the invitation Jesus is alluding to?
Answer: He tells the young man if he wants to be “perfect” to give up every material possession to the poor and to follow Jesus as a disciple and he will have “treasure” in heaven” as opposed to earthly rewards. Jesus is making a distinction between obedience to the commandments that gives salvation and earthly blessings under the Old Law and the call to discipleship that gives an even greater eternal reward.
Question: Where has Jesus asked for a standard of “perfection” before? Under the Old Law the covenant people were commanded to be live by a standard of perfection in being “holy as God is holy” (Lev 11:44-45;20:26; 21:8).
Answer: It is a standard of perfection Jesus asked the faithful to strive for in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5:48.
In Matthew 5:48 the Greek word “perfect” (tam) refers to the “wholeness” of God and His love for all people. This word only appears in 5:48 and here in verse 21 in the Gospels. As you may recall in that passage in chapter 5 Jesus was concerned with the definition of love of one’s neighbor, urging the disciples to love even their enemies and uses the example of God’s loving care for all His creatures to challenge the disciples to avoid restricting their love only to those who love in return or who can benefit them. To be “perfect” is not possible on a human level; such perfection/wholeness can only come from God when we love as God loves.
Question: How does the young man respond to Jesus’ invitation to discipleship? Why? See verse 22.
Answer: He sadly walks away. He loves God but not enough to be willing to give up all his material possessions and the rank it affords him to follow Jesus from place to place only depending on God to provide for his needs.
The young man will still have the gift of salvation in living in obedience to God’s commandments, but he could have had an even greater portion of blessings if he had been willing to give up everything to serve the Messiah. We do not know what will happen to the young man in whom Jesus saw the potential for holiness, but perhaps, later, he had the courage to give up what was temporal for a greater eternal reward. Jesus invitation to the young man does not mean that He expects all who profess faith in Him to give up all their worldly possessions, but we must all be willing to make the sacrifice and we cannot treasure our earthly possessions more than we treasure our eternal salvation. It is the obligation, however, of the wealthy to make provisions for the poor since their wealth is a gift from God.
Matthew 19:23-24 ~ Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Amen, I say to you, it will be hard for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. 24Again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
The Greek word for “camel” is kamelon while the word for “rope” is kamilon. The huge ropes to which the anchors of ships were tied were made of camel hair and this may be a play on words suggesting that it is easier not for the animal to pass through a needle than a rich man to enter the gates of heaven but the hyperbole may be that it is easier for the rope called a “camel” to pass through a needle used to make the fishing nets than for a rich man to enter the gates of heaven. It is a comparison that would have appealed to the Apostles, many of whom were fishermen from the Galilee and familiar with ships and their equipment. St. Cyril of Alexandria suggests this is the comparison Jesus was making: By “camel” here he means not the living thing, the beast of burden, but the thick rope to which sailors tie their anchors. He shows this comparison to be not entirely pointless (as a camel would be), but he makes it an exceedingly difficult matter; in fact, next to impossible (Fragment from the Gospel of Matthew, 219).(3)/p>
Question: Why is it hard for the rich to enter the gates of heaven? See Ez 7:19; Prov 30:8-9; Sir 31:5-7 and Mt 5:3.
Answer: The problem isn’t the wealth but it is the self-sufficiency wealth gives a person. The wealthy often do not feel they need God because they believe their wealth affords them the power to handle any crisis they may face. That is why Jesus listed “poverty of spirit” as the first Beatitude. Acknowledging we need God is the first step in the spiritual journey to salvation.
Matthew 19:25-26 ~ When the disciples heard this they were greatly astonished and said, “Who then can be saved?” 26 Jesus looked at them and said, “For human beings this is impossible, but for God all things are possible.”
Part of their astonishment may have been because according to the teachings of the Sinai Covenant having material blessings meant one was blessed by God (Lev 26:3-13; Dt 28:1-14). However, under the new order, the old temporal blessings mean nothing compared to blessings that are eternal.
Question: What is the significance of Jesus’ response to the disciples in verse 26? See CCC 276, 308 and 1058.
Answer: Salvation is a gift of God “it is not something one can work for or purchase.
Matthew 19:27 ~ Then Peter said to him in reply, “We have given up everything and followed you. What will there be for us?”
The disciples recognize that they have done what the young man was unable to do. Peter is acting as the spokesman for the disciples when he asks what can they expect beyond their eternal salvation for having giving up everything to follow Him “worldly goods, family and friends?
Matthew 19:28-31 ~ 28 Jesus said to them, “Amen, I say to you that you who followed me, in the new age (palingenesia = “rebirth”), when the Son of Man is seated on his throne of glory, will yourselves sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. 29 And everyone who has given up houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands for the sake of my name will receive a hundred times more, and will inherit eternal life. 30 But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.
The Greek word palingenesia literally mans “rebirth” and signals the promise of a new beginning. The word is only found in one other passage in the New Testament, in Titus 3:5 ~ … not because of any righteous deeds we had done but because of his mercy, he saved us through the bath of rebirth [palingenesia] and renewal by the holy Spirit, whom he richly poured out on us through Jesus Christ our savior, so that we might be justified by his grace and become heirs in hope of eternal life (Titus 3:5-7). In 19:28 the word is used to describe the new age ushered in by the fullness of Christ’s Kingdom after His Ascension “when the Son of Man is seated on His throne of glory” (see Dan 7:13-14).
The Apostles understand that they have answered to the higher calling and want to know what their sacrifice will mean. Jesus assures them that they will share in a rich spiritual inheritance. “Judging” in verse 28 refers to the authority to rule or govern which Jesus has given them in 18:18.
Question: What will their sacrifice mean in the “rebirth” of the new age of the Kingdom? See Dan 7:13-14, Rev 21:12-14; CCC765.
Answer: The twelve will govern Jesus’ earthly kingdom. They are the “foundation stones on which Jesus will build the new Israel and they will rule from the “new Jerusalem” of the Church’s authority over the earth. They will share in His glory and in His royal prerogative as judge when they rule over the twelve tribes of their kinsmen who they must call into the new age of the Kingdom.
The authority to judge/rule the 12 tribes may also be part of the Last Judgment. In the book of Revelation there are 24 elders who sit on thrones around the throne of God. It is difficult to determine from Revelation 4:3-4 the identity of the 24 elders, but many of the Fathers of the Church suggest they are the twelve sons of Jacob/Israel and the twelve Apostles.
30 But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.
Again Jesus affirms His earlier teaching about rank in the Kingdom. There are two interpretations concerning the meaning of this saying. Considering His earlier teaching, it may be that Jesus is saying that those who follow Him, serving in humility and not worrying about earthly rank, will be counted among the greatest in the Kingdom (Mt 18:1-5), but those disciples who expect recognition and rank on earth will receive their reward on earth and will not receive a greater share in heaven. Some of the Church Fathers like St. Cyril suggested this saying refers to the Old Covenant Church versus the New Covenant Church. The Israelites were called first to salvation but rejected the Messiah, whereas the Gentiles were called last and because they embraced Jesus as Lord and Savior they will come first in the Kingdom of Jesus Christ (St. Cyril of Alexandria, Fragments on the Gospel of St. Matthew, 226).
Jesus will associate this saying with His next parable where He will repeat the saying in reverse order at the end of the parable. The theme of the first will be last and the last first will carry through to the end of Part I of the fifth narrative (20:28). Jesus will also repeat this teaching in a visible demonstration at the Last Supper where John Zebedee, the youngest and therefore the least of the Apostles, will be seated at the place of honor next to Jesus (Jn 13:23), while Jesus, the Master, will wash the feet of His disciples, the duty of a servant (Jn 13:4-17).
Let me sing my beloved the song of my friend for his vineyard. My beloved had a vineyard on a fertile hillside. He dug it, cleared it of stones, and planted it will red grapes. In the middle he built a tower, he hewed a press there too. He expected it yield fine grapes: wild grapes were all it yielded … Now, the vineyard of Yahweh Sabaoth is the House of Israel, and the people of Judah the plant he cherished. He expected fair judgment, but found injustice, uprightness, but found cries of distress.
Isaiah 5:1-2, 7 (NJB)
I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine grower. He takes away every branch in me that does not bear fruit, and everyone that does he prunes so that it bears more fruit. You are already pruned because of the word that I spoke to you. Remain in me, as I remain in you. Just as a branch cannot bear fruit on its own unless it remains on the vine, so neither can you unless you remain in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit, because without me you can do nothing.
Matthew 19:30-20:16 ~ Instruction of Service to the Kingdom: Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard
19:30 But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.
20:1 The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner [housemaster] who sent out at dawn to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2 After agreeing with them for the usual daily wage [a denarius a day], he sent them into his vineyard. 3 Going out about nine o’clock [the third hour], he saw others standing idle in the marketplace, 4 and he said to them, You too go into my vineyard, and I will give you what is just.’ 5 So they went off [And] he went out again around noon [the sixth hour], and around three o’clock [the ninth hour], and did likewise. 6 Going out about five o’clock [the eleventh hour], he found others standing around, and said to them, Why do you stand here idle all day?’ 7 They answered, Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, You too go into my vineyard.’ 8 When it was evening [opsios = end of the day] the owner [kyrois = lord] of the vineyard said to his foreman [foreman/manager], Summon the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and ending with the first.’ 9 When those who had started about five o’clock [the eleventh hour] came, each received the usual daily wage. 10 So when the first came, they thought that they would receive more, but each of them also got the usual wage. 11 And on receiving it they grumbled against the landowner [housemaster], 12 saying, These last ones worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us, who bore the day’s burden and the heat.’ 13 He said to one of them in reply, My friend, I am not cheating you [treating you unjustly]. Did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage [for a denarius]? 14 Take what is yours and go. What if I wish to give this last one the same as you? 15 [Or] am I not free to do as I wish with my own money [“money” not in the Greek text]? Are you envious because I am generous [ is your eye evil because I am good]?’ 16 Thus, the last will be first, and the first will be last. (For many are called, but few are chosen)*.” [..] = literal translation (The Interlinear Bible: Greek-English, vol. IV, page 58). * = the Vulgate and other translations including many Greek codices add this line; see the same line in 22:14.
To explain His statement But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first, Jesus tells another kingdom parable, this time about a vineyard, a master of the house who is also lord of the vineyard and workers. Notice that the parable begins and ends with the same saying, but the end saying is in reverse order: Thus, the last will be first, and the first will be last. This parable is only told in Matthew’s Gospel.
The “lord of the vineyard” (verse 8) is described in the Greek text in verse 1 by the word oikodespotes [oy-kod-es-pot’-ace], “the head of a family, master of the house.”The workers receive their pay in the “evening,” the Greek word is opsios = “afternoon, late in the day, at the close of the day, early evening, not yet sunset.” Remember the hours before sunset were the “end of the day”; the next day began at sunset. When Scripture is referring to “evening” in Jewish time it is our afternoon. For example the “evening sacrifice” took place from three to five in the afternoon and the Temple had to be cleaned and set in order before sunset (the same word is found in Mt 14:15, 23; 16:2; Mk 14:17 and Jn 20:19). A Roman denarius (verses 2 and 13 in the literal translation) was the average wage for a day laborer in the first century AD. It was a silver coin that bore the image of the Roman emperor Augustus Caesar (Mt 22:19-21). Notice that the Law is observed in the payment of the laborers. According to the Law, a laborer had to be paid at the end of the day (Dt 24:14-15).
In the parable each of the people and the places, wages, and hours are symbolic.
Question: In the symbolic images of the Old Testament prophets, what does the “vineyard” represent? See the chart “Images of the Old Testament Prophets” and also see Is 5:1-7; Ez 19:10-22; and Jer 24:4-7.
Answer: The well-tended vineyard is the symbolic image of Israel, God’s obedient people of the Old Covenant Church in covenant with Yahweh.
However, in this case the “vineyard” represents more than the Israelites as God’s people called out of the world, the kahal of His sacred assembly who worship in His house, the Temple. In verse one Jesus says this parable is about the coming Kingdom of Heaven that He has come to establish; therefore this parable is about the new Israel and the New Covenant Church.
Question: What two titles in the literal Greek text are given to the owner of the vineyard?
Answer: He is called the “master of the house” in verse 1 and the “lord of the vineyard” in verse 8.
Question: Who is the master of the house/lord of the vineyard (verses 1 & 8), the laborers, and the foreman who pays the promised wage for service? What is the market-place where the laborers are found, and what do the wages and the hours represent? Hint: there are two possible interpretations for the hours the workers are called. See Acts 4:12.
- vineyard = the Church, the kingdom of heaven on earth/house of God
- housemaster/lord of the vineyard = God
- laborers = those who serve the kingdom/house of God in the Old and New Covenants or who come to serve the kingdom at different ages in a lifetime.
- market-place = the world
- foreman who pays the promised wage for service = Jesus
- wage = salvation
- hours = the age of man in salvation history from Creation to the end of the age of man and/or the lifetime of a person from birth to the end of life
God calls laborers, men and women, to come and serve His kingdom from the “market-place” of the world. The wage He promises to pay for service to His kingdom is salvation “it is a free gift to all who serve faithfully and obediently. The “foreman” who will pay the wage of eternal salvation is Jesus Christ: There is no salvation through anyone else, nor is there any other name under heaven given to the human race by which we are to be saved (Acts 4:12).
The hours from dawn to the end of the day probably refer to the progress of salvation history. Those called first (the Israelites of the Old Covenant Church were called at the dawn of the corporate covenant) complained about the hardships of their length of service. This complaint about fairness is similar to the complaint of the elder son in the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Lk 15:11-32) who represents the elder, “firstborn” sons of the Old Covenant faith (Ex 4:22) as opposed to his younger brother who returned. The younger brother represents the Gentile “younger sons” who will answer the call to return to God in the New Covenant Church. However, the hours from dawn to the end of the day can also represent a person’s lifetime. Whether a person is baptized at birth and continues to serve the Lord all his life or the person who is called in his youth or middle age or even the person who answers the call to salvation at the end of his life, God’s gift of salvation is freely given in every case.
Question: What are the times the workers are hired? How many hours were there in Jewish daytime hours? See Jn 11:9.
Answer: There were twelve hours of daylight. The times in the parable are dawn, the third hour, noon, the ninth hour, and the eleventh hour.
The night was divided into four night watches in the first century AD. However, there were twelve seasonal hours in the Jewish daylight hours, counting the hours from dawn to sunset with high noon marking the middle of the daylight hours; hence noon is identified as the sixth hour of the twelve hour day. The times in the parable correspond to the flow of daily life in for the covenant people as determined by the prayer time associated with the Temple liturgy in the twice daily sacrifice of the Tamid lamb. The olat ha-Tamid (literally “burning the-standing”) was the single communal sacrifice (even though there were two lambs) of an unblemished male lamb as a whole burnt offering on the altar fire (given entirely to God) at the Jerusalem Temple. The first lamb was offered in a morning liturgical worship service and a second lamb was offered in an afternoon liturgical service.
The mandatory communal sacrifice of the Tamid was first offered in the desert Sanctuary and later in the Jerusalem Temple. The Jewish Talmud in the section Mishnah:Tamid records the order of the worship service and Josephus’ history of the Jews (Antiquities of the Jews) mentions the time of the afternoon liturgy. The first lamb was brought to the altar at dawn and was sacrificed at about 9 AM, the third hour Jewish time. The second lamb was brought to the altar at noon, the sixth hour Jewish time, and was sacrificed at about 3 PM, the ninth hour Jewish time. The Temple sacrifices had to end by the eleventh hour so the Temple could be cleansed before sundown. The Tamid was a “perpetual” communal sacrifice for the atonement and sanctification of the covenant people that had its origins in God’s command to Moses when he ascended the holy mountain at Sinai. The instructions for the sacrifice are given in Exodus 29:38-42 and in Numbers 28:3-8. The word “tamid” means “standing” as in perpetual or continual but our English translations usually referred to it as the “daily sacrifice.” It was the most important sacrifice of the Old Covenant and no other sacrifice, not even the Passover sacrifice or the sacrifice of atonement on Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement), was to have precedence over the Tamid. This command is given 15 times in Numbers 28-29 (28:10, 15, 23, 24, 31; 29:6, 11, 16, 19, 22, 25, 28, 31, 34, and 38).
Question: Why are more and more workers hired and brought into the vineyard by the master/lord of the vineyard? What season of the year would require the owner of a vineyard to hire more workers than normally worked on his land?
Answer: Many workers are needed in the season of the harvest, which is symbolic for the harvest of believers into the Church.
Jesus has spoken of “laborers” or servants of the householder (13:27) who work in the “field” of the world (13:38) and the “harvest” as a metaphor for the gathering of souls into heaven and the Last Judgment at the end of the age of man in the parable of the weeds and the wheat 13:24-30, 39-43: … The harvest is the end of the age, and the harvesters are angels (13:39b). He is using the same imagery in this parable, but this “harvest” cannot be at the end of the Age of Man since the laborers are human beings and not angels. The laborers in this parable must be the servants of the Master who plant the “good seed” who are the children of God (13:38), and harvest is gathering of the souls of believers into the House-Master’s/God’s earthly store-house which is the Church. This image for laborers is the same as in 9:37 where Jesus tells His disciples: “The harvest is abundant but the laborers are few; as ask the master of the harvest to send out laborers for his harvest,” referring not to the final harvest of the angels at the Second Coming but the on-going harvest until that time.
Matthew 20:13-14 ~ He said to one of them in reply, My friend, I am not cheating you [treating you unjustly]. Did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage [for a denarius]? 14 Take what is yours and go. What if I wish to give this last one the same as you?
Question: Why are the first workers angry?Why is the lord of the vineyard’s verdict just?
Answer: The first workers resent that the workers hired later are receiving the same wage. He is just because it was the agreed upon “wage,” and it is for the Housemaster/Lord of the vineyard that is the Kingdom (God) to decide to whom He is generous/extends the gift of salvation.
Matthew 20:15 ~[Or] am I not free to do as I wish with my own money? Are you envious because I am generous [is your eye evil because I am good]?’ The word “money” is not in the Greek text of verse 15; the verse reads “Am I not free to do as I wish with my own.” The “evil eye” is the same expression used in 6:23 and may refer toDeuteronomy 15:9. In both passages the expression refers to envy and a lack of generosity.
Question: What is the root cause of the envy of the first hired laborers?
Answer: They begrudge the generosity of the “lord of the vineyard”/Lord of the Kingdom of Heaven.
Envy/jealousy was the reason for the first murder when Cain killed his brother Abel (Gen 4:3-8), and it is the same reason the chief priests and Pharisees will seek to condemn Jesus to death (see Mt 27:18). It was the same sin that prevented many Old Covenant Jews from welcoming the Gentiles into the covenant (see Acts 15:1; 21:18-22).
Matthew 20:16 ~Thus, the last will be first, and the first will be last. (For many are called, but few are chosen).” This first part of this saying opens and closes (in reverse order) the parable and provides the reason the last workers are paid first. The last part of the statement, For many are called, but few are chosen, links the parable to the encounter with the rich young man who was called to a more intimate relationship with Christ as a laborer in the harvest of souls, but it was a service that required sacrifice, a calling he was not then prepared to accept.
Matthew 20:17-19 ~ The Third Prediction of the Passion
17 As Jesus was going up to Jerusalem, he took the twelve [disciples] aside by themselves, and said to them on the way, 18 “Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, 19 and they will condemn him to death, and hand him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and scourged and crucified, and he will be raised on the third day.”
Jesus and His disciples are traveling to Jerusalem after crossing the Jordan River near Jericho (Mt 20:29). It is difficult to know if the action that has taken place in chapters 19 and 20 took place on the Perean side of the river or on the Judean side. We know from St. John’s Gospel that Jesus did spend time on the eastern, Perean side of the river (Jn 10:40-42) and on the western side in Judea near the desert down of Ephraim (Jn 11:54) before traveling to Jerusalem. Notice that in this prediction of His Passion that Jesus gave more detailed information than in the other two predictions.
Question: Compare this prediction with the other two in 17:21 and 22-23. What new details did He provide?
Answer: In the other two predictions He told the disciples He would go to Jerusalem where He would be betrayed by the elders and chief priests. He would suffer, be killed and on the third day be raised from the dead. In the last prediction He includes that the Gentile Romans are the ones who will mock and crucify Him like a common criminal.
In this prediction of His Passion, Jesus identifies Himself with Isaiah’s suffering servant (Is 52:13-54:12).
Matthew 20:20-28 ~ The Petition of James and John’s Mother
20 Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee approached him with her sons and did him homage, wishing to ask him for something. 21 He said to her, “What do you [singular] wish?” She answered him, “Command that these two sons of mine sit, one at your right and the other at your left, in your kingdom.” 22 Jesus said in reply, “You do not know what you are asking [plural verbs]. Can you drink the cup that I am going to drink?” They said to him, “We can.” 23 He replied, “My cup you will indeed drink, but to sit at my right and at my left, [this] is not mine to give but is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.” 24 When the ten heard this, they became indignant at the two brothers. 25 But Jesus summoned them and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and the great ones make their authority over them felt. 26 But it shall not be so among you. Rather, whoever wishes to be great among you shall be your servant; 27 whoever whishes to be first among you shall be your slave. 28 Just so, the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.” [..]= literal translation (The Interlinear Bible: Greek-English, vol. IV, pages 59-60).
The mother of the Zebedee brothers is one of Jesus’ women disciples. Her sons are ambitious for their place in the Kingdom and ask their mother to petition their Messianic David just as Bathsheba petitioned King David for her son Solomon (1 Kng 1:15-21). Jesus invites her petition with the same words David used to invite Bathsheba’s petition “What do you wish (1 Kng 1:16;Mt 20:21). Up to this point Jesus has used a singular verb in speaking to their mother [“What do-you wish”], but as He turns to address her sons to deny the petition all the verbs from verse 22-28 are in the plural. Notice that Jesus did not rebuke either the Zebedee brothers or their mother.(4)
Matthew 20:22 ~ Jesus said in reply, “You do not know what you are asking. Can you drink the cup that I am going to drink?” They said to him, “We can.”
James and John did not know what commitment they were making when they expressed their willingness to “drink” from Jesus’ “cup.”
Question: What was Jesus’ reply to their petition and the acceptance of His “cup”?
Answer: He told them He could not give them the places of honor they requested because that was the prerogative of God the Father, but they would indeed drink from His cup: “My cup you will indeed drink, but to sit at my right and at my left, [this] is not mine to give but is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.”
He must have said those words with great compassion. In this passage Jesus uses the prophetic imagery of drinking wine as a symbol for God’s covenant relationship with His people. The drinking of wine in God’s kingdom is another of the images of the Old Testament prophets. Drinking the best new wine was an image of the heavenly banquet of the blessed (see the chart Symbolic Images of the Old Testament Prophets).
Question: What “cup” do the brothers think Jesus is referring to in the symbolic images of the prophets? What “cup” is Jesus referring to? See Mt 26:39, 42.
Answer: They think He is speaking of His cup of glory but Jesus is speaking of His cup of suffering.
The Zebedee brothers were thinking of prophecies like the heavenly banquet in Isaiah 25:6: On this mountain the LORD of hosts will provide for all peoples a feast of rich food and choice wines … But Jesus is speaking of His cup of suffering “the cup of God’s wrath that He will accept in His sacrifice for the sins of the people: Awake, awake! Arise, O Jerusalem, you who drank at the LORD’s hand the cup of his wrath; who drained to the dregs the bowl of staggering … See I am taking from your hand the cup of staggering; the bowl of my wrath you shall not longer drink. I will put it into the hands of your tormentors, those who ordered you to bow down, that they might walk over you, while you offered your back like the ground, like the street for them to walk on (Is 51:17, 23).
Question: What is the response of the ten Apostles to this exchange between Jesus and the Zebedee family and what does Jesus tell them?
Answer: They are indignant that the Zebedee brothers should aspire to such an honor. Jesus returns to the theme of the last goes first and the importance of humility and service.
The question of rank among the Apostles began in 18:1 with the question: Who is greatest in the kingdom of heaven? After the disciples experience their “dark night of the soul” in the crisis of Jesus Passion and crucifixion, the issue is never raised again. Through suffering they will all learn humility and obedience.
Matthew 20:28 ~ Just so, the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many. In this verse Jesus again identifies Himself as the prophesied “suffering servant.” The ransom Jesus pays with His life will bring about the liberation of many and recalls the prophecy of Isaiah 53:12: Because he surrendered himself to death and was counted among the wicked; and he shall take away the sins of many, and win pardon for their offenses. Also see 1 Timothy 2:6.
Matthew 20:29-34 ~ The Healing of Two Blind Men
29 As they left Jericho, a great crowd followed him. 30 Two blind men were sitting by the roadside, and when they heard that Jesus was passing by, they cried out, “[Lord], Son of David, have pity on us! 31 The crowd warned them to be silent, but they called out all the more, “Lord, Son of David, have pity on us!” 32 Jesus stopped and called them and said, “What do you want me to do for you?” 33 They answered him, “Lord, let our eyes be opened.” 34 Moved with pity, Jesus touched their eyes. Immediately they received their sight, and followed him.
Having crossed the Jordan River into Judea, Jesus and His disciples are on the west side of the river near Jericho. The previous scene with the Zebedee family must have taken place in Jericho. This next encounter is given in contrast to the persistent “blindness” of the disciples in their failure to fully comprehend Jesus’ teaching on service and humility and His coming Passion.
As they leave the city two blind men by the side of the road call out a petition for mercy. This encounter is another example of Jesus’ compassion for the poor, afflicted and oppressed.
Question: The two blind men of Jericho call Jesus “Son of David.” Who has addressed Jesus by the Messianic title “Son of David” previously and what is significant about the title? See Mt 9:27, 15:22 and Ez 34:23-24. What is ironic about the types of people who have previously recognized Jesus as the Davidic Messiah and this healing miracle in which Jesus restored the sight of the blind men of Jericho?
Answer: Two blind men in 9:27 and the Canaanite woman in 15:22 called Jesus the Messianic title “Son of David.” It is ironic that the blind who cannot see Jesus’ miraculous acts and a Gentile woman who is not a member of the covenant people are the only people outside the disciples who acknowledge Jesus’ identity as the Messianic son of the Davidic kingdom.
Those who are truly blind and outside the covenant are those people who witnessed Jesus’ miracles and prophetic acts and still did not acknowledge His true identity. In this miracle not only were the physical eyes of the blind men “opened” but they also had the opportunity to have their spiritual vision “opened” in recognizing the Messiah. The same kind of spiritual blindness that afflicted the people who refused to acknowledge Jesus as the promised Messiah in the first century AD is still present today in twenty-first century men and women who persist in rejecting Jesus’ gift of love and salvation.
Questions for group discussion:
Question: When the blind men in 20:29-34 cried out to Jesus He asked them “What do you want me to do for you.” If you were to hear Jesus ask you the same question today, what petition would you make?
Question: How is Jesus’ teaching on marriage, divorce and celibacy contrary to how the secular world and some professing Christian churches view these subjects? For Scripture and catechism references on marriage, divorce and celibacy see Gen 1:27; 2:24; Mt 19:4-12; Mk 10:1-12; Eph 5:25-33; CCC 1614-16, 1650, 1756, 1856-58, 2052, 2055, 2400, 2380-84. The Catholic Church only allows an annulment to a marriage if it can be proved that one party entered falsely into the marriage vows, deceiving his or her partner and not intending to fulfill his/her covenant obligations within the Sacrament of Matrimony. What is the penalty for Catholics who remarry without a Church granted annulment and who remain members of the congregation? See CCC 1650,1664, 2384-5.
1. During this time the rabbis differed in their opinion on the legitimate grounds for divorce. Rabbi Shammi took the more conservative view that a bill of divorcement could only be granted in cases of adultery or when a marriage violated the law concerning too close a degree of family relationship as stated in Leviticus 18:6-18. Rabbi Hillel took the liberal view that a bill of divorce could be given for any reason that displeased the husband.
2. St. Paul called all single men and women who wanted to devoted themselves to the Lord’s service to live celibate lives (1 Cor 7:1, 7-8, 32-34). Jesus asked for a higher degree of sacrifice for men in living a celibate life in service to the Kingdom which Latin Rite Catholics ask of the ministerial priesthood (Eastern rite Catholics ask the same sacrifice of monks “only monks in the Eastern rites can become bishops). However, throughout its history the Church has also fostered the celibate life in the lay state: … is that precious gift of divine grace given to some by the Father to devote themselves to God alone more easily with an undivided heart in virginity or celibacy. This perfect continence for love of the kingdom of heaven has always bee held in high esteem by the Church as a sign and stimulus of love, and as a singular source of spiritual fertility in the world (Vatican II, Constitution on the Church, 42). The Council of Elvira in the 4th century AD required western rite (Latin) Catholics to take a vow of celibacy. Prior to that time priests could marry before taking holy orders. The Church in the west and in the east has never had bachelor priests. Priests who became widowers could not remarry.
3. Historians assert that there is no basis for the idea that Jesus was referring to a gate in Jerusalem called the “needle” that a camel could barely squeeze through (Harrington, The Gospel of Matthew, page 278).
4. According to tradition, the name of James and John’s mother was Salome, a woman who was one of Jesus’ disciples and actively participated in His ministry. The Gospels tell us that Salome followed Jesus on His last journey to Jerusalem and witnessed His death and the events that followed (Mk 15:40; 16:1; Mt 27:56).