21 September 2014

Matthew 20:1-16

“Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous? So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” (vv. 15-16)


Jesus taught his disciples about the kingdom of heaven (verse 1) using parables. A parable is not so much a story but a riddle which perplexes the listener. It contains a meaning which the listener has to wrestle out for themselves, and is designed not to congratulate the listener on how well they are doing in the social or religious status quo but to subvert their values. For example the recognition that in God's kingdom "the last will be first and the first will be last" is at very least disturbing. Are we first or last, and as soon as we come up with an answer does that reverse the situation?

The instinct of the disciples and those of us who have chosen to follow Jesus is to want to know how to achieve an honourable place in the kingdom through our qualities, gifts, and hard work. Jesus told the parable of the labourers in the vineyard after a conversation with Peter, one of Jesus' disciples, wanted reassurance that he would be rewarded for the sacrifices he had made (Matthew 19:27-30). In the parable, the landowner chose to generously provide wages for 'daily bread' in equal measure to everyone who worked in his vineyard, however long or short a time they had worked. Labourers, who had worked there all day, thought this was unfair. They felt entitled to more money, a just reward for their labour. Jesus seemed to be suggesting that entering the kingdom of heaven was a God's generous gift to all labourers, whoever they were and there was nothing they could do to earn more reward. Whatever the kingdom of heaven was, it was not the sort of place where they could compare themselves with others, or enter because of their hard work. God's ways are not our ways.

Jesus was criticised for spending his time with sinners and those who had transgressed the Jewish law, rather than good Jews. In Matthew's church there were those who had been brought up according to the Jewish Law following in the tradition of many generations and non-Jews (Gentiles), who were newcomers on the scene in terms of the understanding of God's salvation (saving) plan. Jews found it difficult to accept Gentiles as equals. The parable spoke into these divisions in Jesus' time and in Matthew's church.

To Ponder

  • Spend five minutes imagining a place within yourself where you let go of all your striving for achievement, love, acceptance. Let a sense of peace and relief come over you when you realise that because of God's generosity you are loved - warts and all - for who you are, regardless of anything you have done or do.
  • Think about a time in the last couple of days when you have reflected unconditional generosity to someone you have met; and a time when you have slipped into a judgemental, comparison mode. What triggered your behaviour in these different ways?
  • In what ways is it realistically possible to embody an idea of 'equality' in our life together in Church, and how do we safeguard it without using some type of force?

Bible notes author

The Revd Jenny Ellis

Jenny is a Methodist minister and this year has permission to study, as well as work alongside a rural chapel to help it find a new physical presence and sense of mission in its village. She is leading a number of quiet and study days.