The chapter divisions, which were put in over a thousand years later, often come, as in this case, in the wrong place. The last chapter ended with Peter wondering what reward the disciples would get for leaving everything to follow Jesus. All who have left anything or anyone at the call of the Messiah will receive a hundredfold (19:29). The parable of the laborers is to illustrate the words "But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first" (19:30). And the chapter should have continued to "So the last will be first and the first will be last" (20:16).
The point seems to be that all members of the kingdom (20:1) "inherit eternal life" (19:16, 29), but we will surprised by God's unexpected generosity (20:15-16).
20:1-2 This is another parable to illustrate the secrets of the kingdom (see 13:11, 19, 24, 31, 33, 38, 43, 44, 45, 47, 52; 18:23). The Messianic kingdom needs laborers, and laborers are worthy of their hire (Luke 10:7). In this case a denarius (NRSV margin) was the usual day's wage at that time. The kingdom is often compared to a vineyard as we will see in the next chapter (21:28, 33, 39, 41; see Luke 13:6-9; and compare Isaiah 5:1).
20:3-7 The day was divided into twelve hours beginning at 6 a.m. Here the first group who are hired start work at daybreak. Four other groups of workers arrive during the day, and the last only work one hour compared with the first who labored in the heat for twelve hours.
20:8 The idea that those who had worked all day should be paid after those who had only worked an hour would normally seem unjust. The point is to highlight "the first will be last" (19:30 and 20:16). And the meaning is that God's ways are very different from what we imagine. As in a great Messianic passage in Isaiah, "My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord" (Isaiah 55:8).
20:9-12 Having been paid last instead of first, those who had worked all day now assume that the landowner intends to pay them more than he paid the latecomers.
20:13-14 When they grumble, they are told they were paid the agreed amount, and the Lord has a right to be as generous to others as he chooses.
20:15 The Greek original is: "Is your eye evil because I am good?" This picks up the idea of "If your eye is unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness" (6:23). Concern for how much one will earn in the kingdom, and envy at what others receive, gives service in the kingdom a totally wrong motive. Envy and jealousy are two forms of covetousness (27:18; Exodus 20:17; see James 3:14-16).
The parable suggests that God is incredibly generous (20:15) and all God's children are given what they need. So we have no business complaining about the undeserving getting as much of God's love as we enjoy.
20:16 The outcome of our service is in God's loving hands, and it is likely to be very different from what we think we deserve (see 19:30).
20:17-19 Matthew now records the third warning to the disciples of what would soon happen. Luke tells us that some time before "When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set is face to go to Jerusalem" (Luke 9:51) That shows that Jesus was already looking beyond his death to the resurrection. This is stated in each of the three warnings (16:21; 17:22-23; 20:19; see Hebrews 12:2). As Son of Man (17:22, 20:18) Jesus knows he has to die. He now specifies that the chief priests and scribes (an alliance of Sadducees and Pharisees) will condemn him, but the execution will be by Roman crucifixion. It seems that his resurrection was in mind long before, but the exact manner of his death was only gradually clarified.
20:20-21 The topic of rewards in the kingdom (begun in 19:27) is now raised by the mother of James and John the sons of Zebedee. Sitting at the right hand of a king is the chief place of honor (22:44; 26:64), and the second place is on the left.
20:22 Jesus turns to ask the two disciples whether they can drink the cup of suffering (compare "the cup of wrath" in Isaiah 51:17; Jeremiah 49:12). As we share in the communion cup (1 Corinthians 10:16) we look back to Jesus' cup (26:39; John 18:11), and with James and John we commit ourselves to our own costly service (see 10:38; 16:24).
James was taken away violently and beheaded (12:1-2). John the son of Zebedee probably wrote the Gospel of John (historians who deny this should tell us who else could have written this astonishing work of art). Later John was exiled to Patmos, and wrote the Book of Revelation there (Revelation 1:9-10). Some traditions suggest he lived to a very old age and died in Ephesus. The mother of James and John was evidently not miffed by Jesus' refusal to grant her sons special places in the kingdom. And Matthew notices that she was one of the women who remained at the cross as Jesus died (27:56).
20:23 Taking up the cross (identifying with the Messiah in his suffering) could be by early martyrdom or long exile or by prolonged suffering into old age (see 10:38; 16:24). Here the places of honor in the kingdom do not seem to be places in heaven, but in the respect of the world-wide church after the fall of Jerusalem (see comment on 19:28; 25:34; Revelation 2:10).
20:24 The other disciples were angry that the two brothers had persuaded their mother to press for special places in the kingdom.
20:25-27 Jesus uses this to explain the nature of servant leadership. In the kingdoms of the world greatness is measured by who can lord it over and control others. In the Messianic kingdom leadership is by serving the community. It is interesting that the term minister, both in churches and in government, has changed its meaning from a servant to one who has authority over others. Similarly the word secretary, which originally meant one who was subservient to another, now often suggests a position with executive power.
20:28 The word ransom means the amount paid to free another. But if we focus on how much Jesus paid by his death on the cross, it is hard to see how Christians (20:27) can be servants who pay a ransom in that sense. In servant ministry the emphasis is on the final result which is the freedom made possible by the costly sacrifice or cross bearing of the servant. A good definition of love is caring about the freedom of the other. And our love, like the Messiah's love, involves the costly ransoming of others so that they can be free to be and do all that God has in mind for them.
Matthew has included a previous healing of two blind men who had followed Jesus and then came into the house where Jesus lived. In this incident they are by the roadside. In both cases the blind men have seen from all they heard that Jesus was the Messianic Son of David (9:27; 20:30) and in both cases Jesus healed by touching their eyes. The question Jesus asks is however different. In the previous case he asked them about their faith (9:28-29). Now he asks them what they want him to do for them. These are two aspects of prayer for healing. Faith is important, but it is also important to specify what exactly one is praying for.
Mark only mentions one blind man, and names him Bartimaeus (Mark 1:46). Perhaps Matthew remembers that two men came on this occasion, but only one of them became known in the Christian community. That two blind persons should travel together is not surprising.
Luke also mentions only one of the blind men. And some have objected that Luke locates this miracle before entering the town of Jericho. But the text could also be translated: "As Jesus was approaching Jerusalem (based on Luke 18:31) through the city of Jericho." It seems that Zacchaeus was in a tree on the outskirts of the town immediately after the healing of the two blind men (Luke 19:1-4).
20:29 The outskirts of the city of Jericho probably extended, as they do today, to the south where the road turns up the Jericho Road.
20:30-31 The same words are shouted out as in the previous healing (see 9:27. For "Son of David" see the comment on 21:9, 15). But now the crowd tells them to be quiet, and they keep shouting all the more.
20:32-34 It might seem obvious what blind people really need, but in this case as beggars they could have asked for money. So Jesus makes them state exactly what they are asking for. And when they do this Jesus is moved with compassion (the same words as in 15:32; see also 9:36; 14:14). This suggests that Jesus' healing miracles were not done as a matter of course. Matthew wants us to know that the Messiah is not a merely impassive actor on the scene, but cares deeply about individual persons in his kingdom.