Matthew 20:9-10, 17-28   

Immanuel Baptist Church – Sunday, June 30, 2019





Thursday will be the 4th of July,

Independence Day,

the annual celebration of America’s

Declaration of Independence from England.


It will be our 243rd Independence Day celebration—

243 years since those living here

announced that they were officially

breaking free from the rule of the King of England.


But, for 169 years,

settlers in America lived under British rule—

from the settlement of Jamestown, Virginia in 1607

to the Declaration of Independence in 1776.


We still see evidence of that here in New Bedford

just a few blocks away from here

in the stretch of road that’s named “King’s Highway.”


There’s a “King’s Highway” in Rochester, too,

and on Cape Cod—also known as Route 6-A.


Just as we have a federal highway system—

with Route 195, for example,

backed by federal government money

and meeting higher construction standards

than local roads,

so, too, colonial America

had highways commissioned by the King of England.


Unlike ordinary dirt public ways

that could be muddy or even flooded, when it rained,

the king’s “high” “ways”

were public ways built up

to higher elevations

so that water would run off.


So, the king’s “high” “ways”

allowed faster travel

without getting bogged down.


The king of England ruled colonies all along the Atlantic coast,

so a King’s Highway once stretched 1,300 miles

from Boston to Charleston, South Carolina.


Its construction began in the mid-1600’s

on the orders of King Charles the 2nd.


Americans later fought and died for our democracy

after declaring independence in 1776,

but in the wars that occurred

during the 169 years before that

Americans fought for King and country—

the King of England.


Long before it became the name of a Christian music duo,

“For king and country” was a traditional battle cry

of British soldiers.


Soldiers have died for their king all down through history.


But, as Christians, we have a King who died for us.


That is a staggering thought:

a King who died for us.


It was such a strange concept

that it took Jesus’ disciples years

before they grasped it.


Even when Jesus rode a donkey into Jerusalem

that final week before his crucifixion,

the disciples expected him

to take power as King

and drive out the armies of the Roman occupation.


He was received as King

by the crowds that welcomed him

on that first Palm Sunday.


But then he went to the cross

and died for our sins—

promising to return with kingly power

at a future date that would remain secret.


So, Jesus was full of surprises.


He often did the unexpected.


And he also taught in a way that was unexpected,

and used his teaching to convey lessons that were unexpected.


An example of this is found in the 19th Chapter of Matthew,

beginning at Verse 30,

where he gave the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard.


Just a couple verses from that parable

were included in our Responsive Reading this morning.


But, beginning at Matthew 19:30,

our Lord set the stage

for what he was about to teach.


It was a surprising teaching,

and so he repeated the main point twice,

first at the beginning of the parable,

and then again at the end—

so that we wouldn’t miss

the unusual point he was making.


He had just finished talking about

the rewards and blessings

his followers would receive

when they entered his heavenly kingdom.


Then at Matthew 19:30, he said.


30 But many who are first

will be last,

and many who are last

will be first.


To illustrate what he meant by that,

he went on to give the parable:


1 "For the kingdom of heaven

is like a landowner

who went out early in the morning

to hire men

to work in his vineyard.

2 He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day

and sent them into his vineyard.


A denarius was a Roman coin,

worth a day’s pay at that time.


And the agricultural workday was typically 12 hours long.


It went from Six in the morning,

to Six in the evening, by our modern clocks.


They divided it into 12 hours, as we do,

but they began numbering the hours

from the beginning of the workday,

rather than counting from midnight.


So, when Jesus says in the next Verse,


3 "About the third hour he went out

and saw others

standing in the marketplace doing nothing


that third hour would be our 9 A.M.


4 He told them,

'You also go and work in my vineyard,

and I will pay you

whatever is right.'

5 So they went.


These temp workers, or day laborers, didn’t quibble,

because if no one had hired them

by the third hour of the work day,

they faced the prospect of being

unemployed all day long.


So, without balking at the invitation to work,

they accepted the landowner’s offer

to pay them “whatever is right.”


6 "He went out again

about the sixth hour and the ninth hour

and did the same thing.


The sixth hour was Noontime,

and the ninth hour was 3 o’clock in the afternoon.


About the eleventh hour he went out

and found still others standing around.


The 11th hour was our 5 o’clock.


I know Jimmy Buffet immortalized that time

with his song, “It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere.”


And today’s office and factory workers

may knock off at 5 o’clock

and head to the bar room for the “happy hour,”

but those agricultural workers in Jesus’ parable

still had an hour’s work ahead of them.


The landowner in Jesus parable

found more unemployed day laborers

still standing around in the marketplace

at 5 P.M.—“the 11th hour.”


He asked them,


'Why have you been standing here

all day long doing nothing?'


7 "'Because no one has hired us,' they answered.


"He said to them,

'You also go and work in my vineyard.'


They would have looked at each other and shrugged,

since it was just an hour before quitting time,

but at least they finally had a chance to earn something,

so they joined the work crew in the vineyard.


8 "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.'


9 "The workers who were hired about the eleventh

hour came and each received a denarius.


They would have been surprised and thrilled

to get a whole day’s pay

for working just that last hour.


10 So when those came who were hired first,

they expected to receive more.


But each one of them also received a denarius.


11 When they received it,

they began to grumble against the landowner.


12 '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.'


13 "But he answered one of them,


'Friend, I am not being unfair to you.

Didn't you agree to work for a denarius?

14 Take your pay and go.


I want to give the man who was hired last

the same as I gave you.


15 Don't I have the right

to do what I want with my own money?


Or are you envious because I am generous?'


Then Jesus again gave us the application,

the lesson he was teaching through this parable:


16 "So the last

will be first,

and the first

will be last."


Christian commentators down through the centuries

have applied this to Israel and the Church.


The Jews were the first invited,

as God’s “Chosen People,”

to receive the blessings of God’s kingdom.


And, for around 1,500 years,

they worked hard to keep the Law of Moses.


But then, when Christ came,

he opened the Church to the Gentiles—non-Jews—

and invited us to receive these blessings

by faith, not by doing the works of the Law.


The Jews were jealous.


You could almost hear them say,

like the laborers who worked the whole day,

“We worked hard for 1500 years,

keeping the Law of Moses,

and now you’re giving these non-Jewish Christians

salvation by faith,

without all that work.

That isn’t fair!”


The Apostle Paul traveled from town to town

and would first visit the local synagogue

and teach the local Jews how Jesus came

and fulfilled the prophecies

about the promised Messiah.


Many of the Jews were glad to hear that.


But then, Paul would add

that Jesus opened the way of salvation to the Gentiles,

and most of the Jews would then turn against him

and would persecute Paul and the Gentile believers.


The Jews were “first”

to be given the message about Christ,

but they will be the “last” to accept Jesus.


The rest of us Gentiles were the “last”

to hear about Jesus,

but the “first” to embrace him

as our Lord and Savior.


As Jesus said,


16 "So the last

will be first,

and the first

will be last."



That message can also be applied

to us as individual Christians.


One person may have spent a lifetime serving Christ,

like Billy Graham

who died at the age of 99,

and another person

may turn to Christ on their deathbed,

just moments before they die.


Both receive the same eternal life in heaven.


If we’ve served God all our lives,

and we hear of someone who received Christ on their deathbed

and immediately went to glory,

we shouldn’t be jealous,

as those who worked all day in the parable

were jealous of those hired at 5 o’clock.


The Lord chooses to give his free gift of salvation

to late-comers,

just as freely as he gives it

to life-long Christians.


Jesus wants us to rejoice with them—

not to grumble,

as those workers grumbled against the landowner.



Our Lord himself sets the perfect example for us,

in this, and in everything.


As he was heading for Jerusalem

for the final time,

he knew that the cross was waiting for him there.


It must have been on his mind all the time.


Continuing in Matthew 20:17, we read,


17 Now as Jesus was going up to Jerusalem,

he took the twelve disciples aside

and said to them,


18 "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

19 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!"


The parallel accounts in Mark and Luke

add that Jesus said he would be “spit upon”

and “treated shamefully.”


The flogging he faced

would be with a scourge—

an extra-cruel whip

with pieces of bone or metal attached

to rip open the flesh.


And crucifixion was a horribly slow and painful form of execution,

where the condemned person

suffered excruciating pain

for hours, if not days, before dying.


Jesus had all that to look forward to,

and he shared it with the disciples.


But Luke 18:34 tells us,


“The disciples did not understand any of this.


Its meaning was hidden from them,

and they did not know

what he was talking about.”


So, they selfishly pursued their own interests.


Continuing in Matthew 20:20,


20 Then the mother of Zebedee's sons

came to Jesus with her sons

and, kneeling down, asked a favor of him.


21 "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."


These sons of Zebedee were James and John.


And they brought their mother along,

to make this request with them.


They wanted special treatment in the Kingdom—

positions higher than the other Apostles—

right next to Jesus,

seated at each side of him on his throne.


Maybe they were sheepish and embarrassed

to make such a selfish request.


Maybe that’s why they brought Mrs. Zebedee, their mother, along.


Maybe they thought

the Lord would be more likely

to grant their selfish request

with Mrs. Zebedee kneeling before him.


22 "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.


They really didn’t know what they were saying.


They still didn’t grasp what this “cup” was—

this horrible ordeal facing Jesus in a few days—

this “cup” that Jesus himself dreaded so much

that later in the Garden of Gethsemane

he would fall with his face to the ground,

and pray to his Father in heaven,


"My Father, if it is possible,

may this cup be taken from me.


Yet not as I will,

but as you will."(Matthew 26:39)


James and John really wanted

those prominent positions

in the Kingdom—

whatever it took.


23 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."


So, the Zebedee boys would share in Jesus’ “cup” of suffering,

but that wouldn’t earn them

the top positions they coveted.


You’d think

they would have been so embarrassed

by this whole incident,

that they’d keep quiet about it.


But either those two young brothers,

or their mother,

let slip what had happened.


We read next,


24 When the ten heard about this,

they were indignant with the two brothers.


But it wasn’t that the other 10 Apostles

had a better attitude.


On a later occasion they were all arguing among themselves

as to who was “the greatest” among them.


So, Jesus gave them

one of his many lectures

to set them straight.


25 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.


26 Not so with you.


Instead, whoever wants to become great among you

must be your servant,


27 and whoever wants to be first

must be your slave


28 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."


Our Lord Jesus came to serve—

like a servant—

like a slave—

and finally to give even his life for others.


And that’s how he wants us to behave.


He set the perfect example of servant leadership.


As King of the universe,

he could have visited earth

in royal splendor,

set himself up on a throne in Jerusalem,

and had everyone serve him

and wait on him.


Instead, he was born in a stable,

as a helpless infant child,

with an animal’s feeding trough for his crib.


He worked in a carpentry shop,

as an apprentice assistant,

taking orders from a carpenter

and helping out,

until his earthly father died,

and he had to do the carpentry work himself

to provide for his widowed mother.


 Then, from the age of 30 onward,

he walked from village to village

healing the sick, teaching

and calling sinners to repentance.


After they walked over dusty dirt roads in their sandals,

he did the lowest servant’s job,

washing the feet of his disciples.


And then, finally,

he went to the cross

for people who were so wrapped up

in their own selfish interests

that they didn’t even appreciate

what he was doing for them.


And that’s us today.


That’s how Jesus found us—

broken sinners like his Apostles,

with messed-up lives that only God could fix.


But all these things Jesus said and did,

he did for us.


He’s our perfect example to follow.


And he’s alive today,

listening to our prayers

and reaching out with his powerful hand

to help each one of us

eventually live up to that example ourselves.