Matthew 20:1-16 Part 1

In a recent article concerning the general direction of the modern Church, it was correctly stated that the focus is on man; and that the psychological term “self-actualization” is really the best way of describing the goal of most preaching and teaching.  Even in the seminaries (maybe especially in the seminaries) the “weight” of the instruction seems to be on human need and the unique ways in which those needs might be addressed.

But, on the other hand, our European forefathers, in opposition to Charles the First (son of King James of England), were called into session by the English parliament in 1642 for the purpose of reforming the Church of England to more Biblical doctrine and government.

And for five years, during civil war between the parliament and the forces of King Charles, the Westminster divines hammered out the documents known as the Westminster Standards:  the Confession of Faith, the longer and shorter Catechisms and the Directory for Public Worship.

Now, it can be said (and proved) that the most remarkable thing about these documents is the fact that they focus all the attention upon God and His glory.  One cannot find in them any “unique” ways of meeting human need!

We have only to refer to the first question of the Westminster Shorter Catechism to illustrate that.  The question is:  “What is the chief end of man?”  And the answer is:  “The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.”  So, right at the beginning, our Puritan forefathers dealt with the purpose of our being here, which is to bring glory to the One Who put us here!  No unique way of meeting human need here, is it?

Now, whenever the Scriptures speak of God’s Glory, it is always in reference to the recognition of Who He Is.  The entire creation recognizes Him and responds accordingly.  It does that for which it was created.  God is He to Whom the created universe responds, because He created it.  With respect to fallen man, God’s glory has to do with man’s turning from self-recognition and placing the full “weight” of his attention on the Person and Purpose of God.  He is the prominent and pre-eminent One, and He is to be exalted, affirmed and acknowledged by men!  That’s what it means to “glorify” God.

Now, self-actualization is exactly the opposite of that.  (Psychology and so-called “Christian” counseling and much preaching attempt to achieve this as a goal.)  But the “pursuit of happiness” (as our Constitution guarantees) can never be realized by self-actualization.  As the Catechism says, “the chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.”  Enjoyment, for man, is based in glorifying God – not in realizing who the “self” is!  The pursuit of happiness and enjoyment in self, or in the world, or in others is a dead end!  It won’t work.  It results in eternal misery.  Fallen man responds to God in rebellion!

But enjoyment and happiness derive from glorifying God.  As the Psalmist says in Psalm seventy-three:


“Whom have I in heaven?  And none upon earth that I desire but Thee.  My flesh and my heart fail; but God is the strength of my heart, and my portion for ever.  For, lo, they that are far from Thee shall perish; Thou hast destroyed all that go a whoring from Thee.  But it is good for me to draw near to God; I have put my trust in the Lord God, that I may declare all Thy works.”


The Psalmist recognized that who he was, and what he was, was all with reference to God.  And therein is the root from which springs all enjoyment and happiness.  To give God glory, and thereby to enjoy Him forever, is the sum total of life – the reason and purpose for our existence.  Without “drawing near to God,” as the Psalmist says, there is only futility.

The rich, young man who approached Jesus wanted to “buy” his way into the Kingdom.  But Jesus said that he couldn’t “draw near to God” except through Him.  He had to follow Jesus in rebirth!  The only way into the Kingdom; the only way to be near to God; the only way to enjoyment of God – was by following Him – Jesus – in rebirth!

Forsake all the rest!  All the property he owned was futile.  All the status he had as the heir to his father’s estate was futile.  His opinion of his own goodness and obedience to the Law was futile.  (Jesus proved to him that he was not a law-keeper.)  The future glory of the city of Jerusalem and the land of Israel was futile.  His blood ancestry from Abraham was futile.  The home and the family were futile.  The way to draw near to God and have eternal life – the way to glorify God, the Way to enjoy God, was to follow Jesus in rebirth.

None of the things this young man had were sufficient!  He had to have a new ancestry and a new inheritance; he had to have a new and perfect obedience to the Law in Christ Jesus; he had to have a new Israel and a new Jerusalem and a new temple; he had to have a new home and family – none of the old was sufficient!  None of that which was born to the first Adam would inherit eternal life and enjoy God forever!  He had to follow the last Adam in the rebirth!

Instead of having his life and his being and his mind and his heart in his ancestry and his inheritance and his land and his people and his goodness, this young man’s full devotion had to be redirected to heavenly things – where Christ is – for the glory of God.  He had to be reborn into Christ Who is the Way, the Truth and the Life!  His chief end and enjoyment had to become the honor and reputation of God his Creator.  The full weight of the person and purpose of God had to become the burden of his heart.  Marriage is the image of honor.  The Church honors its Creator/Savior!

This young man was told that he had to revoke and forsake his life and follow Christ in rebirth.  In the words of Paul the apostle, he had to “put off” the first Adam and “put on” the last!  Put in seventeenth century, Shorter Catechism terms, in order for him to “glorify God and enjoy Him forever” (his purpose for being here, and his chief end) he must follow Jesus in rebirth.  No “unique”, psychological means of self-actualization here, is there?  In fact, as I said, “just the opposite”.  As Jesus said to His disciples, “You must become as the little babe”.  Newborn in the Last Adam.  In Him many firsts shall be lasts.  And in Him the lasts shall be firsts.

Now.  In this extremely important event in the confrontation between Jesus and Israel – in which this young man comes before Jesus as a representative of all of Israel as well as in his own right, and seeing now that this is a passage of monumental significance in the purpose of God for the salvation of His people, it would be vicious oversimplification and violent disregard for sound, Biblical exegesis for us to remove this next parable (chapter twenty) from the context just established!

Just consider these things:  in the first place, Jesus is not interrupted in His speech.  The parable in chapter twenty is a continuation without a break in thought.  A new chapter should not interrupt us!  Secondly, this entire event is huge! – not only in the space it takes up in Matthew’s Gospel, but in its grand significance for the entire creation.  (As I’ve already said, this is the very center of the Gospel of Jesus Christ!)  Thirdly, there’s nothing simple about any of this.  And, as we’ve already seen, a parable makes it even less simple; because the primary purpose of these “dark sayings” is to further blind the blind in order that they might not see and understand and be converted!  But through the preaching of the Gospel, the Spirit of Christ takes those born of the first Adam and makes them newborn babes in the last Adam.  And, in Him, the mysteries are no longer mysteries!  Dead, blind eyes are opened to the Truth because the dead man is a new creation in Christ!  Therefore the lasts shall be firsts!  Dead men in Adam shall be made alive in Christ!

One more.  Fourthly, this parable is, in some way, an illustration with implications of the grand, cosmic event which has just taken place.  It is not to be given significance and meaning of its own, because it doesn’t stand alone!  So we can’t take it out of the place where it’s written, and set if by itself on the table for examination, and then proclaim what we think it says!  That leaves the parable “open” for any interpretation; and who’s to say which interpretation is right?  (Several of those might have excellent, salient points of truth which, in their own places, might be wonderful to preach!)  But the parable is not open for interpretation by those who remove it from this enormous and profound Theological event which has just taken place!

Now.  Once that has been resolved, then there may be some brotherly disagreement (with kindness and gentleness) about points of interest and implication.  But, again, the parable has one meaning – God’s.  It has one context – where it’s written.  So, if it’s taken out of that context, great violence is done to God’s Word; because nothing in here is “open” for man’s interpretation.

Let me give you a couple of short examples of what an “open” interpretation might be if the parable stood alone.  One could say, first, that the apostles themselves were the subject of the allegory.  That they were superior in rank (and thereby “firsts”), but that they were also servants of the Church (and thereby “lasts”).  Now, there’s a lot of truth in that, isn’t there?  It’s very preachable because of the lowliness of spirit and servanthood of the leadership of Christ’s Church.  So in an “open” interpretation of the parable, it’s conceivable that it could be preached that way.

One could also say, secondly, that since the parable itself is broken up into three hour time segments, therefore the time factor is a primary issue in interpretation.  So, the parable has to do with Israel first in time, and the Church last – second; or it has to do with the stages of development in the Christian life; or maybe the apostles first and the rest of the Church after them (in time); or it could have to do with the entire period of time covering the existence of the Church.  All of these points are based in truth, and they could be preached powerfully – in an “open” interpretation of a free-standing parable!

Let me present you with one little-longer example of what could be said if the parable were free-standing; and then I’ll come back to point five concerning the context.

But this interpretation illustrates my point very well – that any interpretation (that has truth in it) is possible when the parable is isolated.  And, by the way, this interpretation is a real one – by a major commentator.  It’s not made up.

He says that the vineyard is the Church, and the marketplace is the world.  The laborers are those who come into the Church and work; and the denarius represents the temporal blessings that are paid to all workers in the Church.  The laborers that regard themselves as firsts are paid one denarius, as compared to those who come in last and do less work; they’re paid the same thing as those who regard themselves as first, but their pay, being the same, makes them firsts.  (There is no relationship to the context of chapter nineteen!)

The temporal blessings are simply those which accrue to everyone who works in the Church.  They are all “called” to do work; but the laborers who came in first, and murmur at their pay, are those who are called but, in the end, are not elect.  They have every opportunity to be true believers, but finally reveal themselves to be nominal, “lip service” Christians. (lasts)

The work-day represents the whole age of the Christian Church and all the workers; and the concept of hours worked doesn’t refer to time, but to accomplishment!  The hours only measure the amount of accomplishment.  But, in the end, the “pay” (the temporal blessing) are the same for all.  They all enjoy the same blessings of connection with the Church (whether they’re elect or not) and which come to the new convert as well as to the old convert.

Christ is the Overseer in the allegory, and He pays the temporal blessings for the work (no matter how long the work goes on (and the pay is the same for everybody); and the order of payment is reversed from the order of hiring so that the firsts can see what the lasts receive!  And when the firsts murmur, they receive a snappy rebuke and dismissal from the Owner, because they are not elect!  They become “lasts”, and the “lasts” become “firsts”.

Now, if this parable were free-standing and was interpreted on its own, then there’s a lot of truth here.  God is the Owner of the Church.  And His Son has paid the price for us.  And there are superb blessings for having been connected to Christ’s Church.  And I would doubt that any who would murmur in discontent at the price that Christ paid would be true believers.  All of these points would be true; and good sermons could be constructed which might benefit the Church in some small ways.

But my point in going through them is that this isn’t the only “open” interpretation that could be “invented” here that would have good, true points from which to preach!  There are a number of others from which you could do the same thing, and they would all (maybe) include some truths!  And one interpretation would be at least as good as any other; and all arguable down to the last metaphor!  And they would all have some questionable Theology, as this one does.  And, lastly, they would all be free-standing interpretations – disconnected from the context!

All of that had to do with point number four.  Now let me make point five concerning the parable itself.  I’ve said this a few other times, but it’s important enough to repeat.  A parable is an allegory with a central truth – which is hidden under the surface considerations!  Therefore, forcing each of the points in the parable to represent another reality is a serious mistake, because a parable has a complete “setting”, a story with characters and happenings and conversations, which “houses”, or gives structure, to the great Truth which is concealed therein!  And often that structure has very little to do with the verity, or the matter of “fact”, which exists in it!

And I want to give you some examples of that from this parable, to the end that you won’t ever fall into that trap.  First, please note in the allegory that there is a houselord and permanent employee called an overseer, or a steward.  Now, if all the points of the parable have a higher reality, and if the Owner and Overseer represented God and Christ, wouldn’t there, by necessity, be an ontological subordination of God the Son to God the Father?  In other words, wouldn’t God the Son be a permanent “hiree” rather than Eternal God?  That’s not Biblical or confessional.  The answer to that, of course, is that that’s just part of the “structure” of the allegory.  And the structure isn’t meant to represent a higher verity.

Secondly, the owner of the vineyard in this parable doesn’t do any work.  He just goes out to the marketplace four times a day and hires workers.  And the overseer doesn’t do the work; he just watches the workers that the owner hires.  Now, if the Owner is God, and the Overseer is Christ, and all the “considerations” of the allegory are to be interpreted, then what are the implications here regarding the “work” of God the Father and God the Son and God the Holy Spirit?  Those implications aren’t very Biblical (to say the least)!  But, again, the answer is that this is the structure of the parable which isn’t meant to be interpreted.

I’m not going to go any further with examples, although you can go through the entire parable and do the same thing over and over if you want.  The point is:  the parables contain wonderful and profound mysteries which are hidden from the faithless, and are opened up to the newborn in Christ Jesus, and the allegory forms the structure in which those mysteries are found.

Next Lord’s Day we will examine the parable itself.  But for now, the context has to do with following Jesus in rebirth.  Many in the first Adam shall be in the last Adam.  And, therefore, the lasts shall be first.

And the parable itself is set apart by the same statement – which occurs in verse sixteen of this text; except it’s in reverse order!  And verse sixteen begins with the word “thus”.

And that’s difficult to misunderstand!  There’s no way to miss what this context is!  The parable is a continuation, by Jesus Christ, of what He’s just said to His disciples.  It’s part of His answer to the disciples’ question!  It does not stand alone; it must not stand alone.  It’s not open to fanciful interpretation… even if there might be some truths spoken in those interpretations!  There is a concrete context for this parable; and it says only what Jesus Christ meant!  We’ll see what it says beginning next Lord’s Day.