NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
by Dr. Robert R. Seyda
GOSPEL OF MATTHEW
It would have been interesting to hear this phrase in Aramaic, the vernacular language of Jesus. Even the Greek vocabulary gives us other choices than “first” and “last.” Matthew uses “first” in many cases either in ‘position’ or ‘priority,’ and utilizes “last” the same way. In light of scholarly research and exegesis, we are cautioned not to take any parable of Jesus and try to interpret it literally. Our Lord used them to make a point. So in this case, we might say, Jesus was teaching that God does not make mistakes by overcompensating or under-compensating those who serve Him, so be grateful and gracious with what you are given, and rejoice in the faithfulness of your heavenly Father. Always keep this in mind, salvation and eternal life cannot be bought, earned, merited, or bargained for. They are gifts from the One who paid the full price for their purchase. Everything else we receive from Him above and beyond eternal life will be at His discretion. Furthermore, always be aware of why He blesses us.
Therefore, why should any Christian think in terms of their salvation or eternal abode as repayment for their efforts. Even the rewards spoken of that await believers in heaven are gifts. Some believe this to be an example of the whole Christian era, but the context will not allow such exegesis. All of the laborers were present at the time; some already on the payroll and the others standing in the marketplace waiting to be hired as seasonal workers. They say that the wage represented here is the one incurred at the end of the Christian’s life. Therefore, the debate was concerning when the worker began his labor and how he should be compensated. Some start at an early age, others in the middle years and some at life’s end. All, however, will receive the same wage for their hire. However, believers do not receive a wage at the end; one does not get paid for being a Christian. Salvation is a gift, not a salary; eternal life is a reward, not a pay increase. These workers were not promised a salary just because they were hired, but only upon the completion of their work. Paul makes this so clear in his statement: “For the wages of sin is death, but the grace of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”1
We find a good example of what Jesus was trying to say in the life of the apostle Paul and Stephen, the layman, who was martyred for his faith. Stephen was chosen shortly after the day of Pentecost and Christ’s ascension into heaven and probably did not serve a full year before he died as a martyr while Saul of Tarsus stood by holding the coats of those who were stoning him. Saul later converted, and as the apostle Paul spent many years traveling as a missionary, even spending years in jail because of his faith. Now, should Paul be given a greater honor and a larger mansion than Stephen? By man’s calculation, the answer may be yes. But when seen in God’s eyes as to their deed and its importance for the moment and their faithfulness, they both are rewarded equally without prejudice against one over the other. It is amazing how God works sometimes to make sure His laborers receive a just reward.
In Ezekiel, we find an interesting story about recompense for working hard. God told Ezekiel to speak against Pharaoh of Egypt, because when Israel needed help in combating the King of Tyre and Sidon, Pharaoh refused to help them. So the Lord spoke to Ezekiel on the first day of the first month in the twenty-seventh year of exile, “Son of man, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon made his army fight hard against Tyre. They shaved every soldier’s head. Every shoulder was rubbed bare from carrying heavy loads. Nebuchadnezzar and his army worked hard to defeat Tyre, but he was unable to pay them for all their hard work. So this is what I’m going to do: I will give Egypt to King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon so he can carry away the people. He will find many valuable things in Egypt with which to pay his army. I will give Egypt to Nebuchadnezzar as a reward for the hard work he did for me.”2
But I suppose that although going from not getting paid at all to sharing in the wealth that Nebuchadnezzar got from Egypt, there would be some among the soldiers who would complain about some who didn’t work as hard as others. I know that every time I see a deserving warrior receive our country’s highest award – the Medal of Honor, I feel ashamed that if we were of equal rank, I was paid just as much sitting in an office in Germany as he was out on the battlefield in Vietnam risking his life. At the same time, when I came in from the mission field and sat in the parsonage of a pastor who was earning twice as much as I had while living thousands of miles away from home, I did not begrudge him and the way his congregation took care of him. As a matter of fact, I was thrilled for him.
Gregory the Great has this to say: “For many are called, but few are chosen; many come to the faith, and only a few are brought to the heavenly kingdom. See how many have gathered for today’s celebration; we fill the church! But yet who knows how few may be numbered in the flock of God’s elect. All voices shout ‘Christ,’ but not everyone’s life shouts it. Many follow God with their voices but flee from Him by their conduct. Paul says, ‘They profess that they know God, but they deny Him by their deeds;’3 and James, ‘Faith without works is worthless;’4 and the Lord says through the psalmist, ‘O Lord my God, you have multiplied your wonderful works, and in your thoughts there is none who shall be likened to you. I declared and spoke of them. They exceed number.’5 At the Lord’s call, the faithful increased more than he could count, because they also come to the faith who do not belong to the number of the elect. In this world, they mingle with the faithful through their confession of faith, but in the next, they do not merit to be counted in the ranks of the faithful because of their wicked way of life. The sheepfold of our holy church receives goats together with lambs, but as the Gospel bears witness when the judge comes He will separate the good from the evil as a shepherd sets the sheep apart from the goats. Those who are subject to the pleasures of their bodies here cannot be counted as sheep there. The judge will separate from the ranks of the humble those who now exalt themselves on the horns of pride. Those who share the heavenly faith in this life but seek the earth with their whole desire cannot obtain the kingdom of heaven.”6
I found this principle applied in my own life. While pastoring a rather large church in the Northwest part of the United States, living in a beautiful new parsonage at the end of a cul-de-sac, and receiving a more than adequate salary, I was sudden asked if I would be willing to go back out on the mission field. I learned quickly, that it would mean selling everything I had, be given a monthly remuneration far below what I was getting as a pastor, and living in an area of the world where the standards of living were different than what I was used to. But I went because my spirit witnessed with God’s Spirit that this was the thing to do.
So, should I receive a higher reward from the Master because of my sacrifice, than those pastors who stayed at home, some even turning down missionary opportunities? No! I was given a reward just by being chosen for such duty. I was able to preach to thousands more by going than I would have by staying home; I had the honor of teaching many who entered the ministry, something I would not have been able to do at home. These were gifts that money could not buy. Did I resent those pastors who still lived in great comfort and had never been called on to leave all and follow the Lord out on the mission field? No! In fact, I am humbled by the realism that I was given the opportunity of serving my Master, that many of them were more capable of doing than I, never received. It helped me realized that the reward is not in getting something from my Master, but in giving something to Him.
Verse 17: Jesus was on His way up to Jerusalem. His twelve followers were with Him. While they were walking, He pulled them aside so He could talk to them privately.
Now Matthew turns his attention back to the purpose for this trip. The distance from where Jesus was ministering on the east side of the Jordan River to Jericho was less than ten miles.7 John tells us Jesus was resting and relaxing in the village of Ephraim, northwest of Jericho. He records: “So Jesus stopped traveling around openly among the Jews. He went away to a town called Ephraim in an area near the desert. He stayed there with His followers. This would put them on the road to Jerusalem without having to go through Jericho.”8
So often when readers who’ve never been to Israel might be confused in that Jesus was traveling south, yet referred to going up to Jerusalem. That is because in those days there were no maps of the globe that showed going north as being up to the North Pole. Rather, they spoke of up and down in terms of topography. The Rabbis taught: “That the Temple was higher than [the rest of] Palestine, and Palestine is [geographically] higher than all other countries.”9
One early church writer describes what he thinks may have been the emotional condition of Jesus’ followers at this time. He writes: “Although a great crowd of the faithful followed Him on the road, He took only the twelve disciples apart in private and to them alone announced the mystery of His death because the more precious treasure is always stored in the better vases. There were many men with Him, but they were weak on account of the smallness of their faith. There were many women, who, though strong in their faith, were yet less strong physically according to their feminine nature. If they had heard that Christ was going up to Jerusalem so as to be put to death, the men perhaps would be distressed because of the weakness of their faith and the women because of the penchant for kindness. For by nature the mind of a woman is gentle and in such a business is quickly reduced to tears. Recall that when Peter himself heard about the death of Christ he was moved by grief and did not fear to rebuke the Lord himself, saying, ‘God forbid, Lord, this shall never happen to you!’10 If then Peter was so moved at Christ’s death, who else had faith that could sustain the grief of such an evil? If the immovable rock was almost moved, how could the earth bear the onslaught of the storm?”11
This gives us reason to wonder where would the world be if Jesus had failed in carrying our the will of His Father? What hope would there be for those living in darkness, trying to make sense out of life? For that same reason, we should always be reminded of where we would be if Jesus is no longer Lord of our lives. And since He cannot be moved, then by holding on to Him we too shall not be moved.
1 Romans 6:23
2 Ezekiel 29:17-20; (cf. Jeremiah 27:6-7)
3 Titus 1:16
4 James 2:20
5 Psalm 40:5
6 Gregory the Great: Forty Gospel Homilies 19.5
7 Matthew 19:1
8 John 11:54
9 Babylonian Talmud, op. cit. Seder Nezikin, Masekhet Sanhedrin, folio 87a
10 Matthew 16:22
11 Incomplete Work on Matthew, Homily 35