The Astonishment of Precedence
Matthew 20:1-16
For the kingdom of heaven is like to a man that is an householder…

The text of this parable is found in the last verse of the preceding chapter. The words are repeated as the conclusion of its argument (ver. 16). Hence the critics say the last verse of ch. 19 ought to have been the first of ch. 20. Yet the last verse of ch. 19 is evidently connected with Christ's discourse upon the case of the ruler (cf. Mark 10:31). Note -


1. The Jews were the people of ancient privilege.

(1) Theirs was the "adoption." Nationally they were separated from all the peoples of the earth, and adopted by God as his peculiar treasure.

(2) Theirs was the "glory." In the pillar of cloud. In the cherubim.

(3) Theirs were the "covenants." The first from Sinai - the Law. The second from Zion - the gospel (cf. Isaiah 2:3; Luke 24:47).

(4) Theirs was the "service of God." For ages "Jerusalem was the place where men ought to worship." Levitical rites were instituted and sanctioned against all Gentile abominations.

(5) Theirs were the "promises," viz. on which the covenants were established. They were given to the fathers, and renewed and amplified by the ministry of the prophets. By these God, "rising up early," went into the marketplace to hire labourers for his vineyard (cf. Jeremiah 7:25). As the day of their visitation wore on, the prophets invited the people at the third, sixth, and ninth hours.

(6) Theirs were the "fathers." They were sprung from Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. They were "beloved for the fathers' sakes."

(7) Theirs was "Christ, as concerning the flesh, who is over all, God blessed forever" (Romans 9:4, 5).

2. Their presumption upon their precedence was rebuked

(1) They believed themselves by it secured against rejection. They overlooked the conditions of their promises. They missed the lessons of their history. They filled up the measure of their iniquity in rejecting Christ.

(a) In his Person.

(b) In his gospel offer of salvation.

Then Christ rejected them. Their place and nation were taken away by the Romans; and they have ever since suffered in captivity.

(2) That the Gentiles should become "fellow heirs" with them so as to leave no difference (cf. Acts 15:1, 9; Ephesians 3:3-6), was a mystery they would not comprehend. Their anger at the mercy of God to the Gentiles is expressed in the murmuring and evil eye (see Deuteronomy 15:9; Proverbs 23:6; Mark 7:22) of the labourers first called, against the lord of the vineyard, for his goodness to those called at the eleventh hour. Note: The labourers first called bargained (ver. 13) for hire in the spirit of the Law; and the murmur was in keeping with the spirit of the bargain. Those afterwards called worked in faith and love, viz. in the spirit of the gospel (cf. Romans 4:4, 5). God is now taking out of all nations "a people for his Name."

(3) The Christian Churches were first formed among the believing Jews, but since the destruction of Jerusalem, these have become absorbed in the Gentile Churches afterwards founded.

(4) Amongst the Gentile nations there is one destined in the order of providence to stand out in contrast to the rejected Jewish nation (see ch. 21:43). Can Britain be that distinguished nation?


1. Consider the lessons of the marketplace.

(1) All sinners are "idle," or do nothing to purpose, before God calls them to work in his vineyard. Those who desire to labour in his cause should be found in the marketplace where the Master seeks his labourers - in the appointed means of grace. God does not commonly find his labourers in the slums of the city. Another master finds his willing slaves in the walks of wickedness (see Joshua 24:15).

(3) Some are called in the morning of their days, as the Baptist and Timothy (see Luke 1:15; 2 Timothy 3:15). Some in the meridian of life. Nicodemus may be born again when he is old.

(4) Let not the sinner plead to his destraction the mercy of the "eleventh hour." Can the pleader say, with the men in the parable, "No man hath hired us"? The thief on the cross was a singular and extraordinary example, and may be in his conversion accounted with the miracle of the rending rocks and opening graves.

2. Consider the lessons of the vineyard.

(1) There is work in the Church forevery qualified labourer. All are qualified by accepting the Householder's conditions.

(2) The work is pleasant. We are called into the vineyard of the Church to weed and dress, to plant and water, to fence and train. The training of living growths is not dull work. The production and maturing of immortal fruits for the service and glory of a gracious Master is inspiring service.

(3) The time for vineyard work is short. One day, at most, to be followed by the "night in which no man can work." The eleventh hour of life may be earlier or later. It was early to Thomas Spencer, Henry Martyn, Kirk White, Robert McCheyne.

(4) Every labourer has his hire.

3. Consider the lessons of the reckoning.

(1) God gives to every one his right under the agreement he has made with him (see Romans 3:5, 6). The heavenly reward will be given to all who seek it in God's way, without reference to time or accidents. Further than this we must not insist upon the equality of wages (see Luke 19:12; 1 Corinthians 3:8).

(2) God exercises a free and sovereign grace beyond his engagements of promise. It would be sad for the best of us were he to limit us to our merits. Then the highest creature must go away into nothing; the wicked into misery.

(3) The goodness of God will astonish some who have come in late to find themselves preferred before others who have laboured long. Some who followed Christ when first he preached afterwards became offended and walked no more with him. Paul was as one chosen out of due time, yet he came not behind the chiefest of the apostles, and took the throne forfeited by Iscariot.

(4) Many who occupy the first rank here for culture, standing, and influence, will there be last. Galilaeans, in these respects inferior to the scribes and priests, were chosen to be the inspired teachers of the gospel. The lowest will in many cases be preferred to the self-righteous Pharisee (see Matthew 8:11, 12; Matthew 21:31, 32; Luke 7:29, 30; Luke 13:28-30). The disciples evidently thought the advantages of the rich in favour of salvation were such that if they should fail, there could be little hope for the poor; but were "astonished exceedingly" to hear the teaching of Christ (see Matthew 19:23-26). John Newton said, "When I get to heaven I shall see three wonders. The first will be to see many persons there whom I did not expect to see; the second will be to miss many whom I did expect to see; the greatest wonder of all will be to find myself there." - J.A.M.

Parallel Verses
KJV: For the kingdom of heaven is like unto a man that is an householder, which went out early in the morning to hire labourers into his vineyard.

WEB: "For the Kingdom of Heaven is like a man who was the master of a household, who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard.

Slothfulness Condemned
Top of Page
Top of Page