Bible study at the 2014 FEET conference

Jacques Buchhold, Faculté Libre de Théologie Evangelique, Vaux-sur-Seine, France

3. Faith and Grace (Mt 19.13-15 + 20.1-16)

19.13 Then little children were brought to Jesus for him to place his hands on them and pray for them. But the disciples rebuked those who brought them. 14 Jesus said, "Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these." 15 When he had placed his hands on them, he went on from there.

20. "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. 3 "About the third hour he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. 4 He told them, 'You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.' 5 So they went. "He went out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour and did the same thing. 6 About the eleventh hour he went out and found still others standing around. 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.' 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. 10So 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?' 16 "So the last will be first, and the first will be last." (NIV)

Two other passages belong to this section of Matthew, the limits of which were defined in our first study: Matthew 19.13-15, where Jesus’ concern for children is described, and Matthew 20.1-16, with Jesus’ parable of the last hour workers.

Jesus and the children (Mt 19.13-15)

The brief section about Jesus’ attitude towards children is present in the three Synoptic Gospels (// Mk 10.13-16 and Lk 18.15-17). In each of them, it precedes the dialogue between Jesus and the rich man. Besides, in Mark as well as in Matthew, it comes in between the two passages we discussed in studies 1 and 2.

The presence of this section could be explained on a simple historical basis: Jesus’ encounter with the children happened between his confrontations with the Pharisees, on the one hand, and his confrontation with the rich man, on the other hand, while he was “on the other side of the Jordan”. The text then would just be informing us that it was at that time that some people brought little children to Jesus “for him to place his hands on them and pray for them” (v.13).

But some data of our passage seem to show that the presence of this text must also be explained by theological reasons. Matthew’s Gospel underscores that the blessing of the children immediately follows the dialogue with the Pharisees (“then”, tote, v.13) and that both were located exactly at the same place (“he went on from there”, v.15). And Jesus himself gives to this encounter with the children a much larger meaning. By telling his disciples to let the little children come to him and not hinder them “for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these”, he consciously relates these words to what he was just saying to his disciples before (v.12) about the Kingdom of heaven: “Others have made themselves eunuch because of the kingdom of heaven.” Jesus transforms his encounter with the children into a kind of living parable.

Jesus here uses the child metaphor he referred to several times before. It is developed at length in Matthew 18.1-5. The child is an image of the one who humbles himself (v.4), that is, of the one who acknowledges that he is dependent on God. In Matthew 18 verses 6, 10 and 14, Jesus employs a synonymous expression: “these little ones” (hoi mikroi houtoi), in order to point to the same reality. “These little ones” are those who put their trust in him (“those who believe in me”, v.6), who are dependent on God (“See that you do not look down on one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven”, v.10) and whom he keeps safe (“In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should be lost”, v.14). In Matthew’s Gospel, the expression becomes a technical word on the lips of Jesus for denoting his disciples. Besides Matthew 18, the expression is present in Matthew’s missionary discourse (“And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones because he is my disciple, I tell you the truth, he will certainly not lose his reward”, 10.42) and, in its superlative form (“the least of these”), in the eschatological discourse (25.40, 45).

Sometime after his encounter with the children, at the temple in Jerusalem, Jesus threw out those who were buying and selling there. “The chief priests and the teachers of the Law”, it is said, were indignant because children shouted: “Hosanna to the Son of David” (21.16). Jesus replied by quoting the words of Psalm 8.3: “Have you never read, 'From the lips of children and infants you have ordained praise'?" In this Psalm, children and infants are opposed to God’s enemies, to silence the foe and the avenger. It is the children and the infants, and not the other humans, who give praise, in a right and true way, to God’s plan of creation for humanity, which is what Psalm 8 is all about. The reason for this is that God’s plan of creation has to be lived in dependence on him and by trusting him, and should not be characterised – as it is – by human independence and pride. Jesus read this psalm prophetically, as the author of the Epistle of Hebrews would do later. Jesus is the only son of Adam who fully responded to God’s plan of creation. The children were proclaiming it in the temple court, but the proud priests and scribes wanted to silence them!

Did not this Psalm give birth to the child metaphor in Jesus’ theology? In Matthew 11.25, Jesus again recalls the opposition one finds in Psalm 8.3: “At that time Jesus said, ‘I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children’.” And there again, in our text, he opposes those who are like children, to whom the Kingdom of heaven belongs, to the Pharisees who had come to test him by their question about divorce. One thing is sure: to make oneself a eunuch because of the Kingdom, one has to become like a child and learn to be dependent on God!

But this is impossible with humans because they put their trust in their possessions and do not stop idolising God’s blessings. This is what the second confrontation with the rich man adds, which our section about the children introduces in the three Synoptic Gospels. But what is impossible with humans is possible with God, Jesus says. We have to become children, who trust in their parents, and Jesus enunciates which renunciations we have to get through in order to become such children. For it is to “these little ones” that God’s Kingdom blessing will be given: Jesus “placed his hands on them and went on from there”.

The workers of the last hour (Mt 20.1-16)

The parable of the workers of the last hour is structurally linked to Jesus’s confrontation with the rich young man. In fact, the parable presents itself as an explanation of the last words of Jesus to his disciples after his dialogue with the rich man: “But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first” (19.30). The parable describes the hiring of workers who are sent to work in the vineyard of a landowner; this hiring takes place all the day long, from 8 o’clock in the morning to 5 o’clock in the evening. Afterwards, the hired workers are paid their wages, “beginning with the last ones and going on to the first” (v.8) and we witness the reaction of the first ones (v.10-11) when they see that the last ones are paid the same wages as they themselves. Finally, Jesus ends his parable by linking it explicitly with the end of the precedent section about the rich young man: “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” How should we understand these words and which light do they shed on the teachings of the confrontation with the rich man?

The parable is only in Matthew’s Gospel, but the section about the rich man ends with the same words about the last ones and the first ones, in Matthew’s and Mark’s Gospel: “But many who are first will be last, and the last first” (Mk 10.31). Therefore, there is no reason to think that we should separate the parable from the precedent section, even if the same phrase is used in Luke’s Gospel, in a different context, in 13.30, to announce that the gentiles will be invited to come into the Kingdom of God, where they will take the places of the Jews, who were the first who have been invited.

There will be weeping there, and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, but you yourselves thrown out. People will come from east and west and north and south, and will take their places at the feast in the kingdom of God. Indeed there are those who are last who will be first, and first who will be last. (Lk 13:28-30).

As a good professor, Jesus must have employed this phrase several times and in different contexts! But I will come back to this later. We have to interpret this phrase used by Jesus in the rich young man section in the light of the explanation he gives of it in the parable of the workers. I shall first point to the elements of the parable which seem relevant to me, and try afterwards to link them to the preceding section.

Some relevant elements of the parable

We are dealing here with a parable; it is not a text on business management. Jesus paints the portrait of an employer using strange management practices, which defy the laws of economy of the first century as well as those of our era. This is obviously due to the fact that the landowner, the pater familias, is God and that Jesus is not speaking about economy but about divine intervention in human history. The parable is about the Kingdom of heaven. However, one question has to be asked: are the teachings of the parable purely spiritual or do they point to a more concrete and earthly reality?

Now, what about the vineyard? Does it stand for Israel as, for instance, in Isaiah 5 and in the parable of the tenants in Matthew 21.33-46, which is based on the prophecy of Isaiah? Or does this parable element play no relevant role in its interpretation? The only reason for its presence is that it enabled Jesus to imagine a situation where workers can be hired at different hours of the day. There should be other elements in the text suggesting a relationship to Israel if the vineyard should be identified with Israel.

There are also the different groups of workers who are hired early in the morning, and then about the third hour, and then about the sixth, the ninth, and finally the eleventh. This makes five different groups of workers. Should we distinguish each group and try to identify them? Or does Jesus use these elements in order to draw a more dramatic picture? The last way of understanding the parable seems to prevail because, as was said before, it emphasizes the difference in attitude between the first and the last. But this does enlighten us as to the identity of the people in each of these two groups.

The parable and the rich young man section

We must now try to discern the meaning of the parable, taking notice of the fact that its role is to explain the dialogue of Jesus with the rich man and his disciples. There are three main interpretations.

For some exegetes, the vineyard should be identified with Israel; they establish a close parallel between the meaning of the phrases in 19.30 and 20.16 – “But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first” and “So the last will be first, and the first will be last” – and the meaning of the phrase in Luke 13.30: our parable too would be about the entrance of gentiles into the Kingdom of Heaven in replacement of the Jews. However, this interpretation dissociates the parable from Jesus’ dialogue with the rich man and the disciples, where nothing is said about gentiles.

But it must be noticed that Jesus prophesies that “at the renewal of all things”, when the new creation takes place and “the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne”, the apostles “will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (19.28). This suggests that the vineyard could well be Israel and not just an ordinary vineyard. And if this is the case, the realities which the parable points to may be of a concrete and not just spiritual nature.

According to the second interpretation, Jesus’ desire is to underscore that God’s way of rewarding his servants’ work does not obey to a law of strict retribution. Nobody can take advantage of his goodness. God is the Lord, and his action is that of the Lord and is governed by his free grace. Exegetes who adopt this interpretation note that the parable follows Jesus’ discussion with his disciples about the promised rewards in the Kingdom of heaven and the dignity which he will afford to the apostles. But Jesus would then add through his parable that the last of his disciples will not be treated less well than the first. God is much more generous than we because, as the apostles did, all disciples will go through the renunciations they have to go through for the sake of the Kingdom.

However, this interpretation has to face three difficulties. First, while the parable draws a clear distinction between two groups among the workers, the first ones and the last, one does not see to which of Jesus’ disciples these two groups correspond according to this interpretation. This point is especially important since Jesus regroups all his disciples in one and the same group: the “everyone” of 19.29. Secondly, the fundamental issue in the rich man section is not gradations in reward but inheritance of eternal life. The third difficulty of this interpretation is that the first workers in the parable speak out against God’s love, in the same way as the elder brother in the parable of the prodigal son; they do not seem to belong to Jesus’ disciples.

The third interpretation seems to explain Jesus’ teaching better. The denarius represents eternal life. The first workers are those who put themselves on a strict retribution footing for their work; their logic is that of the rich young man: “What good thing must I do to get eternal life?” As it is the case with this man, they work in the vineyard of God but they do not know him. God’s justice is alien to them; they despise God’s goodness and do not understand his grace: “Don't I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?” (20.15). The last hour workers are those who benefit from the grace of God and the denarius they receive is the inheritance of eternal life, which is God’s free gift. They represent all Jesus’ true disciples from the rich man section.

But we can go a little further in our interpretation. As in the parable of the tenants in Matthew 21, the vineyard represents Israel, as it is implied by the mention, in 19.28, of the twelve thrones on which the twelve apostles will be seated in order to judge or govern the twelve tribes of Israel. The first workers of our parable are those among the people of Israel who are like the rich young man, who is an honest and dramatic example of these workers; these people idolise the divine blessings. The last workers are those who have decided to follow Jesus; they renounced putting their trust in these blessings and have put their faith in God alone; they represent the people of the Beatitudes. It is to this Israel of faith, of whom the Twelve are the new representatives, that Jesus promises the accomplishment of the New Creation prophecies in which each of them will be given the denarius of grace: the inheritance of eternal life in the coming Kingdom. When, in Luke 13.30, Jesus applies the phrase “the first ones will be the last, and the last ones the first” to the entrance of the gentiles into the vineyard of Israel, he adds to the group of the last hour workers those who had no right at all to work in God’s vineyard!

But it should be noted that Jesus declares, in 19.29, that “everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life”. What does he mean by this phrase “a hundred times as much”? Does he speak about the realities of the coming Kingdom or about what those who have renounced everything out of love for him will receive from him in the present? We know that it is the second interpretation that is found in the both parallel texts in Mark 10.29-30 and Luke 18.29-30. I quote Mark’s version:

Jesus replied, "no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age (homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields - and with them, persecutions) and in the age to come, eternal life. (Mk 10.29-30)

Already in this present age, the beatitudes’ people receives God’s consolation – but with persecutions. In the Christian community, the voluntary renunciations made by the members of the future Kingdom out of love for Jesus and in order to live according to the ethics of perfection will be largely compensated. They will receive the deposit of the Spirit, but also, in the Church, the deposit of the Coming Kingdom.

We should be like children who believe in God and trust him, and we must learn to live through his grace! May God help us to truly love him!