Read the passage here.
Our passage today is again a fairly large one, so we are going to not spend as much time on it as it probably deserves. However, we’re looking at such a large chunk because of the way it hangs together. We’re going to look at the relationship between the three sections and think about what it means for us as Christians and as a church of Christ today.
Now the first thing to notice is that this passage begins with the word, “For…” As we are probably aware, the word “For” is a logical connector and here it points to something that has happened previously in the text. If we remember, the passage that we looked at last week was Jesus’ encounter with the rich man. The rich man comes to Jesus, having been as faithful as he knows how according to the Jewish traditions, wondering if there’s anything else that he has to do to gain eternal life. Jesus tells him that this rich man should give everything he has to the poor. And without repeating the entire message from last week, essentially what we see is that Jesus points to the fact that the things that the rich man (and others) assumed were indicators of his faithfulness – and therefore his due reward – are not the things that are important to the kingdom of God (i.e. he thinks, “I’ve been very successful in the world. Therefore, God must be pleased with me. Jesus says this is not the case). At the end of this passage, Jesus tells his disciples:
28 Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. 29 And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life. 30 But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.Matthew 19:28-30
In essence, Jesus tells them once again that the ways of the kingdom are not the ways of the world (or the ways that people assumed the kingdom worked). In the world, you try to get ahead. In the world, you try to lift yourself up (as the rich man probably understood). In the kingdom, you leave behind the ways of the world. In the kingdom, the first will be last and the last will be first.
Now we skipped over a few verses last week, but it’s worthwhile noting that the passage immediately preceding (and possibly logically connected to) the rich man is Jesus telling the disciples to allow the children to come to him. We won’t go into this in detail, but remember that the last time we encountered children in Jesus’ ministry, we posited that it had to do with those with little or no social standing being (not only?) welcome, but constitutive of the kingdom.
At any rate, I want to note that (in 19:28-30), the encounter with the rich man ends with the phrase “But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first” – many who are first in the world will be last in the kingdom, and many who are last in the world will be first in the kingdom. These are the same words with which Jesus ends the parable in our passage today. In the parable, a landowner hires workers in the morning and agrees to pay them a wage. Later in the day, he hires more workers and agrees to pay them as well. At the end of the day, when all the workers are to be paid, the last hired are paid first. And when the first hired workers are paid, they are shocked that they did not get paid any more than the workers who were hired later. “Don’t we deserve more?” they ask? “Didn’t we work harder and longer?”
The landowner’s response is worth reading. He tells them:
13 “But he answered one of them, ‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? 14 Take your pay and go. I want to give the one 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.”Matthew 20:13-16
Again, there’s much more we could say about this parable, but we’re going to carry on. Skipping ahead to verse 20, we get this encounter with the mother of James and John (the sons of Zebedee). She asks Jesus if, when Jesus comes into his kingdom, James and John can have the positions of highest honour (the right and the left). Jesus’ response is interesting. Because he doesn’t say yes or no. He doesn’t accuse them of grubbing for position. He doesn’t even say that they are asking the wrong thing. What he says is, “Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?”
I find this interesting because I think embedded in this somewhat enigmatic response are several assumptions. First, keep in mind the assumptions that the rich man (and the disciples, if you remember) seemed to have. That is, if you do the things you’re supposed to do (i.e. “keep the commandments”), then you will be rewarded. What we know from the gospels is that James and John along with Peter form the so-called “inner circle” of Jesus – they seemed to be His closest companions and confidantes. So perhaps James and John assumed that, because they were closest to Jesus, they probably did more “disciple” things, they worked the hardest and longest, they deserved special places of honour.
On that note, it’s interesting to remember that Peter, James, and John (along with Andrew) are the first disciples called:
Mt. 4:18 As Jesus was walking beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon called Peter and his brother Andrew. They were casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. 19 “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will send you out to fish for people.” 20 At once they left their nets and followed him.
21 Going on from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John. They were in a boat with their father Zebedee, preparing their nets. Jesus called them, 22 and immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him.Matthew 4:18-22
But for Jesus, the ones who (presumably) belong at his right and left are not defined by such things, they are the ones who drink the cup Jesus drinks.
So when we read the rest of this section, we see that the other disciples are upset:
20:24 When the ten heard about this, they were indignant with the two brothers. 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.”Matthew 20:24-28
Again, we’re not going to parse this dialogue, but what’s important for our purposes is that Jesus essentially says that who is the greatest in the kingdom is not according to worldly criteria. The disciples here are concerned about position. They are concerned with who deserves the reward. But Jesus is concerned about other things. He says, “whoever wants to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave.” In other words, many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.
So both of these passages, the parable and the dialogue, seem to have as their message, “the first shall be last, and the last shall be first.” They are looking at this from slightly different perspectives, but the main point seems to be the same. That the ways of the kingdom are not the ways of the world. The things that the world cares about are not the things that God cares about. And in particular, they both relate to the idea that if you do certain things, you deserve a certain reward. So, in a sense, they both take a certain approach to the meaning (or perhaps goal?) of life.
Now this is not new to most (if not any of us). We are familiar with the notion that Christians should be humble, that we should care about others, and that we should seek the good of others before we are concerned with our own. We’ve read (and hopefully understood) through the gospel of Matthew that the ways of the kingdom are not the ways of the world. But what I want to do is think a little more about what this means – and about what this passage may be telling us about what this means.
Sandwiched between both of these passages are these few verses where Jesus talks, once more, about his upcoming death. In vv. 17-19, we read:
17 Now Jesus was going up to Jerusalem. On the way, he took the Twelve aside and said to them, 18 “We are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death 19 and will hand him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified. On the third day he will be raised to life!”Matthew 20:17-29
Now it strikes me as a little odd that this passage is here. It’s not new – in fact, it’s the third time that Jesus announces his impending death to his disciples. But the fact that this brief announcement is sandwiched between these two encounters – the parable and the argument about who will be first – I think tells us something important about what Jesus is doing and how he is doing it. It tells us something about the kind of kingdom Jesus is bringing about.
We know that the main concern for Matthew in giving us this gospel account is to demonstrate that Jesus is the Messiah. We know that the people of Israel had been waiting for a Messiah for a long time. They had spent centuries in exile and under foreign rule. And we know that their expectations for the Messiah would be that he would restore Israel to their proper place as God’s’ chosen people. And that they thought he would do so by power and might.
But what we have seen throughout this gospel account of Jesus’ life and ministry is that he had little interest in fulfilling these erroneous expectations. He was indeed to restore the people of God, and indeed all of creation. But he had no interest in fulfilling the expectations of the world through the ways of the world.
In brief, the concern for power and position, the fight for influence and authority, the desire to have more than others, the fear of losing what we have are all results of the fall. They are all the result of losing communion with our God, losing communion with one another. Therefore, how could communion with God be restored by using or trusting in such things (which are precisely the result of the fall). Jesus could not and would not.
Instead, Jesus gives up all of those things, Jesus turns away from all the tools and symbols of power, and radically puts his faith and trust in the Father. Jesus gives up his very life to those who claim power in order to restore the world to God.
So when Jesus says to James and John, “Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?” I think that we are meant to be reminded of Jesus’ announcement of his impending death. I think Jesus is indeed pointing to the fact that, as far as we know, most of the disciples ended up martyred for the sake of the gospel. But perhaps he’s also pointing to the kind of life they would be called to live. Would they be willing to give up what they think they know about how to make it in this world, would they be willing to enter into the suffering of a world that has lost communion with God, would they be willing to take up their cross and follow him?
This should, I hope obviously, cause us to think about how we live our lives, as Christians, as a church, in our world today. Because the powers and principalities, the values and priorities that the disciples were inundated with are still very much alive and well today. But as people of the kingdom, we are called to something different. We are called to something more.
Henri Nouwen puts it this way:
What was and is God’s response to the diabolic power that rules the world and destroys people and their lands? The answer is a deep and complete mystery because God chose powerlessness. God chose to enter into human history in complete weakness. That divine choice forms the center of the Christian faith. In Jesus of Nazareth, the powerless God appeared among us to unmask the illusion of power, to disarm the prince of darkness who rules the world, and to bring the divided human race to a new unity. It is through total and unmitigated powerlessness that God shows us divine mercy. The radical, divine choice is the choice to reveal glory, beauty, truth, peace, joy, and, most of all, love in and through the complete divestment of power. It is very hard—if not impossible—for us to grasp this divine mystery. We keep praying to the “almighty and powerful God.” But all might and power is absent from the one who reveals God to us saying: “When you see me you see the Father.” If we truly want to love God, we have to look at the man of Nazareth, whose life was wrapped in weakness. And his weakness opens for us the way to the heart of God.
That’s the mystery of the incarnation. God became human, in no way different from other human beings, to break through the walls of power in total weakness. That’s the story of Jesus.
And how did that story end? It ended on a cross, where the same human person hangs naked with nails through his hands and feet. The powerlessness of the manger has become the powerlessness of the cross. People jeer at him, laugh at him, spit in his face, and shout: “He saved others; he cannot save himself! He is the King of Israel; let him come down from the cross now, and we will believe in him” (Matt. 27:42). He hangs there, his flesh torn apart by lead-filled whips, his heart broken by the rejection of his friends and abuse from his enemies, his mind tortured by anguish, his spirit shrouded in the darkness of abandonment—total weakness, total powerlessness. That’s how God chose to reveal to us the divine love, bring us back into an embrace of compassion, and convince us that anger has been melted away in endless mercy. God became human, in no way different from other human beings, to break through the walls of power in total weakness.Henri Nouwen, Finding My Way Home.