The Economy of the Kingdom (Matthew 20:1-16)

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This is the second of a four part series of posts in which David Williams shares some historical and theological observations on the Bible passages studied at the Urbana Student Missions Conference 2015. The passages under consideration are Matthew 8:1-17, Matthew 20:1-16, Matthew 25:31-26, Matthew 27:57-28:15. In follow-up he will post an application piece. We’d also love to hear how would apply in your particular campus context.

If you’re at Urbana15, please swing by and hangout at the Emerging Scholars Network/Graduate & Faculty

  • booth (626/628)
  • and/or lounge.

Thank-you to David for contributing to the ESN blog at Urbana15 🙂 ~ Thomas B. Grosh IV, Associate Director, Emerging Scholars Network

Urbana15 fills hallways with small groups studying the Word of God. To God be the glory!

Urbana15 fills hallways with small groups studying the Word of God. To God be the glory!

Matthew 20:1-16: The Economy of the Kingdom

When Jesus stepped onto the stage of world history, Israel was eagerly awaiting the day when God would reassert His rule over all things, renewing the whole of creation, and the rescue, redemption, and restoration of His covenant people. This hope had been classically articulated in prophetic texts like Isaiah 52 and 60-66, and apocalyptic texts like Daniel 7. The good news Israel longed to hear was the good news that God’s Kingdom, at long last, was at hand:

How beautiful upon the mountains
are the feet of him who brings good news,
who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness,
who publishes salvation,
who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.”

This was the good news that Jesus brought—the good news of God’s Kingdom (see, e.g., Matt 4:17, 23; 9:35, etc.), the “new creation” (palingenesia, Matthew 19:28 and Isa 65), the restoration of the twelve tribes of Israel (Matt 19:28), and the reign of the promised Son of Man (see Dan 7 and Matt 19:28).

But the Kingdom Jesus embodied, announced and inaugurated was not quite what His countrymen had expected…or wanted. Jesus cast a radical alternative vision of God’s Kingdom, which again and again was met with either incomprehension or indignation from his fellow Jews—particularly from the popular lay religious leaders of the day, the Pharisees. And so, according to Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus taught His disciples “the secrets of the Kingdom of Heaven,” not in straightforward prose, but in cryptic sayings and piquant parables, perplexing the hardhearted but slowly refining the Kingdom vision of those with eyes to see.

In Matthew 20 Jesus relates one of these subversive stories. Jesus tells this particular story having just disappointed a rich young man by suggesting that the cost of discipleship—the abandonment of his attachment to his material possessions—was higher than what he had bargained for, and then astonishing His disciples by suggesting that entry into the Kingdom was nearly impossible for such people, despite the widespread cultural assumption that great wealth was an index of divine favor. Instead, says Jesus, “Everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last first.”(Matt 19:29-30) Being well-to-do by the world’s standards is no sure sign of inheriting the Kingdom, but leaving everything to follow Jesus is.

Jesus then likens the Kingdom to a landowner who hired laborers, some earlier and some later in the day, to work his vineyard, and who, at the end of the day, rewarded each worker equally. With their own subversive stories the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah had long ago established the vineyard as a familiar image for Israel (Isa 5; Jer 12), and Jesus’s audience would have immediately recognized His reference to a vineyard as such. Jesus deploys this potent image to say, in effect, that when God moves to redeem His people Israel, this is how it will go.

The parable suggests that the coming Kingdom will benefit not only the consistently faithful, but also Johnny-come-lately penitents, recovering ne’er-do-wells, and contrite amateur sinners. The Kingdom belongs as much to those who are not on top of things as it does to those who are. What matters, at the end of the day, is not the hours you have put in, but the sheer fact that the master has called and you have answered. And this master calls and rewards as He pleases. He is beholden to no one. The Kingdom’s economy is not fundamentally a transactional economy in which individuals will be rewarded for jobs well done. Instead the economy of the Kingdom is entirely an economy of grace in which what counts is the invitation of the master, an invitation which he bestows solely on the basis of His own generosity.

In keeping with the prophetic trope upon which He was drawing, Jesus’s landowner would initially have been recognized as representing Israel’s God. But both in the immediate context of the parable and throughout Matthew’s Gospel Jesus is the one who calls, who welcomes, who invites, thus making the figure of the landowner ambiguous: Does he represent Jesus, or does he represent the Lord? Jesus does not resolve the ambiguity, but the Gospel, taken as a whole, suggests that the answer the answer is both. Jesus himself, in His own work of welcoming sinners and outcasts, reveals the divine generosity of which he speaks in the parable. This Kingdom generosity should reconfigure all of our usual ways of evaluating success and status and security, and should change the calculus whereby we choose what we should do with our selves and our resources. One wonders whether the rich young man might have responded differently to Jesus’s invitation if he had been able to grasp this point. One wonders. But the real question is, having grasped the point ourselves, how will we respond?

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David Williams

David is a campus staff for InterVarsity’s Graduate & Faculty Ministries at New York University, where he serves as a university chaplain, and as a pastor and advisor for the school's medical, dental and law student fellowships. A native of Raleigh, North Carolina, David joined InterVarsity in 2011 and spent his first two years on staff serving the Graduate & Faculty Ministries at NC State University, Meredith College and Campbell Law School. David holds masters' degrees in biblical studies and theology from Westminster Theological Seminary and Duke Divinity School, and is a devoted lifelong learner. David is passionate about helping non-Christians to meet Jesus and about helping Christians — both Christian scholars and laypeople — to love the Lord their God with all their hearts, souls, minds and strength. David and his lovely wife, Alissa, live in New York City. You can follow David’s ministry at his blog, and you can support his pastoral and writing ministries here.

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