True Discipleship (Matthew 19-20)

True Discipleship (Matthew 19-20)

Twinned with Jesus’ predictions of his passion are his principles for discipleship in the new Kingdom reality. Matthew commenced this dialectic in 16:21, continued it through the discourse in chapter 18 and now will bring it to conclusion as Jesus enters Jerusalem in 21:1. Jesus has been defining greatness in the Kingdom, i.e., the way of discipleship, in terms of “receiving the least of the brothers,” forgiveness, and renouncing claims to self. When sin interferes, the presence of the kingdom becomes blurred or imperceptible. Jesus continues to remind his followers of their accountability to God as human beings and to choose the way of life, i.e., “believing in me.” The disciples are struggling to grasp what Jesus is showing them about the kingdom reality, about his messiahship, and about their discipleship.

In chapters 19-20 Matthew continues to develop these three strands. Geographically, Jesus leaves Galilee and proceeds “into the regions of Judea beyond the Jordan,” i.e., Perea, probably east of the Jordan, thereby avoiding Samaria. These chapters summarize the much longer segment in Luke 9:51-18:34. Jesus has started his journey to Jerusalem. John’s Gospel indicates that Jesus went to Jerusalem various times in his ministry. The Synoptics choose, it seems, to focus on the final journey, simplifying Jesus’ mission so that it begins in Galilee and concludes in Jerusalem, the headquarters of Judaism and the location of the Temple. It mirrors a pattern of increasing confrontation, with Jesus becoming more aggressive in his ministry program, by moving into Jerusalem.

As Matthew 19 opens we find Jesus enmeshed in controversy with the religious leaders.

19:1-12            Teaching about Divorce

19:13-15          Teaching about Children

19:16-20:16     Teaching about wealth and eternal life:

The controversy                                    19:16-22

The dialogue with the disciples              19:23-30

Parable of the Vineyard Workers           20:1-16

20:17-19          Fourth Passion Prediction

20:20-28          Teaching about Greatness – Question of James and John

20:29-34          Healing of Two Blind Men

In the first three instances people come or are brought to Jesus with some concern – Pharisees, parents/children, rich man. Jesus engages them, and out of his comments dialogue proceeds with his disciples (19:10-12; 19:23-30; 20:20-28). The last two episodes also deal with concerns people bring to Jesus – for position and for healing. It is interesting that the controversy about divorce follows immediately upon Jesus’ strong presentation about forgiveness among his disciples. A similar order occurs in Matthew 5 as the need to be reconciled with a brother prior to worship precedes Jesus’ discussion about adultery. Is this significant?

19:1-12 Teaching on Divorce

This is the second time Jesus has discussed the issue of divorce and the Kingdom (cf. 5:27-32). In the first instance he had limited the basis for divorce to porneia (πορνεία any kind of sexual immorality) and restricted the possibilities for remarriage. In Matthew 19 the Pharisees challenge him on this matter. Perhaps they thought that if John the Baptist was arrested (14:3-12) and executed by Herod Antipas because he publicly criticized his marriage to Herodias, his brother’s wife, they might get Jesus into similar trouble and have Herod execute him. If Herod thought that Jesus was “John resurrected,” then presumably he would expect some public criticism about his divorce to be expressed by Jesus. Matthew, as Mark, says that they were deliberately ‘testing’ Jesus (cf. Satan’s testing of Jesus in Matthew 4). With the crowd as witnesses, they lay the trap with their question: “Is it lawful for a person to divorce his wife for any reason (kata pasan aitian κατὰ πᾶσαν αἰτιαν)?”

There was debate within Judaism about this issue. One school of thought, typified by the famous rabbi, Shammai, interpreted Deuteronomy 24:1 as only allowing divorce based upon sexual infidelity (“anything indecent”). Hillel, conversely, interpreted “anything indecent” as referring to any cause, no matter how trivial it might seem. The initiative lay with the husband. We have to remember that Jesus’ response is given to a very precise question and in a situation of controversy. He does not give us a full discourse on every aspect of divorce in this discussion. Further Jesus probably is not interested in details of the Torah per se, but rather how the Torah relates to him and his ministry. He also wants to correct current misunderstandings about God’s intent as revealed in the Torah and its application.

Jesus refers them to the Jewish sacred texts found in Genesis describing the creation of human beings. God’s intent is discerned in Moses’ instruction that “a person will leave father and mother and cleave to his wife and the two shall become one flesh.” Jesus here quotes the Septuagint text almost verbatim. God intended his people in marriage to move their allegiance from parents to spouse. Jesus does not define the last part of this statement, but probably he refers to the deepest intimacy between husband and wife. Jesus never explores what this oneness means spiritually. In essence Jesus is arguing that the creation statement gives us God’s foundational principle and desire with respect to marriage. This principle is the foundational perspective from which all guidelines for marriage should flow and with which they must be compatible. If this is the case, then a human being should not break apart what God himself has joined together and made one. The fall did not absolve human beings from obeying this injunction. God’s intent is that every marriage be permanent.

The Pharisees respond with a reasonable question. If God said that in Genesis, why did God give to Israel through Moses in Deuteronomy 24:1 a different regulation, so that “Moses commanded to provide a statement of divorce and send her away?” While this section of the Law does not explicitly condone divorce, the fact that it regards divorce as a reality and makes provision for it is viewed as justification for its practice, and opens the door for abuse. Here we have another example of the improper use of scripture to justify breaking the law. Jesus had criticized the Pharisees for this in Matthew 15 and again underscores this problem. Jesus counters their question by affirming again that this was not God’s intent. Rather, it was human sinfulness (sklērokardia “hard-heartedness” σκληροκαρδία; this defines Israel’s obduracy in Greek Deuteronomy) that led God to make this provision. It was to be the exception required because of human failure; it was not to be considered the norm. In mercy God makes a way for human beings to deal with sinful actions and still to enjoy a meaningful life. Between these two statements in Genesis and Deuteronomy, the fall had occurred.

Jesus provides his Kingdom principle, in contrast to what Moses had allowed. As in the antitheses in Matthew 5 so here, Jesus speaks out of his own authority. He repeats what in essence he had taught in Matthew 5: “Whoever sends away his wife except for marital infidelity (epi porneiai ἐπὶ πορνείᾳ|) and marries another, commits adultery.” Many pastoral questions swirl around the issues of divorce and remarriage (cf. Blomberg, 292-293). The present tense might means “commits adultery.” If divorce becomes the only solution, then both parties have to confess failure before God and deal with that sinfulness as with any other sinfulness.

The response of the disciples to Jesus’ conclusion is dramatic. He is stricter than Shammai, so they conclude “it is not advantageous/beneficial to marry.” Do they speak more than they know? Jesus agrees that their conclusion is “hard to grasp.”[1] “This message” probably refers to what the disciples have just said. He affirms their conclusion. God has designed celibacy for some, but not for all. To be celibate “for the sake of the kingdom” is a noble thing, even though such people could get married. Cf. Paul’s discussion of marriage and celibacy in 1 Cor. 7. Righteousness in the kingdom is more demanding than the Pharisees define. This is why forgiveness and reconciliation need to be practiced more often and more explicitly as Kingdom principles, even in the case of marriage. Perhaps Jesus is arguing that if divorce is necessary, for the sake of kingdom a person could choose not to remarry and avoid any hint of sinfulness, i.e., remain a eunuch. Forgiveness is always an option and perhaps the preferred path.

19:13-15 Teaching About Children

This short segment records the action, presumably of parents, in bringing their children to Jesus. They want him to “place hands on them and pray for them.”  Such an action would be followed to seek God’s blessing for them. The word paidia (παιδία) can refer to children of various ages. His disciples seek to prevent this from occurring, but their motivation is not defined. Did they think this was a distraction for Jesus or in some way unsuitable for the Messiah to do? Whatever the reason, it demonstrates their lack of concern for the vulnerable and powerless. If they cannot respond positively to literal ‘children’, how will they respond appropriately to “the little ones” (chapter 18), i.e., novice disciples, showing repentance and humility? Here they fail the test of discipleship as Jesus has defined it.

What is Jesus teaching about the Kingdom here? Jesus wants the children to come to him. Why? Probably because it is a visible demonstration of the way that all people should come to God for salvation and also demonstrates his humbleness. “People such as these” possess the Kingdom! Jesus is not saying that all children automatically are part of the kingdom. Rather he is arguing that kingdom involvement requires a child-like dependence upon God. If his disciples do not know how to value and welcome such children into the Kingdom, how do they demonstrate their own entrance into the kingdom with childlike faith? Perhaps this is akin to the statements Jesus has been making about the need to demonstrate forgiveness in order to show that one has received forgiveness.[2]

19:16-20:16 Teaching About Wealth and Eternal Life

Jesus’ teaching about the relationship between wealth and spiritual status causes considerable debate among the disciples. Matthew takes considerable space in his Gospel to respond to these issues. It suggests that these issues were of particular import to him and/or his audience. The interaction between the rich man and Jesus is followed by the dialogue with his disciples. Matthew includes the parable of the vineyard workers which occurs between the repeated principle “the first shall be last and the last first” (19:30; 20:16 Jesus reverses the order in 20:16).

Matthew reports Jesus’ encounter with “one” drawing near to him (v. 16). Not until v. 22 does Matthew reveal that this man “was possessing many properties.” In v. 20 Matthew describes him as veaniskos (νεανίσκος, young (20-40)). His question is clear – “what good thing should I do in order to possess eternal life?” (v. 16) Only here and in v. 29 does Matthew use the expression “eternal life,” although he had talked about life as a goal several times (cf. 18:8-9). The disciples in v. 25 seem to equate this with being ‘saved’.

A textual difficulty occurs in Jesus’ answer. Mark in his account has Jesus challenge the man’s statement that Jesus is ‘good’. Some texts in Matthew have a similar reading, but there is another reading that indicates the man asks Jesus to name the good thing he must do to possess eternal life. It is hard to know exactly what Jesus said. The logic seems to be that “God alone is good” or “The Good Person is One” (a variation of the Shema in Deut. 6:4) and so God alone knows what good thing a person needs to do in order to have an eternal relationship with God. If he is asking Jesus about this, then what is he assuming about Jesus’ connection with God? In other words the question he asks makes him appear like a disciple of Jesus, but Jesus wants to know really what is in his heart and what he understands.

The man responds to Jesus’ question (v. 18) by asking “which ones?” Is this a genuine question or a smoke screen? Was he looking for an easier standard of righteousness than the Pharisees proposed?  Or had Jesus’ teaching regarding the Pharisees’ understanding about the commands created confusion in his mind? Jesus’ formula seems to be a surprise – “keep the commands.” This would be the standard answer any Jewish Rabbi would give. Matthew does not have the Markan addition “do not defraud” and adds the second great commandment “love your neighbour” from Lev. 19:18, perhaps substituting this for the command not to covet. The man’s response seems surprising to us: “I have kept all these. What am I still lacking?” If he has kept these commands, and this is what Jesus says is the way to gain eternal life, then why does he sense he is lacking anything? Is this man being spiritually challenged by Jesus’ kingdom teaching and wanting to make sure he will participate in whatever God is doing?

According to Jesus, if this person desires to be complete (cf. 5:48; 6:20) and possess “treasure in heaven” (cf. Matt. 6:18ff), then he needs to get rid of what he has now (lose his life), give it to the poor (use it for God’s glory), and follow Jesus. If he does this then he will possess “treasure in heaven,” i.e., eternal life (cf. 5:3-6). Selling his property and giving the proceeds to the poor will have no meaning, if he does not follow Jesus (1 Cor. 13:3). The cost is immense, but the reward is greater – he will save his life only by losing it (cf. parables about the pearl and the hid treasure in 13:44-46). The man “hears the word,” but it does not take root (13:22). He is terribly upset because of his wealth. We do not know whether he ever becomes a follower of Jesus.

When the man leaves, Jesus makes an observation to his disciples that triggers a significant dialogue (vv. 23- 20:16). “A rich person with difficulty will enter into the kingdom of heaven.” Prefacing it with ‘amen’ makes it a very solemn pronouncement. In chapter 18 Jesus has told them that people must become like a little child in order to enter the Kingdom, i.e., declare their dependence upon God for salvation and life. He suggests that wealthy people have difficulty doing this because they become very self-sufficient. It is hard to “renounce self” and give the priority to God when wealth generates self-sufficiency, power and prestige. In chapter 13 the parable of the soils had listed “the deceitfulness of wealth” as one of the elements in this world that choke the seed of the gospel, preventing it from flourishing and bearing fruit. In his instructions to his disciples in chapter 10 he commanded them not to take money for their mission, but rather to exercise faith in God’s provision. The hyperbole Jesus gives in the next verse poetically repeats what he said in v. 23, but emphasizes the problems that wealth creates for Kingdom participation. Treasure on earth gets in the way of establishing treasure in heaven. Mammon is a great idol.

Note here that Matthew uses both Kingdom of Heaven (v. 23) and Kingdom of God (v. 24) apparently without distinction. Or if there is a distinction, Jesus wants to leave no impression that one can enter the one without entering the other.

There is another side to this that must be considered. Jewish theology taught that wealth was a sign of God’s blessing. When we read the stories of the patriarchs in the OT, we discover that their obedience often leads to great wealth and prestige. After Job is tested, God blesses him with immense wealth. When this wealthy person came to Jesus and inquired what good thing he should do to possess eternal life, I am sure he expected a different answer than he received. This common theological assumption gives rise to the disciples’ consternation expressed in v. 25 – “Who then is able to be saved?” If the wealthy, those who are the object of God’s blessing, cannot make it into the Kingdom, then no one stands a chance! But Jesus insists that his observation is correct. No correlation exists between wealth and righteousness. Regardless of a person’s wealth or other status, salvation cannot be gained by human effort. Only God can create the salvation, i.e., entrance into the kingdom that human beings need. This in fact is what he is doing in and through Jesus, despite its unusual character and fashion.

Peter again engages Jesus. Perhaps he has been reflecting on Jesus’ teaching about discipleship in chapter 16, where he said that a person who desires to be a disciple must renounce self, take up his cross beam and follow Jesus. As well, Jesus has taught that establishing treasure in heaven is our priority. “Look, we have abandoned everything and followed you. What then shall we have?” We have done what you have taught, Peter declares, so tell us what our treasure or reward will be. Blomberg wonders whether they are bothered by the rich man’s question and ask Jesus in essence whether they need to do anything more to ensure their participation in the kingdom.[3] Peter comes close to expressing what Jesus had condemned in chapter 6 – giving alms, praying or fasting in order to be considered very religious by other people – such already have their reward and God will give nothing more. How do Jesus’ statements in the Beatitudes relate to these principles?

Jesus, using his solemn formula ‘amen’, quickly assures them that they will participate with him in the Kingdom. He prophesies about the second coming of the Son of Man, when he comes in his glory and sits on his throne, at the restoration of everything (paliggenesia παλιγγενεσία), probably the new heaven and new earth (2 Peter 3:10-13- Rev. 21-22). The Twelve will judge the twelve tribes of Israel. Again, the theme of judgment is emphasized. Jesus links the Son of Man and the throne with Daniel 7:13. There may also be reference to Psalm 110:1 – “sit at my right hand.” Presumably the throne is a seat of power and judgment. Consider 25:31 where the Son of Man separates the sheep and the goats, which includes all nations, not just Israel. Remember also the words of Jesus in 11:27, that “all things have been handed over to him by the Father.” Here again we see a different sense of the Messiah concept because in Jewish writings, other than Qumran materials, the Messiah does not fill this role. John the Baptist hints at this already in 3:11. In some sense the choice of the Twelve represented God’s desire to reconstitute Israel so their function in judging the ethnic Israel is appropriate.

The concept of “renewal of all things” (paliggensia) is found in the Greco-Roman world, particularly in Stoic philosophy. Some Stoic philosophers taught that the universe was destroyed by fire in periodic cycles and then renewed. They used the term paliggensia (παλιγγενεσία) to describe this radical change. Philo uses this term to describe the destruction and renewal that occurred during the judgment of the Flood (Moses 2.65). In some Christian texts we also see a connection between the flood period and the final judgment (2 Peter 3:5-7). Jesus hints at this kind of cosmic renewal in 5:18 and 24:35, where he describes the passing away of the current world. What does the use of such a word within Jesus’ teaching (at least as Matthew represents it) say about the nature of Jesus’ language (Greek or Aramaic) or his awareness of current  concepts used in pagan philosophy? Or had this terminology been absorbed into Jewish-Hellenistic discussions already, as Philo’s writings might suggest?

Jesus addresses specifically the sacrifice that the disciples have made – leaving households, brothers, sisters, father, mother, children or fields (cf. Matthew 10:37) – “for the sake of Jesus’ name.” They have done this in order to follow Jesus and honour his claims. They will receive a blessing that is a 100x greater, as well as inheriting eternal life. There will be an eternal family and dwelling whose capacity far exceeds anything they currently have experienced. Matthew does not have the reference to “this age” or the reference to persecution. Perhaps he thinks the previous sayings of Jesus have already emphasized this sufficiently.

Finally, Jesus gives the principle of reversal. Those who in this life seem to have first place because of wealth, or prestige or family, will in fact end up last, i.e., judged by God and excluded from Kingdom blessing. The last will be first. The parable that follows (20:1-16) provides further commentary on what this statement means.

The parable of the vineyard workers is one of the most elaborate and developed parables that Jesus told. If we presume that the more significant parables were given to emphasize the more important elements of his teaching, then Jesus must have considered this principle of reversal to be one of the key points in his message. In addition, there is no interpretation offered. He regards the sense of the parable to be abundantly clear. All he says to aid our understanding is given in v. 16 – “Thus shall the last be first and the first last.”

Jesus offers this parable in the context of the discussion of rewards when the Son of Man returns in the glory of his kingdom. The message of the parable would then comment on some aspect of this in his discussion with his disciples that continues from chapter 19. Since the key point of the parable seems to be the will of the landowner to treat each worker equally, no matter how much time they spent labouring in his harvest, presumably Jesus wants his disciples to learn that all those in the Kingdom of God will be rewarded and blessed equally by God. Grace is no respecter of persons. All can be great in the Kingdom. The little one is the greatest. Jesus attacks the disciples’ preoccupation with greatness and rewards. Essentially he says it is not important. What is critical is their ability to rejoice in God’s provision of salvation. There is work for all in the Kingdom, whoever will join the harvest. Whomever God invites and whoever responds, God will reward equally. There are no favourites.

The structure of the parable emphasizes the foundational truth Jesus is teaching. When the labourers are paid, the manager begins with the ‘last ones’ hired and pays them a denarius, and then works through every group until he arrives at the ‘first ones’ hired. God is just and treats all his children justly. To think otherwise is to perceive God through an ‘evil’, perhaps diseased, eye.

In this section we have seen Jesus address issues related to married women and little children, groups that traditionally had little power in Palestine. He emphasizes God’s desire through creation ordinances and through the actions of Jesus for these to be treated justly, particularly as they may enter the Kingdom. Human wealth or prestige will not compel God to treat some people in the Kingdom more generously than others. In the end all of us in the Kingdom are recipients of God’s rich grace and that should suffice. Even children and women can be great in the Kingdom.


20:17-19 Fourth Passion Prediction (cf. 17:22-23; 17:9-13; 16:21)

Jesus is on the way to Jerusalem at this point. Matthew is quite specific. “In the way” he privately makes another passion prediction. The Son of Man is central again. The chief priests and scribes are identified as the ones who orchestrate the arrest and sentence of death. The nations (gentiles) are the ones who actually “mock, scourge and crucify him.” But he will be raised to life – by God. Each of these elements is fulfilled in 27:27-50 and follows normal Roman procedure for execution. The Romans did not give the Jews the right to execute criminals. Things are reaching a climax. In a matter of weeks all these events will have occurred. Jesus for the first time reveals how he will die in Jerusalem, by crucifixion.


20:20-28 Teaching About Greatness – Question of James and John

In 19:28 Jesus had said that the twelve would sit on twelve thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel. Probably the mother of James and John was not part of that conversation. If this premise is correct, then James and John probably prompted their mother to make this request of Jesus. Note that Jesus shifts to the second person plural in his response (v. 22) and addresses James and John directly, although their mother asks the question. The request is for James and John to occupy the thrones nearest that of the Son of Man, presumably the thrones that would have the most significance, prestige and power.

Jesus’ response again focuses upon the cost the Son of Man pays before regaining his heavenly throne – drinking the cup. In the OT the ‘cup’ was a metaphor for suffering, often caused by God’s wrath (Psalm 75:8; Isaiah 51:17). Jesus asks whether they are prepared to sustain the same kind of suffering in order to occupy these places. Their quick response (v. 22) leads us to wonder whether they truly understand what Jesus is talking about, even though he has just predicted what this ‘cup’ will entail – a true taking up of the cross. They respond positively to Jesus’ question, perhaps thinking that they are willing to make some sacrifices to achieve these positions of glory. Jesus affirms that they will experience suffering as his disciples, but then denies their request because it is beyond his jurisdiction. His Father makes all such decisions. Blomberg[4] wonders whether Jesus acknowledges the Father’s authority because in fact there are no places of distinction in the kingdom, as the parable of the vineyard workers has just indicated.

It is no struggle to understand the angry response of the ten disciples when they discover what James and John were doing. Jesus addresses the entire group once again about this issue of “becoming great” and “being first,” the two key questions that he has been discussing since chapter 18. However, his words in vv. 25-28 must surely be climactic and somewhat final on this subject. Jesus first rejects the models of earthly kingship and governance as the ways that define greatness in his Kingdom. He uses two terms – diakonos (διάκονος assistant, servant), doulos (δοῦλος slave) to define the attitudes and responses that define greatness in his Kingdom. The desire to be first will demonstrate itself in the humble attitude of the serving agent and slave. We go back to chapter 18 where greatness is defined in terms of “receiving the child as Jesus himself.”  Jesus is Lord and we serve our Lord as we serve one another.

It is perhaps also the case that the community has a role to play in determining the great one and the first one. They know who serves and humbly works as slave for their benefit. Discipleship is not a game of one-upmanship, but rather a matter of loving service for the good of the other.

Jesus concludes by using the Son of Man as the ultimate example. The nature of the Son of Man’s service is defined by his willingness “to give his life,” i.e., to die.  His service is both to God, his Father, and to humans. In this he demonstrates his fulfillment of the two great commands. The ransom (lutron (λύτρον)) is the price paid for a slave’s freedom. Jesus says the Son of Man dies for slaves, to gain their freedom. Those in the Kingdom who would follow Jesus, similarly will give their lives for the benefit of slaves, fellow slaves of God, and those who are still enslaved by Satan.

This is the language of sacrifice – as the Son of Man declares that he will pay the price, acting as our substitute and paying the price by his vicarious death on our behalf and in our place. “The many” would be those who seek forgiveness from God and entrance into the Kingdom on the basis of the Messiah’s actions – death and resurrection. This statement seems to reflect the language of Isaiah 53:10-12. We do know from texts such as 4 Maccabees 6:27-29 that the idea of ransom through sacrifice for the good of others was known in Judaism in the middle of the first century. However, this is for Jewish people, not Gentiles. Jesus here provides some rationale and interpretative framework for his passion, death and resurrection. Further reflection will be provided in 26:26-28.


20:29-34 Healing of Two Blind Men

This segment ends with a request for healing from two blind men outside Jericho, a request that Jesus responds to positively. Matthew notes two men, whereas Mark only notes one and names him Bartimaeus. Matthew uses similar language found in the previous healing of a blind person in 9:27-31 – the plea for mercy and the use of the title “Son of David.” The blind refuse to be cowed by the rebukes for silence from the crowd, who prevent these “little ones” from gaining access to Jesus. Presumably the crowds see them as interfering in Jesus’ progression to Jerusalem. The fact that Jesus stops to respond to their need again shows the contrast between the crowds desire to participate in some great event and receive the benefit of that and Jesus’ focus on being a servant to people in need, the little ones, and sharing the wonder of the Kingdom reality with those who need it most. There may be an intentional parallel between the request made by James and John and the request made by the two blind men. Why does Jesus reject the one and respond to the other? When they are healed, the men join the crowd following Jesus on his way to Jerusalem.

[1] Perhaps there is a play on words between chorizo (19:6 χωρίζω separate) and chōreō (19:11 χωρέω grasp). Cf. 13:11.

[2] Personally, I see no connection here with the issue of baptism, contrary to what many commentators’ claim. Rather, the wording takes me back to Matthew 18 and Jesus’ statements about disciples = children.

[3] Blomberg, 300.

[4] Blomberg, 307.