(1) For the kingdom.—The division of the chapter is here singularly unfortunate, as separating the parable both from the events which gave occasion to it and from the teaching which it illustrates. It is not too much to say that we can scarcely understand it at all unless we connect it with the history of the young ruler who had great possessions, and the claims which the disciples had made for themselves when they contrasted their readiness with his reluctance.
To hire labourers into his vineyard.—The framework of the parable brings before us a form of labour in some respects lower than that of the “servants,” or “slaves,” who formed part of the household, and had been bought or born to their position. The labourers here are the “hired servants” of Luke 15:17, engaged for a time only, and paid by the day. Interpreting the parable, we may see in the householder our Lord Himself. It was indeed a title which He seems to have, as it were, delighted in, and which He applies directly to Himself in Matthew 10:25; Matthew 13:27; Matthew 13:52. And the “vineyard” is primarily, as in Isaiah 5:1, the house of Israel, which the Anointed of the Lord had come to claim as His kingdom. The “early morning” answered accordingly to the beginning of our Lord’s ministry; the “labourers” He then called were the disciples whom, at the outset of His ministry, He had summoned to follow Him. He had promised them a reward. Though at the best they were unprofitable servants, He yet offered them wages, and the wages were the kingdom of heaven itself (Matthew 5:3; Matthew 5:10); in other words, “righteousness, and peace, and joy;” in other words, yet again, “eternal life, seeing and knowing God” (Matthew 5:8; John 17:3). We may trace, I believe, something of a subtle and peculiar fitness in our Lord’s choice of this form of labour, as distinct, on the one side, from free and willing service, and, on the other, from the task-work of slaves. It was not in itself the best or most adequate symbol of the relation of the disciples to their Lord, but as their question, “What shall we have, therefore?” implies, it was that on which their minds were dwelling, and therefore He chose it, adapting Himself so far to their weakness, that He might teach them the lesson which they needed.
Beginning from the last unto the first.—The order is not without its significance. It was a practical illustration of the words which had introduced the parable, that the last should be the first.
The goodman of the house.—Better, householder. The Greek word is the same as in Matthew 20:1, and the archaic English phrase is a needless variation.
The burden and heat of the day.—The word rendered “heat” is elsewhere used—as in James 1:11, and the LXX. of Jonah 4:8—for the “burning wind” that often follows on the sunrise, and makes the labour of the first half of the day harder than that of the latter.
I do thee no wrong.—The answer of the house holder is that of one who is just where claims are urged on the ground of justice, generous where he sees that generosity is right. Had the first-called labourers shared this generosity, they would not have grudged the others the wages that they themselves received, and would have found their own reward in sympathy with their joy. This would be true even in the outer framework of the parable. It is à fortiori true when we pass to its spiritual interpretation. No disciple who had entered into his Master’s spirit would grudge the repentant thief his rest in Paradise (Luke 23:43). No consistent Christian thinks that he ought to have some special reward because he sees a death-bed repentance crowned by a peace, the foretaste of eternal life, as full and assured as his own.
Is thine eye evil?—The “evil eye” was, as in Proverbs 28:22, that which looked with envy and ill will at the prosperity of others. In Mark 7:22, it appears among the “evil things” that come from the heart. Popularly, as the derivation of the word “envy” (from invidere) shows, such a glance was thought to carry with it a kind of magic power to injure, and was to be averted, in the superstitious belief which still lingers in the East and many parts of Europe, by charms and amulets.
For many be called, but few chosen.—The warning is repeated after the parable of the Wedding Feast (Matthew 22:14), and as it stands there in closer relation with the context, that will be the fitting place for dwelling on it. The better MSS., indeed, omit it here. If we accept it as the true reading, it adds something to the warning of the previous clause. The disciples had been summoned to work in the vineyard. The indulgence of the selfish, murmuring temper might hinder their “election” even to that work. Of one of the disciples, whose state may have been specially present to our Lord’s mind, this was, we know, only too fatally true. Judas had been “called,” but would not be among the “chosen” either for the higher work or for its ultimate reward-Interpreting the parable as we have been led to interpret it, we cannot for a moment imagine that its drift was to teach the disciples that they would forfeit their place in the kingdom. A wider interpretation is, of course, possible, and has been often applied, in which the first-called labourers answer to the Jews, and those who came afterwards to converts in the successive stages of the conversion of the Gentiles. But this, though perhaps legitimate enough as an application of the parable, is clearly secondary and subordinate, and must not be allowed to obscure its primary intention.
To drink of the cup that I shall drink of.—The words that follow, “to be baptised with the baptism that I am baptised with,” are not found in many of the best MSS., and have probably been added to bring St. Matthew’s narrative into harmony with St. Mark’s. For the sake of completeness, however, they will be examined here. And (1) we have the question, How did the two disciples understand our Lord’s words? We are familiar with their meaning. Was it equally clear to them? As far as the cup is concerned, there can be little doubt that any reader of the Old Testament would at once recognise it as the symbol of a good or evil fortune. There was the “cup running over” of Psalm 23:5, the “wine-cup of fury” of Jeremiah 25:15, the “cup of astonishment and desolation” of Ezekiel 23:33. The meaning of the “baptism” was, perhaps, less obvious (see Note on Matthew 20:29, on our Lord’s use of the symbolism), yet here also there were the overwhelming “proud waters” of Psalm 124:5, the “waves and billows” of Psalm 42:7. The very verb, “to baptize” (i.e., to plunge into the deep), was used by Josephus for the destruction of a city (Wars, iv. 3, § 3), by the LXX. for “terrifying” in Isaiah 21:4. Our Lord Himself had already used it in dim mysterious reference to His coming passion (Luke 12:50, where see Note). There was enough, then, to lead them to see in their Master’s words an intimation of some great suffering about to fall on Him, and this is, indeed, implied in the very form of their answer. “We are able,” they say, in the tone of those who have been challenged and accept the challenge. That their insight into the great mystery of the passion went but a little way as compared with their Master’s, lies, of course, in the very nature of the case. When the beloved disciple, in after years, taught by his own experience and by his brother’s death (Acts 12:2), thought over the words, “Let this cup pass from Me” (26:39), he must have seen somewhat more clearly into its depth of meaning.
To them for whom it is prepared of my Father.—He does not say who these are; but the reappearance of the same words in Matthew 25:34, throws some light on its meaning here. The kingdom is reserved for those who do Christ-like deeds of love; the highest places in the kingdom must be reserved for those whose love is like His own, alike in its intensity and its width.
Exercise dominion over them.—Better, as in 1 Peter 5:3, lord it over them. It is not easy to find a like forcible rendering for the other word, but we must remember that it, too, implies a wrong exercise of authority, in the interest, not of the subjects, but of the rulers.
To give his life a ransom for many.—The word rightly rendered “ransom,” is primarily “a price made for deliverance,” and in this sense it is found in the Greek version of the Old Testament for “the ransom” which is accepted instead of a man’s life in Exodus 21:30, for the “price of redemption” accepted as an equivalent for an unexpired term of service in Leviticus 25:50, for riches as the “ransom of a man’s life” in Proverbs 13:8. No shade of doubt accordingly rests on the meaning of the word. Those who heard could attach no other meaning to it than that He who spake them was about to offer up His life that others might be delivered. Seldom, perhaps, has a truth of such profound import been spoken, as it were, so incidentally. It is as if the words had been drawn from Him by the contrast between the disputes of the disciples and the work which had occupied His own thoughts as He walked on in silent solitude in advance of them. It is the first distinct utterance, we may note, of the plan and method of His work. He had spoken before of “saving” the lost (Matthew 18:11): now He declares that the work of “salvation” was to be also one of “redemption.” It could only be accomplished by the payment of a price, and that price was His own life. The language of the Epistles as to the “redemption that is in Christ Jesus,” our being “bought with a price” (Romans 3:24; 1 Corinthians 6:20), “redeemed by His precious blood” (1 Peter 1:19), the language of all Christendom in speaking of the Christ as our Redeemer, are the natural developments of that one pregnant word. The extent of the redemptive work, “for many,” is here indefinite rather than universal, but “the ransom for all” of 1 Timothy 2:6 shows in what sense it was received by those whom the Spirit of God was guiding into all truth. Even the preposition in, “for many” has a more distinct import than is given in the English version. It was, strictly speaking, a “ransom” instead of, in the place of, (ἀντὶ not ὑπὲρ) “many.” Without stating a theory of the atonement, it implied that our Lord’s death was, in some way, representative and vicarious; and the same thought is expressed by St. Paul’s choice of the compound substantive ἀντίλυτρον, when, using a different preposition, he speaks of it as a ransom for (ὑπὲρ, i.e., on behalf of) all men (1 Timothy 2:6).
O Lord, thou son of David.—The blind men probably echoed the whispered murmurs of the crowd that was sweeping by, or, in any case, used (as did the woman of Canaan, Matthew 15:22) the most popular and widely diffused of the names of the Messiah. They were beggars, and they appealed to the pity of the King.