Matthew 19:16-30 – Matthew 20:1-19

Gospel Readings:

Matthew 19:16-30
Matthew 20:1-16
Matthew 20:17-19

Advent Reading:

Psalm 85

Devotion 1

Wait: Take time to sit in silence together, allowing space for God’s voice to be heard.

Read: Matthew 19:16-30

Today’s reading begins with a man who comes to Jesus with a question—“Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?”—to which Jesus replies, “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good.” That this exchange is different to Matthew’s source Mark (Mk 10:17-18) tells us that Matthew has something particular to say about what is good. In fact, it’s a theme which emerged early in Matthew’s Gospel and has run like a thread through the narrative: Matthew is inviting his hearers to consider what—and who—is good?

In reading this story, we need to remember just how wealth was gained in the world in which Matthew (and Jesus) lived. In short, the rich grew richer perpetuating the cycle of debt and dispossession which forced the poor into evermore desperate realms of destitution.

In his answer to the rich man’s question, then, “Jesus offers him a program that, if followed, would dismantle the high-status world of the empire’s powerful and wealthy.”1 The call to “go, sell your possessions, and give the money[c] to the poor… then come, follow me,” is ultimately an invitation to switch sides, to align himself with those on the margins rather than the elite. Only in doing so will the rich man be able to be transformed, for only in standing with those on the margins will he be able to know the life of God that is present among them.

The disciples’ surprise —“Then who can be saved?”—is borne out of the cultural assumption that riches are a sign of God’s blessing. If someone was rich, they must be a “good” person enjoying the signs of God’s favour. Of course, the opposite was also assumed—poverty, sickness or misfortune was assumed to be a sign or one’s “sin”. The disciples’ response here indicates the depth to which they too have bought into these assumptions: “[t]hey seem to think that if the divinely favored and socially prestigious wealthy cannot be saved, no one can.”2

According to the values of God’s reign, however, the opposite is true. Transformation is found amongst those who are suffering, those on the margins, those who have known what it is to be on the underside of power. What is possible is not that those on the side of power, exploitation, and oppression might be saved, but that they might, against seemingly impossible obstacles, embrace the invitation to let go of their position of power and privilege and be found on the underside. For then they might know what is truely good.

Reflect:

  • In what ways do you think Matthew’s community might have been challenged or encouraged by this story?
  • In what ways have you expressed alignment with the power that is used to exploit or oppress this week?
  • In what ways do you sense God’s Spirit inviting you to live out this story?

Pray

Share Communion 

Close with the Lord’s Prayer

1. Warren Carter, The Roman Empire and the New Testament (Nashville: Abingdon, 2006), 102.
2. Warren Carter, Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading (Maryknoll: Orbis), 391.

 

Devotion 2

Wait: Take time to sit in silence together, aware of God’s presence in a broken world.

Read: Matthew 20:1-16

The parable narrated in today’s reading is traditionally read as a picture of God’s grace given to those who haven’t deserved it, and perhaps as a rebuke to those who think they have. More toxically, it has been read as a de-legitimation of Jews or Catholics—depending on one’s standpoint. But what happens when we read this parable alongside those on the underside, like the very day labourers in the parable trying to scratch out a living in order to survive? Matthew’s community was likely made up of just such people—people who had known struggle and debt, destitution and displacement. When we read the parable through their eyes, the results might be quite different to what we’re used to.3

The parable begins with a landowner. He is obviously a figure who has acquired a good amount of wealth and land to need the assistance of a large group of day labourers. As we’ve come to know, in the ancient world the acquisition of such wealth came through the dispossession of others.

This landowner goes to the marketplace to hire workers, agreeing to pay them a denarius, which we’re told in some translations is “the usual daily wage.” It may well have been, but that doesn’t mean it was enough for a day labourer to survive on. Of course, when the scarcity of work and the potential for sickness is taken into account, it wasn’t.4 When the landowner then claims to the second round of hired workers that he will pay them “whatever is just”, a question is introduced into the parable at which Matthew’s audience may well raise their eyebrows: Have landowners in their experience paid their workers justly? The fact that they have found themselves in an urban centre having been unable to support themselves on the land would suggest not.

At the end of the day, the landowner is ready to pay the workers. His method of payment, though, effectively shames the first-hired workers, creating an antagonism between them and those hired later. The strategy is simple: divide and conquer. Further, when the first-hired workers predictably grumble, the landowner uses a well worn method of singling out one of them, threatening him in order to secure the compliance of his vulnerable workforce. Those exploited and uprooted members of Matthew’s community would easily recognise the irony of the landowner’s words. His claim that “I am doing you no injustice” is legally correct given the agreement the workers made, yet all of the workers know that systemic exploitation works precisely because it is backed by laws made to uphold the interests of the powerful. His assertion that he is able to do as he likes with “what belongs to me” would have been met with incredulous and bitter laughter by those whose property he had acquired through such laws. And finally, the landowner’s question, “Is your eye evil because I am good?” is an invitation once again to examine the dominant notion of what is “good” in the light of God’s justice. Is the landowner “good” as he says he is? One might suspect that Matthew’s community would beg to differ.

The parable closes with the words “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” Perhaps we need not see this as referring to the first and last paid workers, though, as is commonly assumed. In the previous episode, the same saying referred to those on the underside, who made up Jesus’ community, and those with wealth and power, represented by the rich man (Mt 19:30). Here the same distinction is plausible. The day labourers, exploited, vulnerable, and on the underside of power, is where the kingdom of heaven will be found, rather than amongst the land-grabbing, peasant exploiting ruling class.

Reflect:

  • What questions does this reading raise for you?
  • How do you think Matthew’s community might have been challenged or encouraged by this parable?
  • What challenges or encouragements does the parable bring for you?

Pray for one another.

Share Communion

Close with the Lord’s Prayer

3. This reading of Matthew 20:1-16 draws heavily on William R. Herzog II, Parables as Subversive Speech: Jesus as Pedagogy of the Oppressed. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1994), 79-97.

4. Herzog, Parables as Subversive Speech, 90.

Devotion 3

Wait: Take time to sit in the silence of repentance together, aware of our inadequacy and God’s grace.

Read: Matthew 20:17-19

Reflect: How do you sense God’s Spirit inviting you to live out this story this week?

Pray. for one another

Share Communion

Close with the Lord’s Prayer

 

Devotion 4

Wait: Take time to sit in the silence of gratitude together, giving thanks for the ways you’ve experienced God’s loving kindness.

Advent reading: Psalm 85

Read: Psalm 85 as a Lectio Devina

1) Have one person read the verses through twice.

2) Speak out any words or phrases that stand out to you.

3) Read through the verses again.

4) What thoughts, feelings, and impressions do you sense? Share them.

5) Read the verses a final time.

6) What challenges or encouragements emerge? Share them with the group.

Pray

Share Communion

Close with the Lord’s Prayer