MORE ON GREATNESS Matthew 19–20
“Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave—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” (Matt. 20:26–28).The world has its own notions of how to achieve greatness in the spiritual realm. But each path the religious recommends is a detour away from the road taken by Jesus.
Jesus showed the fallacy in paths taken by the legalistic Pharisees (19:1–15) and a rich young man (vv. 16–30). He told a parable to show that greatness isn’t a matter of working harder (20:1–16). True greatness is found in doing the will of God by serving others (vv. 17–26), and putting our own needs aside to meet theirs (vv. 27–34).
Understanding the Text
“Some Pharisees came to Him to test Him” Matt. 19:1–9. As in the earlier dispute of Jesus with the Pharisees over Sabbath-keeping, the real issue here was the Pharisees’ approach to the Law, not the question they raised about divorce. In the first century two Jewish schools of thought on divorce existed. One school held that divorce should be permitted only in the case of unfaithfulness. The other permitted divorce for any reason at all. What school did Jesus follow? Jesus did not choose either, but pointed out that God’s ideal was a lifelong partnership. Anything less than the ideal involved sin, for one aspect of sin is falling short of God’s best. The Pharisees objected. Why then did Moses permit divorce? Jesus said, “Because your hearts were hard.” Understanding the hardness of human hearts, God knew that some marriages would be so destructive and marred by sin that He permitted divorce—even though it was not His ideal! This answer utterly destroyed the Pharisees’ reliance on Law, for it showed that God’s Law was not the highest spiritual standard at all! The Law itself contained the proof. God’s Law was a lowered standard, evidence of His grace in dealing with the human race. This lesson was driven home in the next incident. Little children were brought to Jesus, who announced that “the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” In Judaism a child became responsible to keep the Law at 12 or 13. Not even the most strict Pharisee held the “little children” responsible to keep God’s Law! What Jesus said showed that God relates to us in grace, not through Law. God’s children respond to Jesus’ voice, rather than live by rules of “do” and “don’t do.” No Pharisee could achieve greatness, no matter how zealous he was to keep the rules and regulations that were observed as a way of promoting spirituality and pleasing God. What a lesson for us. Let’s not boast of all we do and do not do for Christ’s sake. Let us simply look into His Word, hear His voice, and respond. As little children, let’s remember that our life with Him is rooted not in what we do for God, but in the grace God showers on us. “What God has joined together, let man not separate” Matt. 19:6. Doesn’t this verse mean that Christians today are not to divorce? Actually, no. Jesus was responding to an assumption hidden in the Pharisees’ question. They debated divorce because they believed it was the right of an ecclesiastical court to decide who could and who could not divorce and remarry. In Deuteronomy 24 the Law simply said that, when a divorce takes place, the husband is to give the wife a “certificate of divorce.” This written document was proof that she was unmarried, and could (and in most cases did) remarry. In the first century courts of sages, referred to in Scripture as “experts in the Law,” sat in judgment on who could and could not divorce. At times they even forced husbands to grant their wives written bills of divorce. What Jesus meant when He said, “Let man not separate,” was that no ecclesiastical court had the right to sit in judgment on a divorce case. As the Old Testament decreed, this is a matter for the husband and wife alone to determine. What a reminder to us today, for we too have a tendency to sit in judgment in this most painful and tragic of situations. We cannot condone divorce. But, with Jesus, we must confess that in some cases it is necessary. No pastor, board, or denominational court of inquiry has the right to say to one couple no, and to another yes. And no such ecclesiastical court has the right to authorize one person to remarry, and to deny remarriage to another. The way of the Pharisee is unacceptable to God—whether in Jesus’ day or in our own. “What good thing must I do to get eternal life?” Matt. 19:16–22 The rich young man represents another approach people have taken in an effort to achieve spiritual greatness. When questioned, the young man showed that unlike many in his day he had consistently tried to do what is right in every human relationship. But each of the commands quoted by Jesus (vv. 18–19) came from the “second tablet” of the Ten Commandments. That tablet sets standards for man’s relationship with other men. What about the “first tablet,” and those commands which deal with man’s personal relationship with the Lord? Jesus’ answer, “Go sell your possessions and give to the poor. . . . Then come, follow Me” (v. 21), was designed to show the young man that his wealth came before God. That individual “went away sad,” for he was wealthy. In a choice between God, in the person of the Son of God, and money, this young man chose money. The first commandment of the Ten is, “You shall love the Lord your God.” No matter how benevolent or just a person may be in his relationships with others, unless he or she loves God supremely, there can be no spiritual growth or achievement. Let’s remember this when the humanist praises good works, and assumes all that counts is being or doing good. The best person in the world who does not love God has broken the first and greatest commandment, for our supreme obligation is to love the Lord. “Who then can be saved?” Matt. 19:23–26 When Jesus remarked that it is difficult for a rich man to enter the kingdom, the disciples were shocked. The ordinary man viewed the wealthy as blessed by God, for they had the opportunity to do good with their wealth and so gain merit with God. Jesus had a different perspective. The more we have, the more our possessions may possess us! The more we may consider how a choice affects our bottom line, rather than how that choice honors God. It is hard for a person with many resources tied up in this world to focus his or her attention on the next. Thank God that He can do what we cannot. We can be saved for eternity. And we can be saved from slavery to our wealth so that we can instead become slaves of God. “We have left everything to follow You” Matt. 19:27–30. Peter and the other disciples did not choose to follow Jesus for what they gained. But, like them, we sometimes wonder, “What will there be for us?” Jesus’ answer is reassuring. No one who follows Christ will lose! What we gain will be a hundred times as valuable as what we may be asked to give up (v. 29). All this . . . and eternal life too! “He agreed to pay them a denarius” Matt. 20:1–15. This story of Jesus troubles many. It’s obvious that the owner of the vineyard wasn’t fair. Oh, he paid the first workers fairly: we know that a denarius was a day’s wages in the first century. But we can understand why those who had worked all day for the agreed wage were upset when, at the end of the day, those who had labored just a few hours got as much as they did. So what was Jesus saying? Simply this. Some people want to put relationship with God on a work-for-hire basis. “I’ll work harder at being a good Christian than others. I’ll go to more meetings. Serve on more committees. Be out every night of the week.” And these folks often assume they’ll be rewarded for being so busy. The problem is, relationship with God is based on His generosity (v. 15). God relates to us in grace, not on the basis of works. The person who serves God out of love will, of course, be rewarded. But the person who serves actively because he thinks this is the way to make points with the Lord is doomed to disappointment. We don’t advance spiritually by being busy. This too is a lesson we need to learn. God calls us to love Him, and serve others. We can become so caught up in doing things for Him that we forget to simply love Him. And we forget to stop, listen to people, and try to respond to their needs. The person who is so active in church may very well be drying up spiritually, and spending his or her energies in an unproductive way. “So the last will be first, and the first will be last” Matt. 20:16. This is the second repetition of this saying in our chapters (cf. 19:30). What does it mean? Simply that those who appear to be first in the spiritual lineup, based on their strict religion, their benevolence, or their active involvement in church affairs, won’t be first when Judgment Day arrives. When we appear before the Judgment Seat of Christ to receive our rewards, those at the head of the line will be simple folk who have heard Christ’s message about greatness, and have taken it to heart. Those who, as Jesus taught in Matthew 18, seek out and rejoice with the lost, seek harmony within the body of Christ, and are ready to forgive others because they themselves have been forgiven by God.
What Do You Want Me to Do?(Matt. 20:17–34)
Somehow, we can’t seem to get it through our heads, can we? I suppose it’s all right. Even Jesus’ disciples took such a long time to comprehend the simple thing Jesus taught. You want to be great? Then serve. James and John didn’t understand. They asked their mother (or so the other disciples thought!) to lobby Jesus for the top positions in His kingdom. Jesus just shook His head, and told the two they didn’t know what they were asking. High rank in the kingdom of Jesus calls for drinking His cup (vv. 22–23). And that cup, in Jesus’ case, was death on the cross (vv. 17–19). Jesus tried to explain. High position in the secular world means having authority: it means lording over people. Jesus on the other hand came to be a Servant and, like a slave, to put the good of another before His own (vv. 25–28). I suspect the disciples still didn’t see what Jesus meant. Perhaps we wouldn’t see it either, if it weren’t for the incident with which this chapter ends. Jesus led His disciples away from Jericho, up the road that led to Jerusalem and His crucifixion. How heavy His heart must have been, for He knew what lay ahead. As He left, two blind men, hearing from the crowd that Jesus was near, cried out urgently. The crowd tried to hush them. But the men shouted all the louder. And Jesus stopped. He called them to Him, and He asked, “What do you want Me to do for you?” And at last we understand. Greatness in the kingdom of Jesus is stopping for the needs of others. It is setting aside for the moment our own hurts and concerns, to listen, and then to ask, “What do you want me to do for you?” We may be little in the eyes of other men. But if we follow Christ’s example of servanthood, we will be great in the eyes of God.
Begin each day asking God for an opportunity to serve.
“Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can and as long as you can.”—John Wesley