The “Royal Appearance” of the Son of Man

Matthew 24:15-16, 21, 23, 27-28 (cf. 15-28)
“So when you see the abomination of desolation spoken of by the prophet Daniel, standing in the holy place (let the reader understand), then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. . . . For then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, and never will be. . . . Then if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Christ!’ or ‘There he is!’ do not believe it. . . . . For as the lightning comes from the east and shines as far as the west, so will be the coming [literally the ‘parousia,’ the royal appearance] of the Son of Man. Wherever the corpse is, there the vultures/eagles will gather.”
Tom Wright, Matthew for Everyone (Vol. 2)
Once again, the terrible times of the first century are echoed by the terrible times that the world, and the church, have had to go through many times over. As I write this I am conscious that some of my brother and sister Christians will today be running away from evil regimes, will be tortured and killed for their faith. They will be tempted to follow false messiahs who offer them quick solutions. But the passage is not primarily about today. Its main significance lies in the fact that then, in the time of Jesus and the disciples, the world went through its greatest convulsion of all, through which God’s new world began to be born. Living with this fact, and working out its long-term implications, have been essential parts of Christian discipleship ever afterwards (119-20).

In the “Interim Period”

Matthew 24:12-14 (cf. 1-14)
“And because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.”
Tom Wright, Matthew for Everyone (Vol. 2)
Between the present moment and the time when all will be revealed, and Jerusalem will be destroyed, the good news of the kingdom of God which Jesus came to bring will have to spread not just around Israel, as has been the case up to now (10.5-6; 15.24), but to the whole world. There is a task for them to do in the interim period.

We too are called to be faithful, to hold on and not be alarmed. We too may be called to live through troubled times and to last out to the end. We too may see the destruction of cherished and beautiful symbol. Our calling then is to hold on to Jesus himself, to continue to trust him, to believe that the one who was vindicated by God in the first century will one day be vindicated before the whole world. We too are called to live with the birth pangs of God’s new age, and to trust that in his good time the new world will be born (115).

Idolatry and the “Great Reversal”

Genesis 3:22
Then the LORD God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of us in knowing good and evil.”
Christopher J. H. Wright, The Mission of God
God accepts that human have indeed breached the Creator-creature distinction. Not that human have now become gods but that they have chosen to act as though they were—defining and deciding for themselves what they will regard as good and evil. Therein lies the root of all other forms of idolatry: we deify our own capacities, and thereby make gods of ourselves and our choices and all their implications.

At the root, then, of all idolatry is human rejection of the Godness of God and the finality of God’s moral authority.

Idolatry dethrones God and enthrones creation. Idolatry is the attempt to limit, reduce an control God by refusing his authority, constraining or manipulating his power to act, having him available to serve our interests. At the same time, paradoxically, idolatry exalts things within the created order . . . . Creation is then credited with a potency that belongs only to God; it is sacralized, worshipped and treated as that form which ultimate meaning can be derived. A great reversal happens: God, who should be worshipped, becomes an object to be used; creation, which is for our use and blessing, becomes the object of our worship (166-5).

Jesus, the Refuge

Matthew 23:34-37
“Therefore I send you prophets and wise men and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will flog in your synagogues and persecute from town to town, so that on you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of innocent Abel to the blood of Zechariah the son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar. Truly, I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation.

“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not!”
Tom Wright, Matthew for Everyone (Vol. 2)
The key to it all is the way in which, within biblical theology, Israel was called to represent the rest of the world before God. . . . Israel was to be God’s special people in order to be the light of the nations (Isaiah 42.6; 49.6).

But if the world remained rebellious and wicked—as it showed every sing of doing—what would his vocation then mean? Isaiah, once more, came to the stunning prophetic vision that Israel, in the person of the Servant of the Lord, would bear in his own person the guilt and sin of everyone else. The darkness of the whole world would descend upon Israel itself, so that it might be dealt with and the world might after all have light (52.13-53.12).

Jesus himself, and the gospel writers as they reflected on his achievement, saw this picture coming to fulfillment in himself. His vocation was to draw on to himself the destiny of Israel, which in turn was to be the focal point of the whole world (109-10).

“. . . the God who wills to be known.”

Christopher J. H. Wright, The Mission of God
YHWH presents himself as the God who wills to be known. This self-communicating drive is involved in everything God does in creation, revelation, salvation and judgment. Human beings therefore are summoned to know YHWH as God, on the clear assumption that they can know him and that God wills that they should know him. . . . Accordingly, making God known is part of the mission of those who are called to participate in the mission of the God who wills to be known (74).

In the New Testament this divine will to be universally known is now focused on Jesus. It will be through Jesus that God will be known to the nations. And in knowing Jesus, they will know the living God. Jesus, in other words, fulfilled the mission of the God of Israel. Or to put it the other way round: the God of Israel, whose declared mission was to make himself known to the nations through Israel, now wills to be known to the nations through the Messiah, the one who embodies Israel in his own person and fulfills the mission of Israel to the nations. . . . Jesus is not merely the agent through whom the knowledge of God is communicated (as any messenger might be). He is himself the very content of the communication. Where Jesus is preached, the very glory of God shines through (122-3).

Shutting the KIngdom

Matthew 23:4, 13-15
“They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger. . . . But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. For you neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter to go in. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.”
Tom Wright, Matthew for Everyone (Vol. 2)
Their complex legal systems lead them not only to devote their own lives to details which have nothing to do with the real purpose of the law, but also to make it impossible for serious seekers after truth, or after God, to find the way. And when they expend every effort to find non-Jews who express interest in their way of life, they impose such burdens on them that they are worse off than if they’d never heard of Judaism in the first place (103).
A. Orendorff
“You shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces.” What an unbelievably awful indictment. As easy as it is to make the Pharisees a punching-bag, the right question, of course, must be: In what way are we—even if, as Jesus says, we’re willing to travel “across sea and land to make a single convert”—doing the same? How are we adding “heavy burdens, hard to bear” to Jesus’ “easy yoke”?

To Be Seen by Others

Matthew 23:5, 11-12 (cf. 1-12)
“They [the ‘scribes and Pharisees’] do all their deeds to be seen by others. . . . The greatest among you shall be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”
Tom Wright, Matthew for Everyone (Vol. 2)
When we look at [verses 11 and 12] we realize, not for the first or last time, that we are indeed called to follow Jesus himself, who issued these denunciations not from a great or pompous height, but on the way to the cross. . . . He had already promised that his load was easy and his burden was light, and that people carrying heavy loads should take his instead (11.28-30). Now he was on the way to shoulder the heaviest burden of all, so that his people would never again have to be weighed down by it (100).
A. Orendorff
So much of what we do, whether it’s religious or not, is done, as Jesus says, “to be seen by others.” Why is that? What is it about recognition that’s so intoxicating and addictive?

The answer is simple: we are what others perceive us to be. I don’t mean this in an absolute sense, of course. Rather, what I mean is we think we are (or perhaps better, we feel like we are) what others perceive us to be. All of us want to look good because (as the saying goes) “if you look good you feel good.” Our identities, in other words, are rooted in other people’s opinions, in what other people think of us.

Jesus turns this kind of thinking on its head: “Real greatness,” he insists, “lies in servanthood and exaltation comes through humility.” The way we work this new way of thinking into our lives and hearts is, as Wright says, to be captured by a vision of the One who was enthroned upon a cross—for all to see—and who was exalted not through bare humility but divine humiliation.

The Greatest Commandment

Matthew 22:36-40 (cf. 34-46)
“Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your life and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”
Tom Wright, Matthew for Everyone (Vol. 2)
[Jesus] knows, and Matthew wants us to know as well, that his arrest, trial and crucifixion are precisely the way in which Jesus is fulfilling the two great commandments, and the way in which he is being enthroned as David’s son, the true king of Israel, and David’s master, David’s Lord. This is how, as the son of God in a still fuller sense, he has come to rescue his people (94).

[W]hat Jesus says here about loving God, and loving one another, only makes sense when we set it within Matthew’s larger gospel picture, of Jesus dying for the sins of the world, and rising again with the message of new life. That’s when these commandments begin to come into their own: when they are seen not as orders to be obeyed in our own strength, but as invitations and promises to a new way of life in which, bit by bit, hatred and pride can be left behind and love can become a reality (95).
A. Orendorff
Love, in gospel-terms, is never mere emotion. Neither, however, is it simply benevolent action. Love is a passionate and self-sacrificing commitment to the good of another person. Or, in the case of Matthew 22:37, the good of another Person (capital “P”).

The order in Matthew 22 means that before love can be anthropological (i.e., person-to-person) it must first be theological (person-to-Person). However, before love can be expressed in either of these two directions (whether God-ward or human-ward), it must first be experienced Person-to-person: “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another” (1 Jn. 4:10-11).

The God of the Living

Matthew 22:31-32 (cf. 23-33)
“And as for the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was said to you by God: ‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not God of the dead, but of the living.”
Tom Wright, Matthew for Everyone (Vol. 2)
Israel’s God was and is the creator of the world, who is content to describe himself as the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob even though they died long ago. He is holding them in life still, and one day they will be raised, along with all God’s people, past, present and future, to enjoy the new world that God will make.

The great thing about this belief . . . is that people who believe it become more ready to work for God in the present time, more eager to see God’s promises of justice, peace, and new life begin to take effect in today’s world (92).
A. Orendorff
What difference does the reality of the resurrection make at 9am on a Tuesday?

The simplest answer is often the most profound (and the most difficult to actually believe): the resurrection means that God is a God of life. Perhaps better: God is a God who, as Paul says in Romans 4:17, “gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.” God has no desire not reign over a graveyard, although the graveyard is where his kingdom work begins.

Caesar and God

Matthew 22:19-21 (cf. 15-22)
“Show me the coin for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. And Jesus said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” They said, “Caesar’s.” Then he said to them, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
Tom Wright, Matthew for Everyone (Vol. 2)
Let’s be clear. Jesus wasn’t trying to give an answer, for all time, on the relationship between God and political authority. . . . He was countering the Pharisees’ challenge to him with a sharp challenge in return. . . .

Jesus knew—he had already told the disciples—that he was himself going to be crucified. . . . He wasn’t trying to wriggle out of personal or political danger. He was continuing to walk straight towards it. But he was doing so on his own terms. His vocation was not to be the sort of revolutionary they had known. The kingdom of God would defeat the kingdom of Caesar, not by conventional means, but by the victory of God’s love and power over the even greater empire of death itself (88).
A. Orendorff
It really is tempting to play God’s game by Caesar’s rules. It’s so easy to get seduced into redering unto Caesar the things that are truly God’s. Every time we deal with difficult people or face a hard (and potentially damaging) situation, our natural response is to fight fire with fire. To lash out. To talk back. To outflank. To win. What we see in Jesus, however, is an unwillingness to play the game by anyone’s rules but those established by his Father. The gospel way is always the way of the cross. It is never the way of revolution by force. It is always the way of self-effacing and self-forsaking love (reckless and wonderful).

Invitation and Love

Matthew 22:8-10 (cf. 1-14)
“Then he said to his servants, ‘The wedding feast is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore to the main roads and invite to the wedding feast as many as you find.’ And those servants went out into the roads and gathered all whom they found, both bad and good. So the wedding hall was filled with guests.”
Tom Wright, Matthew for Everyone (Vol. 2)
But there was a difference between this wide-open invitation and the message so many want to hear today. We want to hear the everyone is all right exactly as they are; that God loves us as we are and doesn’t want us to change. . . . When the blind and lame came to Jesus, he didn’t say, “You’re all right as you are.” He healed them. They wouldn’t have been satisfied with anything less. . . . His love reached them where they were, but his love refused to let them stay as they were. Love wants the best for the beloved. Their lives were transformed, healed, changed (84).

“A man had two sons.”

Matthew 21:28-32
“A man had two sons. And he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ And he answered, ‘I will not,’ but afterward he changed his mind and went. And he went to the other son and said the same. And he answered, ‘I go, sir,’ but did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him. And even when you saw it, you did not afterward change your minds and believe him.”
Tom Wright, Matthew for Everyone (Vol. 2)
The first son, who rudely tells his father he doesn’t fell like working today, but then does after all, stands for the tax-collectors and prostitutes. Their daily life seemed to be saying “No” to God; but when they heard John they changed their minds and their lifestyle (in other words, they “repented”). The second son, who politely tells his father he will indeed go to work, but then doesn’t, stands for the Temple hierarchy and other leaders. They look as though they’re doing God’s will, worshipping in the Temple and keeping up appearances; but they refuse to believe in John’s message, not only about repentance, but also about the Messiah who was standing unknown in their midst (76).
A. Orendorff
Another, more famous parable also open with the words, “A man had two sons.” Luke 15:11, which introduces what is commonly known as the parable of the prodigal son begins: “There was a man who had two sons.” Interestingly, both parables were told in an attempt to explain why Jesus was welcoming the wrong kinds of people: in Matthew they’re called the “tax collectors and prostitutes” in Luke 15:1, the “tax collectors and sinners.” The point of both parables is the same: no one is too unrighteous to enter the kingdom if only they will repent. Another way to say this that righteousness—or perhaps better self-righteousness or public-righteousness, i.e., the son who says “Yes”—is a more dangerous spiritual condition that unrighteousness—i.e., the son who says “No.” What the kingdom requires is not merit but repentance, a change of mind and heart.

Jesus and the Temple

Matthew 21:12-14 & 20-22
And Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who sold and bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons. He said to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer,’ but you make it a den of robbers.” And the blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he healed them. . . . When the disciples saw [the fig tree wither], they marveled, saying, “How did the fig tree wither at once?” And Jesus answered them, “Truly, I say to you, if you have faith and do not doubt, you will not only do what has been done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ it will happen. And whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith.”
2 Samuel 5:6-8
And the king and his men went to Jerusalem against the Jebusites, the inhabitants of the land, who said to David, “You will not come in here, but the blind and the lame will ward you off”—thinking, “David cannot come in here.” Nevertheless, David took the stronghold of Zion, that is, the city of David. And David said on that day, “Whoever would strike the Jebusites, let him get up the water shaft to attack ‘the lame and the blind,’ who are hated by David’s soul.” Therefore it is said, “The blind and the lame shall not come into the house.”
Tom Wright, Matthew for Everyone (Vol. 2)
Jesus did with the Temple’s traditions what he did with the money-changers’ tables: he turned them upside down. . . . The people who had been kept out [i.e., the blind and the lame] were now welcomed in. The people who had been scorned were now healed. It was an action full of significance. It summed up everything Jesus had been doing throughout his ministry (71).

[Jesus came to the fig-tree] looking for fruit, but when he found none he solemnly declared that the tree would be barren for ever. That’s exactly what he was doing with the Temple. . . . Saying to “this mountain” that it should be “lifted up and thrown into the sea,” when you are standing right beside the Temple mountain, was bound to be taken as another coded warning about what would happen to the Temple as God’s judgment fell upon his rebellious people.

Suddenly, therefore, the lines of Jesus’ work all through the earlier days in Galilee come together with new force. All along he’d been acting as if you could get, by coming to him, the blessings you’d normally get by going to the Temple. Now he is declaring, in powerful actions, that the Temple itself is under God’s judgment (72-73).

The King Arrives

Matthew 21:4-11
This took place to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet, saying,
“Say to the daughter of Zion, ‘Behold, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden.’”
The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them. They brought the donkey and the colt and put on them their cloaks, and he sat on them. Most of the crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. And the crowds that went before him and that followed him were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest.” And when he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred up, saying, “Who is this?” And the crowds said, “This is the prophet Jesus, from Nazareth of Galilee.”
Zechariah 9:9-10
Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. I will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall speak peace to the nations; his rule shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth.
2 Kings 9:12-13
And [Jehu] said, “Thus and so he spoke to me, saying, ‘Thus says the LORD, I anoint you king over Israel.’” Then in haste every man of them took his garment and put it under him on the bare steps, and they blew the trumpet and proclaimed, "Jehu is king."
Tom Wright, Matthew for Everyone (Vol. 2)
The people wanted a prophet, but this prophet would tell them that their city was under God’s imminent judgment (chapter 24). They wanted a Messiah, but this one was going to be enthroned on a pagan cross. They wanted to be rescued from evil and oppression, but Jesus was going to rescue them from evil in its full depths, not just the surface evil of Roman occupation and the exploitation by the rich. Precisely because Jesus says “yes” to their desires at the deepest level, he will have to say “no” or “wait” to the desires they are conscious of, and expressed.

The story of Jesus’ grand, though surprising, entry into Jerusalem, then, is an object lesson in the mismatch between our expectations and God’s answer (68-69).

Mercy Precedes

Matthew 20:30-34
And behold, there were two blind men sitting by the roadside, and when they heard that Jesus was passing by, they cried out, “Lord, have mercy on us, Son of David!” The crowd rebuked them, telling them to be silent, but they cried out all the more, “Lord, have mercy on us, Son of David!” And stopping, Jesus called them and said, “What do you want me to do for you?” They said to him, “Lord, let our eyes be opened.” And Jesus in pity touched their eyes, and immediately they recovered their sight and followed him.
Tom Wright, Matthew for Everyone (Vol. 2)
Jesus, says Matthew, was deeply moved. . . . He touched them, and they saw. And . . . they followed him. . . . They have left one life behind, and have begun new one. It can happen to anyone who asks Jesus for something and finds Jesus’ searching question coming straight back at them, piercing through the outer crust and finding the real request bubbling up underneath.

And when that real request is really met, the only possible result is real discipleship. Following Jesus will be costly. But if he’s already given you everything you really wanted, what else is there to do? (64-65).
A. Orendorff
For most of us, the natural response to encountering the gospel records of Jesus’ powerful “acts of mercy” is to immediately jump to interpersonal application. In the closing verses of Matthew 20, the pressing question would therefore be: How can I be Jesus to the beggars? However, before we move to interpersonal application, we must first question deal with the personal: How can I be a beggar to Jesus?

Notice that the beggars do not follow Jesus until after he has healed them. Jesus loves them—he has “pity” on them, as Matthew says—prior to their conversion. What moves them to “follow Jesus”—to become self-forsaking disciples—is Jesus’ miraculous act of kindness. With flattery, the blind men ask for money: “Lord, have mercy on us, Son of David!” What the get is restoration.

Surprisingly, there is no call to discipleship, no hint in the text that Jesus asks anything of them, only that they ask something of Jesus. Grace precedes commitment and even acts contrary to what the beggars think they need. And yet, grace also transforms. It gives, asking nothing in return, and in that giving grace changes its recipient.

The Cup and the Ransom

Matthew 20:17-19, 22 & 25-28 (cf. vv. 17-28)
And as Jesus was going up to Jerusalem, he took the twelve disciples aside, and on the way he said to them, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem. And the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death and deliver him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified, and he will be raised on the third day.”

Jesus answered, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am to drink?” They said to him, “We are able.”

But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Tom Wright, Matthew for Everyone (Vol. 2)
Jesus’ curious answer to [John and James] opens a very different window: on the biblical roots of the calling which he was following. The Old Testament prophets speak darkly about the “cup of YHWH’s wrath” (Isaiah 51.17, 22; Jeremiah 25.15-29; and several other passages). These passages talk of what happens when the one God, grieving over the awful wickedness of the world, steps in at last to give the violent and bloodthirsty, the arrogant and oppressors, the reward for their ways and deeds. It’s as though God’s holy anger against such people is turned into wine: dark, sour wine which will make them drunk and helpless. They will be forced to “drink the cup,” to drain to the dregs the wrath of the God who loves and vindicates the weak and helpless.

The shock of this passage—and it becomes more shocking as we go forward from here—is that Jesus speaks of drinking this cup himself. . . . Jesus saw his approaching fate as the payment [i.e., the “ransom”] that would that would set free those who were enslaved in sin and wickedness, not least those who were in the grips of the lust for power and position—yes, people like James and John (60-61).

Offensive Generosity

Matthew 20:1 & 9-16
“For the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. . . . And when those hired about the eleventh hour came, each of them received a denarius. Now when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more, but each of them also received a denarius. And on receiving it they grumbled at the master of the house, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?’ So the last will be first, and the first last.”
A. Orendorff
Coming on the heels of Matthew 19:30—“many who are first will be last, and the last first”—Jesus’ parable of the generous landowner is meant to serve as both an illustration of God’s lavish grace as well as a corrective to Peter’s self-serving question in 19:27, “See, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?” At first, in chapter 19, Jesus responds positively, “Be assured, you will certainly be rewarded: Everyone who has sacrificed to follow me will receive a hundred fold what they’ve lost. In the new world, you will receive eternal life. Even more staggering, you yourselves will sit on upon twelve royal thrones and judge the very tribes of Israel.”

In chapter 20, however, Jesus balances these rewards with the reality that the disciples will not be the sole recipients of this generous inheritance. Many will come at the “eleventh hour” and will likewise receive the very same payment for their labor. “Be careful,” Jesus tells them, “that you don’t grumble against my Father’s generosity. Do not begrudge how He chooses to distribute what belongs to Him.”

The central thought in both passages is this: “The last will be first, and the first last.” And yet the meaning of this phrase is slightly different in each setting. In chapter 19, Jesus is telling his followers to rethink the way the world operates: namely, those who are rich and powerful will one day be displaced by the poor and the weak. In chapter 20, Jesus is telling his followers to rethink the way God operates. As Wright says:
God’s grace, in short, is not the sort of thing you can bargain with or try to store up. It isn’t the sort of thing that one person can have a lot of and someone else only a little. The point of the story is that what people get from having served God and his kingdom is not, actually, a “wage” at all. It’s not, strictly, a reward for work done. God doesn’t make contracts with us, as if we could bargain or negotiate for a better deal. He makes covenants, in which he promises us everything and asks of us everything in return. When he keeps his promise, he is not rewarding us for effort, but doing what comes naturally to his overflowingly generous nature (57).

This Is Impossible

Matthew 19:23-26 (cf. 23-30)
And Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly, I say to you, only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished, saying, “Who then can be saved?” But Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”
Tom Wright, Matthew for Everyone (Vol. 2)
Some have suggested that the saying about the camel going through the eye of a needle is actually a reference to a gate in Jerusalem that was called “the needle’s eyes.” A camel would need to unload all it was carrying on its back to get through it. Other people have pointed out that a word very similar to “camel” meant a sort of rope; maybe that he was talking of threading a sailor’s rope through a seamstress’s needle. But both of these suggestions miss the point. . . . [T]he point is precisely that it’s unthinkable. That’s the moment when all human calculations and possibilities stop, and God’s new possibilities start. What is impossible in human terms, Jesus’ followers are to discover to their amazement, is possible to God (verse 26).

Jesus is then offering a vision of God’s whole new world in which everything will be upside down and inside out (53).
A. Orendorff
The disciples’ astonishment (or perhaps better, their dumbfoundedness) at Jesus’ interaction with the rich young ruler is not relieved but rather intensified by his interpretive explanation. As Wright points out, Jesus’ illustration about a camel going through the eye of needle is meant to vividly portray the stark impossibility of a “rich person”—those “on top” in other words—every entering the kingdom of God. The disciples’ response is completely appropriate: “Who then can be saved?” If the powerful can’t get in, what hope is there for the rest of us?

I imagine Jesus turning to his disciples with a soft but knowing smile and telling them, “Exactly. From a human perspective, it is impossible. But with God, all things are possible.”

In many ways, this is the hallmark—the central, operative truth—of all gospel-ministry: “With people, it’s impossible. But not with God.” Jesus is forcing not only his disciples but us as readers to deal with the uncomfortable and humbling reality that none of us can get ourselves into the kingdom. How much more impossible, then, would it be for us to get others into the kingdom or, even more ridiculous, to go about building the kingdom ourselves?

The point is we can’t. We can’t. Jesus wants to drive us away from ourselves, away from the way we think the world operates—with the rich on top and the poor struggling underneath—and to turn us, with all the subtlety of a hammer to the head, to himself. You can’t, he says, but God can.