Matthew 23:34-39; Lament

Jesus address to and about the scribes and Pharisees continues with a look to the near future. That future is already history for the writer and his knowledge of what happened undoubtedly colors his report of Jesus’ words.

In one of the rare places where Jesus talks about acting personally as God himself, Jesus talks about the Christians he will send to Jerusalem to continue to call the leaders to repentance. There will be prophets and sages and scholars sent by the church, but they, too, will be rejected and some persecuted and even killed. The leaders in Jerusalem will continue a long history of rejecting the movement of God. From Abel in Genesis to Zechariah in 2 Chronicles (the last book of Hebrew scripture) they have done it before, and they will do it again.

Judgment is coming on the current generation. In fact, Jerusalem will be destroyed, including the Temple, in just 35 more years. The Temple will not be rebuilt and even the land will not belong to them anymore.

Jesus doesn’t want it to be so. He would have rather protected Jerusalem, but they won’t be protected. Thus, judgment.

Their house, their Temple, will be desolate. Two thousand years later it is still desolate. Or worse than desolate. The loss of the Temple will cause the leaders of Israel, the scribes and the Pharisees, to reinvent Judaism into a templeless religion, which still pertains today.

Jesus will come again. But it will be too late for the leaders.

God’s rejection of the leaders does not extend to the people. Missionary efforts have continued and many Jews have followed Jesus. In the writings of Paul we see a hope for a large moment to Jews to Jesus, but we still are waiting for it. And Jesus is still waiting at the right hand of the Father.

Matthew 23:13-33; Seven Woes

Jesus pronounces seven woes on the scribes and Pharisees. Remember, the scribes are lawyers, in this case probably also Pharisees. Legal beagles. Experts in loopholes. You know the type. And Pharisees are a religious group that tends to build hedges about the law to keep people from breaking it or even coming close. They were famous for extending the rules of temple purity into everyday life.

Pronouncing woe is a “powerful but imprecise statement about the unhappy situation in which some category of persons finds itself (whether they know it or not.” (Nolland) Most of the woes mention hypocrisy, which can be intentional or unintentional. Hypocrisy is easy to see in others. Sometimes we need help in seeing it in ourselves.

First Woe

The Pharisees and their scribes have largely rejected Jesus. And apparently they have also taught others to reject him, too. We don’t have much information about that, but you can imagine that some kind of censure would be threatened against the followers of Jesus. We know that it certainly happened as time progressed.

Second Woe

I think Jesus probably has in mind the Pharisees working hard to build their group, convincing other Jews to become Pharisees. The Pharisees had some good characteristics, but as we shall see, they also had some condemnable ones. As they grew in power, they seem to become more and more extreme. In the end, they are the only group of Jews whose teaching survived the destruction of Jerusalem just thirty-five years or so from the time Jesus was pronouncing woe on them.

Third Woe

Here is one for the legal beagles. They liked to govern things like oaths with fine detail. Jesus says it truly all comes back to God. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus showed a preference for no oaths. Wouldn’t the world be a better place if people just meant what they said?

The leaders have become misleaders.

Fourth Woe

Here’s one for the legalists. That’s the problem with legalism; it can become such a focus on the little things that we lose track of the big things. Jesus says to keep the focus on both.

Straining the mosquitoes out of the wine is a good thing. Who wants to drink a mosquito, especially if it also makes you unclean for a day? But not noticing the camel floating in your soup is a big problem. If you eat it you will be unclean anyway, and you have a problem with your focus.

Fifth Woe

Now the woes finish up by noticing how the scribes and Pharisees are worried more about how they are perceived that how they actually perform. Jesus has continually talking about what we do and what we say. In fact, that is the essence of hypocrisy.

The Pharisees have rules about cleaning cups. All well and good. But inside some of them are unclean despite the emphasis on purity.

Sixth Woe

Like whitewashed tombs, the Pharisees and their scribes present a nice picture, but death reigns inside. Hypocrisy and lawlessness. The charge of lawlessness would sting a scribe or a Pharisee!

Seventh Woe

Jesus accuses the scribes and Pharisees of being like their ancestors, who rejected the prophets. Now they are rejecting Jesus. They make a nice appearance by honoring the dead prophets, but they reject a living prophet.

Harsh words from Jesus. Not Jesus meek and mild. The Pharisees are bound for Gehenna unless they change their ways and accept Jesus. Some of them have and some of them will, but most will not.

Matthew 23:1-12; Religion for Show

Jesus begins his final address, his final teaching section, with a warning about scribes and Pharisees. We must distinguish the two, for not all scribes were Pharisees, and not many Pharisees were scribes.

Jesus is addressing the crowd along with the disciples. Given the recent interactions, I doubt the scribes and Pharisees Jesus had just talked to were out of earshot.

The scribes made the scriptures available to the people. Most people could not read and did not have access to copies of the law. The scribes and Pharisees were walking, talking copies of the law. I believe this is what Jesus meant by “Moses’ seat.”

Scripture is authoritative and should be observed. But the people need to be careful to not follow their example. They don’t always walk the talk. Jesus has talked many times about obedience, not just lip service. Here he does it again.

These lawyers are of no help with ways to carry the load they require. They teach the law, but they do not preach the practicalities of it. By contrast, Jesus offers a lighter burden and a more comfortable one at that.

Everything we read here applies just as much to the Christian Church as to the scribes and Pharisees. And we must be careful not to let passages like this lead us into anti-semitism. We can’t afford any more of that.

Jesus does want a show of religion. Jesus doesn’t want religious leaders to seek honorific titles.

There are no levels in the kingdom of God.

Leaders are to be servants. Seek the honors and you are begging to be humbled. You will be humbled.

God is our father and Jesus is our teacher. Teachers and preachers in the church are no different from any other Christians. To use such positions to personal advantage is very dangerous.

Matthew 22:41-46; More than David’s Son

After three straight questions aiming to trap him, Jesus now asks the Pharisees one of his own. The question is probably designed to make them think about Jesus in a new light. It is part of the invitation to the banquet.

Jesus wants to discuss the terminology “Son of David”. This term is used quite a bit in Matthew, so it should not be seen as incorrect, but Jesus wants to examine it more closely.

The problem is with the image created by the term “Son of David”. At this time in Israel’s history there was a growing belief in and desire for a messiah, a Christ. As the Son of David, this figure was seen as a conquering hero, like David himself, The Roman hand was heavy and the hoped for messiah would push out the Romans from the land and reestablish Israel as an independent power. This will explain why the Roman leadership in the region, and their temple leader puppets, were death on messianic movements. They were seen as revolutionary.

But Jesus uses Psalm 110 to show that the idea of the messiah is bigger than what people were looking for. The people wanted another David, one whom David could call son. But Psalm 110 shows a messiah that David would call Lord, one at the right hand of God himself.

Jesus is saying to the Pharisees, “Your messiah is too small.”

Psalm 110 was used quite a bit in the early church as a picture of Jesus after the resurrection and ascension. Apparently it had enough of a reputation as a messianic psalm even with the Pharisees that Jesus could use it in this manner.

Jesus embodied this type of messiahship during his earthly ministry. He was a spiritual leader, not leading a revolution against Rome. However, he will die as a revolutionary anyway.

Jesus was hard on the Pharisees. This is because they were closer to the kingdom than any other group in the land. But most of them rejected his invitation. Here, as in previous encounters, they reacted by leaving him rather than following him.

The time for questions is over. Jesus will now deliver his farewell speech to Jerusalem.

Matthew 22:34-40; The Jesus Creed

Now for the third of four questions in a row. This one comes from the Pharisees again, who have witnessed Jesus shutting down the Sadducees. They send a lawyer to test him. Which is the greatest commandment? he asks.

He calls Jesus “teacher” and asks a question you might ask a teacher of the law, but his intent is to cause Jesus to stumble somehow and possibly lose some popular support.

Jesus doesn’t stumble. He answers with what Scot McKnight calls The Jesus Creed.

The greatest commandment is to love God with everything you are.

It is important to remember that love is not an emotional response to another, but a commitment to another. In this case, it is an absolute commitment. Nothing, nothing, nothing is more important than God.

And the second is to love your neighbor as yourself. We have heard it so much we probably can barely hear it anymore. Notice that we are not to love our neighbor and be selfless, but to have the same commitment to our neighbors that we have to ourselves. I suppose that would include family.

It really is a restatement, in other words, of the golden rule. Jesus summed up the Sermon on the Mount with the golden rule. Now he sums up his whole body of teaching with The Jesus Creed.

Jesus came to fulfill the law. So here you go: it all gets to this. Love God; love your neighbor.

Matthew 22:23-33; One Bride for Seven Brothers

First, the Pharisees accompanied by some Herodians. Now some Sadducees, come to Jesus to ask their tricksy question. The import of their question is to ridicule the idea of resurrection.

By the time of Jesus, most Jews believed in the resurrection of the body some time after death. The only place in Hebrew scripture where this is explicitly taught is in Daniel 12. But there are plenty of other writings that were later rejected as canonical that show the common belief in resurrection.

Most people who were not Jewish probably believed in life after death, but more as a bodiless existence in heaven. This was the teaching of many Greek philosophers, and it seems like this was the prevalent thought of the age. Somehow that teaching has never really gone away. Many Christians today envision a bodiless existence in heaven after death. That is not what the New Testament teaches.

Now for the Sadducees. They didn’t believe in resurrection or life after death at all. When you’re dead, you’re dead. They did not accept Daniel as authoritative. In fact, they didn’t really use anything other than the five Books of Moses as authoritative.

A Christian who denies resurrection would rightly be seen as too liberal. Bodily resurrection is an absolute keystone teaching in the New Testament. But Sadducees were not liberal. They were actually too conservative. They could not accept that God continued to reveal himself and thus, more truth, through the continued writings after the first five books of the Bible. It is possible to be too conservative.

Again, I don’t know how much you read the Old Testament, but if you do, you know of the concept of Sheol. The Hebrews had the idea that the most you could look forward to in death was some kind of shadow existence in the place of the dead. The idea of resurrection did not enter until over a thousand years after the time of Moses.

The Sadducees wanted to use the idea of levirate marriage to ridicule the whole idea of resurrection. Levirate marriage, as taught in the law, was all about making sure every man had an heir, so if he died without one his brother would take over and give him one. This particular story, which may be presented as a reality, was almost ridiculous in that the woman had seven brothers and was unable to give an heir.

So, whose wife would she be if there were a resurrection? Levirate marriage was so foundational to the Sadducees that even after death it must certainly pertain.

Jesus first answers the ridicule. The imagination of the Sadducees is too small and their God is too small. They could not envision a life after death that was much more than a continuation of life before death. Jesus says it is way better than that and that our resurrection bodies will be something like the angelic ones. Since there will be no more death, there will be no need for procreation and levirate marriage will no longer pertain. Stretch a little and imagine something bigger and better than what you already know.

Then Jesus answers the question itself. Quoting from Exodus 3, right in the wheelhouse of the Sadducees, Jesus says that God is not God of the dead but of the living.

When Moses received these words at the burning bush, the covenant with the patriarchs was all but forgotten. But not by God. He was renewing the covenant with his people and using Moses to lead them. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were not dead and forgotten.

Christians believe in the resurrection. We believe that Jesus was raised from the dead in actuality, and that he lives with a body until this day. We believe that we will be raised at the coming of the Lord and will live with him in the new earth. We don’t know very much about what to expect from the time of death until the time of resurrection, but “with the Lord” is certainly part of what we do expect. What is extremely important is that we expect life after life after death, in the word of NT Wright.

Kingdom come!

Matthew 22:15-22; Taxes

The rest of chapter 22 is made up of questions and answers. Up first are the Pharisees, accompanied by their unusual friends, the Herodians. The Herodians were loyal to the rule of the Herods and were thus always allied with Rome. The Pharisees were more likely to just get along with whomever is in charge. They are not natural allies to one another, but they have a common goal of trapping Jesus and getting rid of him. The Herodians were probably included so that they could report back anything Jesus said that could be used against him.

They want to talk about the taxes imposed by Rome, but they couch it is religious terms, as Pharisees are wont to do.

Jesus calls for a coin and (not) surprisingly, someone has one in the temple precincts. These coins should have been distasteful to Jews because they not only had an image of Tiberius on them, but also an inscription saying something like “Tiberius, Son of the Divine Augustus”.

Hypocrites is the right word for this delegation. They came with flattering words, but evil intentions. As always in Matthew, the flattering words are ironically true.

  • Jesus is true. In fact, he is Truth.
  • He teaches the way of God truthfully.
  • He is not on the bandwagon.
  • He is not out for personal popularity.
  • He would not, if here today, be one of the court evangelicals of the American president, if you know what I mean.

So the delegation is doubly hypocritical. They are speaking with a forked tongue. And at least one of them has a Roman coin in the temple area.

Jesus’ answer is clever. If you take the Roman peace, you should pay the Roman tax. Maybe this would actually lose Jesus some support among the general population. As is the case today, average people are more likely to be revolutionaries against the government.

But the second half of Jesus’ answer doesn’t get enough attention. Not only does he say, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s.” He also says, “Give to God what is God’s.”

Earlier he taught that we cannot serve God and money. Earlier he taught that we are to take up our cross and follow him.

The denarius had a picture and inscription of Caesar on it. Our lives are in the image of God and we Christians have his inscription on our hearts. We are to give ourselves to him. Let Caesar (or the IRS) have a few coins. Let God have everything.

Matthew 22:1-14; Wedding Feast Parable

Here we have another straightforward example of an allegory. This one is an allegory of salvation and salvation history.

The king (God) invites the upper classes (leaders of Israel) to the wedding feast for his son (Jesus). The feast is all about the kingdom and we should envision the eschatological banquet. That banquet is a frequent metaphor for the glories of the coming kingdom throughout the scriptures.

The function of the upper classes—the priests, the Sanhedrin, the scribes, and even the Pharisees—was supposed to be leading the people in the ways of righteousness as revealed by God. Instead, they mostly had their own agenda and weren’t interested in any kind of reform.

The invitees’ responses range from indifference to hostility. In fact, in the second wave of invitations some of the messengers are killed, and we must think again of the prophets.

I don’t know if you read the Old Testament much, but I know that many Christians hardly touch it, except for some of the Psalms. That’s a shame. The prophetic books are truly neglected and often misunderstood as predictions of distant future activities of God. But the prophetic movement and its books are really a reform movement. The temple system became corrupt. The royal houses became corrupt. The prophets called the leaders back to God. It seems like not too many listened to the prophets.

That reality is reflected in this parable. And since Matthew is written after the gentile mission of the church is underway, it is legitimate to extend the allegory into the missionary work of the church. It is also quite legitimate to see the destruction of the city of the leaders as a reference to the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in AD 70. This parable is a parable of judgment.

Since the upper class rejected the invitations, God called the rest of us. Praise God. The first will be last and the last first.

But even for us there are some minimum requirements. We may not have the finery of the rich folks, but we can clothe ourselves in righteousness for the banquet. As seen in this parable, failure to do so will not work out well.

Being a church member or even a church leader is of no value to God. He only cares if we hear and obey Jesus. Faith is loyalty. Loyalty implies obedience. What you are speaks so loud that the world can’t hear what you say.

Many are called. Few are chosen.

Matthew 21:33-46; Tenants

Jesus tells a story about a vineyard. The story is filled with meaning. The setup is very much in tune with Isaiah 5. There is no question about who is who. Not all parables are allegories, but this one has that flavor.

Since Isaiah 5 is definitely in view, we must consider that God is the vineyard owner and the vineyard is his people, Israel. Thus, the tenants must be seen as the leaders of the people, or the priests and chief priests and the high priest.

The focus is not on the cheating of the tenants, but on how they treated the representatives of the owners. They killed and disregarded the prophets that God sent, right down to John the Baptist.

Now, Jesus says, God has sent his son and they will treat him in the same manner. The leaders of Israel convict themselves by answering Jesus’ question about how the owner will handle the situation. “He will put those wretches to a miserable death and let the vineyard out to other tenants who will give him the fruits in their seasons.”

Jesus switches the metaphor from a vineyard to a building now, perhaps bases on some wordplay between “son” and “stone” in Aramaic. Isaiah 5 also talks about the vineyard of Israel being God’s building, the house of Israel.

The leaders are in the process of rejecting the son, but the rejected stone will turn out to be the most important one in God’s building. At this point, Jesus gets very straight, leaving the world of parables and entering the real world. He tells them directly that God will take the kingdom of God away from them and will give it to new people who will be productive for God.

The chief priest and the Pharisees are incensed and want Jesus dead. (Did they not listen to the parable?) But they fear the people who like Jesus and think he is at least a prophet. They won’t, however, wait long.

The leaders of Israel are not able to discern the working of God. They only want to maintain their power base, which is also quite profitable for them.

It is only fair to extend this parable to the church. We must ask ourselves serious questions about whether we are good tenant for God’s vineyard.

Matthew 21:23-32; Authority

Now back in Jerusalem, after the night in Bethany and the fig tree incident on the way in to the city, Jesus is teaching in the temple. This is exactly what one would expect.

But he is approached by some rather senior authorities. They ask him who gave him the authority to do what he does and what is he authorized to do. I suppose they are referring to his ministry in general, but probably specifically to his strange entry into the city the day before and his strange action with the moneychangers.

Jesus’ answer is not really evasive, but it definitely is indirect. He ties his own authority with that of John. The leaders know that John was respected as a prophet by the people, so they dare not disparage him in public.

The parable of the two sons is pretty interesting in this context. Actually, I think they might even be young women, but the likelihood is that everyone envisioned young men.

Jesus points out the difference, with this story, about lip service and true action. It’s one thing to say you trust God but another thing to actually do so.

The temple leaders are in the position of keeping the status quo. They do not have their eyes open to the new things God is doing. Even as the people responded to John and to Jesus they did not follow. It must have hurt to be told that tax collectors and prostitutes would enter God’s kingdom while they would be left out. That probably did not endear Jesus to their hearts.

Believing John and Jesus means repentance. Repentance means a real change of life.

God is still working. We, too, can cling to the status quo.

Christians too can become blind to what God is doing in the world around them. How easily “church work” degenerates into little more than simply maintaining the institution, with no excitement concerning what God’s active grace is doing and consequently no enthusiasm for evangelism and renewal! We say that we are going to work in the vineyard, but instead of harvesting the grapes we spend our time rearranging the stones along the path!

Douglas R. A. Hare, Matthew, Interpretation, a Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1993), 248.