You will find an introduction to the “Gospel According to Matthew” and an outline, here.
A prayer from the Book of Common Worship, to use before your reading,
Lord Jesus Christ, you said to your apostles, “Peace I give to you; my own peace I leave with you:” Regard not our sins, but the faith of your Church, and give to us the peace and unity of that heavenly city, where with the Father and the Holy Spirit you live and reign, now and forever. Amen.
V. Jesus in Jerusalem: Conflict and Death 21:1-27:66
A. Confrontation with Authorities 21:1-22:45
The events of 21:1-17 would be familiar to Matthew’s readers as Jesus actions are similar to Jewish and Greco-Roman entrance processions. Entrance processions could be military victories, triumphs or the arrival ( adventus; parousia) of a king into a city.
Entrance processions had the appearance of the ruler/military leader with troops ( v 1,7). A procession into the city ( v8,10). Welcoming and celebrating crowds (v8-9). Hymnic acclamation (v9). Speeches from the local elite ( no parallel) Cultic act in a temple by which ruler takes possession of the city (v 12-17). ( from Carter, 414)
Notice how Matthew’s telling of Jesus arrival and visit to the Temple both follow this pattern and challenge it.
21:1-11 Jesus Enters the City: While the common animal for entry processions was a horse, the donkey in the Old Testament did carry kings (1 Kings 1:33-48; Zech 9:9- an eschatological king). But donkeys are also common beasts of burden.
Verse 10: the word translated as “turmoil” can also mean “shaken” or “agitated”. This word is used again in 27:51 and 54 (as the cognate noun) to describe the earthquake that occurs at Jesus death and the tearing of the curtain in the Temple. It is also used in 28:2,4 in the discussion of the angel who appears at the tomb.
21:12-17 In the Temple: A “den of robbers” is a hideout for criminals (Jer 7:11). Notice that Jesus welcomes the “blind and lame” and children (marginalized persons) into the Temple. Recall that Matthew’s gospel was written after the destruction of the Temple in 70. To Matthew’s audience, Jesus’ actions interpreted in retrospect were a pronouncement of judgment. What is the judgment about?
21:18-22 The Fig Tree:In Matthew’s gospel the story of the Fig tree is placed in between Jesus’ two visits to the Temple. This causes scholars to think this story is symbolic of judgment against Israel or Temple Judaism or religious leaders, but others think it may be about the “fruits” of any believer. A fig tree with fruit symbolizes God’s favor ( Num 20:5; Deut 8:7-8; 1 Macc 14:12). A fig tree that is withered stands for judgment (Isa 34:4; Jer 8:13; 29:17; Hos 2:12; 9:10,16). In the Greco-Roman world fig trees were considered to bear signs about future events. What is the mountain in verse 21? Many scholars believe this is a reference to the Temple mount.
21:23-27 Jesus Authority: Notice that the “authorities” are not trying to discern God’s will and role but are concerned about their own authority and maintaining status with the crowd. Remember Matthew’s audience is reading this post Easter and post destruction of the Temple. To answer a question with “We do not know” can be a valid response. Is this a valid response here?
The next three parables are “aimed” at the religious leaders.
21:28-32 The Parable of the Two Sons: this parable is found only in Matthew.
21:33-46 The Parable of the Rebellious Tenants: Most commentators believe that the vineyard owner is God, the tenant farmers are the religious elite, the rejected slaves are the prophets, the rejected son is Jesus, and the other tenants (v43) are the church. Modern readers need to think carefully about this parable, it can be used to advance the view that Israel/Judaism has been rejected/punished by God and replaced by Christianity. Do you think this was Matthew’s intention? Should it be our current understanding?
22:1-14 The Parable of the Wedding Banquet: This parable expands the warning of judgment. Not only are the religious elite warned, but so are the disciples (v11-13).
Now, three conflicts with the religious elite.
22:15-22 Conflict with the Pharisees and Heroidians Over Paying Tribute to Rome:After these three parables, the Pharisees leave but send people to challenge Jesus. Notice Jesus is referred to as “teacher”. The taxes paid to Ceasar were not like taxes we pay today. These taxes were tribute.
Tribute was a means of subjugation, of establishing authority. It was a source of Rome’s wealth and a means of sustaining it’s people and militarily imposed peace. Through the first century in Judea and Syria and in other parts of the empire, resentment against taxes boiled over into tax revolts. Judas the Galilean had in 6-9 CE exhorted the nonpayment of tribute to Rome since not Rome but “God was their Lord”., a viewpoint apparently revived by his son Menahem in the 66-70 war. Josephus has Agrippa tell the people in revolt against Florus (66CE) that not paying tribute is ‘an act of war” against Rome. (Carter, 439)
Coins were in Carter’s words, “portable billboards, instruments of propaganda” (440).The taxes had to be paid with Roman money, most of which contained the inscription, “Tiberius Caesar, august son of the divine Augustus, high priest”. Not surprisingly many Jews found this blasphemous. So what does Jesus mean? Commentators vary in their interpretation. Some think this affirmed the payment of taxes, some think this authorizes payment while recognizing that God deserves greater loyalty, others think this says to not pay taxes. What do you think?
22:23-33 Conflict with Sadducees Over Resurrection:The Sadducees are asking Jesus about levirate marriage, a practice which aimed to guarantee the continuation of a man’s name, property and inheritance. Notice that the woman is important because of her ability to bear children. Jesus’ reply is an affirmation of the reality of the resurrection and also points out that the patriarchal status quo does not exist in the kingdom of God.
22:34-46 Conflict with the Pharisees: Why is this question a test? It is unclear to us. It may have referred to a rabbinic debate. Some rabbinical teachers believed that all 613 commands in Torah are equally important. Others would give summaries of the Law but also held that ranking the commandments was human presumption. We are not to evaluate God’s law. Some think this question is an attempt to get Jesus to say something that could be interpreted as devaluing part of the Law. Heart, mind and soul do not mean human beings are comprised of three parts but rather is a way of speaking about whole human beings.
Beginning with verse 41, Jesus now asks a question. The phrase “what do you think” was used by Jesus in 21:28 and by the elites in 22:17 and now effectively closed this discussion. “son” signifies more than just biology. It also implies character, to whom one belongs and whom one obeys.
B. Condemnation of the Scribes and Pharisees 23:1-39: These verses have sometimes been generalized into a rejection of all Jews and Judaism. But these harsh words are addressed to religious leaders, not to all Jews. Also, modern readers need to understand that Jesus used standard polemical language. There was a particular way of speaking about “other” groups in the ancient world that used this sort of language. Speakers may not have necessarily believed the accusations they made to be true, they served as notice that the group addressed is the opponent. It is not generally intended to convict the other group of the error of their ways. It is intended to affirm the position of the speaker’s own group’s identity. This “over the top” language is to warn and instruct Jesus’ followers about how they are to live and not to live.
23:1-12 Warning to Disciples: “Moses’ seat” refers to authorized teaching and interpretive acts. Is Jesus concerned about their ability to correctly interpret Torah or is he accusing them of wrong practices or is he accusing them of hypocrisy? Or all of this?
23:13-36 Seven Woes Against the Pharisees: The “woe’ language comes from the prophets (Isa 45:9-10; Jer 13:27; 48:46; Ezek 16:23). The woes tell us what things/actions are unacceptable. These are not new accusations. What is Jesus critique of the religious leaders in each “woe”?
23:37-39 Lament for Jerusalem and Hopeful Anticipation: Jerusalem is the center of the religious elite’s power.
C. Eschatological Discourse: The Final Establishment of God’s Empire: The Fifth Teaching Discourse 24:1-26:2 Some commentators believe these chapters concern the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE, others think Jesus is talking about the Parousia, the last days and Jesus’ return; others think Jesus is talking about both events and they are not separable. Others think all these subjects are part of the chapters and that the chapters talk about past, present, and future. One large, complex discourse.
These chapters also serve as encouragement for Matthew’s small, marginalized and suffering community.
24:1-2 Jesus Predicts the Temple’s Downfall: Matthew’s readers know this prediction is correct. Also after the woes and lament, Jesus leaves, “God’s presence now ceremonially departs the Temple for the final time.” (Boring 439)
24:3-26 The Post – Easter Eschatological Woes: This is not a timetable or list of signs but encouragement to faithfulness and to be ready when the Lord returns.
24:27-31 The Parousia: The Coming of the Son of Man and the End of Human Empires, especially Rome’s: When Jesus returns there will be no doubt about what is happening. Verse 30 recalls Dan 7:13-14. God’s presence symbolized by clouds (Ex 13:20-22; 19:9. 33:9; 40:34-38)
24:32-35 The Parable of the Fig Tree:
24:36-44 The Unknown Time: Be Vigilant:Now four examples of people who are surprised or prepared for Jesus’ return. Those who are “taken” are not removed from the world but are gathered into the community of the saved.
24:45-51 Parable of the Wise and Reckless Slaves: an allegory for disciples who have previously been described as slaves.
25:1-13 Parable of the Wise and Foolish Bridesmaids: God’s Empire is like the Situation of the Ten Maidens: Even though this is the start of a new chapter, Chapter 25 should be read in interpreted as part of the entire section chapter 23-25. This parable is more like and allegory in that the situation described probably does not accurately reflect wedding customs but is told in this way to make a theological point. In the Old Testament, the image of God as bridegroom and Israel as bride was used. The Christian community takes that imagery and uses it with Jesus as the bridegroom and the church as bride. All though here, there is no bride mentioned and the bridesmaids represent the church. The oil/having oil represents deeds of love and mercy (an image consistent with Jewish tradition)
25:14-30 Parable of the Talents: Be Ready for the Master’s Return: A talent is about 15 years wages for a day laborer, a large sum of money. Does this reflect the importance of what has been given to the disciples to do? Each servant must decide what to do with the money given to them, the master does not give instructions. “Good and faithful” servants make decisions, take initiative.
25:31-46 Jesus Son of Man and the Judgment: These verses are what Matthew has been building to. But there is disagreement about what, exactly, Jesus means. What matters when the Son of Man returns is how one cared for the needy, not a confession of faith. Commentators are divided as to who the “least of these” are. Are they any and all needy people or are they Christians and/or Christian missionaries? Some think that because little ones/ least have been used previously to describe the disciples, that is who Jesus means here also.
In the chapters 23-25, Matthew is not so much giving an “eschatological discourse” as he is offering pastoral care and encouragement to his small, beleaguered community. Both are present, but the emphasis is on how disciples are to live until Jesus returns. Matthew gives us a variety of images that cannot be easily harmonized to aid our understanding. This isn’t systematic theology but snapshots, sketches, pictures of faithful living in trying time.
Read More About It:
Boring, M. Eugene, “The Gospel of Matthew: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume VIII, Leander E. Keck,ed. (Nashville, Abingdon Press)1994.
Carter, Warren, Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading (Maryknoll,New York: Orbis Books) 2001.
Johnson, Luke Timothy, The Writings of the New Testament: An Interpretation, rev. ed. (Minneapolis:Fortress Press) 1999. Chapter 8 “The Gospel of Matthew”.
Powell, Mark Allan, “Matthew” in HarperCollins Bible Commentary, rev. ed.James L Mays, ed. (New York: Society of Bible Literature) 2000.
Tilden, Elwyn E., Bruce M. Metzger, “Matthew” in The New Oxford Annotated Bible, Bruce M. Metzger, Roland E. Murphy eds. (New York: Oxford University Press) 1994.