Matthew 21:1-11: Entry processions were important occasions during the time of Jesus. Rome was good at pomp and circumstance, and their imperial processions reflected their power and prestige. John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg, in their book The Last Week propose that there were two processions entering Jerusalem that day, one an imperial procession in which Pontius Pilate rode into the city to reinforce Roman rule during Passover week and one, the procession with Jesus riding on a donkey. In Matthew’s gospel, unlike in the other three, Jesus rides both a donkey and a colt. Matthew looks at the Scripture text in Zechariah 9:9 a little differently and so constructs his story to better fit his version. What is important is the symbol of humility represented by Jesus riding the donkey. It is a distinct contrast to an imperial procession – which may have been taking place in another part of town. Here there is spontaneous joy at the arrival of Jesus. There is a sense of anticipation that something wonderful will happen. Again, one might contrast this with a sense of fear and foreboding that may have accompanied the imperial procession. Here are a few lines from Crossan and Borg’s book: Pilate’s procession embodied the power, glory, and violence of the empire that ruled the world. Jesus’ procession embodied an alternative vision, the kingdom of God. This contrast – between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of Caesar – is central… to the story of Jesus and early Christianity (p. 4-5). Jesus is taking his work and message about God’s dream for the world into the heart of a city that embodied Roman domination and a Jewish collaboration with that system. There has been conflict between Jesus and both religious and political authorities to this point in Matthew. You have to wonder how the authorities might deal with this wandering teacher and healer who arrives in Jerusalem with shouts of “blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” Like Jesus, we are invited to bring good news about God’s love into difficult places, sharing a message that will sometimes challenge the way things are. Where are some of those places in your life or in our world today?
Matthew 21:12-17: The procession which accompanied Jesus into Jerusalem had proclaimed him a king, in contrast to Roman claims. Now Jesus confronts the religious system of his day by engaging in an interruptive act on the temple grounds. It is unlikely that Jesus could have completely disrupted the temple business, given its volume. He could have raised some eyebrows, however, by overturning some tables. Jesus words and actions in verses 12-13 indicate a prophetic criticism not so much of those who sold sacrificial animals or exchanged money, but of a view of the Temple which saw it as a guarantor of God’s favor, no matter how unjust worshippers were in the rest of their lives. Jesus is also criticizing the way the religious elite were collaborating with the Roman authorities. Sometimes certain of our own “religious practices” can get in the way of living out our faith more deeply. What may need to be overturned in our own lives? What may need to be done differently in our churches so that God’s dream for the world might become more real? To provide further contrast with the way God’s dream for the world continued to be made real in Jesus, people come to him for healing. These are people who may have normally been excluded from the Temple.
Matthew 21:18-22: This next story is a puzzling one. Jesus gets upset because there are no figs on a fig tree, he curses it and it withers. In Mark’s gospel, the cursing and the withering are separated in such a way that the story is meant to give meaning to Jesus’ action in the Temple. Here the curse and the withering happen right next to each other. For Matthew, this incident serves as a parable about a productive faith. “Fruit” is used in Matthew as a metaphor for good works (Matthew uses this image more than any other New Testament writer – The People’s New Testament Commentary). A lack of fruit is an indication of a dead spiritual life. An alive spiritual life is marked by an active faith, a faith which makes a difference in lives and in the world. Jesus is critical of Temple worship when it does not lead to changed lives. Jesus is critical of the religious elites of his day whose lives do not produce the kind of fruits of God’s kingdom Jesus expected. Jesus curses a fig tree for not doing what it should be doing, producing figs. The life of faith is meant to issue forth in works of love and compassion. It is meant to change us, enlarge our hearts.
Matthew 21:23-27: Jesus has entered Jerusalem with fanfare. He has disrupted business as usual in the Temple. As he goes to the Temple again, religious leaders ask him his authority for doing what he is doing. He turns the table on them. By what authority did John act? Matthew is making one of his central claims - that God was up to something special in Jesus. In some ways, it is a continuation of what God was up to in John’s ministry. Jesus has a gift for asking questions which make us look deep inside. What questions is Jesus asking you about your life?
Matthew 21:28-32: The conflict between Jesus and the religious authorities at the Temple keeps intensifying, and Jesus tells three parables that indict these religious leaders for their inability to see God at work in Jesus’ work and teaching. The first story is about two sons, one who says he will do what the father asks but doesn’t and the other who says “no” but then does what he has been asked to do. Those who have been religiously marginalized seem to get it before those who have been religiously well-heeled. Even after they saw things happening that were consistent with God’s dream for the world, they did not change their minds. God may be at work in unlikely places and our inability or refusal to see means we miss out.
Matthew 21:33-46: The second story is of a landowner who leases his land to tenants. The tenant refuse to give the appropriate produce (“fruits” which Matthew uses as a metaphor for good works). The landowner keeps sending representatives, and finally his own son to collect. The son is killed and the owner seeks the destruction of the tenants. Matthew’s use of this story lends itself to seeing God as the landowner and Jesus as the son. If we take a step back, the basic message is that those who represent the dream of God keep coming and coming, looking for the kinds of activity that fits God’s dream, God’s kingdom. Those who are not on board enough to produce such fruit miss out. Those who produce such fruit are a part of God’s kingdom. For Matthew, this story was meant as a strong indictment of some Jewish religious leaders, especially those of his own time who wanted to define the way forward in Judaism outside of the Jesus way. For Matthew, his Jesus community was getting Judaism right. The story has been used, then, in Anti-Semitic ways, but we should guard against that. We would do better to takes its basic message to heart. Our lives are intended to produce fruit - we are to be about changed hearts, changed lives that make a difference in the world. The religious leaders of the day begin to understand that Jesus is criticizing them, and they want to use their power to have him arrested, but they also recognize Jesus’ popularity as a problem.
Matthew 22:1-14: The third story in this set is again used by Matthew to makes a negative judgment on the religious leaders of his day, and of Jesus' day. The story has some bizarre elements to it. People bringing an invitation from the king to a wedding banquet are killed. The king, in turn, becomes enraged and kills those who have killed, burning down their city. Matthew’s gospel was composed after 70 C.E. the year in which the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed. He may have in mind the idea that the destruction of the Temple was, in fact, God’s judging action against those Jewish leaders who refused to see that God was up to something in Jesus. Again, though, the emphasis is on one’s own willingness to be open to what God is doing. It is terribly ironic that parables meant to criticize self-righteousness often become ground for self-righteousness. “Look, we get it and they don’t!” To take this story to heart is to be willing to look at those places in one’s own life where we have been too busy with other things to pay attention to what God is doing. To take this story seriously is also to be willing to go out and invite those often neglected to God’s banquet. Verses 11-14 are directed toward Matthew’s Jesus community, encouraging them not to let self-righteousness get the better of them.
Matthew 22:15-22: Jesus has been involved in some verbal exchanges with the religious leaders. Conflict continues, but here the issue broadens to include competing loyalties to God and to the empire. Some of the religious leaders want to trap Jesus into saying something that will raise the ire of the political authorities. Jesus wisely understands what is going on and responds with wit and intelligence. Should one pay taxes? Jesus provides no definitive answer, only noting that it is the empire that issues the money and that one should give the emperor what is his and God what is God’s. In the context of other things Jesus says, loyalty to God is the highest loyalty. That need not be in total opposition to “governments” but governments can never claim our ultimate loyalty. Our final loyalty is to God and to God’s purposes in the world. The work of governments can be a part of fulfilling those purposes, but they can also overreach. We must decide in our own day and time and in our own lives how we can support God’s purposes and the ways governments might further those purposes, and how we should be critical of those aspects of government and public policy that seem to thwart God’s purposes. By the way, the fact that these religious leaders were carrying imperial money made them a little suspect.
Matthew 22:23-33: Another group of religious leaders comes to raise questions with Jesus, this time about the resurrection. The Sadducees “belonged to the wealthy, conservative, priestly stream of Judaism associated with the temple leadership” (The People’s New Testament Commentary). The Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection and so pose a rather absurd scenario to see what Jesus might think of it. Jesus suggests that God’s kingdom, God’s dream for the world, will provide for very different patterns of relationship. “The text is not a devaluation of marriage and family, but a reminder that the nature of God’s transcendent world is a mystery that cannot be captured within the categories of the present human world” (The People’s New Testament Commentary).
Matthew 22:34-40: Some Pharisee again take a turn at testing Jesus on some of the controversial issues of the day (we’ve already had taxes and resurrection). Which commandment is the greatest? Jesus uses two Scriptures to summarize his answer: Deuteronomy 6:5 – love of God, and Leviticus 19:18 – love of neighbor. Love is at the heart of the kingdom of God, God’s dream for the world. It was at the heart of Jesus' ministry. It is intended to be at the heart of our faith.
Matthew 22:41-46: The Pharisees are not the only ones who can ask tough, pointed questions. Jesus turns the table on them, though his question seems rather strange. The bottom line is that Jesus is inviting them to see God at work in his teaching and ministry. He is the one anointed by God (Messiah means “anointed”) for this time. He is a son of David, but also the one in whom the hopes of David’s people will be fulfilled. It is interesting that Jesus again invites those with whom he is engaged in disputes to faith.
Matthew 23:1-36: The controversy between Jesus and the religious elite/leaders comes to a head in these words, which will then lead into Jesus speaking about God’s judgment in broader terms. The next three chapters of Matthew are intended to encourage the followers of Jesus in Matthew’s community to “live an authentic life devoted to deeds of justice and mercy” (The People’s New Testament Commentary). When we read texts that have judgment as a part of them we would do well to use them more as a mirror for our lives than as a commentary on the lives of others. It pains me to hear stories of people who have left the church wounded by the self-righteousness and judgmentalism of those they encountered there. Sometimes that is a convenient excuse, but too often it rings true, and the pain of being the object of harsh judgment and self-righteous put downs is all too real. For those in the community of Jesus, humility (which is not self-debasement, but a gentle and realistic self-understanding) and service are crucial characteristics (verses 1-12). We need to be careful not to lock others out of God’s dream for the world (13). Justice, mercy and faith are the weightier matters (23). We need to pay attention to what is going on inside, and not focus strictly on appearance (25-26). In inviting us to use these texts as self-reflection, I also want to caution against being self-denigrating. We are on a journey of faith. There are times when we will miss the mark. We will do things that belong in the burning garbage dump (Gehenna is the word translated “hell” in the New Testament. Gehenna was the garbage dump of Jerusalem – “garbage, trash, wild animals fighting over scraps of food, a fire burning, a place of waste and destruction” Rob Bell, Velvet Elvis, 57). That we will produce spiritual garbage from time to time is no reason to feel like we should just leap into the garbage pit. That’s not what God created us for. We are beloved people of God intended to do good and to have hearts filled with compassion and love. When we are less than this, we are to pick ourselves up, accept God’s forgiveness and move forward. Reading texts of judgment should not be occasions for despair but should motivate us to keep moving forward in our spiritual lives.
Matthew 23:37-39: These movingly beautiful words are a wonderful invitation to open oneself to the work of God’s Spirit, a work that has been powerfully present in Jesus. Again, notice that the invitation comes to all, presumably even the scribes and Pharisees whom Jesus has been criticizing. The words “continue to picture Jesus as identified with transcendent Wisdom, grieved at the rejection of her messengers” (People’s New Testament Commentary). The imagery here for the divine is distinctly feminine.