February 28, 2015.
Daily Reading: Matthew 20-22.
Background: Matthew 17-19.
Concepts and Connections.
1. The first shall be last, and the last first: Two of the main stories in this passage carry with them the same message at the end: the last shall be first and the first shall be last. Each story pertains to what we have awaiting for us in the life beyond, and each are stories in which one party asks for more than other parties that are going in with them. In the first story, which is a parable, Jesus likens the kingdom of heaven to a master who hires laborers to work in his vineyard. He starts at the beginning of the day, and agrees with some people to pay them a denarius (which was a day’s wage during this time) at the end of the day for their labor. Then the master goes out 3 more times at progressively later times of the day to hire more workers to labor in his vineyard. At the end of the day, he pays each laborer, beginning with the last, a denarius for their labor and the people who had worked from the beginning got mad because they worked for a much longer time than the others, especially the people who came on last who only worked an hour. But the master of the house reminds them that it is his money to distribute how he pleases, and that they had agreed upon a denarius at the onset of their labor.
The second story is not a parable, but a teaching opportunity that Jesus takes when the mother of James and John comes up to ask Him to give the seat at His left and right hand to her two sons. Though this may have been well intentioned, as most parents want the “best” things for their children, this obviously caused tension amongst the disciples when they had found out what had been asked. But Jesus dismissed the inquiry because they were not His seats to give. He then teaches a lesson, for the second time in this chapter: the last shall be first and the first last.
So what does this mean? The parable of the laborers reminds us that salvation is a gift that is offered to all, and no matter how late in life one accepts this gift, they receive it all the same. It doesn’t make you any “better” of a Christian just because you have been a Christian all your life. It doesn’t make you any less of a Christian if you were baptized into Christ just a few years before you are to depart from this life. Salvation is granted all the same. The laborers that worked from morning to night saw the other laborers that came on at the end and felt like they had done more work and deserved more pay. The mother of James and John was looking to put her two boys above the rest of the disciples, giving them honor. In each case, there is both a element of pride and a sense of entitlement. But Jesus makes it clear that this pride will only serve to make one last in the kingdom of heaven. Jesus came not to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as our ransom. We are to follow His example of humility (see Philippians 2:5-8) and serve others. The first shall be last, and the last shall be first.
2. Foretelling His death and having compassion: The other two stories in this chapter do not pertain to the particular teaching that it is mentioned above, but rather focus on Jesus’ words and actions. If there was ever any doubt amongst His disciples about how His death was going to come to pass, Jesus seems to want to drive it all away. This is the third time in the book of Matthew that Jesus explicitly tells His disciples that He is going to be delivered over to be killed, and He would be raised from the dead on the third day (see Matthew 16:21, 17:22-23). It would make sense for Jesus to foretell of His death, for He was going to die in such a way that His disciples might even lose faith that He was who He said He was. But in foretelling His death, their faith could be established after His resurrection, though they would be scattered when He was taken.
The final story we get of Jesus in this chapter is about the compassion that He had on the two blind men that cried out to Him when He passed by. They heard that He was coming, and they started calling out “Lord, have mercy on us, Son of David!” Their cries must have been loud and obnoxious, for the crowd tired to silence them, which only made them cry out louder. But Jesus did not take the same opinion of them as the crowd did, for He had pity on them and healed them after asking what they wanted Him to do for them. In this we see the compassion of our Savior, even when His disciples weren’t compassionate. Let us learn to love like Jesus loved, and not follow down the path that the crowd did here.
1. Scripture and prophecy: Four times in this chapter does Jesus or the author refer to Old testament scripture to reference what He is doing or a prophecy that He is fulfilling. The first comes in what is known as the Triumphal entry, where Jesus sends His disciples to get a donkey and her colt that they would find in a nearby village. He gets on them and rides them into Jerusalem, at one of the pinnacle moments of His ministry, as a crowd gathers and lays down their garments and leaves of the tree in His path, showing Him honor. This was done to fulfill what was written in Zechariah 9:9, telling Jerusalem to rejoice over their King who comes riding on a donkey. This is really a beautiful scene of victory and praise that is given to the Christ.
After the triumphal entry, Jesus entered the temple and found the money changers and those who sold animals that people would by to sacrifice. The Jews had turned the house of God into a business, one where they capitalized on the sacrifices made to God! Jesus calls on scripture, citing Isaiah 56:7 where the oracle says that the temple is a house of prayer, but says that they had made it into a house of robbers. Thus He overturned the tables and drove them out. But even after all this, when the chief priest had seen everything that had happened, His miracles, cleansing of the temple and how the people were praising Him, they could not believe it. They asked Him, “Do you hear what they are saying?!” Jesus answers in the affirmative, citing Psalm 8:2 to show how their praise was indeed prophesied.
The leaders of the Jews would continue to be blind to the fact that their Messiah who they had waited for was standing right in front of them, and this would lead to the fourth passage of Hebrew scripture that would be citied in reference to Jesus. In telling the parable of the tenants, Jesus explains what the Jews had done to the prophets before Him and what they were going to do to Him in just a little while, being blind to their own actions. Psalm 118:22-23 is quoted by Christ, as He was the cornerstone that the builders, the Jews, would reject. Each instance of reference to Old Testament teaches us that Christ was a student of the word (or better yet, the physical manifestation of the word, see John 1), and the Hebrew scriptures can be used as a sure witness to the deity and purpose of Christ as our Messiah.
2. Faith that moves mountains: There is a very interesting story found in the middle of this chapter about Jesus’ interaction with a fig tree. When He gets hungry, He goes to a fig tree to get some fruit to eat, but the tree is barren. He then proceeds to curse the tree and it withers at once. His disciples marvel, but Jesus tells them that if they had a faith without any doubt, they could move mountains. Though this may indeed be taken figuratively, the context is quite literal. The disciples have just seen a fig tree literally wither before their eyes, and then Jesus says that if they had faith without doubt, they could do another physical action (moving a mountain). Jesus seems to be talking about the quality of their faith, not the quantity, just as He was when He talks about having the faith of a mustard seed (see Matthew 17:14-20). This concept of a faith without doubt that yields unbelievable (ironic word choice) results is talked about several times in the New Testament (see Matthew 7:7, 17:14-20 and James 1:6). Doubtless faith and prayer indeed has a certain power that most of us probably underestimate, even when we claim to believe in it. Let us work to remove our walls of doubt and release the power of God that works inside us.
3. Words against the chief priests and elders: At the end of this chapter, Jesus gives another parable, specifically aimed at the chief priest and elders who had earlier questioned His authority, that concisely summed up God’s interaction with His people and how the leaders of the people had handled this interaction. Throughout the years, specifically in the time of the major and minor prophets to the time they were in then, God had sent multiple prophets to His people to declare His word and turn them back, but each time they had disregarded and even killed the prophets. Now that God had sent His Son, they were going to do the same, rejecting Him and nailing Him to a cross. He would be the cornerstone that the builders rejected (see Psalm 118:22-23) that would bring salvation to the world. Jesus came to the people of Israel first, as they were the chosen people, who were supposed to be a light to the world, but when they rejected Him, salvation was offered to another people, a people producing fruits. The kingdom of Israel would become a spiritual kingdom, one in which people from all nations were invited into (see Romans 9-11).
1. The parable of the wedding feast: This chapter opens with a rather interesting and unique parable about the kingdom of heaven. It is similar to the parable of the great banquet found in Luke 14:15-24, but is unique in that it goes beyond the ending point of the story in Luke. The wedding feast is set up here as a celebration of a Father’s (God the Father) Son (Jesus) who has married a bride (the kingdom/church, see Revelation 19:6-8, 21:1-4) and has called those who He had invited to come in (the children of Israel). But those who were invited ignored the message (the good news), some even killing the messengers (martyred prophets), thus making the King (Father) angry, sending troops to destroy the murders (perhaps the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70). Then He says to His servants to go out into the roads can gather all they can find (gentiles- nations of the earth) and bring them in to the feast, for those who were invited were not worthy because they had rejected the message. But the story doesn’t stop here, for then the King comes in to find one who does not have a wedding garment on, who he binds and casts away into outer darkness. The one without a proper garment was one who had entered the feast incorrectly, or has soiled his garment without care. These are those who claim to bear His name, but are not true disciples. Much like the parable of the weeds in Matthew 13:24-29, those who are in the kingdom will too be judged on the last day (see II Corinthians 5:10), and the weeds will be separated from the good seed on that day.
2. Challenging Jesus: The more Jesus taught and gained favor with the people, the more the Jewish religious leaders became angry with Him and wanted to catch Him in His words. Three times in this chapter is Jesus confronted by different sect leaders of the Jews in attempt to trick Him into saying something wrong. Each time he confounds them, leaving them without a word to answer Him. When the Pharisees tried to get him in a catch-22 by asking Him about taxes, He says “render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and unto God that which is God’s.” When the Sadducees try to ask Him an impossible question about the resurrection, to show how illogical it was (for they did not believe in resurrection), He pointed out their fundamental assumption about marriage in the resurrection that was incorrect. Then a lawyer of the Pharisees though he could stump Jesus by asking Him what the greatest commandment of the Law was. Jesus, in just two commands, concisely sums up the entire law and the prophets, the greatest command being to love the Lord their God and the second being to love their neighbor as themselves (see Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18, respectively). The people were amazed at His answers. When it seemed like they were out of questions, Jesus goes on the offensive, and poses a question to them. When He asks who’s Son the Christ is, they say David. Jesus then quotes a psalm from David, Psalm 110:1, in which David calls the Christ Lord, and He asks them how could David call someone who would be his son, “Lord.” No one could answer Him, and with this He silenced their trap questions from that day forward. His wisdom confounded the greatest of teachers and lawyers, and they dare not try again.
Tomorrow’s Reading: I Corinthians 4-6.
Grace and peace.