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The Gospel Of Matthew by William R. Cannon


Before his election to the episcopacy in 1968 United Methodist Bishop William R. Cannon served as Professor of Church History and then Dean of Chandler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta. Other books by Bishop Cannon include The Gospel Of John, Jesus The Servant, and The Book Of Acts. The Gospel Of Matthew was published by The Upper Room, Nashville, 1982.This material prepared by Paul R. Mobley.


Chapter 5: King Of The Jews


Matthew began his Gospel with the reminder of an Old Testament prophecy of the coming of the king and with the beginning of the fulfillment of that prophecy in the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem. "Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him. . . . And they said unto him, In Bethlehem of Judaea: for thus it is written by the prophet, And thou Bethlehem, in the land of Juda, art not the least among the princes of J uda: for out of thee shal1 come a Governor, that shall rule my people Israel" (Matt. 2:2,5-6).

In this section of the Gospel, Matthew completes his description of the fulfillment of that prophecy with the acceptance of Jesus as king by the people in Jerusalem. For a brief span of time, Jesus exercises his dominion by teaching in the Temple and proclaiming in the capital of the nation the edicts of the kingdom of heaven.

As Jesus was born King of the Jews in the land of Judah, where the Wise Men from the East paid tribute to his majesty with their gifts to him in Bethlehem, so he must exercise his reign in Jerusalem as did King David before him.

The Feast of the Passover is the most important and sacred of all religious observances for the Jews. This is the time when Jerusalem is filled to overflowing with pilgrims. This is the season appointed for Jesus' reign as king over his own people. Jews from all over the world are in the capital for the feast. The foreign-born sons of Abraham are assembled here with their brothers who reside in the homeland. All Jews everywhere are therefore recipients of the benefits of Jesus' presence in Jerusalem and of his rule over his people. According to Matthew, Jesus is ordained by God to be the King of the Jews.

We are indebted to Matthew for having preserved more of the teachings of Jesus, and in better order, than any of the other evangelists. He has done this in five major collections. We have examined four of these collections already (Matt. 5:1-7:29; 10:1-42; 13:1-58; and 18:1-35). In this section of his Gospel Matthew gives the fifth and last collection of the teachings of Jesus (Matt 21:1-25:46). These are words from the throne. They are regal and majestic. They are words addressed by the ruler to his subjects. And the people to whom Jesus speaks these words are all Jews.

1. Coronation (Matt. 21:1-16) Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday is his coronation as King of the Jews. That is what Matthew intends to convey in his presentation of the event. Just as in the birth of Jesus, Matthew turns back to a prophecy from the Old Testament to confirm his interpretation of that event; so now with the triumphal entry, Matthew turns again to the Old Testament to show that this is the coronation of the Davidic king.

The drama begins at Bethphage on the Mount of Olives. Jesus designates two of his disciples to go ahead of him to a nearby village to obtain an ass and a colt for his use. Zechariah had prophesied: "And his feet shall stand in that day upon the mount of Olives, which is before Jerusalem on the east'' (Zech. 14:4). The two disciples find the ass and her colt in the village and bring them to Jesus as he commanded. Matthew says explicitly that this was done to fulfill prophecy, and the evangelist quotes the prophecy that is thus fulfilled: "Tell ye the daughter of Sion, Behold, thy king cometh unto thee, meek, and sitting upon an ass, and a colt the foal of an ass (Matt. 21:5). Matthew is obviously depending upon memory for the prophecy from the Old Testament, so his statement is more a paraphrase than it is a direct quotation. He refers to Zechariah 9:9: "Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion; shout, O daughter of Jerusalem: behold, thy King cometh unto thee: he is just, and having salvation; lowly, and riding upon an ass, and upon a colt the foal of an ass."

This verse from Zechariah is Hebrew poetry. It is an example of parallelism, where one line repeats in different words the idea contained in the preceding line of the poem. Matthew notes that both the ass and her colt were brought to Jesus, but he does not tell us which of the two Jesus actually rode upon.

The people throw their clothes in the path of Jesus as he approaches the city, and they put down palm branches before him in the road. This was a long established act of homage. Kings in the Old Testament had been shown homage by their subjects in the same way. For example, Jehu was recognized by the people of Israel as their king in this identical manner: "Then they hasted, and took every man his garment, and put it under him on the top of the stairs, and blew with trumpets, saying, Jehu is king" (2 Kings 9:13).

The use of palm branches indicated the solemnity of the occasion. Jesus not only rode into the city of Jerusalem, he went on to the Temple. He was a priestly as well as royal king. His reign was to be messianic. Palm branches had been used at the rededication of the Temple after the return of the Jews from Exile. This was on the Feast of the Tabernacles in 141 B.C. (1 Macc. 13:51; 2 Macc. 10:7).

The response of the people was itself a litany. "Glory to the Son of David," they cried. "Glory in the highest" -- that is, in heaven as well as here in Jerusalem. "Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord.' 'Jesus is our king, because God has chosen and anointed him. The music of Psalm 118:24-26 was in the hearts and on the lips of the people: "This is the day which the Lord hath made; we will rejoice and be glad in it. Save now, I beseech thee, O Lord: O Lord, I beseech thee, send now prosperity. Blessed be he that cometh in the name of the Lord: we have blessed you out of the house of the Lord."

Matthew says that the whole city of Jerusalem was moved by Jesus' great entry. Immediately after he entered the outer court of the Temple, he drove away the money changers and the merchants who sold birds for sacrifice, giving as an explanation a quotation from Isaiah 56:7: "Even them will I bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer.'' The house of prayer, in Jesus' mind, is the Temple. Haggling, bargaining, and cheating have no place in the house of God. After driving out the money changers and the merchants, he healed the blind and the lame who came to him in the Temple. The little children kept following him about the Temple precincts, singing as they had on the road, "Hosanna to the Son of David," or "Glory to David's heir." Hosanna literally meant "save." In their songs the people were asking Jesus to save them.

The chief priests became angry and upset at Jesus for what was happening. But he told them that the children had more discernment than they had. He quoted to them Psalm 8:2: "Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings hast thou . . ." changing "ordained strength" to "perfected praise." With this, Jesus walks away from their presence, leaves the Temple and Jerusalem, and returns to Bethany to spend the night.

Here there is a clear expression of regal power and majestic authority. Jesus exercises his divine rights in ejecting the moneychangers and merchants from the Temple and in pitting his authority against that of the Temple rulers.

2. The Reign of Judgment (Matt. 21:18-22:14) The king is all powerful, but he is all wise, too. Solomonic in judgment, he is Davidic in the execution of judgment. Since the time of the judges, the rulers of Israel had sat at the gates of the cities, hearing the people, settling their disputes with and claims against one another, and meting out justice. The judgment seat is now the Temple. The judge is Jesus himself.

The day after the triumphal entry Jesus returns with his disciples from Bethany to Jerusalem. On the way he sees a fig tree covered with leaves and expects to find fruit on it. He has not had breakfast and is hungry. When he discovers that the tree has no fruit, he curses it so that it withers and dies. Everything in the kingdom of heaven is designed to serve the purposes of the king. Anything that fails to satisfy the purpose for which it was designed is useless and will be discarded. Consequently, the fig tree is cast aside.

"How could this have happened so quickly?" the disciples say, as they watch the little tree drying up and falling apart before their very eyes. "You can do the same thing I did," Jesus replies, "that is, if you have enough faith. By faith you can order a mountain to move out of the way and drop into the middle of the sea" (Matt. 21:21, AP).

Power belongs to the governance of the kingdom. Jesus exercises royal power now in the presence of the disciples. But they will exercise it too, in his name after he is gone; and the church will continue to exercise it in allegiance to him throughout history. With the power to bind is also the power to loose. Condemnation and judgment fall heavily on the disobedient and recalcitrant, just as mercy and forgiveness are the gifts conferred on those who believe and trust. Even nature itself is under the control of God and of God's Son, Jesus Christ.

The miracle of the fig tree is unique. It is the only miracle recorded in the Gospels which demonstrates the destructive power of Jesus. There is one other, perhaps closely akin to it, where Jesus lets the devils destroy the swine and themselves as well in the sea. But here Jesus uses his supernatural power to destroy the fig tree because it has no fruit for him to eat. The disciples realize that without fruit to show for their labor, this is an example of what might well happen to them too. Jesus' own people had had their chance. He came to them. The opportunity they failed to take advantage of may now be given to others.

Jesus discredits the sincerity of the priests when they ask him by what authority he does the things he does. Countering with a question of his own, Jesus asks them whether the baptism ofJohn the Baptist was from heaven or from people here on earth. The chief priests and elders are afraid to respond, lest their answer incriminate them with the people, who believed John was a prophet. They certainly did not believe John's baptism was from heaven, because they had ignored him (Matt. 21:23-27).

Jesus now tells two stories, the import of both of which is the same. A father had two sons whom he asks to help him in his vineyard. One son refuses but later regrets his decision and goes into the vineyard to work. The other gladly consents to go but does not do it. Jesus asks which of the two sons obeyed his father? The first one, of course, say the Jewish religious leaders. But you, Jesus says, are like the second son. You pretend to obey God, but you did not heed the warning of John the Baptist. The tax collectors and harlots finally did hear John and heeded him, so, says Jesus to the priests and elders, they will go into the kingdom before you (Matt. 21:28-32).

The other story is about a householder who moves away but rents his vineyard to tenants -- sharecroppers who are supposed to share the produce with him. Instead, when he sends his servants to collect, the tenants beat and abuse them. Finally, he sends his son, thinking they will respect him. But the tenants decide to kill the heir and seize the property. After all, possession is nine-tenths of the law. Jesus asks what will happen when the owner comes back to his property. They answer, "He will miserably destroy those wicked men, and will let out his vineyard unto other husbandmen, which shall render him the fruits in their seasons" (Matt. 21:41).

The meaning of the two stories is apparent. God will honor those who are obedient. Those who follow their own desires and ignore God's directions will be destroyed, and others will take their place in God's kingdom. The disobedient and indifferent Jews are the wicked tenants who do not give a proportionate share of the grapes to the landowner. God is the landowner. The prophets are the servants. Jesus is the son they kill. The new tenants are the followers of Jesus. The second story is not strictly a parable, as we think of it, but an allegory containing several meanings. The first story is a parable; the story conveys one meaning and has one lesson to teach.

Jesus is the stone which the builders reject but which nonetheless becomes the cornerstone of the building (Matt. 21:42-44).

The chief priests and Pharisees see themselves in Jesus' stories. Therefore, they want to arrest him, but they realize he has won the favor of the people. So for the time being they have to leave him alone (Matt. 21:45-46). They fear they have another John the Baptist on their hands.

In all these encounters Jesus maintains control of the situation. He is the divine judge of the deeds of those with whom he deals.

This discourse comes to a climax with the story of the wedding feast. The son of the king is to be married, and his father sends servants to invite guests to the wedding. Evidently the king is not too popular with his subjects, at least those prominent enough to be invited to court, for they laugh at the invitation and go on about their business, one to his farm, another to his shop. Others mistreat the servants and then kill them. The king, when he learns what has happened, sends his army to kill the rebellious subjects and burn their city. The king sends other servants to collect guests wherever they can find them, so that the wedding is well attended and the house is full. Some of the guests are good, but others are bad. At the wedding the king goes around speaking to his guests. He finds one among them who is improperly clad. He does not have on a wedding garment. ''Friend,'' the king says, ''what's wrong with you? You do not have on a wedding garment. What's your explanation?" The poor man is speechless. He has no explanation. The king throws him out. He is bound, hand and foot, and cast into outer darkness, where he will suffer so much pain that he will weep and gnash his teeth. Many people, Jesus says, are called, but few of them are chosen (Matt. 22:1-14).

This is a complicated story. It, too, is an allegory. But it has two parts. The original guests, who were thought to be worthy of an invitation from the king, are later pronounced unworthy because they do not accept the invitation. Those who attend the wedding are not invited at all. They are compelled to come. This is the first part of the story. The second part has to do with one person present at the wedding from among those compelled to come. He is not properly dressed, so he is thrown out and even punished for his indiscretion. What does it all mean?

The Pharisees, the Sadducees, the priests, and the Levites are the elite of the people. They are the ones who normally would be expected to receive an invitation from the king. But they make fun of Jesus and ridicule the kingdom of heaven which he proclaims. In the end, they will all be destroyed.

Those left are the poor, the outcast, the publicans, and sinners. There are no others to constitute the kingdom. They then will fill its ranks. But the kingdom of heaven has its standards. The king expects those at the wedding of his son to show proper respect. Sinners cannot remain sinners and be citizens of this new order. When they come to the wedding, they must come prepared. They must discard their old work clothes and put on 'clean white garments for the feast. Those who displace the elite as guests, persons the Pharisees and their kind would never recognize as being worthy of an invitation to the king's palace, must be made worthy. In coming into the king's house these people must willingly subscribe to the king's standards and way of life, or else they too will be excluded and destroyed.

Always, when Jesus represents the kingdom of heaven, he implies its opposite, the kingdom of darkness and of evil. The wedding feast is the messianic banquet, or the kingdom of heaven as a community of saints. The ruler is God. The son is Jesus. The guests who refuse the invitation are the elite of the Jews. The others who take their place are those who believe in Jesus, heed his message, and become his followers. The man without the wedding garment represents those who, after having responded to the message of Jesus, do not live up to his standards and continue in their old way of life. The darkness outside the king's house is hell itself. If there is a heaven, there must be a hell, for the judgments of God are true and righteous altogether.

3. The Reign of Wisdom (Matt. 22:15-46) The Pharisees engage surrogates to question Jesus. The surrogates seek to slip up on the blind side of him by flattery. They falsely claim that they know all Jesus has been saying is true, that he teaches what will lead the people to God, and that he is independent of people. There is one crucial question, they say, that we want you to answer. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar? Jesus sees that they are out to trick him. Paying taxes to the Romans is not popular with the Jews. In their minds, to recognize the rule of Caesar is to deny the rule of God. But not to pay taxes to the Romans means the confiscation by the Romans of all the possessions one has plus enslavement and possibly even death. "Why trick me?" Jesus says. "You know the answer already. Whose image is on the coin? It is Caesar's. So give him what belongs to him. What you owe God is different. You can still pay taxes and serve God. God does not want your money. God wants your person, your life. You and Caesar both belong to God" (Matt. 22:18-21, AP).

The Greek word for tempt or ensnare, which Jesus uses to accuse the people who ask him this question, is a hunting term. It literally means "snare" or "trap," as when one snares a bird or traps a bear. The only place the Greek word is ever used in connection with a person is in the New Testament. The disciples of the Pharisees and the Herodians sought to trap Jesus as if he had been an animal. But instead he traps them (Matt. 22:15-22).

The second effort to discredit him was a question put to him by the Sadducees. Jewish custom demanded that when a man died without children, his widow should marry his next oldest brother and seek to have a child to provide an heir to her deceased husband. The Sadducees give Jesus a test case. Suppose, they say, there are seven brothers and the oldest dies without a child and his widow marries the next, who also dies without a child, and so she goes down the line with each new husband dying without a child, until she marries the seventh and youngest brother who also dies childless. After she has buried all seven of her husbands, the widow dies too. In the Resurrection whose wife will this woman be? Here on earth she had all seven of them.

The Sadducees did not believe in life after death. In fact, this teaching is a later development in Hebrew thought. It is foreign to most of the Old Testament. The Sadducees accepted only the first five books of the Bible -- the books of the Law. They assumed that the law concerning remarriage would never have been promulgated by Moses if there had been life after death, because it would cause confusion as to whose wife the widow would be in the world to come. In their minds, the Law and the Resurrection contradicted each other.

Jesus tells them that they do not understand life in heaven. There the nature of personality is different. After death, a person does not have a mortal body. There is no such thing as marriage in heaven.

Jesus also tells the Sadducees that life after death is clearly implied in books of the Law, which they accept as canonical. There God calls himself the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, long after Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are dead. God comes to Moses in this way. Jesus says that the living God would never be introduced in terms of the dead. Therefore, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob must be alive with God beyond the grave or else they will rise again from their graves at the Resurrection (Matt. 22:23-33).

A lawyer asks Jesus which is the greatest commandment, andJesus tells him without elaboration:

"Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.... Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself" (Matt. 22:37,39). It is interesting that a lawyer should have asked him a question about the law. This is the only place where a lawyer appears in Matthew's Gospel. In Mark there is no mention of a lawyer, but in Luke, lawyers appear six times.

Jesus then asks the Pharisees a question. "Whose son is Christ?" And they answer, "Christ is the son of David." If that be so, he says, why does David call him Lord? (see Psalm 110:1). The Pharisees could not answer him.

Jesus was the son of David if we assume that both Mary and Joseph are of the household and lineage of David. This is what Matthew believed. But Jesus was much more than the Son of David. He was the Son of God. Matthew teaches this through his account of the virgin birth of Jesus.

After this, none of the leaders of the Jews dared to engage Jesus in discussion or debate. They were not his equals. The king reigned over them in wisdom.

4.The Reign of Counsel (Matt. 23:1-39) Jesus realized that a good ruler gives good advice to his subjects. The priests and religious teachers of the Jews are antagonistic and argumentative. They at tempt to compete with Jesus. He turns away from them and addresses the people and his disciples. His message now is to the crowds about him.

Jesus tells the people that they have been deceived by their religious leaders. The scribes and Pharisees give good advice, but they do not practice their own precepts. They put the burden of the law with all its requirements on others, but they will not lift a finger themselves. What little they do is for show -- to be seen by the people and to receive their praise. These leaders court all sorts of honors and seek constant attention. They want the people to notice the scriptural verses they have tied on their foreheads and around their arms, so they make the parchment pads on which the verses are written very large. They enlarge the hems of their garments and see that their tassels are long. They want to attract attention as they perform their religious ceremonies.

The scribes and Pharisees take the chief seats in the synagogue, the seats before the ark which holds the sacred scrolls. These seats face the congregation. In that way they can see the people and be seen by them. They delight to fill Moses' seat, the chair in every synagogue where the reader for the day sits as the ruler of the synagogue. From it the law is expounded and taught and the sermon is preached. This means the scribes and Pharisees like to be the preacher on the sabbath in the synagogue.

During the week in the marketplace, these leaders want to be addressed as "rabbi." Rabbi means great. It is the equivalent of master or lord. The custom in Jesus' day was that a man would salute an other who was his superior in the knowledge of the law. The scribes and Pharisees delighted in the daily recognition given to them in public by the people. The Jews respectfully referred to their great teachers and past leaders as fathers. Jesus instructed his followers to give up all these titles. The only person who ever refers to him as rabbi in Matthew's Gospel is Judas Iscariot. His followers must remember that they have only one spiritual Father and that is God in heaven. They have but one master, and that master is Christ, the Messiah. They themselves are just brothers and sisters. Their hallmark is sacrificial service. The greatest among them will be their servant. Those who exalt themselves will be humiliated by being debased, while the humble will be exalted (Matt. 23:1-12).

Then Jesus pronounces before the people seven woes on the scribes and Pharisees. Woe is the equivalent of a warning. Jesus warns the people against the sinful practices of the scribes and Pharisees. When Jesus says, "Woe to you," he vents his indignation, ashamed for what the scribes and Pharisees are doing. It is an expression of condemnation for their deeds. It is also a curse, indicating that God will punish them for their sins. Jesus is indignant that the scribes and Pharisees (1) will not enter the kingdom of heaven themselves and stand in the way of others entering it as well; (2) will do almost anything to win a proselyte only to make that proselyte twice as much a child of hell as they are; (3) confuse people by senseless oaths, telling them that if they swear by the Temple, their oath is not binding, but if they swear by the gold of the Temple, it is binding-the fools ought to realize, Jesus says, that the Temple includes all that is in it; (4) tithe some of their money but neglect justice and mercy and faith, which are weightier moral matters, when they ought both to tithe and perform these greater acts of righteousness as well; (5) are careful about outward cleanliness but careless about the inward disposition, so that they are filled with extortion and greed; (6) appear righteous but really are hypocrites, because their appearance hides all manner of iniquity inside; (7) pretend to revere the prophets of history whom their parents killed but continue to practice the evil of their parents by rejecting those whom God sends to them now (Matt. 23:13-36).

As a result of all this, Jesus breaks into a lament. His people refuse his ministry of comfort and reject his message of deliverance, and soon Jerusalem will be desolate (Matt. 23:37-39). Regretfully, he says, the inhabitants will not see him again until they are able to recognize who he really is and who it is that sent him. Only then will they be able to say, "Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord" (Matt. 23:39).

5.The Reign of Prophecy (Matt. 24:1-25:46) When they leave the Temple, Jesus tells the Twelve that that beautiful edifice will be destroyed. When they reach the Mount of Olives, the disciples ask him privately when this tragedy will occur. He does not answer their question but instead begins a discourse on the future and the signs that will mark the end of the world. The phrase "the end of the world" is not actually used in the discourse. But we infer it from the description of events given by Jesus. We equate the second coming of the Son of man with the end of the world.

But if we use the phrase "end of the world" at all, it must have a double meaning. The fall of Jerusalem would have been the end of the world for a devout Jew. It was such for the disciples. That event, Jesus says, will take place during the lifetime of many of the disciples (Matt. 24:34). The present generation will not die before this happens.

Jesus indicates the signs preceding the catastrophe, and he warns his disciples against false teachers who claim to be Christ. He predicts wars, earthquakes, famines, and pestilence. He tells them that the abomination of desolation spoken of by Daniel the prophet will be set up in the holy place, namely, the Temple. He gives instructions to his followers to flee, to desert the city, and to hide in the mountains. Just hope, Jesus says, that this tragedy does not occur in winter, and pray that you will be in condition to flee.

All this did happen. Jesus' words were literally fulfilled. Jerusalem fell in A.D. 70. The Temple was destroyed, and the followers of Jesus did flee in advance and were scattered. Jesus did not predict the exact date.

But the end of the world has not yet taken place. Jesus says that it will not occur until the gospel is preached in all the world "for a witness unto all nations" (Matt. 24:14). The sun will turn to darkness, and the moon will not shine. The Son of man will appear in the heavens. He will come with power and great glory. When this will happen, no one knows but God, who will not share this knowledge even with the angels (Mart. 24:36).

Be ready for the Second Coming and the end of the world. Live as if your generation were the last.

Jesus' discourse seems confusing as Matthew presents it, because the description of what will take place before the fail of Jerusalem and before the end of the world is meshed and looks the same. However, the lesson conveyed by these predictions is the lesson of watchfulness and preparation.

People would not leave their houses if they knew in advance when the thief would strike. The good servant is constantly good and does not have to anticipate the master’s return. It is only the evil servant who has to worry that the master might return unexpectedly. "Therefore be ye also ready: for in such an hour as ye think not the Son of man cometh" (Mart.24:44).

It is in this vein that Jesus tells the story of the wise and foolish virgins, those five who went to the wedding with oil in their lamps and the other five who came with their lamps empty and could not purchase any oil in time for the feast (Matt. 25:1-13). He follows this with the story of the talents which the master of the house distributed to his servants in keeping with his assessment of their abilities. Two of them, in his absence, doubled the amount he had entrusted to them, while the third did nothing with his but preserve it. We are to be prepared for the second coming of Christ. Also, we are to use our time and talents profitably, so that we have something worthwhile to show for our time on earth.

We glorify our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ when we serve others. "Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me'' (Matt. 25:40).

Rewards and punishments are both at the disposal of God who will reward the good and punish the wicked. The kingdom is not for everybody but only for those who love God and obey God's will.

 

Personal Reflection

 1. What emotion was Jesus feeling when he overturned the tables of the moneychangers? How do you usually handle that emotion?

2. How do you react to Jesus' cursing the fig tree? How does this miracle fit in with the way you usually think of Jesus?

3. The guests who were invited to the banquet were told to come just as they were. Do you ever feel you need to "clean up your act" in order to approach God? What do you think God requires of those who seek the Holy Spirit?

4. Jesus mourned for Jerusalem, crying for its people. Do you think God actually longs for close- ness with us? How are you affected by this idea?

5. Why did Jesus not clearly draw the lines between what belongs to God and what belongs to the civil government? Who has to decide what goes in each category?

 

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