Chapter 5: Matthew and Luke on the Final Days in Jesus’ Ministry

The Modern Reader's Guide to the Gospels
by William Hamilton

Chapter 5: Matthew and Luke on the Final Days in Jesus’ Ministry

Matthew 19-28:20 and Luke 18:15-24:53 (Compare Mark 10-16:8)

 In this final section, Matthew and Luke follow Mark's order of Vents with considerable care, and the reader may wish to make of the references to Mark's gospel as he proceeds.

 1. The trip to Jerusalem, Matthew 19-20 and Luke 18:15-19:27 (compare Mark 10)

When Matthew deals with Jesus' teaching on divorce, he modifies the unconditional prohibition of divorce as found in Mark. Notice Matthew 19:9, the phrase "except for unchastity," which Matthew's adds to Jesus' words from Mark. In the story of the rich young man, both Matthew and Luke leave out the touching comment Mark that Jesus looked on the young man and loved him, he had claimed obedience to the basic commandments. His discipleship needed one further thing, that he sell all his goods and give the proceeds to the poor. Full obedience for this man meant giving up his wealth, and in face of this demand he turned away sad. With a touch of humorous exaggeration, Jesus draws a conclusion from this incident. The disciples, though not themselves rich, wonder if any man can be saved. Jesus answers directly: no, not themselves or on their own merits. God alone can save man, He alone grants his kingdom. Jesus goes on to describe this kingdom as a future blessedness. Even though a man has given up every thing to be a disciple, his reward will be beyond his imagining, human standards of value and worth will be radically overturned.


a. The parable of the laborers in the vineyard, Matthew 20:1-16

This is of course a very poor lesson in labor-management relation. and is not meant to be such. "Vineyard" is a familiar symbol the Old Testament for Israel (see Isaiah 5:7); and therefore can be seen as a study in God's justice and freedom in offering the kingdom to whomever he wishes. Verse 15 is the actual point: the kingdom is a gift of grace, not given according to merit virtue, as the Pharisees and the elder brother in Luke 15 supposed.

In Matthew 20:17-19 (and in Luke 18:31-34) Jesus and disciples set out for the capital city, and he tells them for the third time what his fate is to be. A prediction of the resurrection is found in both accounts, but the dispersal of the disciples at the of the arrest, and the element of surprise when the account of the resurrection is received later on, both suggest that these are words which the evangelists place on Jesus' lips at this point. In Matthew 20:20-28, the mother of James and John requests a special place in the kingdom for her sons. Jesus refuses this silly request rather gently, and then deals with the apparently self-righteous anger of the disciples at the request itself. True power is a kingly power, but lowliness, suffering, and death. The career the Son of man is to be a model for the career of those who him. (Compare Luke 22:24-27.) The blindness of the disciples who do not see this yet, is then contrasted with the story of blind man (two in Matthew) who is made to see by (Matthew 20:29-34 and Luke 18:35-43; compare Mark '46-52).

b. Zacchaeus, Luke 19:1-10

This may be another version of the call of Levi (Mark 2:13-17 Luke 5:27-32). Zacchaeus is described as a sort of supervisor tax collection in the area, a position that ostracized him from

his fellow Jews. He is drawn to Jesus because of Jesus' reputation as a friend of such as he. Jesus calls his name (Luke does not bother to explain how Jesus knew it) and indicates that he wishes

to stay at his house. This act of acceptance was the decisive turning-point for Zacchaeus. The bystanders murmur their disapproval verse 7; Zacchacus makes a response to Jesus' act of acceptance and Jesus' words in verse 9 are apparently his answer to the crowd's criticism. Zacchaeus has shown himself to be a true Jew by his response, in spite of his ostracism by his fellow Jews. The story ends, as so often in Luke, with an emphasis on the special value in the kingdom of God of the lost, outcast and rejected.

 c. The parable of the talents, Luke 19:11-27 and Matthew 25:14-30

A "talent" was equivalent to about $1000, and our modern use of the word to mean a special aptitude or gift is probably derived from this story. Matthew preserves a fairly simple version of

story. It is not primarily a defense of capitalism or banking, but a warning to the Jews not to be content with their tradition and past, but to develop and use it creatively. It could also be to a Christian disciple to make use of what he has, lest even little (faith) he has to be taken away.

Luke adds a number of details. The man has become a noble man, who leaves to receive some sort of royal power over subjects. Some local citizens oppose this, and send a delegation away to complain. On his return, invested with the royal power in spite of the objections, the nobleman rewards the faithful grants of political power, rebukes the timid ones, and gives order that the citizens who objected to his appointment be put death. Thus Luke adds an allegorical meaning beyond what the Matthew intended. The nobleman going away to become a king points to the death of Christ, and his return is the second coming. In the interim, the disciples are exhorted to be faithful, for there be rewards and punishments at the time of the last judgment. Those who hate him and oppose the "appointment" are presumably the Jews. Both versions make the same point: warning to the Jews, and advice to the disciples to be faithful and obedient so that eternal life may be granted (this is the meaning of phrase "joy of your master" in Matthew 25:21, 23).

2. Events and teaching in Jerusalem, Matthew 21:1-25:46. Luke 19:28-21:38 (compare Mark 11-13)

A very brief outline of these decisive events will be given, before we proceed to deal with the death and resurrection in more detail.

a. The entry into the city, Matthew 21:1-9 and Luke 19:28-38

This entry takes place amidst considerable tension; the crowd not understanding what is going on, the disciples themselves half bewildered, the authorities preparing to strike, and Jesus alone clearly aware of what the future is to be. Matthew makes explicit the messianic character of the entry, by quoting the passage from Zechariah 9:9. Jesus intends this as a symbolic gesture, clear to those who have eyes to see, meaningless to the rest. Here, as elsewhere, he acts out, rather than explicitly describes, his lowly messiahship. Note that Matthew, in his zeal to work out a literal fulfillment of the prophecy, misreads the Old Testament prophecy, and has Jesus in the awkward situation of riding on two animals at once.

 b. The cleansing of the temple and the cursing of the fig tree, Matthew 21:10-22 and Luke 19:45-48

Matthew records both these events, and weaves them together; Luke, perhaps embarrassed by the rather unattractive picture of Jesus cursing a tree for not bearing fruit at a time when the fruit

was not supposed to grow, drops it. The cleansing is not merely the act of a reformer of piety, but a fulfillment of some Old Testament passages about the messianic age (Isaiah 56:7 and Jeremiah7:11). Luke radically shortens this story. It is probable that originally the story of the tree was a parable in which Jesus compared Israel to a barren fig tree, and in the process of transmission it became transformed from a parable to a narrative of an actual event.

c. Teaching and parables in Jerusalem, Matthew 21:23-24:51 (and 25:31-46) and Luke 20:1-21:36 (compare Marl 11:27-13:37)

1. A question on authority, Matthew 21:23-27 and Luke 20:1.

Jesus replies to a baited question with a counter-question. If the priests and elders denied John's authority, they would offend people; if they affirmed it, they would be obliged to affirm authority as well.

 2. The parable of the two sons, Matthew 21:28-32

The point is in Matthew 21:31; verse 32 seems a rather irrelevant addition, designed to relate this passage to the previous one. Jesus' reply to his questioners could hardly have been more offensive.

 3. The wicked tenants, Matthew 21:33-46 and Luke 20:9-19

Two accusations are concealed in this parable or, more allegory; the Pharisees and priests are accused in advance of murder; and God will reject the Jews because of this criminal act. Israel is in the vineyard, God is the owner, the Jews are the tenants, the servants are the prophets, and the son is Jesus himself.

 4. The question of paying the poll tax, Matthew 22:15-22 Luke 20:20-26

Again the question is designed to compromise Jesus; a clear "yes" would have a bad popular effect, and a "no" would portray him as seditious. Just what is Jesus' answer here, and what are the impl- cations of it for a political ethic? What about Acts 5:29 alongside this?

5. On the resurrection, Matthew 22:23-33 and Luke 20:27-40

Jesus doesn't really answer the question put to him, except to suggest that life in the world to come will be of a different order than life here. The real intent of the passage is to base the Christian hope for resurrection on God, and not on anything inherently immortal in man.

6. The great commandment, Matthew 22:34-40 and Luke 10:25-28

A serious question from a Jew this time, not an attempt to trap Jesus. And Jesus answers it directly.

Following this is a question about the Messiah's descent from David (which Jesus seems to deny, Matthew 22:41-46 and Luke 20:41-44); and a long criticism of the Pharisees, Matthew 23:1-36 and, more briefly, in Luke 20:45-47.

7. The apocalyptic discourse, Matthew 24:1-51 and Luke 21:5-36

For a number of reasons, most observers agree that this material is a variety of sources; there may be some authentic teaching of Jesus here, but there is also some material that the church used to warn the Christians to flee from Jerusalem at the time of the Roman attack in A.D. 70. Instead of answering the question about the fall of the temple, Jesus speaks of events leading up to the final catastrophic end of all things. There is a great deal of Old Testament quotation and paraphrase here, and as a whole it is too un-original to be taken in any full sense as authentic words of Jesus.

Matthew (verses 37-51) concludes this discourse with advice on need for watchfulness, though the reference in the conclusion may be to the coming crisis in Jesus' own ministry and not to the of the world. If the reader keeps in mind these two references: to the coming crisis in Jesus' own ministry and to the persecution of the church in Matthew and Luke's time; and if he further understands that apocalyptic thinking about the future of the world is a perennial temptation in time of political or cultural despair (science fiction today is a sort of secular apocalyptic), these passages will speak movingly of the power of God even in the darkest days.

 8. The last judgment, Matthew 25:31-46

The "Son of man" coming at the end of time as judge is a messianic figure (he is also called a king), but Jesus does not here identify himself with that figure. The motif is one we have already become familiar with in Matthew and Luke: humble and self-effacing service is a mark of obedience to the Messiah and his kingdom, even if one is unaware that one's service is in fact obedience to Christ. The touch of surprise in verse 38 is interesting. It may be that it is not general benevolence to all men that is described here, but rather service to the disciples of Jesus. "My brethren" in verse 40 may mean this, and Matthew 12:48-49 seems to stand as evidence for such an interpretation.

In any case, the decision against the Messiah has already been made by the Jews. The humble and lowly and sinful have obeyed; the religious leaders have rejected him. What follows is in a way both epilogue and climax. The Passion story itself works out the implications both of Jesus' rejection and the meaning of accepting and following him.

 3. The Passion and resurrection narratives, Matthew 26 -- 28 and Luke 22 -- 24 (compare Mark 14 -- 16:8)

Matthew and Luke follow Mark fairly closely in their accounts of the events leading up to the last supper: the plot, Judas' betrayal, the preparation of the last supper, and the prediction of the betrayal (Matthew 26:1-19 and Luke 22:1-13, compare Mark 14:17-25. But Matthew alone includes here the story of the anointing at Bethany (26:6-13). This needs some comment. In verse 11 Jesus is saying that of course service to the poor is always required, but in this particular case the woman has performed an act that makes practical criticism irrelevant. But what had she done ? She had "anointed" Jesus. What makes the act worthy of such praise ? Two meanings are contained in the woman’s act: it is first a confession that Jesus is the Messiah, the "anointed" one. She is also pointing to his death and burial, for the dead are anointed as well. And so the woman has seen something that the disciples themselves had not seen up until now: that Jesus’ messiahship is a suffering one, and that it will lead to death.

 a. The last supper, Matthew 26:17-29 and Luke 22:14-38 (compare Mark 14:17-25)

Matthew and Luke, like Mark, describe this day as the one before Passover, interpreting the trial and the death as falling on Passover itself. Thus Jesus is seen as bearing a new covenant, related to the old covenant given through Moses. John puts the crucifixion on the day before Passover, the day when the lambs are slaughtered for the feast. Matthew is quite close to Mark in this story, but Luke has some significant variations: the cup comes before the bread and is not related to the new covenant. He also stresses, in verses 16 and 18, the clement of anticipation in a way that reminds us of I Corinthians 11:26. Luke may have an independent source for this event. The bread is broken, and the wine is released, given, poured out. These arc the central gestures in this story and are the clues to what was being enacted by Jesus before his perhaps uncomprehending disciples. The broken bread points forward to the actual taking of the body on the cross the following day. What of the pouring of the wine? The blood, remember, is the source of life in psychology, and so it is not death that is involved in the shedding of blood, but the new gift of new life. Thus both death and resurrection seem to be anticipated in Jesus' words and gestures.

When the Christian church celebrates the central act of its worship -- whether it calls it Mass, Eucharist, Holy Communion, or Lord's Supper -- it points back not only to these events in the upper room, but to the whole drama of God's redemptive action that Jesus is symbolizing in his words and gestures.

 b. Gethsemane, Matthew 26:36-46 and Luke 22:40-46 (cornpare Mark 14:32-42)

Matthew follows Mark almost word for word, but Luke has made the scene if anything more vivid and powerful. The threefold falling asleep of the disciples is cut; the vision of an angel is added, and the anguish is deepened. The reader should note just what is being said here: a few hours before his death, Jesus prayed that it not come to pass. He in effect rebelled against God. Only after his rebellion did he give himself into God's hands.

In the story of the arrest that immediately follows, Matthew has added a saying about Jesus' power to call into his service an army of angels, and Luke has added a rather perfunctory miracle of healing the ear of the slave that ojie of the disciples cut off in anger. Note that Luke has not included the humiliating fact of the disciples' flight after the arrest (Matthew 26:56).

C The trials, ecclesiastical and civil, Matthew 26:57-27:31, Luke 22:54-23:25 (compare Mark 14:53-15:15)

The trial before Caiaphas (Matthew names him) was probably not an official trial so much as a preliminary hearing to get evidence to present to Pilate. There were strict rules of evidence, and witnesses were unable to agree (each witness had to he examined individually, and there had to be clear agreement). So they began instead to question Jesus himself, to see if he would claim to be Messiah in order that they might present him to Pilate as a royal pretender to the Jewish throne (of Herod). Note that Matthew (26:64) and Luke (22:67-70) slightly modify Mark's version of Jesus' response to the high priest's question about his status as Messiah. In Matthew, Jesus replies "You have said so"; and in Luke, "You say that I am." Note also that Matthew and Luke clarify what is happening in Mark 14:65, by adding the taunting question, "Who is it that struck you?" This is a little game; if you are a prophet, they say, put on this blindfold and guess which one of us is hitting you.

Matthew 27:3-10 gives an account of Judas' repentance and suicide. Compare with this the brief account in Acts 1:18-19. The actual repentance and remorse is plausible, but it looks as if the rest of the passage (verses 5-10) is built up around the quotation from the Old Testament.

Matthew is closer to Mark in his record of the trial before Pilate than Luke, but even in Matthew we have a little more emphasis on Pilate's conviction of Jesus' innocence than in Mark (Matthew 27:23-25). Luke adds to Mark the Jewish complaints at the beginning of the hearing (Luke 23:2-5), several protests by Pilate of his conviction of Jesus' innocence, and Pilate's attempt to avoid responsibility of referring Jesus to Herod, the tetrarch, who is apparently in Jerusalem at the time (Luke 23:6-16). But Herod finds no crime in him, and sends him back to Pilate who again declares for his innocence

Pilate's role in all this is difficult to assess. It may well be that the church at the end of the first century, living under Roman rule and permission, is anxious to underline the Jewish responsibility and to minimize the Roman part. But Jesus is, after all, crucified, and this is a Roman method, and the charge posted on the cross was a political not a religious one. Pilate's superior, the emperor Tiberius,

was known to be merciless to suspected traitors, but he was also careful that prisoners not be mistreated. Apparently Pilate, even though he saw the motives of the high priests clearly, feared an uprising even more, and gave orders that the prisoner be condemned and crucified.

Luke adds a moving scene on the way to Calvary, 23:26-31. Pity, Jesus says, is not what is required now. The women of Jerusalem have more reason for tears than they realize, he says. The Jewish rejection of the Messiah may be the greater reason for grief, and Luke's readers will certainly have thought of the actual fall of Jerusalem and the temple in A.D. 70.

 d. Crucifixion, death, and burial, Matthew 27:32-66 and 28:11-15; Luke 23:32-56 (compare Mark 15:22-47)

Matthew and Luke preserve the same form and simplicity in their accounts that is found in Mark. But some of the differences should be noted. Luke has translated the Aramaic Golgotha into "the Skull." In verses 34-35 Luke adds a saying of Jesus on the cross that is unique to him. Whom is Jesus forgiving here? The Jews or the Romans or both? Matthew adds, in verse 36, a saying about the soldiers keeping watch over the body, perhaps to prepare reader for verses 62-66. He also adds the phrase "Son of God" in verse 40, recalling that the high priest had used this phrase in his question at the trial (26:63).

Luke, in verses 39-43, adds some sayings of the two criminals crucified with Jesus. The one who asks Jesus to remember him when he comes into his kingly power receives an even greater promise. "Today you will be with me in Paradise." "Paradise" is a Persian word, and it reminds us that in Jewish thought was emerging -- along with the older idea that the spirits of the dead would dwell in Sheol until the final resurrection and judgment -- this newer idea that the righteous went immediately to their reward after death.

Luke does not record the terrible cry of dereliction from the cross (Matthew 27:46), including in its place a quotation from: Psalm 31:5. We cannot hope to penetrate its meaning adequately though it is surely right to see in it something of the cost to Christ, and even to God, of the bearing of human sin. In this cry, we catch something of the depth to which God stoops in Christ; He comes fully into our humanity, our sin, and, perhaps, even into our despair. The drink of vinegar (Matthew 27:48) may be an act of mercy, or it may be another form of abuse (see Psalm 69:21).

In Mark, the centurion expresses admiration at Jesus' courage in the face of death. In Luke, he declares Jesus' innocence, verse 47, and in Matthew, verse 54, both the centurion and some bystanders are filled with awe. Note that Luke, verse 49, suggests (in the phrase "all his acquaintances") that the disciples had not all fled at the time of the arrest.

Matthew 27:62-66 and 28:11-15 are pieces of legendary material added by Matthew. They seem highly improbable. They were possibly added by early Christians to repudiate the charge that Jesus' body was merely stolen from the tomb by the disciples. lt is unlikely that the high priests would have taken Jesus' prediction of His resurrection seriously, even if they had known about it: after all, the disciples themselves were surprised by it. And it is further unlikely that Pilate would have consented to give a guard to the Jews; he has not been portrayed as exactly friendly to them. However suspicious we may be of the sources of this material, it does at least show that there was an empty tomb that needed explaining.

e. The resurrection, Matthew 28:1-20 and Luke 24:1-53

1. The empty tomb, Matthew 28:1-10 and Luke 24:1-11

Matthew and Luke both take over Mark 16:1-8, and make some significant additions. In Matthew, the women do not come to anoint body, as in Mark, presumably because of the presence of the guard. Matthew adds the touches of supernatural wonder in verses 4 and the note about the helplessness of the guards. After the angel’s words in Matthew, the women depart in fear and joy to tell the disciples, and Jesus meets them. Note their response: they both worship and touch him, an indication that Matthew intends us to understand that this is no hallucination or vision. Jesus tells the women that be will appear again in Galilee to the disciples.

In Luke, Jesus does not appear to the women, and the message they rush off to report is merely the words of the two angels. The curious fact, in verse 11, that the disciples did not believe may be contradicted by verse 24. Remember that in Mark and Matthew, the disciples had all gone home to Galilee by the time of the arrest; only in Luke 23:49 are they said still to be in Jerusalem. The contrast between the silence of the women in Mark 16:8 and the eagerness to report in Matthew and Luke is interesting.

 2. The command to baptize Matth w 28:16-20

Here the promise of verse 10 is fulfilled. These verses probably reflect the early church's interpretation more than Jesus' actual words, but they make a striking climax to the gospel. The miraculous is set aside, for it is not the final word. The final word is obedience and service on behalf of the risen Lord. No part of the Bible has given Christians such a sense of the world-wide church. Note that this saying, like the ten commandments, and like the Sermon on the Mount, is given from a mountain. Some of the disciples believed, and some did not (Jesus himself had said that a resurrection would not convince everyone, Luke 16:31). He speaks of his authority and of thcir obedience. He promises them his presence, until the very end of human history itself, when all people will inherit the kingdom of God and see him face to face.

 3. Resurrection appearances in Luke 24:13-53

a. The Emmaus road, 24:13-35

These two were not apparently among the original disciples, but of that other group who heard the women's story of the tomb and disbelieved it (in verses 9, 10, 11). They are on their way home from Jerusalem, and the risen Lord draws near. They do not recognize him, and Luke suggests it is because their understanding has been dulled by God. Compare Mary's confusion of the risen Christ with the gardener in John 20:14-16. The disciples describe what they had hoped for in Jesus in terms that are very similar to the early sermons of Peter in Acts 2. The cross has left them desolate, and the story of the empty tomb has not lifted their gloom. Verse 26 suggests that Christ has already entered into his glory, yet it is clearly a glory that is not over-poweringly self-evident. It has to be discerned. Their hearts burn, they later say, when Jesus expounds the biblical story, but they do not really see who he is until they break bread together. This meal seems similar to the last supper, and may have been thought of by Luke as a sort of early Lord's Supper. When they recognized him, he disappeared. They returned to Jerusalem to tell the original disciples; in the meantime, Jesus had appeared to Peter.

This story is in many ways the most vivid insight into the early church's understanding of the resurrection of Christ that we have. It was clearly understood as an historical event, but it was obviously something more. Three different stages in the disciples' understanding can be noticed: they see and listen to him; they discern who he is; and they make an appropriate response — returning to the city with the message, "The Lord has risen in deed." The resurrection cannot here be less than event (physical, it is sometimes called); but it must be something more. Discernment of its meaning in the context of the whole biblical story must come; this is the significance of the exposition of the Bible along the way. And finally, before it can be truly an experience of the risen Lord, the disciple must make a response of obedience. Thomas, remember, had first to see and to touch; only then did he find it possible to say, "My Lord and my God!" (John 20:28).

b. Christ's appearance in Jerusalem, Luke 24:36-49

The story of the Emmaus road is not explicit as to the form of the risen Christ. This story of the appearance to the disciples in Jerusalem in the midst of the report of the two from Emmaus, contains an insistence that Jesus' risen form was physical. He invites them to touch him; he eats fish in their presence. There is a slight difference of emphasis between this and the earlier story. There Jesus is seen, but he is not discerned or fully understood all at once. Here the appearance is interpreted as more self-evident, in spite of the wonderful phrase in verse 41: "they still disbelieved for joy."

The final words are quiet and moving. The supernatural and miraculous atmosphere has lifted, and the final emphasis is on the work to be done. Christ interprets his meaning; he gives his disciples their commission, and bids them wait for the gift of the Holy Spirit, promised in the prophecy of Joel 2:28-29 and given at Pentecost in Acts 2 (but see John 20:22).

c. The ascension, Luke 24:50-53

By comparing the Revised Standard Version and the King James here, you will notice that the statement that Jesus "was ... carried up into heaven" (verse 51, KJV) is not found in the best manuscripts, and is therefore not included in the translation. Nevertheless, this is the story of the ascension that Luke interprets more fully in Acts 1:6-11. Apparently, by the time he began on the second volume of his work he had come into possession of new material indicating that Jesus' appearances lasted for forty days. Here in the gospel, the ascension takes place on the day of the resurrection. We need not worry overmuch about the actual meaning of the ascension. The incident seems played down here in any case; Jesus' work is done, and the disciples know who he is. His presence is no longer needed as before, and it is withdrawn. The response of the disciples is the only appropriate one: they praise God with joy and gratitude, and prepare to serve him in the world.

The true '"problem" at the end here is not the problem of ascension, it is the problem of service and obedience. Since all these things have happened, what is to be done? The second volume of Luke's book (The Acts of the Apostles) begins the answer to that, and the history of the church up to today continues it.