Thursday, April 19, 2018

23. Twists, Turns, Rebuttals and Counter-strikes

“According to Matthew”

A study of the Gospel of Matthew

Jesus had ridden into Jerusalem to be welcomed by the crowds waving palm branches and shouting Hosanna. He has made His way to the temple and overturned the tables of the money-changers, challenging the authority of the priests. He has told a pointed story about how the authorities would seek to kill the Father's son, but it would turn out they were the losers! The teachers of the law suspect that He is speaking directly against them.

They don't like it. They want to be rid of Him by whatever means they can. They still hold onto a vain hope that they may yet be able to outwit Him.

We have seen that from the start of his gospel Matthew has developed the theme of the Kingdom. How Jesus was a King whose rule expressed itself, not through dominating all His opponents, but through serving them, through healing the down-trodden and lifting up the poor, through granting dignity to 'little ones' and outcasts this world's kingdoms had no time for.

In the next parable Jesus uses the image of a wedding feast. I recall working on the guest list for my daughters wedding. Who should be on it? Would they come? And if they didn't, should we invite others to take their place? However this wedding story takes some very unexpected turns.

Matthew 22:1 Jesus spoke to them again in parables, saying: "The kingdom of heaven is like a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his servants to those who had been invited to the banquet to tell them to come, but they refused to come. "Then he sent some more servants and said, 'Tell those who have been invited that I have prepared my dinner: My oxen and fattened cattle have been butchered, and everything is ready. Come to the wedding banquet.' "But they paid no attention and went off--one to his field, another to his business. The rest seized his servants, mistreated them and killed them. The king was enraged. He sent his army and destroyed those murderers and burned their city. "Then he said to his servants, 'The wedding banquet is ready, but those I invited did not deserve to come. So go to the street corners and invite to the banquet anyone you find.' So the servants went out into the streets and gathered all the people they could find, the bad as well as the good, and the wedding hall was filled with guests. "But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing wedding clothes. He asked, 'How did you get in here without wedding clothes, friend?' The man was speechless. "Then the king told the attendants, 'Tie him hand and foot, and throw him outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.' "For many are invited, but few are chosen."

Behind the first part of the story is a custom of sending out invitations much earlier than the feast itself. You will notice in verse three that the King sends his servants to tell those who had accepted their invitations that it was time to come. These are folk who have said 'Yes, we'll be there”

So the King tells them to come. This wasn't simply a case of getting busy and forgetting what day it was. This was an act of disrespect and amounted to belittling the authority of the king. The text states that they 'refuse to come', an element of defiance is intended! Why do they refuse? Some because they are just want to get on with their lives, making money, taking care of business. We can maybe sympathize with that. But what about those who use the occasion to murder the messengers? Now if that's not an act of treason towards the kings authority, I don't know what it is!

It is in the context of the murder of his servants and with the sense of a mutiny having been declared that the kings army is mobilized and the guilty parties dealt with. Presumably the city in which they lived was one under the kings reign, so to burn his own territories was not good!

The banquet is ready, the feast is prepared. What to do? The King sends out a general invite. Didn't matter who you were. The good and the bad turn up in droves. The hall is filled with guests.

Then the king comes in and there is this one guy who is not dressed right. The man is challenged. “How did you get in?” A Liverpool comedian , Tom O’Connor, used to do a skit about a wedding in which he spoke about 'The guy who's on all the wedding photograph's, but nobody knew who he was, but everybody remembered he left as soon as the beer ran out'... well... that's this guy.

He's thrown out... into the dark of the night...and all the terrors that may await him with little chance, as his hands and feet are tied, of defending himself. It's all rather harsh for a wedding reception and I'm certainly hoping that my next wedding won't go anything like this parable. So I'm happy to observe that this is not an actual event. Jesus is telling a story! What's going on here?

Firstly, we need to put this story back into the setting it is being told in. This is the third in line of three parables Jesus has told following the cleansing of the temple and the antagonism His actions brought upon Him from the priests and Pharisees of the temple. They know, that He knows, that they want to be rid of Him.

In each of the parables they are the ones being indicted. In the first parable they are the son who is sent out to work, but does nothing. In the second parable they are the ones who murder the vineyard's owners servants and his son. In this parable they are the treasonable ones who disrespect the king by refusing to come to the feast.

Correspondingly, those whom Jesus is calling into His Kingdom, the ones the Pharisees look down on, are like the son, who though initially not invited, goes out and does the work. Those who accept Jesus are the ones who inherit the vineyard when it is taken away from the original owners, those who receive the message of the new kingdom are the bad and the good, who are not considered to be in with the in-crowd, but end up enjoying all the benefits of the kings marriage feast.

Some commentators hear echoes of Isaiah in this parable, particularly Isaiah chapter 5 which talks of the kingdom being inherited by outsiders because of the unfaithful actions of those invited to show forth God's love. Take a look at Isaiah 5:25-27

Therefore the LORD's anger burns against His people; His hand is raised and He strikes them down. The mountains shake, and the dead bodies are like refuse in the streets. Yet for all this, His anger is not turned away, His hand is still upraised. He lifts up a banner for the distant nations, He whistles for those at the ends of the earth. Here they come, swiftly and speedily! Not one of them grows tired or stumbles, not one slumbers or sleeps; not a belt is loosened at the waist, not a sandal strap is broken.

We see in that passage of Isaiah the idea of the kingdom being forcibly taken away from those who were the first invited, but who became unfaithful, and passed over to people who had previously been distant and far away. The original guests face deep troubles, the new guests receive great blessings.

Other commentators point out that Matthew is writing from the perspective of an early church community who witnessed the destruction of the temple in AD70. Following it's destruction 'temple worship' came to an end and was never re-established. The work of worship now belongs within the community. It is not in the hands of the Pharisees and the temple authorities, nor is it isolated to any geographical location. The temple authorities are the ones in the parable who are invited but never showed up and suffered the destruction of their town (the temple). The new community of the church, where everybody is welcome, represents the good and bad who accept the Kings invitation.

But what of our party crasher? "But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing wedding clothes. He asked, 'How did you get in here without wedding clothes, friend?' The man was speechless.

The first part of the parable tells us that God throws the door open for all to enter the kingdom. The love of God opens an open door to all people. But as they come in they must bring with them a life which seeks to be molded with the love which has been given them. Grace is not just a gift, it is a responsibility. If a person claims to be part of Christ's Kingdom they can not carry on living by the rules of the kingdoms of this world. They must be clothed with the attitude and love of Christ. As William Barclay writes ; “The door is open, but the door is not open for the sinner to come in and remain a sinner, but for the sinner to come and become a saint'

For the early church Matthew is addressing this is the sting in the tale. It as though he is saying, “Yes, you may well rejoice that you have an invitation to the wedding feast, but if you don't shape up, although you think you are now one of the insiders, your demeanor will give you away, and you will lose what you claim to have found.” Again hear William Barclay;

This parable has nothing to do with the clothes in which we go to church;it has everything to do with the spirit in which we go to God's house. It is profoundly true that church-going must never be a fashion parade. But there are garments of the mind and the heart and of the soul – the garment of expectation, the garment of humble penitence, the garment of faith, the garment of reverence – and these are the garments without which we ought not to approach God. Too often we go to God's house with no preparation at all, if people in or congregations came to church prepared to worship – then worship would be worship indeed!

The parable closes with the mysterious phrase “For many are invited, but few are chosen." We encountered this phrase a couple of chapters ago in connection with the parable of the workers employed at different times in the day which concluded with the phrase “So the last shall be first, and the first last: For many are invited, but few are chosen. (Mat 20:16)

The phrase is intended as a warning, following on from the one who thought he was on the guest list, but turned out to be an imposter. It is a warning against presuming on the grace of God. Some are invited to the kingdom life but make light of it. Some are invited but place other things before it. Some make a profession of religion with their words but their lives show no evidence to back up their statements. Some go through the religious motions but their hearts and minds and souls are elsewhere. Some involve themselves with the life of a church community but carry on living in the way they always have and show no evidence of being clothed with the love of Jesus Christ.

Matthew Henry, the 19th Century biblical commentator writes 'many are called to the wedding feast, but few chosen to the wedding garment,that is, to salvation by sanctification of the spirit. This is 'the strait gate, and narrow way' which 'few find.'

One of the things that always startles me about Jesus parables is that we often think they are directed towards somebody else. But then we start digging deeper and see that they are really challenging our own shortcomings and prejudices. One of the compelling things about His words is that when really study them we see none of us are off the hook. We all need the grace and love and salvation that we can ONLY find in Him!

The Pharisees? They are not interested in applying parables of Jesus to themselves. They are still working at getting off the hook. They are up to their old tricks, throwing questions at Jesus that they hope will make Him look foolish and themselves look wise! Read verses 15-22 

Then the Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap Him in His words. They sent their disciples to Him along with the Herodians. "Teacher," they said, "we know that you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren't swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are. Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not?" But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, "You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me? Show me the coin used for paying the tax." They brought Him a denarius, and he asked them, "Whose image is this? And whose inscription?" "Caesar's," they replied. Then he said to them, "So give back to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's." When they heard this, they were amazed. So they left him and went away.

The strength of the Pharisees was their complete commitment to the law and their rejection of all that was Gentile or foreign. Greek influences, which had a big impact on the Sadducees, were entirely rejected by the Pharisees. They had a reputation for standing firm to traditional Jewish ways. They come to Jesus with a question regarding taxes.

The tax in question is of a particular nature; a roman head tax that was instituted as a result of the census taken when Judea became a roman province. The tax could only be paid with a roman coin which had upon it an image of the emperor and an inscription that would be considered blasphemous to devout Jews :- 'Tiberias Ceaser August Son of the Divine Augustus, high priest”

The question of paying these particular taxes could not easily be answered. If Jesus directed them not to pay taxes, they could inform the Romans. Such an action would put him in danger of being considered an enemy of the empire. You will notice that along with the Pharisees are some 'Herodians', folk loyal to King Herod and to Rome who would have had a vested interest in this conversation.

Yet if Jesus were to simply say 'Yes, pay your taxes', not only would He be seen, in some way, to be approving of the blasphemous coins, but also He would lose His influence with the common people, who had the deepest reservations about paying taxes to occupying roman invaders. Historians suggest that the census and the subsequent tax helped trigger the nationalism that would eventually lead to the Jewish revolt and the disastrous war that took place in 66-70 AD resulting in the destruction of the temple. The situation was aggravated by the fact that the tax had to be paid through tax collectors who often took a sizable cut for themselves. The whole system was corrupt.

As it appears were the Pharisees. They come across as real slime-balls in the way they approach Jesus. Firstly, they don't come themselves, they send their disciples. In the culture of the time, that was simply disrespectful. If you had something of importance to say to somebody, you didn't send your minions to do the dirty work.

Secondly, everybody knew they couldn't stand Jesus yet He is approached with a trinity of compliments! They compliment Him on His integrity, on how accurately He taught the way of God and how indifferent He was to public opinion. The irony was that these were the very virtues, in the mind of the common people, that the Pharisees lacked.

People questioned their integrity as they seemed to twist the laws to suit themselves. They suspected that many of their laws were not actually God's laws but man made rules and regulations designed to separate them from others. And they recognized that the Pharisees were very interested in how they looked before people! In the next chapter Jesus takes the Pharisees to task over just such things.

In His answer Jesus refuses to be drawn into the argument. He knows where they are coming from. They are not interested in taxation, it's simply a trick question to cause Him to say something that will incriminate Him.

He actually turns the conversation on its head. By replying that they should 'Pay Ceaser what is due to Ceaser' the implication is being made that the Pharisees are the ones who in some way were trying to wriggle out of paying their taxes. The Message Bible pictures the confrontation this way.

'Do you have a coin? Let me see it. Now this engraving- who does it look like? And whose name is on it?” There is almost an element of sarcasm in the exchange. “Are your teachers that dumb that they can't recognize the image and name of the emperor on his coins? What do you mean “Is it right to pay taxes?” Who made these coins? ” It is the Pharisees who are left looking foolish, not Jesus.

Then to crown it all Jesus tells them “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's.” Just as they weren't honoring Caesar by questioning his taxes, neither were they honoring God in the way they were living their lives. 'So give Ceaser what is his, and give God what is His!' (Message Bible). The sting in His answer is that the Pharisees were allowing these coins, coins that they suggested were blasphemous, to be used as valid currency within the temple courts.

The disciples of the Pharisees are silenced. There is nothing left to say. They walk away, shaking their heads. “Man... and we thought we had him this time!” It seems that news of their confrontational conversation reaches the Sadducees. They decide, that if it's open season for questioning Jesus, then they'll have a go as well.

That same day the Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to him with a question. "Teacher," they said, "Moses told us that if a man dies without having children, his brother must marry the widow and raise up offspring for him. Now there were seven brothers among us. The first one married and died, and since he had no children, he left his wife to his brother. The same thing happened to the second and third brother, right on down to the seventh. Finally, the woman died. Now then, at the resurrection, whose wife will she be of the seven, since all of them were married to her?" Jesus replied, "You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God. At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven. But about the resurrection of the dead--have you not read what God said to you, 'I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob'? He is not the God of the dead but of the living." When the crowds heard this, they were astonished at his teaching.

I recall working on a sermon on this passage. I called it “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers?”. It sounded like a Broadway musical. But actually it's just one bride for seven brothers. That just doesn't have the same ring to it!

For about 100 years the Saducees and Pharisees were competing parties within Palestine. The word 'Sadducee' seems to have come from a root meaning 'Judge'. They were also an aristocracy, who controlled the high priesthood and held considerable political power.

Like many an aristocracy they were proud and exclusive. Theologically they were liberal. They rejected the traditions of the Pharisees. They accepted only the first 5 books of the Old Testament as being Scripture. They rejected certain doctrines the Pharisees considered essential. They could, however, be accommodating towards new ideas and views coming from the Greeks and from Rome.

The problem the Saduccees have is partly with Pharisaic law and partly because they did not believe in the resurrection. (That's why they were 'sad, you see' ... groan). According to a law known as the 'levirite marriage' when a husband passed away and had not fathered a child, then the responsibility of assuring that the family line continued passed on to the next brother... and if he died, onto the next brother, and so on.

The 'levirite' law plays an important role in the book of Ruth. At the end of the Book of Ruth, Boaz wishes to marry her, but is unable to do so because there is a brother-in-law next in line who is supposed to take her for his wife. Through an unusual ceremony involving the removing of a shoe, the brother-in-law is released from his obligation and she is able to marry Boaz. In the genealogy that we are given in Matthew's first chapter, Boaz and Ruth both receive a mention.

They father a child Obed, who has a son called Jesse, who is the father of King David (about whom we shall hear more of in a moment). Boaz and Ruth play an important part of the ancestral tree of Jesus because they did not observe the levirite law. One assumes that the Saduccees did not realize this and suspects they may have been more cautious bringing a question involving a law whose avoidance was a part of Jesus ancestral heritage.

Hold in mind also that Jesus has been teaching His disciples that after He had been killed He would be raised to life on the third day. Resurrection was not seen as an optional extra but as the very thing that would change everything and the only thing that would retrospectively make sense of the mission He was accomplishing in their midst. Only resurrection would empower His disciples to go forth into all the world.

In His answer we see Jesus disputing with the Saduccees on a couple of points.

Firstly, they had no conception of the power of God which meant that they misunderstood what resurrection was all about. Resurrection was not a matter of correct theory, but of having faith in the power of God for the past, the present and the future. Questions about un-entangling human relationships completely missed the mark. God was, and always had been at work in the world through God's life-giving power. 'Have you not read' chastises Jesus “What God said to you, 'I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob'? He is not the God of the dead but of the living." Trusting in the power of God to transform life was the issue at stake.

Jesus places 'resurrection' in a broader framework than being about what happens when a person dies. Resurrection becomes the atmosphere in which the person of faith lives out their present life, living in the hope that the God who is able to transform life now will complete that transformation in eternity, not in line with any earthly expectation, but as a whole new way of being.... a new heaven and a new earth where the one who described Himself as 'the resurrection and the life' receives His rightful place.

Secondly, because they had no real understanding of what resurrection was, nor the power of God that was at work in their history, their present and their future, the Saduccees had an erroneous understanding of Scripture. They had no expectation of encountering the power of God through scripture. It was simply words on a page, confined to history and open to interpretation.

Our Presbyterian understanding of Scripture is that the books of the bible are 'God-Breathed'. By that we do not mean that they are not subject to all the limitations and prejudices of those who wrote and collated them, nor that they should be interpreted outside of their historical context. Our Presbyterian Confession of 1967 tells us (9:29);

The Bible is to be interpreted in the light of its witness to God’s work of reconciliation in Christ. The Scriptures, given under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, are nevertheless the words of men, conditioned by the language, thought forms, and literary fashions of the places and times at which they were written. They reflect views of life, history, and the cosmos which were then current. The church, therefore, has an obligation to approach the Scriptures with literary and historical understanding. As God has spoken his word in diverse cultural situations, the church is confident that he will continue to speak through the Scriptures in a changing world and in every form of human culture.

Lest that sounds like Presbyterians are somehow suggesting Scripture lacks authority, on the contrary the passage before the one above (9:27) reminds us that the authority of Scripture is nothing less than the authority of the Lord Jesus Christ. It is through His power, evidenced in resurrection, and applied to our lives through the work of the Holy Spirit, that the Scriptures speak to us.

The one sufficient revelation of God is Jesus Christ, the Word of God incarnate, to whom the Holy Spirit bears unique and authoritative witness through the Holy Scriptures, which are received and obeyed as the word of God written. The Scriptures are not a witness among others, but the witness without parallel.

This is an important lesson. This passage suggests that no-one can understand the Scriptures without faith in the power of God. People without faith get hold of a bible, and like the Sadducees, they nit pick. “How can this word here mean anything!!” “Why does this contradict that?”. But to people of faith, they glimpse in the lives of the Bibles characters and words of instruction and poems and prayers and incredible tales and interpretations, through all of it, they witness something of the God who is at work in their own lives. Faith in the power of God revealed in Jesus Christ, who died and was resurrected to life, brings scripture alive.

But let us leave the Sadducces to their sadness and move on. The questions keep coming! And they don't get easier! Read 34 – 46.

Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: "Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?" Jesus replied: "'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments." While the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them, "What do you think about the Messiah? Whose son is he?" "The son of David," they replied. He said to them, "How is it then that David, speaking by the Spirit, calls him 'Lord'? For he says, "'The Lord said to my Lord: "Sit at my right hand until I put your enemies under your feet."' If then David calls him 'Lord,' how can he be his son?" No one could say a word in reply, and from that day on no one dared to ask him any more questions.

On the TV news, whenever they are stuck for an explanation they send for an expert. So it's time for the Pharisees to send in one of their 'experts', an 'expert in the law' to ask Jesus a legal question. The Pharisees experts proposed that there were 613 commands of God that needed to be obeyed (248 positive ones that related to the body, 365 negative ones, corresponding to the days of the year). The question Jesus is asked is pointed and, again, tricky. “Which command of God was the most important?”

They want to talk about law. Jesus responds by speaking about love, and links together 'Loving God' and 'Loving Neighbor' as being the bottom line for true religion, inseparable from each other and whose fulfillment transcended any attempt at keeping individual laws. As He says; 'All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.' Having moved the conversation from one about law, towards one about love, the experts have no more questions! But Jesus has one for them. 'What do you think about the Messiah? Whose son is he?'

He then offers a quick Bible lesson. Behind this lesson is the cultural fact that in the Middle East no human father would ever dream of calling his son “Lord”. A son always owed deference and respect to a father. A father calling a son Lord would be the equivalent of a King calling his servant “The Master”.

The passage Jesus references is from Psalm 110, verse 1, a Psalm frequently quoted throughout the New Testament. The Messiah, according to the Pharisees, was to be a son of David. Jesus quotes to them from the Psalm, "'The Lord said to my Lord: "Sit at my right hand until I put your enemies under your feet." He asks them to explain; ' If then David calls him 'Lord,' how can he be his son?

To put it another way, how could David, the accepted writer of Psalm 110, call the Messiah “Lord” and yet have a 'son' who is the Messiah? Jesus is suggesting that the messiah was not David's son (though he could be David's descendant), the messiah was one whom David calls “Lord”.

So what? Well... Matthew is making a statement about Jesus. As the Messiah, the 'Christ', Jesus is BOTH the son and the Lord of David. Psalm 110, he suggests, is a prophecy of the Messiah that authenticated Jesus as it's fulfillment. Later this would be interpreted as meaning David's descendant was more than human. He was truly the “Son of God”.

And if you find that a little obscure... well don't worry. Virtually every commentary I read on this passage points out 'This is obscure'. Even my beloved William Barclay writes “This is one of the most obscure things which Jesus ever said.

I like the way the Message Bible concludes this chapter. It is after all the end of a series of interrogations that Jesus has been subjected to, and every time He has come out looking good whilst His opponents, well... not so good.

That stumped them, literalists that they were. Unwilling to risk losing face again in one of these public verbal exchanges, they quit asking questions for good!

But Jesus isn't through with them yet!
Next time we'll see what He has to say about them.
And, be warned, it's not going to be pretty!

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

22. The Conflict Begins

“According to Matthew” A study of the Gospel of Matthew

Right from the start of our study on Matthew we have seen how the theme of kingdoms in conflict keeps reappearing. The kingdoms of this world, and the kings who rule over them are seen as being corrupt and in need of salvation. The Kingdom of God offers redemption by encouraging a reversal of the usual way of looking at things. In God's Kingdom, the King describes Himself as coming to serve, His followers are invited to become great through serving one another, children are lifted up as examples of true faith and we are told that the first shall be last and the last shall be first.

The only way to live in this kingdom is through faith in the grace of God. There is nothing we can do to earn it, achieve it or possess it. It is something that has to enfold us and possess us. We discover it through prayer, through looking to each others needs and through completely trusting our lives into God's care.

As we have moved through Matthew we have been given the sense that somewhere along the way the two kingdoms are going to collide, and when they do, it isn't going to be pretty. Jesus has repeatedly told His disciples that He is going to Jerusalem and that He will be betrayed and murdered yet will be raised on the third day. They are struggling to get their minds around this. They are worrying over what this might mean for their own lives. Well... hold onto your horses.... because we are about to enter the last eight chapters of the Gospel according to Matthew. Or maybe I should say “Hold onto your donkeys” because we are beginning with a passage familiar to many of us as being the story of Palm Sunday. Read 21 verses 1 thru 11;

 As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage on the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, "Go to the village ahead of you, and at once you will find a donkey tied there, with her colt by her. Untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, say that the Lord needs them, and he will send them right away." This took place to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet:  "Say to Daughter Zion, 'See, your king comes to you, gentle and riding on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.'" The disciples went and did as Jesus had instructed them. They brought the donkey and the colt and placed their cloaks on them for Jesus to sit on. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of Him and those that followed shouted, "Hosanna to the Son of David!" "Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!" "Hosanna in the highest heaven!"  When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred and asked, "Who is this?"  The crowds answered, "This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee."

As we have observed elsewhere in Matthew, he is keen to relate the life of Jesus to the Old Testament.  The entrance into Jerusalem is seen as a fulfillment of the prophetic words of Zechariah 9:9. It is worth reading the verses following in Zechariah to put them into their context. Read Zechariah 9:9-11

 Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion! Shout, Daughter Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and victorious, lowly and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.  I will take away the chariots from Ephraim and the warhorses from Jerusalem, and the battle bow will be broken. He will proclaim peace to the nations. His rule will extend from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth.  As for you, because of the blood of my covenant with you, I will free your prisoners from the waterless pit.

Zechariah's prophecy pictures a righteous, humble King whose victory is expressed through removing weapons of destruction and replacing them with peace. This is not an isolated event but one of deep significance for all the world, related to a divine covenant made through blood that sets helpless prisoners free.

You may remember last study we mentioned 'propitiation' which we defined as 'setting free those completely unable to free themselves'.  1 John 4:10 tells us 'Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us, and sent His Son to be the 'propitiation' for our sins."  Zechariah's prophesied king truly fits that mold.

The background to Zechariah's prophecy can be found in a story in 1 Kings 1:32-40.

 King David said, "Call in Zadok the priest, Nathan the prophet and Benaiah son of Jehoiada." When they came before the king,  he said to them: "Take your lord's servants with you and have Solomon my son mount my own mule and take him down to Gihon.  There have Zadok the priest and Nathan the prophet anoint him king over Israel. Blow the trumpet and shout, 'Long live King Solomon!'  Then you are to go up with him, and he is to come and sit on my throne and reign in my place. I have appointed him ruler over Israel and Judah."  Benaiah son of Jehoiada answered the king, "Amen! May the LORD, the God of my lord the king, so declare it.  As the LORD was with my lord the king, so may he be with Solomon to make his throne even greater than the throne of my lord King David!"  So Zadok the priest, Nathan the prophet, Benaiah son of Jehoiada, the Kerethites and the Pelethites went down and had Solomon mount King David's mule, and they escorted him to Gihon.  Zadok the priest took the horn of oil from the sacred tent and anointed Solomon. Then they sounded the trumpet and all the people shouted, "Long live King Solomon!"  And all the people went up after him, playing pipes and rejoicing greatly, so that the ground shook with the sound.

There are a number of elements in the story that resonate with Jesus entry into Jerusalem. There is  the fact that Solomon rode a donkey set aside by David as his own. Marks gospel mentions that the colt Jesus rides into Jerusalem has 'never been ridden before', in other words it was a beast set apart for the  particular purpose of being a King's ride.

There is the fact that this was not simply another parade, but the entry into the holy city of her new King. Solomon at this point in the story of 1 Kings has been anointed by Zadok the priest and Nathan the prophet as king over all of Israel. Jesus enters the city as the anointed one of God to supersede all who have gone before, just as Solomon came to replace David.

The crowds shout out as Jesus enters. “Hosanna to the son of David”. Who was Solomon? Literally... he was the son of David! Matthew began his gospel by tracing the ancestry of Jesus to David. We said right at the start of our studies that Matthew's opening credits were significant. In the 1 Kings account we find Benaiah son of Jehoiada in verse 37 asking that this new King may have a throne 'Even greater than the throne of my lord King David!' Jesus, though of the line of David, has a Kingship that is greater than Davids.

In this account there is also the welcome to this new King who rides on a donkey by crowds who sing and rejoice, and make quite a noise, as the account in 1 Kings says, 'the ground shook with the sound.' What about the palm waving? We have to go to another scripture for that. Psalm 118 verses 19-27.

Psalm 118 is known as the great 'Hallel-Psalm'. 'Hallel' means 'praise'. We often use in worship the word “Hallelujah, meaning “Praise to 'Jah' “. 'Jah' refers to 'Yahweh' or 'Jehovah' one of the Jewish titles for God that comes from Moses encounter with God when God refuses to be named by any other title than 'YHW' the Hebrew for “I am who I am' or 'I will be what I will be”, a title reserved for naming God. The crowds are chanting Psalm 118 when Jesus enters Jerusalem.

Read : Psalm 118 verses19-27.

 Open for me the gates of the righteous; I will enter and give thanks to the LORD. This is the gate of the LORD through which the righteous may enter.  I will give you thanks, for you answered me; you have become my salvation. The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone;  the LORD has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes.  The LORD has done it this very day; let us rejoice today and be glad.  LORD, save us! LORD, grant us success! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the LORD. From the house of the LORD we bless you. The LORD is God, and he has made his light shine on us. With boughs in hand, join in the festal procession up to the horns of the altar.

The significance of Psalm 118 for the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem is that it was a Psalm for a King who was entering the city to offer a sacrifice. Verse 27 of the Psalm reads 'With boughs in hand, join in the festal procession up to the horns of the altar.” The word there for 'boughs' is the Hebrew word 'aboth' which be translated as 'foliage' or 'bunches of leaves woven together'. So the crowds wave their palm branches to accompany the festival procession.

Also in Psalm 118, a Psalm that is a procession towards the temple sacrifice, is verse 22 'The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone' . In a few verses time we will see Jesus in a confrontational conversation in the temple with the Pharisees, figuratively speaking to them of His sacrificial death  and quoting to them from Psalm 118:22 "Have you never read in the Scriptures: "'The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; the Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes'? (Matthew 21:42).

St Paul would later write to the Ephesian Church that Jesus, the stone the builders rejected, was the cornerstone of our Christian faith, and tell them  “In Him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in Him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by His Spirit.” (Ephesians 2:21-22).

One of the things I enjoy about these bible studies is the way we are able to go a lot deeper than we can on a Sunday morning  and observe how different texts and passages are related to one another. This passage about Palm Sunday is a case in point. Matthew weaves so many things together, that wouldn't have been lost on his first century Jewish audience, but that we need to a bit of unpacking and background to see the significance.

There is the passage from Zechariah that talks about a King riding on a donkey who comes the city to bring peace, yet also mentions a sacrificial blood covenant that sets prisoners free.  There is the passage in 1 Kings that lies behind Zechariah's prophecy and speaks of how Solomon, 'the son of David', rode into the city on a specially set aside donkey, after being anointed for his office, to be proclaimed the new King. There is Psalm 118, 'The Hallel Psalm” that was associated with a foliage waving festival procession for the King as he enters the city,  not to be enthroned, but to ascend to the altar and offer sacrifice. And we are not finished yet!

If you read both Mark's and Luke's account of the entry into Jerusalem you find there is mention of only a single donkey. However Matthew mentions 'a donkey...with her colt beside her.'  and that 'They brought the donkey and the colt and placed their cloaks on them for Jesus to sit on.' This needs some clarification.

Those unfamiliar with the genius of Matthew or the intricacies of the text, suggest, “Oh that just goes to show that the Bible can't be true. Either there were 2 donkeys or one. You can't have it both ways. And anyway, it's ridiculous, how could Jesus ride 2 donkeys at the same time. That would be a circus trick. No wonder the crowds hooted and hollered.”

Let's clear that up. Whilst Mark and Luke speak of Jesus riding only a colt into the city, that does not mean that the mother colt did not have her younger one by her side. Indeed such would be a common sight at the time. But Mark and Luke would not bother to mention it, for in their account of the gospel.... for the audience they were writing for... they attached no significance to it. As for Jesus riding them both at the same time, that is never what Matthew suggests. He suggests that at some point in the journey they were both ridden.

Where Matthew is coming from... and why he tells us that the mother was there with her colt... is that he is interpreting the prophecy in Zachariah.  Matthew is writing for a largely Jewish audience that are very familiar with the Old Testament. Zachariah's prophecy mentions both a colt and a foal. So Matthew speaks of a colt and a foal. We have to try and listen for the story behind the story. Matthew's concern is what the actions of Jesus  mean for our faith  and how those actions relate to the story of what God had already done in the world, the story of the Old Testament.

A scholar by the name of John Dominic Crossan offers an interesting perspective on this passage. He points out how incredibly symbolic the entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem was, particularly, as we have seen, when related to the full text of Zechariah's prophecy.

The people of Jerusalem were familiar with rulers who proudly rode into the city on their impressive steeds. In 332 BC, three centuries before Jesus’ Palm Sunday entrance, Alexander the Great, having conquered “Tyre and Gaza after terrible sieges” entered Jerusalem with hardly a fight, riding into the city “on his famous war-horse, the black stallion Bucephalus.”

Similarly, Crossan highlights that the custom would have been for Pilate to make a similarly triumphal entry to Jerusalem, with war horse, chariot, and weapons, each year in the days before Passover to remind the pilgrims that Rome was in charge. Such a demonstration would have been especially pertinent at Passover since Passover was explicitly a celebration of the liberation of the Jews from slavery in Egypt.

By contrast Matthew tells us of 'two animals, a donkey with her little colt beside her, and that Jesus rides “them” in the sense of having them both as part of his demonstration’s highly visible symbolism. In other words, Jesus does not ride a stallion or a mare, a mule or a male donkey, and not even a female donkey. He rides the most unmilitary mount imaginable: a female nursing donkey with her little colt trotting along beside her.

Zechariah prophesied that a humble King would enter the city, through whom peace would come to the world and that many would be set free out of situations from which they had no hope for redemption. Matthew pictures the King of Kings, riding on a nursing colt with her foal at her side, welcomed by a crowd of non-significant people shouting 'Hosanna' , traveling to Jerusalem where He will give His life as a sacrifice for the sins of the world.  But the next stop is the temple! Read 12-17

Jesus entered the temple courts and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves. highest heaven!" "It is written," He said to them, "'My house will be called a house of prayer,' but you are making it 'a den of robbers.' " The blind and the lame came to Him at the temple, and He healed them.  But when the chief priests and the teachers of the law saw the wonderful things He did and the children shouting in the temple courts, "Hosanna to the Son of David," they were indignant.  "Do you hear what these children are saying?" they asked him. "Yes," replied Jesus, "have you never read, "'From the lips of children and infants you, Lord, have called forth your praise'?"  And He left them and went out of the city to Bethany, where he spent the night.

The temple courts were an area of the temple accessible to everybody. As you headed nearer to the holy of holies, at the very center of the temple where only the priests could go, there were a number of successive courts. Gentiles were only allowed access so far, women and children into the next court, men the next level...and then only the priests. The temple courts were the outermost precinct. They seem to have become an open market with much money changing and selling of animals for sacrifice taking place.

Temple taxes had to be paid in temple currency which had be purchased from the temple. This was seen as a way of raising money for the temple by charging exorbitant exchange rates. Likewise, animals for sacrifice had to be 'without blemish', which in practical terms meant only animals purchased from the temple suppliers, that just happened to be a whole lot more expensive than you could buy them anywhere else. There was a money making scam going on.

Jesus is horrified to see the way business was conducted. He overturns a few tables and benches and shouts out in accusation towards those in charge (who had no doubt appeared on the scene) “My Father's House is meant to be a house of prayer, You have made it a hangout for thieves!” two phrases that found their origin in the prophecies of Isaiah and Jeremiah.

Having done this He sets about demonstrating what should have been happening there. He heals those who come to Him. He welcomes the little children. He welcomes the unimportant ones, the blind, the lame.  And the children are shouting out “Hosanna, son of David”... words which were blasphemous to the priests ears.

They challenge Jesus. “Don't you hear what they are saying about you?” Interestingly they make no comment about His turning over their tables and make no effort to answer His accusation that they had turned the temple into a den of thieves.  Neither do they acknowledge that He is doing some amazing things in His healing works. They are more interested in words of children that ignite their indignation rather than works that demonstrated the love of God.

Again Jesus quotes a scripture at them, this time from Psalm 8 (a Psalm that would have been used in temple worship) 'From the lips of children and infants You, Lord, have called forth Your praise'. One suspects this must have increased their rage as He is claiming that His actions are representing the work of the Lord, their God. 

We see in Jesus's actions something of what a worshiping community is … and isn't... meant to be.

A worshiping community is meant to be a 'not-for-profit' venture.  I personally don't think that the action of Jesus cleansing the temple suggests that churches should never involve themselves in fund raising or stewardship drives. But they do have to have the highest standards and be seen to be above reproach in the way they handle their finances.

Certainly a churches concern for maintenance should not compromise their passion for mission. The temple was not designed to be a self-maintaining, self-perpetuating organization for the benefit of the priests but a conduit for the grace of God where people of every nation and status could discover God's love and purpose for their lives.

Matthew offers a picture to which any worshiping community could aspire to, a job-description if you like for the church.

That it be a place;
  • Where all are welcomed to pray and worship
  • Where the faith of Jesus is proclaimed
  • Where the authority of Jesus is recognized
  • Where God's healing love can be encountered
  • Where 'little ones' can find a welcome
  • Where those who can't see find vision
  • Where those limping through life find a walk with God.
After this episode Jesus leaves the temple and spends the night in Bethany. But in the morning...
let us read verses 18-22

Early in the morning, as Jesus was on his way back to the city, he was hungry.  Seeing a fig tree by the road, He went up to it but found nothing on it except leaves. Then He said to it, "May you never bear fruit again!" Immediately the tree withered. When the disciples saw this, they were amazed. "How did the fig tree wither so quickly?" they asked.  Jesus replied, "Truly I tell you, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only can you do what was done to the fig tree, but also you can say to this mountain, 'Go, throw yourself into the sea,' and it will be done.  If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer."

Jesus has come from the temple and is returning to the temple. We can assume therefore that this story about the cursing of the fig tree is related to the faith of the priests and rulers in the temple, who had the outward appearance of being very religious, but when it came to bearing fruit, were found lacking. Matthew elsewhere uses the word 'fruit' as a metaphor for good works. And the rulers of the temple were not performing good works but were corrupt! To put it in sporting terms they talked a good game, but when it came to action on the field they played dirty. So their destiny would be that they were going to be thrown off the team.

The disciples are amazed that something that looked so fruitful, like the fig tree, should suddenly wither away. By the time Matthews gospel was written, the temple had been destroyed. It's loss was a sudden and violent act at the hands of the Romans who destroyed much of Jerusalem and carried away the temples treasures, an act that the priests believed God would never allow, despite their often unfaithful behavior.

Jesus turns the conversation away from the withered tree and towards faith. The  dysfunctional house of prayer that the temple had become, is contrasted with authentic prayers of faith that could bring unimaginable blessings. Jesus words about 'Moving Mountains and throwing them into the sea' (which is of course impossible)is a way of saying 'Unbelievable things can happen when  you believe in the power of God and put your faith, not in what you can do, but in what God can do.'

We need to take notice that the phrase 'you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer' is preceded by the phrase “If you believe”. In Greek the word 'believe' mean a lot more than just agreeing with a certain creed or article of faith. To believe in something meant that you acted upon it. If you didn't act on it you would be considered an unbeliever. To believe meant that your actions revolved around what God was doing in your life. It was a word that only functioned within the context of a relationship.

If that's the case, if you are already coming from the center, then you don't ask God for stupid things or invite God to do the ridiculous . If you are in a relationship with somebody then you know what to ask for and what is unacceptable. I am not suggesting that there are limits on what God can do, or denying that sometimes we observe amazing things happening in answer to prayer, rather that we should avoid thinking that God is somehow at our beck and call, when in reality prayer only works as we answer God's call.

But let us get back to the temple. The events of the previous day have caused quite a furor. Important people have had their feathers rustled and are ready with questions!

Jesus entered the temple courts, and, while He was teaching, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to Him. "By what authority are you doing these things?" they asked. "And who gave you this authority?"  Jesus replied, "I will also ask you one question. If you answer me, I will tell you by what authority I am doing these things. John's baptism--where did it come from? Was it from heaven, or of human origin?" They discussed it among themselves and said, "If we say, 'From heaven,' he will ask, 'Then why didn't you believe him?' But if we say, 'Of human origin'--we are afraid of the people, for they all hold that John was a prophet." So they answered Jesus, "We don't know." Then He said, "Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.

Jesus faces a challenge to His authority and He answers it with a question, that tied His questioners in the sort of knot that they keep trying to tie Him up with. It's a simple question He asks: 'Remember John; where did he get his authority from?” Though popular with the people, the chief priests had not responded to John's invitation to be baptized in the Rivers of the Jordan as an act of repentance. The people believed John was a prophet. If they declared him not to be a prophet, then how would that look in the eyes of the people? Why, they might even stop bring their offerings to the temple... and then the priests would be out of a job. So they fudge their answer. 'We don't know' they say. Jesus, in His reply basically tells them that once they've figured out where John was coming from, then they'd figure out where He got His authority from.

But He doesn't leave it there. He's on a roll! Read 28 thru 32.

 "What do you think? There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, 'Son, go and work today in the vineyard.'  "'I will not,' he answered, but later he changed his mind and went.  "Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, 'I will, sir,' but he did not go.  "Which of the two did what his father wanted?" "The first," they answered. Jesus said to them, "Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him.

Those who did what their Father asked of them, were the ones who were being obedient to the will of God. John had called the people to baptism. The temple authorities refused to participate. They did not believe in him or his ministry. The common people did, and sought to turn their lives around through participating in the act of repentance he offered. The authorities had been witnesses to these events. But they did not acknowledge them as a work that God was doing in their midst.

By now they really didn't like where Jesus was going with this.
And it was about to get worse. Read 33 thru 46.

 "Listen to another parable: There was a landowner who planted a vineyard. He put a wall around it, dug a winepress in it and built a watchtower. Then he rented the vineyard to some farmers and moved to another place.  When the harvest time approached, he sent his servants to the tenants to collect his fruit. "The tenants seized his servants; they beat one, killed another, and stoned a third.  Then he sent other servants to them, more than the first time, and the tenants treated them the same way.  Last of all, he sent his son to them. 'They will respect my son,' he said.  "But when the tenants saw the son, they said to each other, 'This is the heir. Come, let's kill him and take his inheritance.' So they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him. "Therefore, when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?"  "He will bring those wretches to a wretched end," they replied, "and he will rent the vineyard to other tenants, who will give him his share of the crop at harvest time." Jesus said to them, "Have you never read in the Scriptures: "'The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; the Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes'?  "Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit. Anyone who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; anyone on whom it falls will be crushed."When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard Jesus' parables, they knew He was talking about them.  They looked for a way to arrest Him, but they were afraid of the crowd because the people held that He was a prophet.

Throughout Israels history God had sent many prophets and teachers to guide the people. On numerous occasions the people (and in particular the leadership of the nation) had ignored their counsel and done away with the messengers. Now here was Jesus, in their midst, recognized by His disciples as being the Son of God, yet His destiny was that He would be murdered by the authorities, just as the son in the parable is taken out of the vineyard and killed. Throughout the whole process the perpetrators think they are on the right side of the equation and will gain a great inheritance from their actions.

In Jesus God was doing something new and unprecedented. Through Christ's resurrection and victory over death, the scriptures we have already referred to as being from Psalm 118, (the Psalm associated with Jesus entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday) would be fulfilled, 'The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; the Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes'.

The vindication of Christ would be a crushing blow to His opponents. Their claim to be the sole authorities for the Kingdom of God would be revealed as an empty boast. God would raise up those who were faithful; faithful ones like the son in the previous parable who, though not the one originally called, actually did what the Father asked of him.

Time and time again in Christian history we have seen this pattern replicated. When, as at the time of the Reformation, the established church appears to have become controlled by a ruling class and become an instrument of empire, then you get an upstart like Martin Luther coming along and upsetting the whole apple cart. Something new comes into being. Something that looks like faith!

The lesson is not lost on Priests and Pharisees.  'They knew He was talking about them'. But now was not the time to take action. They would bide their time. Their opportunity to be rid of Him was coming. For now the work of Christ would continue. He called the shots, not them.

In Matthew 22 we will see how Jesus tells another story about 'Who's Who' in the Kingdom, using a picture of a marriage feast... and how He continues to be challenged by both Pharisees and Sadducees who try to catch Him out with very tricky questions. 

Matthew is a little long for a movie, but surely some of these sections would make for fascinating dialogues within a Broadway play, such are the many twists and turns, attacks, rebuttals and counter-strikes. So book your seat for next time, dim the lights, turn off your cell phones... and let the story continue!

Thursday, February 22, 2018

21. Yet More about Greatness.

According to Matthew”
A study of the Gospel of Matthew
Part 21: Yet More about Greatness.

We continue in Matthew to learn about kingdom greatness. We have seen that Jesus pictures the values of the kingdom as being  the opposite of those of the kingdoms of the world. What is important are virtues such as trust and service. And we were left at the end of our last chapter with Peter expressing concern as to what kind of reward leaving everything to follow Jesus might offer and Jesus offering the reply, referred to in the Message Bible as 'The great reversal' that 'The first shall be last and the last shall be first”.

It is helpful to keep the conversations that have taken place in mind as we begin chapter 20 by reading verses 1 through 16.

"For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard.  He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard.  "About nine in the morning he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing.  He told them, 'You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.' So they went.

"He went out again about noon and about three in the afternoon and did the same thing. About five in the afternoon he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, 'Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?'  "'Because no one has hired us,' they answered. "He said to them, 'You also go and work in my vineyard.'  "When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, 'Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.'

 "The workers who were hired about five in the afternoon came and each received a denarius. So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius.  When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. 'These who were hired last worked only one hour,' they said, 'and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.' 

"But he answered one of them, 'I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn't you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you.  Don't I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?'  "So the last will be first, and the first will be last."

During the busy harvest season it was not unusual for laborers seeking to be hired to assemble in a central location and seek for work. When I lived on Long Island, such a sight was not unfamiliar to us. The car park in Home Depot in Freeport, always had folk standing around, waiting to be hired.

A 'denarius' was not a particularly generous amount to be paid, but was sufficient for a days pay.  If you didn't earn at least a denarius a day life could be hard. It would mean going without something, getting behind with a payment or even not having enough to eat. The laborers have gathered because they want to work.  Those who are still there at the end of the day have just the same desire to work as those they arrived with early in the morning. They simply haven't been hired.

Those who are hired first agree to work for a set wage. Those who are hired a little later are told they will be paid 'whatever is right'. Those who are not hired till late in the day are offered no terms but seem happy to be able to earn whatever they can.

Those employed last are paid their wages first. One can only imagine their joy. They had arrived early in the morning hoping to be hired but nobody wanted them. They have waited and worried. They are grateful that at the last hour at least they had been given the chance to obtain a little something. Now here was the landowner paying them a whole days wages. This was an unexpected generosity.

When it comes to those who had worked all day, it appears they are observing the other workers receive their payment. One has the impression they have seen their joy and that they are anticipating that if the landowner is paying a days wages for only an hours work, then they are going to receive a bonus for having actually worked a whole day. That presumption is about to be shattered. They receive only the figure that they had agreed to work for.

They get mad about this. It wasn't fair. The landowner had made them equal to those who hadn't worked as long as them. How could that be right? The landowner reminds them that firstly, they had been paid exactly what they had agreed to be paid. Secondly, he tells them that they had no right to complain about his generosity as he had the right to do whatever he chose with his own money. And then comes the stinging question; Or are you envious because I am generous?' The Message Bible comments:  "Here it is again, the Great Reversal: many of the first ending up last, and the last first."

Plainly this is not a tale meant to guide human economics or a suggestion to landowners as to how to make a profit and win popularity contests. So how can this story be understood? As you can imagine, a variety of interpretations have been offered.

Some suggest it is a warning that can be applied to individuals, churches, and even to nations.

To the most vocal critics of Jesus, those of the Pharisees and their like who believed that they were justified before God through their admirable pedigree and personal devotion to the law of God, this story was a warning for them not to despise those who were accepting the 'good news' of God's grace that Jesus was presenting to the common people. They thought themselves far more worthy of God's special attention on the grounds that they had put in far more time and effort to earn their place in God's favor. Jesus is telling them that it didn't work like that!

Many commentators point out that Matthew was writing for a church community that was coming into being. Within that church community would be long time saints and founding Mothers and Fathers, alongside new converts who did not share their history. It can be problematic for any establishment to accept newcomers, and the church has proved itself no exception to that rule. William Barclay observes;

“There are people who think that, because they have been members of a Church for a long time, the Church practically belongs to them and they can dictate its policy. They resent the intrusion of new blood or the rise of a new generation with different plans and different ways. In the Christian church seniority does not necessarily mean honor”

Others point out that when Christianity has become the national religion of a people or region then there can be a tendency towards arrogance. A famous quotation at the height of the days of the British empire (mentioned by a clergyman in the book 'Tom Brown's Schooldays') was "Remember that you are an Englishman, and have consequently already won the first prize in the lottery of life".

The temptation to believe that ones particular birthright or nation was undoubtedly blessed over and above every other nation on earth, whilst wonderfully assuring, flies in the face of facts. But why ruin a good story with the facts?  It conferred upon those who held to such a notion the feeling they had a God given duty to tell the rest of the world where they were going wrong. Rome was the greatest empire the world had ever seen, but her fortunes, like those of empires that came before and afterward, were never seen as eternal and Rome would fall.

This had a particular application to those among the Jews of Jesus day who, on the grounds of believing they alone were the chosen people, despised their gentile neighbors. Barclay comments 'In God's economy there is no such thing as a most favored nation clause. Christianity knows nothing of the conception of a master race.” Greatness in kingdom terms is not about conquest but about service.

Matthew Henry's commentary sees the parable as a picture of salvation and the way that whilst people respond to Christ's call to discipleship at different stages of their life, all are received into glory. Some begin their work in the kingdom in their tender years. He mentions John the Baptist who was sanctified in his mother's womb to fulfill the task God laid upon him, and others such as the prophet Obadiah whom the Old Testament tells us 'feared the Lord from the days of his youth'

Others are only called into service at the third, sixth or ninth hour. He cites the example of the Apostle Paul whose life was forged in the life of the world before being used by God for a greater purpose than Paul had ever conceived, becoming a champion of a cause he once sought to destroy. It is a significant trend amongst those called into ministry in our own day that many do so later in life and sometimes in the midst of careers that they are doing comfortably well in. It is wonderful the way God is able to use their expertise in one area and apply it to another!

Then there are those who only respond to the call at the eleventh hour. Such as the thief on the Cross, who upon his right confession of Christ is told, 'Today you will be with me in paradise”.

Interestingly, the question is sometimes raised as to the fairness of this. Should not a long perseverant saint receive more of a reward than a rogue who's only virtue was a death bed confession? How does that relate to this saying about 'The first being last and the last being first?” And what does it have to do with greatness? Maybe we are asking the wrong questions! Maybe we should be asking what this passage tells us about the Master in the parable, who is traditionally pictured as being a representation of God. And how do the Master's actions benefit his employees?

Firstly, notice that the Master is in debt to nobody. He owes nothing beyond what he has agreed to pay. In a similar fashion God owes us nothing. The idea that God somehow has to answer to our standards and expectations is untenable. As Matthew Henry has it in his commentary 'God distributes God's rewards by grace and sovereignty, not out of debt.'

Secondly, notice the masters generosity. It exceeds all expectations. To some, those who worked under contract, this was a cause of offense. But to those who benefited from it, it was more than they ever dreamed of. This tells us something about the nature of work. Some work only for the pay. Everything is valued according to it's monetary value. Others are simply happy to be working! This parable favors those who see their daily toil as a gift rather than a right.

Thirdly, notice the compassion of God that is spoken of here. The master had every right to pay those who joined in the last hours only a percentage of a days wages. We saw earlier that a denarius was not a lot to live on. Just enough. It is admirable that the workers not first employed didn't just say, “Oh well. No work today. Might as well give in and go home” Instead they decide to stick it out. They are ready and willing to work. When they do get taken on they never even ask what the reward may be. Something was better than nothing. It was better to spend some of the day employed than spend the whole day idle, even though it may not bring home enough to live on. The Master has compassion on them. He recognizes their desire to work. He knows the inadequacy of anything less than a days pay. It is an act of mercy that they are sent home fully compensated. Such a message encourages us to be thankful for what we have rather than comparing our situation with those who seem to have more.

In the traditional list of seven deadly sins 'envy' has an important place. The ninth and tenth of Moses  commandments warn us not to covet the blessings our neighbors enjoy, which is a roundabout way of telling us to be thankful for what we've got rather than worrying about  things other people have that we lack.

Ultimately the parable of the workers in the Vineyard is a story about grace. Grace is the unmerited, undeserved favor of God. In these chapters about greatness we are told in a number of different ways that no matter how great we think our achievements or status may be, it is never great enough to guarantee us a place in the kingdom. The Kingdom is not obtainable through any measure other than acceptance of it as a wonderful gift of grace. As Jesus has told the disciples in the previous chapter, to enter into such a Kingdom through ones own efforts was impossible. BUT... “What is impossible for man is possible for God”.

In many of our hymns we rejoice in the fact that what we cannot do for our self, God has done for us through the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ.  One of the children's hymns I remember, from both school assemblies and church services, was Cecil Frances Alexander's  'There is a green hill far away' (sadly absent from many U.S . hymnals).

There is a green hill far away,outside a city wall,
Where our dear Lord was crucified who died to save us all.

We may not know, we cannot tell, what pains He had to bear,
But we believe it was for us He hung and suffered there.

He died that we might be forgiven, He died to make us good,
That we might go at last to heaven, saved by His precious blood.

There was no other good enough to pay the price of sin,
He only could unlock the gate of heaven and let us in.

All of which conveniently leads us our next passage, verses 17 through 19;

Now Jesus was going up to Jerusalem. On the way, He took the Twelve aside and said to them,  "We are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn Him to death and will hand Him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified. On the third day He will be raised to life!"

This is the third time Jesus has talked to His disciples about His approaching passion. He was not going to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover, He was going to become the Passover, offering His life as the lamb of God for the redemption of all peoples. Whilst this a repetition of what He has told them before, He adds further details, in particular that He shall be condemned and delivered to the Gentiles and that they shall mock him, flog Him and crucify Him. Again He tells them that all of this is a prelude to His being raised to life. This time nobody takes Him aside to try and 'put him right' as Peter tried to do on a previous occasion.

To me it seems as though Matthew places this reminder, that the purpose of Jesus was to travel to Jerusalem and be a sacrificial victim, to remind us that grace, whilst unmerited and undeserved, came at a price.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a Christian clergyman in Germany during the second world war who challenged Hitler publicly and, even though a pacifist, saw in him such manifest evil that he was part of an assassination plot to be rid of him. The Nazis arrested him in 1943 and he was put to death by hanging in April, 1945, just a few weeks before the liberation of his concentration camp. Thankfully his book, "The Cost of Discipleship", survived, although it was on the list of books the Nazi's wanted to burn and destroy. It contains a well known passage that compares 'cheap grace' with 'costly grace'.

'Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, (it is) baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate."

"Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will gladly go and sell all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake of one will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble; it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him.

Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock. Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner.

Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of His Son: "Ye were bought at a price," and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon His Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered Him up for us'.

Here was true greatness! That Christ died for our sins. But it still wasn't resonating with the disciples. They still want to know who was the greatest amongst their little band! Read 20 through 23.

Then the mother of Zebedee's sons came to Jesus with her sons and, kneeling down, asked a favor of him.  "What is it you want?" He asked. She said, "Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom." "You don't know what you are asking," Jesus said to them. "Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?" "We can," they answered. Jesus said to them, "You will indeed drink from my cup, but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared by my Father."

You can picture the scene. This very Jewish mother takes Jesus aside and bows before Him. “A question?” Jesus says. “I just got one little favor to ask” she says, “Not for me you understand, for my boys. When all this Kingdom stuff comes together, how about one of them sits to the right of your throne, the other on your left?”

Jesus beckons the boys over. 'Guys, have you any idea what mom is asking here! Are you capable of drinking the cup that I'm about to drink?" And they reply, "Sure, why not?" Maybe the only bit they heard about 'going up to Jerusalem' was that they were going to be sharing in the Passover meal. So probably they were thinking about drinking a cup of wine! Hey, we can do that, right?

But when Jesus is talking about a cup He's speaking about what we know as the communion cup. The cup that whenever we raise it we say, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, shed for you and for all, for the forgiveness of sins” Jesus is speaking of selfless sacrifice and suffering.

And it is, maybe with a slight sadness, that He adds “You will indeed drink from my cup”. James is traditionally acknowledged as the first of the apostles to face martyrdom. Acts 2:12 tells us that he was put to death by the sword by order of Herod. The tradition for John is that he lived a long, hard life, facing exile, persecution and constant opposition. In different ways they did indeed face trials that only Jesus could foresee. Notice Jesus tells them that they will drink from 'my cup' indicating that the trials they will face are both because of His witness and ones that He shares with them.

As to what rewards they may have, Jesus simply dismisses the question. 'To sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared by my Father.' Thinking about the parable of the servants with which we began, it seems a reminder that whatever position we have in this life or the next is a matter of grace, not of what we feel we may deserve through our own merit or status.

Not surprisingly, when the other disciples find out what's been going on, there's a right rumpus. Read 24-28.

When the ten heard about this, they were indignant with the two brothers.  Jesus called them together and said, "You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them.  Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant,  and whoever wants to be first must be your slave-- just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many."

These words really consolidate the teaching of the last three chapters about kingdom greatness. But in the world, Jesus tells them, the great man is the one who controls others, at whose word people stand to attention. The world looked to the rich and the powerful as fulfilling everything one could desire.

In the Kingdom of God, service alone was the mark of authority. Greatness did not consist of telling others how to live, but in living in a way that showed respect and honor for others, a way that was guided by child-like trust in God to supply all that was necessary. The greater the service, the greater the honor. The key to this whole section is right here in verses 27-28  'Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant,  and whoever wants to be first must be your slave-- just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many."

Notice that the place where they were to learn to serve was within the Christian community. They were to serve each other; be servants and slaves, not to those with whom they were unfamiliar or whom they normally didn't deal with, but in the context of relationships with people whom they knew. And that is a far more difficult challenge to accept than seeking to serve others in some abstract fashion.

But that's exactly what Jesus had done for them. According to John's gospel He will later demonstrate this by washing their feet, something some of them such as Peter were very uncomfortable with as he complains, “Lord, you shouldn't be washing my feet, I should be washing yours!”

And Jesus again drops the hint that He was going to Jerusalem to 'give His life as ransom for many' or as the Message Bible has it “To give away His life in exchange for the many who are held hostage." The Greek word used in 1 John is 'propitiation', which means 'getting somebody out of a mess they can't possibly get themselves out of'. Here in Matthew we find that stated in a different way; suggesting that we are 'hostages' whose only hope is the deliverance that Jesus would make by offering Himself for our redemption. Jesus gives His life away that we may be set free.

Now were the disciples finally getting it? Or Matthew's church community that he was writing for, were they getting it? Or even ourselves all these centuries later?  Are we getting the picture about what greatness is in God's eyes? How can we? Maybe the final little story in these chapters gives us the answer. Let us read 29-34.

As Jesus and His disciples were leaving Jericho, a large crowd followed Him.  Two blind men were sitting by the roadside, and when they heard that Jesus was going by, they shouted, "Lord, Son of David, have mercy on us!" The crowd rebuked them and told them to be quiet, but they shouted all the louder, "Lord, Son of David, have mercy on us!"  Jesus stopped and called them. "What do you want me to do for you?" he asked.  "Lord," they answered, "we want our sight."  Jesus had compassion on them and touched their eyes. Immediately they received their sight and followed Him.

This story is similar to the story of blind Bartimaeus in Mark's gospel. The major difference is that here we have a story about two blind men, whilst in Bartimaeus case he was on his own.  This could be Matthew working at being editor again. He is possibly linking this story of the healing of 2 blind men to the blindness of James and John... in their thinking that greatness could be defined by status, or who sat where, or who had the most control over others. 

Matthew is dealing with accounts that have been passed on to him and presenting them within a particular framework.  Just as the two sons of Zebedee in the previous story represent the disciples desires and ambitions, so here two blind men represent all of us who struggle to see clearly the demands of Kingdom discipleship.

What happens in this passage? Two men want to see, they want to be healed. They confess their faith that only Jesus, the Lord, the son of David can help them. Although the crowd seek to silence them they continue seeking the mercy and touch of Jesus. They hear the voice of Jesus calling them. They tell Him what their hearts truly desire. In compassion the touch of Jesus grants them a clearer vision.

Interpreting that to our personal search for spiritual clarity, what can we do? We can boldly confess our faith in Jesus Christ. We can seek His mercy. We can refuse to listen to the voices in the crowd that seek to silence us. We can allow the compassion of Jesus to transform us through the work of His Holy Spirit.

Such seems to be a fitting benediction for  these chapters about kingdom greatness. Next time we draw near to Jerusalem, and the events we recall as Palm Sunday. We'll see the anger of Jesus at the abuses that were taking place in the temple. We'll here more about children. All this as our movie continues. It's been a while since we saw the opening credits and it will be a whilst longer before we ride off into the sunset anticipating a sequel.

So stay tuned! You don't want to miss a thing :-)


Monday, January 22, 2018

20. More About Greatness

According to Matthew”
A study of the Gospel of Matthew
Part 20: More about Greatness.

In our last chapter we began a conversation about greatness. Greatness, in the kingdom of God, has nothing to do with status or anything that can be earned, but in a persons capacity to place their trust in God. Through a series of stories and illustrations Matthew suggests that greatness was demonstrated through seeking the lost, restoring the fallen and offering to others the kind of undeserved, unmerited grace that we have experienced from God through Jesus Christ.

There were things that could get in the way of greatness.
  •     The notion that we are self made people without the need of grace.
  •     The desire to find ones meaning in ones 'stuff' rather than in God's love.
  •     The feeling that through our observance of laws or acts of service we are made good.
To begin illustrating that last point, Jesus answers a question that is put to him by the Pharisees. Let us catch up with Him as He leaves Galilee and heads into Judea. Read verses 1 - 9

Matthew 19:1-9 When Jesus had finished saying these things, he left Galilee and went into the region of Judea to the other side of the Jordan. Large crowds followed him, and he healed them there. Some Pharisees came to him to test him. They asked, "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?" "Haven't you read," he replied, "that at the beginning the Creator 'made them male and female,' and said, 'For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh'? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate." "Why then," they asked, "did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?" Jesus replied, "Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery."
As they have done on previous occasions, the Pharisees come to Jesus with a question that they hope will trap Him into saying something that will turn the people away from Him and towards them. Their question is about divorce. Divorce then, as now, was an issue that people had a whole spectrum of views about.

On the one hand there were those who held to a high ideal of marriage. That it was a bond that should never be broken. The historian Josephus (In 'Antiquities of the Jews') speaks of the way marriages were meant to proceed.

A man was to marry a virgin from a good family. He should not marry a slave, and certainly not a lady of ill-repute. If, after being betrothed in marriage, the husband-to-be had doubts about his intended brides purity, the brides father and brothers had the duty of defending her, and if proved innocent, the marriage would go ahead and be considered permanent. If the girl was found guilty she could be stoned to death. There were rules that had to do with cases of rape and girls who were taken advantage of. In each case the guilty parties faced severe penalties. The key issues for dispute were purity and fidelity.

This is reflected in today's religious services where there often appears phrases such as “Marriage is a high and an honorable estate and must not be entered into lightly, carelessly, or selfishly, but carefully, reverently, and with serious thought”.

In Jesus time there was also money involved. A dowry had to be paid to the brides family. Women, like children and slaves were legally considered as property. Many marriages were therefore arranged rather than based upon our modern idea of 'falling in love.'

Theoretically a man could only divorce his wife only on the grounds of flagrant immorality. That was the theory... but there's the ideal and then there's the practice. The reality was that divorce laws had become a matter of convenience, particularly among the more wealthy and privileged classes. We saw earlier in Matthew's gospel the 'goings on' of the sons of King Herod that led to one of them marrying his brother's wife, an event which cost John the Baptist his life when he spoke against it.

In reality the process of divorce had become fatally easy. There was a passage in the book of Deuteronomy, a book much loved by the Pharisees and Sadducee's, that declared 'If a man marries a woman and she does not please him because he has found something offensive in her, then he may draw up a divorce document, give it to her, and evict her from his house.” (Deuteronomy 24:1 NET)

The strictest school of Jewish thought, the school of Shammai, were quite clear that 'offensive' meant sexual immorality and only adulterous sexual behavior was the grounds for divorce. However the school of Hillel, interpreted the phrase 'offensive' in quite a different manner. If a woman spoiled a man's dinner, or spoke disrespectfully to his parents or went about with unbound hair... all these were grounds for a divorce.

One teacher, Rabbi Akiba, went as far as writing that the phrase 'offensive' meant that a man could divorce his wife if he found a woman whom he liked better and considered her more beautiful. Not surprisingly, in a patriarchal male dominated society, the guidance of the school of Hillel was the one most favored.

If Jesus were to answer the Pharisees that He was totally against divorce, then the Pharisees would use that against Him, as there were many men among the people who favored the lax divorce laws. It would also make him an enemy of the law of Moses, because Moses said divorce was allowed. But if Jesus were to say, “Yeah. Go ahead. Divorce is fine. 'Do what ever suits you' then He would be seen as being lax in matters of morality and to have reduced marriage to little more than a frivolous commitment. Either way the Pharisees were thinking... we've got Him this time!

Jesus develops His argument along these lines. He firstly underlines what the scriptures said about the sanctity of marriage. As The Message Bible has it:

He answered, "Haven't you read in your Bible that the Creator originally made man and woman for each other, male and female? And because of this, a man leaves father and mother and is firmly bonded to his wife, becoming one flesh—no longer two bodies but one. Because God created this organic union of the two sexes, no one should desecrate God's artistry by cutting them apart."

The Pharisees come back at Him, 'Yes, yes, we know all of that, but if divorce was never God's law, why did Moses, the law giver, give clear instructions for divorce papers and divorce procedures?"

Jesus answers that Moses had not given them a law. He had granted them a concession. Moses had no intention of commanding divorce. He permitted divorce as a last resort because the whole situation of peoples relationships had become so completely disjointed from God's intentions. "Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard.” Divorce was a gracious accommodation, not God's original intention. As Jesus explains “It was not this way from the beginning.”

So in answer to their original question 'Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?' Jesus gives the answer “I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, (except for sexual immorality), and marries another woman commits adultery."

If you look at this account in Marks Gospel (chapter 10), Jesus says "Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her.” (Mark 10:11 NIV). No mention of sexual immorality. Mark then adds 'And if a wife divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery. (Mark 10:12 NIV). The phrase 'except for sexual immorality' is often described as the Matthean exception.

Why the difference in these parallel passages? The most satisfactory explanation is that Matthew is writing for a Jewish audience. If he had not put the phrase about 'except for adultery' in there, he would lose his intended audience altogether. Rather like suggesting changes in gun legislation to an NRA member. If you throw in the phrase, of course 'People kill people, guns don't kill people' then they may carry on listening to your argument! Mathew includes the 'sexual immorality exception' for the benefit of his readership, as if to say, 'Well, you all know that adultery thing... that's a given!'

Mark is writing for a wider audience, subject to different laws and within different cultures. It wasn't even possible under Jewish law for a woman to divorce her husband, so it would pointless putting that in for a Jewish focused crowd. But under Roman law... that could happen.

Matthew un-apologetically takes editorial privileges if he thinks his intended audience may not get the central message. Yet the central message in both Mark and Matthew is the same. Marriage was meant to be permanent. Moses permitted divorce because, when it comes to relationships, people mess up.

Hard words and sensitive topics. So let's put this section back into the framework of this whole section. Matthew is talking about the greatness of faithfulness and having a childlike trust in God. He is not writing a legal volume on the intricacies of divorce legislation. The Pharisees have come to Jesus with a question to catch Him out and draw Him into a debate that He couldn't win. Jesus is not playing that game. In effect He's telling them that their standards and their laws did not reflect God's original intention but their own sinful accommodation and hardness of hearts.

So where does that leave us? How should we view marriage and divorce today? My view is that we should lift up marriage as being what God intended, yet at the same time acknowledge that we sometimes enter into relationships that just don't work. Whether that is because they were never God's intention or whether it's simply because people change, I think you have to treat every situation as being unique and in every situation prayerfully seek for what is the best for all parties concerned.

Such an answer will be unsatisfactory to anyone seeking hard and fast rules. But that was the problem. Here was Jesus, being faced by people wanting to control the outcome and offering a response that actually raised more than questions than it answered. The disciples are confused and get the wrong end of the stick. Read 10-12

The disciples said to Him, "If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry." Jesus replied, "Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given. For there are eunuchs who were born that way, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others--and there are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it."

The disciples hear what Jesus is telling them. But... not really. I can identify with that. Just when you think you've got it, it starts to slip away in another direction! They certainly hear Jesus saying that divorce was never God's idea. They also realize that relationships can be difficult, and the idea of being in the marriage game without a 'get out of jail free' card, made things impossible. So they put it to Jesus..."If those are the terms of marriage, we're stuck. Why get married?" (Message Bible)

Jesus seems to agree with them. Not everybody could live up to God's ideals for marriage. It required aptitude and grace and was a calling not to be entered into lightly. In a society that was built upon the foundation of married households, that was a radical notion. He suggests that finding a life partner and living happily ever after wasn't the only option for a fulfilled life.

Again, I like the way the Message bible transliterates these verses: “Marriage isn't for everyone. Some, from birth seemingly, never give marriage a thought. Others never get asked—or accepted. And some decide not to get married for kingdom reasons. But if you're capable of growing into the largeness of marriage, do it."

I like the way that this passage sanctifies individuals outside of the framework of relationships. It's OK to be single. It reminds us that whilst for thousands of years 'married with children' was seen as the norm, society has never been that straightforward. It offers a broader view of relationships than we might have expected in the first century.

In any discussion of marriage and divorce, eventually the question is raised, 'But what about the children?” Maybe it was also so back then, for the next passage Matthew offers us has to do with blessing little ones. Read verses 13-15.

Then people brought little children to Jesus for Him to place his hands on them and pray for them. But the disciples rebuked them. Jesus said, "Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these." When He had placed His hands on them, He went on from there.

In the last chapter we saw Jesus calling a child to Himself as an illustration of faith. This time parents are bringing their children to Him. The most straightforward message of this passage is that it is the responsibility of Christian parents to bring their children to Jesus that they may be blessed by Him.

I have had parents tell me in all seriousness that the reason they don't bring their children to Sunday School is that they want their children to be free to make up their own mind about religious belief when they are old enough. To deny them any instruction is taking the opportunity for choice away from them and is neglecting what scripture considers a parental responsibility.

Sure, when they are old enough the child may well decide to go own their own way. Many do. Yet to be a faithful parent, even when our children choose their own way, requires never ceasing to bring them before God in our prayers and our thoughts. And for most of us that's something we naturally do. Try and stop us praying for or kids!

As the parents press in on Jesus the disciples are concerned. If one is feeling charitable you can suggest they were worried about the immensity of the task Jesus had before Him and were seeking to protect Him. Or, if you are not feeling so charitable, you can reflect that they still hadn't got the message that Jesus actually cared for those that they thought were the least important.

Either way, Jesus makes it quite clear that He had room for the children and the concerns of their parents. He even reminds the disciples that the kingdom of heaven could only be found through having the trust and faith exemplified by such little ones. And then He blesses the children.

In the context of the early church Matthew was reminding his community that they had to make provision for their children. That every person, young or old, was welcome in the community of faith. It is our Presbyterian tradition, that we do not forbid the waters of baptism to children but welcome them as fellow members in the Kingdom of God. Infant baptism is even a way of acknowledging that if we do not have a faith like child, then we will never enter the Kingdom of God, an aspect of grace that adult baptism obscures!

It is not through our own efforts that we enter the Kingdom of God, but through our trust that God can do for us what we cannot do for our self. In many traditions that practice adult baptism a great stress is put upon making a 'profession of faith.' Such can give the impression that if only we can get the words right and say 'Jesus is Lord' then we're in. Yet Jesus was quite clear that just saying 'Lord, Lord' meant nothing unless there was a reality behind the words! It can be a fine line between a confession that is an act of self-justification and a confession that is a response to the faithfulness of God in Christ.

I don't want to enlarge on that too much, but it serves as an introduction to what comes next. A passage about a person who, outwardly seemed to be doing everything right. He's a good guy, trying to do good things. But at the end of the day, it seems this young guy is not trusting in the mercy and grace of God, but in what he himself could achieve. And to let go of that appears to be a bitter pill for him to swallow. What am I talking about? Read 16 thru 22

Just then a man came up to Jesus and asked, "Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?" "Why do you ask me about what is good?" Jesus replied. "There is only One who is good. If you want to enter life, keep the commandments." "Which ones?" he inquired. Jesus replied, "'You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, honor your father and mother,' and 'love your neighbor as yourself.' " "All these I have kept," the young man said. "What do I still lack?" Jesus answered, "If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me." When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth.

The very first lines in this passage suggest nothing was quite what it seemed. Jesus questions the mans questioning right from the start of the conversation. It seems Jesus is trying to get the man to think about what he was asking and who he was asking the question to!

The man asks “What can I do to get eternal life?” As we've seen in the previous section, Jesus didn't encourage people to put 'doing things' and 'gaining God's eternal blessing' in the same sentence. God's blessings were a result of grace not a persons personal achievement.

He wants to know why the man thinks that He, Jesus, is 'good'. As though to tease him away from the notion of his own ability to justify him self, and maybe suggest that somehow Jesus' relationship to God may be greater than the questioner realized, Jesus tells the man “There is only One” (the 'One' being 'God') who defines what the nature of good actually is. Jesus then adds that keeping the commandments was a good way of reflecting that the love of God was at work in your life. As the Message Bible has it 'Jesus said, "Why do you question me about what's good? God is the One who is good. If you want to enter the life of God, just do what He tells you."

As the man is only interested in being able to do something to gain himself eternal life he spends not a moment analyzing the questions Jesus is putting to him, but gets straight to the crux of the matter of keeping commandments; "Which ones?" he inquired.

Interestingly... Jesus doesn't mention the first of the Ten Commandments (which have to do with a persons relationship to God) but reminds the man about the commandments that relate to how we deal with our fellow human beings. Is Jesus setting the man up for a fall? If so, the man plays right into the trap! There is a hint of arrogance in the young mans answer "All these I have kept." If he'd left it there our young fellow may have walked away happy, but he doesn't. He goes and asks 'What's left? What else do I need to do? What do I still lack?” He doesn't see this response coming! I'll read it from the Message Bible

"If you want to give it all you've got," Jesus replied, "go sell your possessions; give everything to the poor. All your wealth will then be in heaven. Then come follow me." That was the last thing the young man expected to hear. And so, crestfallen, he walked away. He was holding on tight to a lot of things, and he couldn't bear to let go.”

The young man's problem seems to have been that whilst he had come to grips with some of the ten commandments, he really hadn't grasped the significance of the first few that Moses gave, particularly the very first one, which (as I've been giving you all these modern translations), Old King James will spell out for us. “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. You shall have no other gods before Me.”

The young man had made an idol of his wealth and put that before his relationship with God. The root of his problem was that he was trusting in what he could do for himself, not trusting in what God could do for him. The framework of this whole chapter is 'greatness.' Greatness in the kingdom of God is pictured as being the trust of a child. A child has no possessions, no rights, no power, no demands... but simply trusts that His parent is going to look after him!

By giving his possessions to the poor not only would he be demonstrating his love for neighbor, but also where his true security lay. He looked like he was making a fine profession of faith, and living an upright life, but when it came down to the nitty-gritty he was found wanting.

He reminds me of a certain TV evangelist who was keen of preaching about the immanence of the second coming. He even bragged about how his earthly riches were justifiable as they were simply a way for him to experience the blessings of eternity in this life. Then the interviewer asked him why, if Jesus was coming so soon, he had so much money invested in insurance. The evangelist didn't answer that one and the interview was brought to a sudden close. What we invest in says a lot about what we really believe.

So was there something wrong with riches and wealth? The traditional Jewish view was that wealth was a sign of God's blessing and being in the Lord's favor. This teaching that Jesus is giving is a complete reversal of the accepted view. As always, the disciples have questions about that, especially when Jesus left no doubt about His views on worldly wealth. Take a look at verses 23 – 26.

Then Jesus said to His disciples, "Truly I tell you, it is hard for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God." When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished and asked, "Who then can be saved?" Jesus looked at them and said, "With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible."
Across the centuries commentators have struggled to understand the passage about a camel going through the eye of a needle. I guess many of us, like the young man, are kind of attached to our riches. Living in one of the richest countries in the world with the awareness that there are millions upon million who are less fortunate than ourselves doesn't exactly make such a statement sit easily with us!

Some early manuscripts substitute the word 'rope' for the word 'camel'. The Greek word for rope is 'kamilos', for camel is 'kamelos'. It's one letter different and whilst getting a rope through the eye of a needle is not as hard as getting a camel though the eye of a needle, it's still impossible. One commentator suggested that the way you get a rope through the eye of a needle is to unravel it and go one strand at a time.

So, we in our lives, need to allow God to unravel us, so we may in all aspects of our lives be fitted for the kingdom. The problem with that is that you then have to get all twisted up again, if you are still going to be a rope! It only goes so far.

A medieval legend suggested that there was a tiny gate in the Jerusalem wall known as the 'Needle Gate'. It was too small for loaded camels to pass through, unless they removed all their burdens and got down on their knees. Then, if they were lucky and tried really hard, they might just squeeze through.

This generated some great medieval sermon material. Get on your knees in humble prayer, unburden yourself through confession to the priest and donations to the church and then try really really hard to live a good life and you may, if fate is on your side, make it to heaven. The problem is that there is no evidence that such a gate ever actually existed in the Jerusalem wall and that Jesus doesn't suggest it was difficult for a camel to get through the eye of a needle, but pictures it as an absurd impossibility.

Another explanation was that Jesus offers two grades of discipleship. One for ordinary folk, one for an elite group of 'super disciples'. While it is impractical for ordinary Christians to sell everything and give it to the poor, those who enter religious orders, and become nuns or monks, can follow that path. The problem with that interpretation is, of course, that Jesus never suggested there could be different grades of disciple.

Yet another explanation was that this particular young man was exceptionally greedy. So Jesus asked this only of him, and it doesn't apply to anyone else. But Jesus does not distinguish between the 'greedy rich' and the 'benevolent rich'. He just says 'rich'.

The text itself makes it clear that what the disciples heard was Jesus saying that the rich couldn't make it into the Kingdom. As they held to the view that the rich were blessed by God, this didn't make any sense to them! They protest. If even those whom God was blessing couldn't make it... "Who then can be saved?"

Jesus looks them in the eye and says; "With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible." Through the example of little children Jesus has suggested that the only way to know the life of the kingdom is through trusting in what God can do. The only path to salvation is one in which we abandon any hope of obtaining salvation for ourselves and accept the gift of grace God offers us at the cross of Jesus Christ.

Possessions are not the problem. The problem is thinking that one of the things we can posses is the kingdom of God. Rather the kingdom is something that has to posses us. We can't choose to live in the kingdom. The kingdom chooses us, lives in us and lives through us as we allow our lives to be transformed by the Holy Spirit.

The kingdom of God is not for sale. It's not something we can buy. It's not something we can earn our way into through our achievements. It's not something we can ever make ourselves 'good enough' for by keeping commandments, or by obeying spiritual laws or by excelling in any particular virtue. There is nothing we can do, through our riches, our morality, our status or our piety that offers to us entrance into the kingdom. In fact each of those things can actually be a barrier to our experiencing the life of the kingdom. Difficult? No. Impossible. We cannot save ourselves. "With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible."

This was hard teaching. It made the disciples wonder if leaving everything to follow Jesus was really worth it! Did it count for anything at all? They have this understandable feeling that as they had given all to Jesus, they should expect something in return! That when the kingdom came in all it's glory, then surely there was a nice little corner carved out especially for them? We read 27-30

Peter answered Him, "We have left everything to follow You! What then will there be for us?" Jesus said to them, "Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on His glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.

Jesus reassures Peter that when the kingdom was seen in all it's glory, he would certainly have an awesome part in things. Even mentions sitting on a throne and ruling over the twelve tribes of Israel. He suggests that whatever they had left behind would be restored beyond their wildest dreams, a hundred times over. And eternal life was a given. So, as long as they understood that this was God's doing and not theirs, they were in for a treat!

Of course there is a sting in the tale. 'Many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.' It is what Eugene Petersen calls the 'Great Reversal'. 'Many of the first ending up last, and the last first.' The rules for earthly kingdoms were not the same as those for eternal Kingdoms.

The Kingdoms of the earth could be claimed through conquest, but the kingdom of heaven could only be entered by invitation. Greatness on earth was displayed through power and dominance. Greatness in the Kingdom of God is demonstrated through trusting acceptance that God alone knows what is best and through humble service of others. In the Kingdoms of Earth servants take care of Kings. In the kingdom of Heaven, the King comes to serve. According to Matthew Jesus is the 'Servant King'.

In our next chapter we shall continue exploring themes of 'kingdom' and 'greatness' and 'grace.' These are explored through a tale about work and wages. Jesus will for a third time explain to His disciples that His mission was taking him to the cross. He will again confront His disciples over their ambitions in life. And He will help a couple of blind folk to see the way.

So.... I hope you will see to making your way back into our studies next time!