Monday, October 1, 2018

26. Waiting, Watching and Working.

"According to Matthew”

We move tonight to chapter 25. This is the last chapter before we reach the final act of Matthew's gospel; Jesus crucifixion and resurrection. In chapter 24 we heard Jesus casting visions of what the future may hold. There is talk of persecution and of folk falling away from belief alongside encouragement to hold fast to the faith, even when it looked like everything was falling apart.

In Matthew's gospel, chapter 25 is the conclusion of Jesus teaching. Chapter 26 begins the passion narrative. We have moved from His background and birth, in chapter one, through His teaching in the sermon on the mount, witnessed His miracles and healing, (the love of God that seemed to 'ooze' out of Him; something we defined by the Greek Word 'exousia'.) We have seen how Matthew pictures a clash of Kingdoms. Eventually the Kingdom of God will prevail, but through parables and pictures  we are taught that the Kingdom is growing in unexpected ways, often imperceptibly, among the kingdoms of this world.

There appears to have been a common belief in the earliest church that a second coming of Jesus was immanent. The problem Matthew had to address (something he began addressing in our last chapter) was that Jesus hadn't returned and delivered the Kingdom in a blaze of glory. In fact exactly when and how such a thing could take place was questionable. The only thing we can really know, Jesus suggests, is that the future was a mystery in His Father's hands. Neither He nor any angel could offer a timetable! Matthew cautions against speculating regrading dates and times. Instead he encourages readiness and faithfulness.  

We finished chapter 24 with a story about an 'Undercover Boss' who unexpectedly arrives to review the work of their employees.... and finds some are working hard, others are abusing the trust placed in them. We begin chapter 25 with a wedding story.

Wedding customs at the time were not the same as those we observe in the USA in the twenty-first century. Weddings could be a week long affair. On the actual wedding day the bride would be adorned like a queen, whilst the bridegroom would take on the garb of a King. The bride would be surrounded by her 'companions' to dress her and accompany her throughout the proceedings. These would be the 'ten virgins' referred to in the parable we are about to read.

An important part of the celebrations was the procession, usually late in the day, from the brides house (where she would be gathered with her attendants) to the couples new home. The attendants were expected to carry oil lamps to light the processions progress. Jesus tells us a story that focuses on a groom who arrived very late in the day, and a bridal party... some of whom were ready for the procession, others who are found lacking. Read 1 – 13.

 "At that time the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom.  Five of them were foolish and five were wise. The foolish ones took their lamps but did not take any oil with them.  The wise ones, however, took oil in jars along with their lamps.  The bridegroom was a long time in coming, and they all became drowsy and fell asleep.  "At midnight the cry rang out: 'Here's the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!' "Then all the virgins woke up and trimmed their lamps.  The foolish ones said to the wise, 'Give us some of your oil; our lamps are going out.'  "'No,' they replied, 'there may not be enough for both us and you. Instead, go to those who sell oil and buy some for yourselves.'  "But while they were on their way to buy the oil, the bridegroom arrived. The virgins who were ready went in with him to the wedding banquet. And the door was shut.  "Later the others also came. 'Lord, Lord,' they said, 'open the door for us!'  "But he replied, 'Truly I tell you, I don't know you.'  "Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour.

In many ways the message of this parable reinforces that of the previous one about the 'Undercover Boss' who is in the midst of the workers and evaluates their faithfulness. Some are found to be worthy of praise, others are not living up to expectations. It also touches upon the perceived delay in the coming of the kingdom. The bridegroom does not arrive till the very final moment of the day – midnight. In the light of the delay, how were followers of Jesus expected to act? As with the previous parable the message is "Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour.'

The parable specifically uses the image of oil, used elsewhere in Scripture as a sign of the Holy Spirit. Kings and prophets were anointed with oil as they commenced their ministry. In the early church prayers for healing and wholeness were often conducted both with a laying on of hands and the application of anointing oil to signify the Holy Spirit's presence. 

Maybe you are familiar with the youth song I remember from my earliest church days of going to camp 'Give me oil in my lamp, keep me burning, give me oil in my lamp I pray, give me oil in my lamp keep me burning, keep me burning till the break of day'. Having been a song leader at camp on numerous occasions, I am delighted to know it is still doing the rounds... though now augmented with verses such as 'Give me wax for my board, keep me surfing for the Lord' and 'Give me gas for my Ford, keep me trucking for the Lord'. Although I did miss my favorite derivation 'Give me unction in my gumption help me function' … good solid theological musings right there!

Interestingly in the parable the comparison is not made between those who sleep and those who stay awake, all ten of them rest whilst awaiting the bridegrooms arrival. But is only those who have prepared their lamps who are ready to greet him and accompany him on his arrival. Those who are prepared can rest easy, those who are unprepared have not done their homework!

The implication for ourselves is that the present time is the hour for nurturing our relationship with God. 'This is the day the Lord has made, let us be glad in it.' We stock our spiritual lamps with 'oil' through being faithful in the simple rhythms of worship and service. We nurture our spiritual selves through our relationship with God, allowing the Holy Spirit to guide us and lead us, heal us and inspire us. That's what keeps us 'burning till the light of day'.

When using the imagery of the Good Shepherd Jesus talks about His sheep as the ones who recognize His voice. How do the sheep recognize His voice? Through regular listening and open communication. God calls us to tune our lives into the call of His love.

The sting in the tale comes as the five unprepared virgins arrive late to the wedding feast at the couples new home. They bang on the door. 'Let us in, my lord'. But it's too late. The groom simply doesn't recognize them. He has had no contact with them.  They are treated as unwelcome strangers.  'Truly I tell you, I don't know you.'

Failing to build a relationship with God in the present opens us up to the possibility that we may not get a chance to ever do so. William Barclay offers the following cautionary tale;

“There is a fable which tells of three apprentice devils who are coming to earth to finish their apprenticeship. They were talking to Satan, the chief of all devils, about their plans to tempt and ruin people. The first said, 'I will tell them here is no God'. Satan said, 'That will not delude many, for they know that there is a God'. The second said, 'I will tell them that there is no hell'. Satan answered, 'You will deceive no one that way, people understand that there is hell to pay when sin is given free reign'. The third said, “I will tell people that there in no hurry'. Satan smiled and said, 'Go! You will ruin them by the thousand.' The most dangerous of all delusions is that there is plenty of time. The most dangerous day in a person's life is when they learn that there is such a word as 'tomorrow'. There are things which must NOT be put off, for no man knows if for him tomorrow will ever come.

You may be familiar with the 17th century poet John Donne's famous quotation about the certainty of life coming to an end; 'Ask not for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee. . . .” What you may not be so familiar with is that the quotation comes from a larger poem that reflected upon the call of God to faithful discipleship through the church and our need to be concerned for our neighbor.

The church is catholic, universal, so are all her actions;all that she does belongs to all. When she baptizes a child, that action concerns me, for that child is thereby connected to that head which is my head too, and in-grafted into that body whereof I am a member. And when she buries a man, that action concerns me. All mankind is of one author and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language, and every chapter must be so translated....

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main...  Any man's death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee. . .
.” (from Meditation 17 by John Donne )

We only have so much time. There's no point in wasting it by worrying how much we have, or trying to figure out when the kingdom will be here in it's glory. As the wonderful catchphrase in Robin Williams movie 'Dead Poet's Society' bought to the popular culture, we have a responsibility to 'Seize the day” 'Carpe diem'.

But the question then, is how do we do that? Where do we find the resources for moving forward in faith? Jesus seems to offer something of an answer in our next parable, known popularly known as the 'Parable of the Talents'.  Read verses 14 – 30

"Again, it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted his wealth to them.  To one he gave five bags of gold, to another two bags, and to another one bag, each according to his ability. Then he went on his journey. The man who had received five bags of gold went at once and put his money to work and gained five bags more. So also, the one with two bags of gold gained two more. But the man who had received one bag went off, dug a hole in the ground and hid his master's money.

  "After a long time the master of those servants returned and settled accounts with them. The man who had received five bags of gold brought the other five. 'Master,' he said, 'you entrusted me with five bags of gold. See, I have gained five more.' "His master replied, 'Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master's happiness!'  "The man with two bags of gold also came. 'Master,' he said, 'you entrusted me with two bags of gold; see, I have gained two more.' "His master replied, 'Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master's happiness!'

  "Then the man who had received one bag of gold came. 'Master,' he said, 'I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed. So I was afraid and went out and hid your gold in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you.'  "His master replied, 'You wicked, lazy servant! So you knew that I harvest where I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered seed?  Well then, you should have put my money on deposit with the bankers, so that when I returned I would have received it back with interest. "'So take the bag of gold from him and give it to the one who has ten bags.  For whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them. And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.'

I have been fortunate on a number of occasions to have had the opportunity to explore this parable in greater depth, on one occasion during a creative arts event, another over a youth weekend. The latter event we titled “USE IT OR LOSE IT”. The idea being that if we bury our talents, we lose them altogether. God calls us to use the resources that God gifts our lives with in the service of the Kingdom.

Whilst the story has a number of characters, the main focus of the parable appears to be upon the unfaithful servant. He's the one that draws our attention and invites our response. We don't want to end up in his situation. We would much rather hear, 'Well done, good and faithful servant! … Come and share your master's happiness!' than 'Throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.'

At first glance it may appear that the parable is about wise investing. The first and second servants  invest their wealth in such a way as to receive a 100% return on their investment. Maybe the significant phrase is that they 'put their money to work', implying that they were actively engaged in some significant endeavors that produced equitable results. I don't think they were simply on E-Trade trading stocks. For sure playing the Stock Market is a demanding activity, but such a market did not exist at the time! The implication is that both of these characters, though not equally equipped, took what they had and made the most of it.

Barclay comments: “It is not a mans talent which matters; what matters is how he uses it. God never demands from a man abilities which he has not got; but God does demand that a man should use to the full the abilities which he does posses. People may not be equal in talent; but they can be equal in effort. The parable tells us that whatever talent we have, little or great, we must lay it at the service of God.”

In that context maybe talent isn't the best term to use. I would prefer the word 'ability'. But the play on words is of course that a talent could be both a monetary amount as well as an aspect of a persons personality, so 'ability' doesn't work so well. My main reason for preferring the word 'ability' to 'talent', is that in our current culture the word 'talent' has come to signify people with particular gifts.

You do not find folk who can type at 70 words a minute auditioning for 'America's got Talent.' Typing at 70 words a minute is pretty darn impressive, particularly to myself who types with one finger and does that with difficulty! But I'm not sure the judges would be impressed enough to make it a Vegas show worth investing millions of dollars in. We may not all have what the world calls “Talents” … but we do all have many different abilities. There is stuff that we can do! And when we do that stuff... the best we can do it... then we are living faithfully before God.

The Master in the parable is usually interpreted as being God. To Jesus God has entrusted the work of the Kingdom. At His ascension Jesus commissioned His disciples to carry out His work through the strength of the Holy Spirit who came upon them at Pentecost. They are to use the gifts the Spirit gives them to bring others to know the Good News of the Kingdom.

We may notice that no particular instructions are given to the servants. Faithfulness is not simply obedience to directions. Each servant has to decide what is to be done with the money and how best to use their time until the master returns. For sure the master will be returning, but exactly when is never made the issue. All the servants know is that He has gone away and left them to take care of things.

As with the previous parable about the bridesmaids waiting for the groom, the emphasis is upon faithful service and doing the right thing, not on watching the clock to see if the time for the end had come. To Matthew's church community, some of whom had expected Christ's immanent return, this was an important emphasis.

Let us move on to consider the third servant. The poor fellow makes a number of miscalculations.
  • Firstly, he underestimates what he has been given.
  • Secondly, he underestimates his capacity to do anything with his abilities.
  • Thirdly, he underestimates the love of God
  • Fourthly, he underestimates the judgment of God.
Firstly, he underestimates what he has been given.
One can imagine him being a little envious of the servants who had been given five or two talents. According to one commentary a talent was the equivalent of 15 years wages! Another suggests it was only about $2000, but either way, the others received considerably more than he had. The tenth of the ten commandments suggests 'Thou shalt not covet' which, in this context, is a way of saying “Don't be so envious of what others have that it prevents you from fully enjoying the gifts you have'.

Focusing on what we don't have, rather than what we 'do' have can be a terribly paralyzing thing. We have all come across folk who tell us that they could have been this or that if only they'd had the breaks that some other person in life had been given. Well, guess what? Life's not fair. We are not all dealt the same hand. But we are all given cards to play with. We are not called to complain about what others have, but use to the best of our abilities what we have at our disposal.

Most telling are the words he uses at the end of the parable. “See,” he says to the master,  “Here is what belongs to you.” The Master had given that talent to him. The Master didn't need it and no longer owned it. It was the mans responsibility to make it his own. Instead of which he throws it back in the Master's face and says, “I couldn't do anything with this!”  This was highly disrespectful. He completely underestimates what he has been given.

Secondly, he underestimates his capacity to do anything with his abilities.
He's lazy. He doesn't want to do anything. Rather than 'own' his talent, he chooses to bury it, and actually expends the  little energy he has digging a hole and hiding his talent away. The one activity he involves himself in is a complete waste of time and effort.  When the Master returns he chastises him for not at least placing it in a bank where it could have gained interest (though one suspects that interest rates must have been a little better than they are at my local bank... or maybe not!).

The Master tells us that he's lazy, or as the older translations would have it 'slothful'. The implication is that he could have done something. But he deliberately chooses not to do so. Because he underestimates his capacity to do anything, he does nothing. We've probably come across folk who take that attitude. 'What's the point?” “What difference does my little make?” We easily forget that an ocean is made up of drops of water... and that every drop has significance.

Thirdly, he underestimates the love of God
This is his biggest failing. It can also be ours. We also can have a false image of God. The unfaithful servants words are...  'Master,' he said, 'I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed. So I was afraid...” The master is pictured as over-demanding, judgmental and unforgiving. So it is some people have fixed in their minds that we have a God who always asks of us more than we can possibly give. The  response to such a view is one of paralyzing fear. If God is against us, how can anything possibly work out for the best? Such, of course, is not the God revealed to us through the love and grace of Jesus Christ.

I mentioned earlier that one of the events I'd looked at this parable with was a creative arts group. The format of the day was that different groups of folk split into groups and portrayed one of the characters or situations in the parable. One of the groups that turned up for the day were a rock and roll band. They provided a memorable picture of the unfaithful servant through a raucous song they titled “HE's a HARD man.... HE's Impossible to PLEASE”. I leave it to your imagination, but it surely did get the point across. A faulty conception of God leads nowhere!

I has been rightly pointed out that there are two traps we easily fall into. The first is to overestimate the judgment of God. The second is to overestimate the grace of God in such a way as to create a climate of 'anything goes'. The fourth and final characteristic of the unfaithful servant is;

Fourthly, he underestimates the judgment of God.
The man appears to be expecting that he Master will be pleased that he gets his bag of gold back. On the contrary the judgment of the Master is: 'You wicked, lazy servant!' The gift was given to the servant to be used. He doesn't use it, so he loses it. In fact he loses everything.

God's expectation of us is that we use the gifts and talents God has gifted us with for the promotion of the kingdom. When we fail to do so, we comfort ourselves with the thought that God is forgiving and gracious and won't hold us to account for what we have done with our lives. The final part of this parable reinforces what scripture elsewhere makes plain. That there will be a time when we have to account for what we have done with the wonderful gift of life that God has given us. Not a popular concept these days... but nevertheless, a very scriptural one. And indeed one that moves us to the next passage.

Before we read this passage, I'd like to point out that this is the last major teaching of Jesus that Matthew gives us. The chapters that follow are an account of His arrest, betrayal, crucifixion and resurrection. We have a summary of what Matthew wants his community to believe is important in their mission and for true discipleship. Read Matthew 24:1-6;

"When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. "Then the King will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.'

 "Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?' "The King will reply, 'Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.'

"Then he will say to those on his left, 'Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.' "They also will answer, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?' "He will reply, 'Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.' "Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life."

Matthew's gospel begins by picturing contrasting kingdoms. The gentle birth of King Jesus is contrasted with the megalomaniac actions of King Herod. The nature of earthly potentates who rule by force and domination are contrasted with the Servant/King Jesus whose manifesto is presented through the Sermon on the Mount that lifts up the work of peacemakers and stresses humility.

In the parables the growth of God's kingdom is pictured as being hidden among the kingdoms of the world, wheat and weeds grow side by side. The discovery of the Kingdom is pictured as being one of surprise, a man finds a hidden treasure, a crazy shepherd leaves ninety nine in a field and sets off on a mission to rescue a lost sheep.

Once discovered those who desire the Kingdom will give everything to be a part of it. A man sells everything he has to but the field. Jesus speaks of taking up a cross and leaving the things of this world, including it's kingdoms, behind. But in this final story, a time of game over and final judgment, any ambiguity is removed. To quote from the 'New Interpreters Bible Commentary';

There remains only these two kingdoms: the Son of Man with His angels, the blessed righteous, and the kingdom of God prepared from eternity stand on one side; the devil and his angels, the accursed, and the destiny prepared for the devil and his own stand on the other. The kingdom of God is disclosed as the only true kingdom.... ultimately only God is King

In this apocalyptic account of last judgment, a number of titles given to Jesus throughout the gospel are repeated and brought together. Jesus is the 'Son of Man' who has God for His 'Father'. He is called 'King' and 'Lord', reinforcing earlier images of Him as 'Messiah' and 'son of David'. He is the 'messianic shepherd ' who cares for His sheep, and the Judge who makes final separation between the sheep and the goats.

This is the only passage in the New Testament with any details that picture the nature of the last judgment. In our reformed  tradition we have become accustomed to picturing salvation as coming through our confession of Jesus Christ. We are fond of quoting Paul and emphasizing that any who calls upon the name of the Lord 'shall be saved' and  we make our bottom line confession “Jesus is Lord”. What is fascinating about Matthew's picture of the last judgment is that it has no confessional element, but is based upon 'works' rather than 'a statement of faith'.

This should not surprise us. Throughout his gospel Matthew has pictured the evidence of faith as being not rigid application of spiritual laws, something the Scribes and Pharisees were so very good at, but true religion, the true evidence of participating in the Kingdom of God, was shown through the actions of a person towards the 'little ones', those in society least able to help themselves.

Again to quote from the New Interpreters Bible Commentary:

To the readers surprise the criterion of judgment is not confession of faith in Christ. Nothing is said of grace, justification or the forgiveness of sins. What counts is whether one has acted with loving care for needy people. Such deeds are not a matter of 'extra credit' but constitute the decisive criterion of judgment...   ...The fundamental thrust of this scene is that when people respond  to human need, or fail to respond, they are in fact responding, or failing to respond, to Christ.

The true nature of the Kingdom is revealed to be love in action. Jesus throughout Matthew has taught that self-giving care for others is at the heart of God's requirements. He has demonstrated His love through His works of healing and deliverance. He has revealed Himself to be totally free to act in love, often powerfully and against the odds. Such miracles as 'Feeding the 5000' have reminded us of the 'exousia' (total freedom of action) that His life embodied. Jesus has pointed us to the importance of faith in order to achieve the aims of the Kingdom. Even a mustard seeds worth can move mountains and His Word is able to calm the storms.

Chapter 25 invites to take upon ourselves the disciplines of waiting, watching and working. We are encouraged to be patient. The Kingdom does not move forward according to our agenda. We are invited to watch. To always be on the lookout for signs of God's presence. We are told to work. God has gifted our lives with talents and gifts that God expects us to use for the Kingdom.

We move in the next chapters to consider the ultimate act of the loving service of Jesus as He surrenders His life for the world, going to the Cross for our redemption and being raised by God to show that even death could not defeat God's purposes.

But before that takes place, there is a last meal, there are accusations and denials, prayers and trials. Chapter 26 and 27 are long chapters, but as they are mostly narrative, they maybe need less explanation than other sections. Simply to hear the story is a testament all of it's own. Something I hope we see next time we meet together.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

25. Future Cast

According to Matthew”
A study of the Gospel of Matthew
Part 25: Future Cast

An underlying story behind the whole of Matthew's gospel is the clash of the kingdoms of the earth and the kingdom of heaven. This is a theme that keeps repeating. The values of the world are not the values of God. The people who matter in the world are not given the same status in the kingdom of God. The humble are lifted up, the 'little ones' treated as examples of faith and trust. In the last chapter we heard how Jesus lambasted the Pharisees for their religious hypocrisy. They are exposed as being far from God and more concerned with promoting themselves than they are concerned with promoting the values of God's kingdom... love, mercy, grace, justice and peace.

All of this talking about the Kingdom has the disciples asking some deep questions. If the kingdom they were expecting was never going to happen, then when would the kingdom Jesus was talking about come into being? How was the whole thing going to work out?

Matthew 24 and 25 are difficult chapters as they concern future events. Jesus has set the ball rolling by speaking about the downfall of the temple. But that's just one event among many that the disciples are interested in finding out about. As they sit on the Mount of Olives they ask Him about times, signs and how it's all going to end. In Matthew chapter 24, what may have been a much lengthier conversation, is all lumped together, which does present a challenge to unravel!

Jesus speaks to them;
  • about things that would happen quite soon,
  • about things that would happen over the years as His Kingdom grew in the world,
  • of things that would happen at the end of time.
Lest we think that Matthew was being deliberately obscure, he is actually staying within the prophetic tradition. This form of prophetic speaking is just the sort of thing the Old Testament prophets got up to.

For instance: Jeremiah.

In Chapter 28: 16-17, Jeremiah talks about events that would happen almost immediately.

Therefore this is what the LORD says: 'I am about to remove you from the face of the earth. This very year you are going to die, because you have preached rebellion against the LORD.'" In the seventh month of that same year, Hananiah the prophet died. (Jer 28:16-17 NIV)

In Chapter 31: 1-6, he talks about things that would happen to the Jewish nation in the distant future.

"At that time," declares the LORD, "I will be the God of all the families of Israel, and they will be my people." This is what the LORD says: "The people who survive the sword will find favor in the wilderness; I will come to give rest to Israel." The LORD appeared to us in the past, saying: "I have loved you with an everlasting love; I have drawn you with unfailing kindness. I will build you up again, and you, Virgin Israel, will be rebuilt. Again you will take up your timbrels and go out to dance with the joyful. Again you will plant vineyards on the hills of Samaria; the farmers will plant them and enjoy their fruit. There will be a day when watchmen cry out on the hills of Ephraim, 'Come, let us go up to Zion, to the LORD our God.'" (Jer 31:1-6 NIV)

In the same chapter, verses 31-34, he talks of a time beyond that, when God would enter into “A New Covenant” with His people.

"The days are coming," declares the LORD, "when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them, " declares the LORD. "This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel after that time," declares the LORD. "I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will they teach their neighbor, or say to one another, 'Know the LORD,' because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest," declares the LORD. "For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more." (Jer 31:31-34 NIV)

The New Testament writers acknowledge they have difficulty understanding these things!

Peter (1 Peter 1 10-12) talks of “things even the angels would like to understand”. Of how the prophets themselves struggled over times and circumstances. When in 2 Peter 3: 8-11 he speaks of the “Promise of the Lord’s Coming” he reminds his readers “There is no difference in the Lord’s sight between one day and a thousand years. “ To speculate about exact dates and times was a futile pursuit.

The point of prophecy wasn’t to tell the future. It was rather to encourage people along the lines of: look, all sorts of mind-boggling things are going to take place, and they’ll happen something like this, but don’t worry. Live your lives in the knowledge that God has the past, the present and the future in control. Be holy and dedicated to God.

Paul in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 writes in vivid pictures of the events of the Lord’s coming. The archangel’s voice, the sound of the trumpet, believers caught up in the cloud, the Lord Himself coming down from heaven. The reason he writes is not to give a literal picture of final events but as he says in verse 18 “encourage one another with these words."

In chapters 24-25 it will be helpful to remember two guidelines:

1. Jesus is speaking in the tradition of the Old Testament prophets, of (i) things about to happen, (ii) about things that would happen throughout the ages, (iii) about things that will happen when the end of the age comes.

2. Jesus is speaking, not to give the disciples a comprehensive picture of the future, but to encourage them in their faith and to empower them in their mission. They were about to face the darkest and most significant events of Jesus’ life, namely his death and crucifixion.

Let us pick up on our chapter at the beginning and read verses 1-3.

Matthew 24:1 Jesus left the temple and was walking away when His disciples came up to Him to call His attention to its buildings. "Do you see all these things?" He asked. "Truly I tell you, not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down." As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately. "Tell us," they said, "when will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?"

They are in Jerusalem. Maybe some of them haven't been to Jerusalem before. One of the most impressive things about Jerusalem was the temple. It truly was a magnificent edifice.

When we lived New York we knew it not just as a working city, but also as a tourist destination. Some of those who had grown up around the city forgot how impressive the sights were! They had to put themselves in the shoes of someone, say from West Virginia, who had lived in a rural area of mountains and uncrowded roads and a pace of life that flows along at a steady space. To come into the midst of the city, with the traffic and the skyscrapers and the masses of people, was truly an experience for people from a different background.

I am guessing that's what it was like for country folk from Galilee to be in the midst of Jerusalem. Sights, sounds, smells, sensory experiences that were new and like nothing they had known before. So they are in sightseeing mode as they look around the temple. And as they are walking away they are surprised by their conversation with Jesus. It was hardly believable that the whole temple could be destroyed! The very idea raised in their minds a whole host of questions about the future. When would the kingdom come? And how? And how would they know?

Jesus begins talking about signs that would indicate the end was coming. Read verses 4 - 14

Jesus answered: "Watch out that no one deceives you. For many will come in my name, claiming, 'I am the Messiah,' and will deceive many. You will hear of wars and rumors of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are the beginning of birth pains. "Then you will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of me. At that time many will turn away from the faith and will betray and hate each other, and many false prophets will appear and deceive many people. Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved. And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.

As you look at these verses you can't help but reflect that they could be applied to almost any decade of the last 2000 years. False prophets, wars, famines, persecutions of the Church, people falling away from their faith. The only unexpected element... that appears to have any time frame upon it.... is that the gospel of the kingdom will be preached to the whole world. 'And then' says Jesus, “the end will come” (verse 14).

Against the backdrop of of this great historical drama the encouragement is given to 'stand firm'. (verse 13). It is worth reflecting that today's doom merchants and end-time proclaimers are doing nothing new in pointing to their interpretations of events as meaning the end is coming. Jesus seems to be saying “That's going to happen!”.

This seems to be a warning not to allow ourselves to be sucked in to such dead end avenues of understanding but rather stand firm in doing what we understand the gospel calls us to, namely worship and service of God as we reach out to others with the love of Christ. Events on the world stage will go their crazy way, in the mean time, just keep doing what you know and let God take care of the rest.

That being said, dramatic events were about to fall upon Jerusalem. Jesus appears to move from generalizations to speaking about some specific events that would take place in the near future of the earliest church. Read verses 15 -22.

"So when you see standing in the holy place 'the abomination that causes desolation,' spoken of through the prophet Daniel--let the reader understand-- then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. Let no one on the housetop go down to take anything out of the house. Let no one in the field go back to get their cloak. How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers! Pray that your flight will not take place in winter or on the Sabbath. For then there will be great distress, unequaled from the beginning of the world until now--and never to be equaled again. "If those days had not been cut short, no one would survive, but for the sake of the elect those days will be shortened.

This section begins with Jesus referencing a passage in the book of Daniel 12:11 "From the time that the daily sacrifice is abolished and the abomination that causes desolation is set up, there will be 1,290 days.”

In 167 BC the temple had been desecrated by Antiochus IV Epiphanes. It would be desecrated again as the Romans overthrew the Jewish rebellion of AD70 and set about destroying both city and population. In the face of the invasion many chose to stay and fight rather than flee to the hills. The words of the historian Josephus, writing in his 'Wars of the Jews' provide an interesting counterpoint to Matthew's text.

Josephus speaks of how the inhabitants of Jerusalem lost the battle because the Romans cut off their food supply. “The lanes of the city were full of dead bodies; children and young men wandered about like shadows, swelled by famine... A deadly night seized the city … and everyone died with their eyes fixed on the temple”. He speaks of a mother who turns on her infant child in act of cannibalism. Of how the Romans finally enter the city and find entire homes full of corpses. He records that over a million perish whilst the remaining 97,000 were taken into slavery.

If these were events Jesus could see coming, then it is hardly surprising His advice was to flee to the mountains. He pictures a period of great terror centered upon the temple. Truly an 'abomination that causes desolation'. Part of the horror is the idea that the Kingdom of God has been overthrown by an empire of the ungodly. Yet, terrible as the events of the Fall of Jerusalem were, they were not the end of all things. That would not be until the coming of the 'Son of Man'. Our next passage, verses 23 – 31:

At that time if anyone says to you, 'Look, here is the Messiah!' or, 'There he is!' do not believe it. For false messiahs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect. See, I have told you ahead of time. "So if anyone tells you, 'There he is, out in the wilderness,' do not go out; or, 'Here he is, in the inner rooms,' do not believe it. For as lightning that comes from the east is visible even in the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. Wherever there is a carcass, there the vultures will gather. "Immediately after the distress of those days "'the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.' "Then will appear the sign of the Son of Man in heaven. And then all the peoples of the earth will mourn when they see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven, with power and great glory. And he will send his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other.

The idea of the people of God as being 'the elect' was referred to in verse 22 and again appears in this passage at 24 and 31. For the sake of the 'elect' the days of trial are shortened. Even the 'elect' are in danger of being deceived by the dazzling acts of false Messiahs. But at the end of the day, God's 'elect' shall be gathered from the four corners of all creation.

The term 'elect' is used to describe those who have responded to the call of Christ... in other words the Christian community. Discipleship, rather like a public election, involves call and response. A person is elected to office. They agree to stand. They are aware that standing for something has both responsibilities and privileges. We are called into Christ's service. It takes a heart response on our part to say 'Yes, I will take the stand for Jesus Christ'. We know that doing so brings many blessings but also lays upon us the constraint of love.

Some theologians associate the idea of 'the elect' with that of 'a remnant'. “Remnant Theology” has been particularly popular with religious groups who suggest that the end of the world is near. The basic notion of such theology is that no matter how bad things get, God always preserves a few 'an elected remnant' to faithfully bear witness to the Kingdom. You can understand how this passage appeals to folk who like 'end-times' theology. It is chock-a-block with apocalyptic imagery... the sun is darkened, stars fall from the sky, the son of man sends a trumpeting angel to gather the faithful few from the corners of the earth.

But as we will see later in this chapter, Matthew does not write to encourage speculation on when the end of the world is coming, but rather to encourage his readers to hold fast to the faith, believing that God has it all under control, no matter what! The Presbyterian Church of Wales brief statement of faith had as it's final sentence “I believe in the coming Kingdom of God”. I liked that! I could commit to that, without having to explain it.

However, for the disciples immediate future, trouble was coming to Jerusalem. As Josephus tells us, in AD70 the city was vanquished. They needed to be aware of the signs of the times. Yet they were also called upon to trust that God's Word could not be silenced and God's Kingdom would continue to grow. Such seems to lay behind our next cluster of verses 32-35;

Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. Even so, when you see all these things, you know that it is near, right at the door. Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.

The fig tree represented the national fruitfulness of Israel. We saw in a previous chapter how Jesus cursed a fig tree for it's barrenness. In this illustration the fig tree is used in the context of Israel's impending destruction. Trouble was coming, as surely as summer would follow spring!

Jesus tells His disciples 'Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. The only logical interpretation of these words is that He was speaking about the downfall of Jerusalem. William Barclay writes “What Jesus is saying is that these grim warnings of His regarding the doom of Jerusalem will be fulfilled within that very generation – and they were, in fact, fulfilled forty years later” P315

In the light of such a disaster befalling God's holy city there would be ample cause to feel that it was 'game over.' Jesus reassures the disciples that actually, the game had hardly even started. The Kingdom is endued with a cosmic significance as Jesus declares 'Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.'

That's a powerful statement to make in the midst of all this talk of impending destruction, stars falling from the sky, people turning away from God and going after false prophets... all this crazy negative stuff taking place, and here is Jesus telling us that none of it is as significant as the Kingdom teaching that He offers to us. Such is quite an incentive to take bible study seriously!

We also need to bear in mind that Matthew is writing 'after the fact' for the early church. They needed to hear that the Fall of Jerusalem was part of God's plan. They were facing persecution. They needed to hear that God had a future in mind for them!

But did any of this answer the disciples original question? Back in verse 3 "Tell us," they said, "when will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?" Having laid before them this confusing mish-mash of events immanent and far off, (in the manner of the Old Testament prophets) we may have expected from Jesus some statement of clarity... a more concise timetable.... If you search the internet or browse religious TV channels you will find no shortage of folks who are quite prepared to offer just that. But this is what Jesus has to say; verses 36-44

"But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark;and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away. That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man.

Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken and the other left. "Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come. But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into. So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him."

I personally find it comforting to understand from scripture that every crackpot who suggests they know the time and hour of Jesus second coming is setting themselves up for a major disappointment. Jesus makes it quite clear that NOBODY.. not even He Himself knew when such things would take place. He insists that there will come a time when everything will change and He will takes His rightful place as Lord of all creation, but as to when... well the only clue He offers is that it will be just like the days of Noah.

From what we know about the days of Noah, it was life as usual for most folk. They weren't expecting a flood. Even Noah wasn't expecting God to tell him to build a big boat. It was completely unanticipated.

Such is totally consistent with the parables of the growth of the Kingdom that Jesus taught back in chapter 13. The Kingdom is a hidden treasure. It is the mustard seed. It is the yeast that leavens the whole loaf. The parable of the 'wheat and the tares' pictures the Kingdom of God as growing up in the midst of and alongside the kingdoms of the world. Who could tell the difference? Well that had to be left to harvest time.

We are given this picture of people side by side, and one being taken and another left behind. This has very little to do with any theology of a 'rapture' or of folk being whizzed off to heaven whilst some have to duke it out on earth. (If you are familiar with the “Left Behind' series of books or movies, you'll know what I'm referring to). It has to do with the way the Kingdom grows in secret, in the midst of the world. Just as redemption came in Noah's day, unexpectedly and surprisingly, so at the end of all things, God alone will be the Harvester.

Jesus compares it to a burglary. A thief doesn't give you notice of when they are going to break into your house. “Hello! I'd like to schedule a break in please. Would Thursday at 7:00 work for you?” Thieves catch you out whilst your guard is down.

Because there are thieves out there we do take precautions. We may not know when they will come. But if they do, we want to be ready. That's the sort of attitude Jesus suggests to have towards the coming Kingdom. 'Be Prepared!” as the scouts used to say.

Carol Howard Merrit has a passage in her book “Reframing Hope” that talks of how we engage with the Kingdom through our hungering and thirsting to see a better world coming into being.

'When a man asks Jesus when the kingdom of God is coming, Jesus responds mysteriously: 'The Kingdom of God isn't coming with things that can be observed. They won't say, “Look here it is' or 'There it is'. The Kingdom of God is among you (….or within you)” “We cannot see God's reign, yet somehow it is among us. It is as if we know the reign of God best through our deep personal and communal longing for it. We understand what it is because there is something within us that needs it and craves it. We can almost taste it” (p82) “The reign of God. We can point to it.... but we cannot quite realize it.” (p83)

Our final section of chapter 24 and on into chapter 25 moves us through a series of stories about how to act in the light of the kingdoms coming. Every Sunday we pray “Thy kingdom Come on earth as it is in heaven”... but how do we make that prayer more than words? What is the practical outcome of understanding that we will never know when the Kingdom will be here, yet being called upon to prepare for it's coming? The key appears to be 'faithfulness'. Read verses 45 - 51

"Who then is the faithful and wise servant, whom the master has put in charge of the servants in his household to give them their food at the proper time? It will be good for that servant whose master finds him doing so when he returns. Truly I tell you, he will put him in charge of all his possessions. But suppose that servant is wicked and says to himself, 'My master is staying away a long time,' and he then begins to beat his fellow servants and to eat and drink with drunkards. The master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he is not aware of. He will cut him to pieces and assign him a place with the hypocrites, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Hear this passage... adapted from the Message Bible.

"I have a job vacancy. Anybody here qualify for the job of overseeing the kitchen? I need a person the Master can depend on to feed the workers on time each day. Someone the Master can drop in on unannounced and always find them doing a good job. A God-blessed man or woman! I tell you, it won't be long before the Master will put that person in charge of the whole operation.

"But if that person only looks out for themselves... and the minute the Master is away does what they please — abusing the help and throwing drunken parties for their friends — the Master is going to show up when they least expect it and make hash of them. They'll end up in the dump with the hypocrites, out in the cold... shivering ... teeth chattering. “

There's a TV program called “Undercover Boss” in which company mangers disguise themselves and go out among their workforce to discern what is really going on. By doing so they gain an insight as to where the strengths and weaknesses are in their companies. It can be a surprisingly emotional program. Often the bosses are humbled to see the commitment that some of their employees have to their company. Invariably, when the boss realizes the potential some of the employees have, they are promoted to higher levels of engagement within the company. The whole premise of the program is, to use 'The Message's' words, the 'Master showing up when they least expect it'. It is a feature of the program that faithfulness and loyalty are rewarded.

Let's put that into the framework of Matthew Chapter 24. We don't know when the Master is coming. We don't know when the Kingdom of God will be revealed in all it's glory. We cannot predict how God is going to answer our often spoken prayer “Thy will be done on earth as it is done in heaven”.

But some things we can know. Firstly that the Kingdom is coming. That there will come a time when things will be as God intends. We can never know when that will be. In a positive sense: “God only knows.”

Secondly, we can know that there is a way that God has chosen to bring the Kingdom into being. The Kingdom comes 'on earth as it is in heaven' when those whom God calls (or if you want to use the term those God 'elects') to be God's servants, are faithful in doing the things God calls them to do. What sort of things? Well, we'll find out more of that in chapter 25! But for now it is sufficient to remind ourselves that Jesus tells us that the whole job description of being a disciple revolves around loving God and loving others as much as God loves them.

That's the crazy thing about all this future watching. Jesus encourages us to do it, but only so as we understand that, as we can never get our heads around it, we better just trust God to sort it all out and get on with the job of being faithful to more immediate concerns God brings to our attention.

Chapter 24 is quite a journey! We start out with a sight-seeing trip in old Jerusalem, are taken from there into questions about the end of all things. In the midst of it all Jesus appears to offer warnings about the temples immanent destruction, (warnings that were tragically fulfilled in AD 70 when Jerusalem was all but destroyed)... as well as floating visions about a future that is out of this world.

We are warned not to speculate about such things but rather be ready for action by trusting the Word and doing what He asks us to do. And the chapter closes with harsh words for any who feel they can live however they please and ignore the signs of the times.

And next time....
more future-casted stories.
So... unless the end of the world interrupts our calendar,
I hope to gather with you again in the not so distant future!

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

24. Pharisees Under Fire

According to Matthew”
A study of the Gospel of Matthew
Part 24: Pharisees under Fire

Our topic; 'Pharisees under Fire'. Many moons ago we began a journey through the Gospel of Matthew and are now approaching the last few chapters. We began with a genealogy and a birth. We witnessed the beginning of Jesus ministry and His anointing for service at His baptism. We saw Him gather His disciples together and teach them about the kingdom that He had come to bring to this world, a Kingdom whose manifesto was outlined in a mountain top sermon.

From the start of his gospel we have seen there has been a conflict between the Kingdom of God and the kingdom of this world. The Kingship of Jesus is like nothing on earth. He comes as a servant and declares that He will lay down His life to reveal the love of God. He comes with authority, that we defined by a Greek Word “Exousia” … the freedom of God seemed to 'ooze' out of His life, in sometimes miraculous ways.

We have seen how Jesus expresses God's concern for all people, particularly the 'little ones' pushed aside by the world. We have heard talk of 'mustard seed' faith and challenges that genuine discipleship required the total commitment of a persons life to God. We have heard parables that speak about how the Kingdom of Gd will grow in unexpected ways.

We have seen how opposition to Jesus has been steadily growing and intensifying. Particular is that the case among the religious authorities and the Pharisees, who have, at this stage of our journey, decided it would be better for all concerned if Jesus were silenced.  In our last couple of chapters, following a violent incident in the temple, Jesus has been disputing with the Pharisees, Teachers of the law and Saduccees, about the nature of true religion.

In chapter 23, Jesus leaves us in no doubt that as far as He was concerned, whatever true religion may be, it was the very opposite of the way the Pharisees practiced their faith. In chapter 23 we find the Pharisees under the fire of His judgment. He takes them to task over numerous points in their conduct.

The basis of His harsh words lies in their hypocrisy. A Biblical dictionary definition of a hypocrite is as follows.  “Hypocrite: One who puts on a mask and feigns himself to be what he is not; a dissembler in religion. Our Lord severely rebuked the scribes and Pharisees for their hypocrisy (Mt 6:2,5,16) “The hypocrite’s hope shall perish” (Job 8:13). The Hebrew word here rendered “hypocrite” means the “godless” or “profane,” as it is rendered in (Jer. 23:11) i.e, polluted with crimes.”

As we look at these startling condemnations the disturbing thing is as how we can identify such behavior in religious communities of all ages and generations. Unfortunately we may even identify some of them in our selves. Read: Matthew 23:1-4

Then Jesus said to the crowds and to His disciples: "The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses' seat. So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people's shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.

Jesus describes the Pharisees as metaphorically being seated in 'Moses Seat'. They were as judges, or a bench of justices, whose function was to make the final judgment. They were not itinerant justices who rode the circuit, trying cases whose outcome could be appealed, they were the final authority. That was their function.

But they were not meeting the demands such a high office required. That did not nullify the authority of Moses seat. Jesus does not suggest all that Moses stood for and could be achieved through right observance of Moses teaching should be got rid of. Elsewhere He says He did not come to' do away with the law and the prophets but to fulfill them'. Rather Jesus suggests that whilst the office should be held in high regard, sometimes the example being set by the officers needed to be set aside.

Whenever a preacher or TV Evangelist or priest falls from grace there are always those who say: 'See that ...religion just doesn't work.' They judge the message by the character of those who are the most spectacular at not living it. Thankfully Christianity is much greater than it's greatest failures.

Even those who do not live up to it have, in their better moments, often shared some great teaching and had some genuine insights. It's a shame to dismiss all they have done on the basis of a time when they were at their worst. This passage seems to suggest that whilst we may not always approve of the messenger, what really matters is the message.

On Sundays when I'm not preaching I often visit another church to hear a preacher and experience their way of worship. Regardless of the denomination or the character in the pulpit, I find there is always something new to learn. I know that in many churches when their incumbent is away, the congregation  feels the need to take a Sunday off!

But to me, you very much need to hear perspectives other than mine from your pulpit. I don't see things the ways others do. I have my blind spots. I have my traditions and prejudices. Sometimes I get in the way of the message rather than enhance it. So, again, I am thankful that the message has a much greater significance than the messengers.

Whilst it is often said tongue-in-cheek, the message, “Do as I say, not as I do”, can sometimes be worth taking to heart. Human beings, even those in religious leadership, are fickle, prone to wander, and made of the same sinful flesh and common blood as everybody else. Only Jesus truly lived God's words. And it is His example we to follow, not the example of the Pharisees, (nor anybody else) who did not practice what they preached.

The second thing Jesus points out about the Pharisees is that they acted only to be seen and admired by others, not to please God. Read 5 thru 12.

"Everything they do is done for people to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long; they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues;  they love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and to be called 'Rabbi' by others. "But you are not to be called 'Rabbi,' for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers.  And do not call anyone on earth 'father,' for you have one Father, and he is in heaven.  Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one Instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant.  For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.

In a previous chapter we saw how the Pharisees evaded answering a question about 'where John the Baptist had received his authority from' on the grounds that they were afraid of what people may think of their answer. They really worried about how they looked in other peoples eyes. Somehow they felt that the approval of people around them meant that they were also approved by God.  If people saw them looking religious then they had to BE religious. Right?

Phlyacteries were like small leather wallets that they would attach either to their foreheads or left arms that contained four paragraphs from the law of Moses. Exodus 13:2-11 & 13: 11-16, Deuteronomy 6:4-9 & 11:13-21. The first Deuteronomy passage reads:  “Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads.

Somewhere along the line somebody had the crazy idea that the bigger the wallet containing the laws then the greater was the ability of the one wearing it to keep them. This was, and is, of course, nonsense. True spirituality is never a matter of outward appearance, but a matter of the heart. Likewise with the tassels.

The tassels were the Pharisaic equivalent of prayer beads. Each tassel was to remind them of a law of God, so that as you went through your tassels you could recall the laws of God and be more prone to keep them. So if you had tassels that were bigger and more numerous than anybody else then you had to be somebody important.

And if you were someone important then other people would recognize your importance and greet you and single you out from the crowd. And that will make you feel special. And blessed. So you must be special and God must really like you!

Very attractive it is. In one church I had served we had a congressman in the congregation. He always walked in the memorial day town parade. One time Yvonne and I were standing watching the parade go by and the congressman saw me in the crowd and came over and shook me by the hand and said, 'See you later'. Later there was a community dinner in his honor and I was doing the invocation prayer.

And it did feel good! To be singled out, among the crowd, by somebody important must mean I'm important. I imagined the people around thinking, 'Wow. Who is that guy that the congressman comes out of the parade, shakes his hand and says 'See you later'?”

Of course if they knew I was just the preacher from a downtown church that had seen better days and was struggling to keep the doors open, they probably would have shook their head, said “Oh. A preacher” and accused the congressman of trying to look good by shaking the hand of the preacher of the home church he only occasionally attended.

It really raises for us the question of where we find our sense of security. Is it from the approval of others or because we know that, through the grace of God, we are children that God claims as 'little ones' through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ? Are we content with being who God claims us to be, or do we need tokens of affirmation that boost our ego and massage our desire for acceptance?

The titles we accumulate, the degrees we hang on our walls, the letters before or after our names, certainly have a significance in that they open for us doors of service. If I go to see a doctor, it is comforting to see certificates that suggest the doctor is not a quack, but has achieved certain standards. Those standards don't make him a good person or even a special human being, but they do show that he or she has reached a certain stage of proficiency and at least in those areas can be trusted.

But we also know of folk who parade their titles and degree's, not because they want to serve, but because they want to be admired. I recall a certain clerical gentlemen who had more letters both before and after his name than he had in his name and how he loved to wear the most ostentatious clerical garb he could get away with and strut around like a darn peacock. At least that's how it seemed to me!

But even by saying that, I am displaying more of my own insecurities than his particular character. Maybe he felt that was a role somebody needed to take on. Maybe his behavior opened doors I would never be asked to walk through. It's always a fine line we walk!

Jesus levels the playing field. 'You are not to be called 'Rabbi,' for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers.  Do not call anyone on earth 'father,' for you have one Father, and he is in heaven.  Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one Instructor, the Messiah.

Jesus reminds us that we are all in this together, as brothers and sisters, and have so much to learn from each other that we shouldn't desire titles that differentiate or separate us. Paul spoke about us being a 'fellow priesthood'. We are all called to sit at the feet of Christ and learn. Our only authority is God, whom we pray to as “Our Father.” The only instruction that we should ultimately follow is that of Scripture. The Word of God, the words of the Messiah, His words are the ones we need to listen to. And when those claiming to speak in His name contradict His Word, than we should seek His Word, not theirs.

I am grateful for having a congregation that takes notice of the sermons that the preacher preaches. But if ever you feel that this preacher, or any other who occupies your pulpit, is contradicting scripture or simply giving their own view on a topic rather than feeding you with God's Word, then you have the responsibility to take what is said and balance it against what the Bible says.  God invites us to be people of discernment, guided by His Word. We have One Father, One instructor, One Savior, who is the authority over and above all others.

This section closes by lifting up the virtue of humility. In the kingdom, it is through service of others that joy is found. It is through recognizing that we are all people with gifts to offer, stories to share, perspectives to bring to the table... and dismissing nobody as being unimportant... that we grow to understand just how deep and wide the love of God truly is.

We see in these first verses four reasons Jesus accuses the Pharisees of hypocrisy.
  • They preached, but did not practice (3)
  • They acted only to be seen and admired by others, not to please God. (5)
  • They were proud, seeking to be prominent and exalted over others (6-9)
  • Because they rejected servanthood and humility, they were themselves rejected by God. (10-12)

We move now to eight 'woes.' “Woe to you...”  In the Message Bible the 'woes' become the phrase "You're hopeless, you religion scholars and Pharisees!” There is no nice way of calling people “Losers!!!” (which is the general atmosphere of these sayings). Jesus is through being nice with this particular crowd. Retrospectively we understand that they would carry through with their plans to do away with Him, so there is certainly justification for Him pulling no punches.  Let us wander through the woes! Verse 13.

"Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people's faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.

Or as 'The Message' has it..."I've had it with you! You're hopeless, you religion scholars, you Pharisees! Frauds! Your lives are roadblocks to God's kingdom. You refuse to enter, and won't let anyone else in either."

One commentary makes the comment 'the woes are not a petty outburst, but proleptic pronouncemnts of the eschatological judge”. I confess I had to look up in my dictionary what 'proleptic' meant! 'The anticipation and answering of an objection or argument before one's opponent has put it forward.' In other words, it's what they call a 'pre-emptive strike.'  Hitting them first before they fire a shot at you. That makes the 'woes' -  pre-final-judgment judgments!

In a previous session we saw how the Pharisees refused to submit to the offer of repentance offered to them by John the Baptist. They were afraid of what the people would think if they said John was not a prophet. So they just kept quiet about the whole affair. But the terms for knowing the kingdom of God had not changed. The doorway to the kingdom was through repentance. The Pharisees did not like a religion that insisted upon humility and self-denial. So when it came to Jesus they were happy to confront His miracles, quarrel with His doctrines, point out the kind of company He kept and use every power within them to make Him look like He was the one in the wrong.

The bottom line in this condemnation is simply that the Pharisees neither responded to God nor let others respond. Their response should have been repentance. But instead they instruct others to become just as unrepentant than they ever were!

The next verse, verse 14, is missing from many translations. This is because in the earliest manuscripts yet discovered of the New Testament, it is absent. However if you have a King James, it may well be there, depending on what edition it is. Or it may be in other versions in parentheses. In the New King James version it reads:

 Matthew 23:14 "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you devour widows' houses, and for a pretense make long prayers. Therefore you will receive greater condemnation. (Mat 23:14 NKJ)

Some older commentators, such as Matthew Henry, suggest that the eight woes are the antithesis of the eight Beatitudes of Matthew chapter 5... the 'Blessed are you... if you...” passages. Thus the opposite of 'Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.' (Mat 5:4 NIV) is our current verse where rather than comforting those who mourn (the widowers), the Pharisees prey upon their situation of disadvantage and 'devour widow's houses' .

Whilst taking advantage of them, the Pharisees continue to offer up to the world a religious veneer by offering long prayers for the widows plight. To make a pun of it, “They pray for their prey”. Such gives a whole new meaning to “For what we are about to receive may the Lord make us truly thankful!” This deserves special condemnation because it was the Pharisees duty to protect and support the less fortunate. That was the intention and requirement of their law. The widows had nobody else to turn to.

Over the last two centuries there has been a tension in religion between those who practiced a social gospel and those who preached a gospel of personal salvation. The former have accused the latter of being so heavenly minded as to be of no earthly use. Those who preach a personal gospel accuse the social gospel advocates of denying that change can only come through personal renewal.

The example of the Pharisees suggests that religion must be both social and personal. Long prayers are a waste of words if they are a cover up for wrong actions or a substitute for taking action. Yet hearts that are unrepentant cannot create lives with the spiritual vitality necessary for transforming communities. The gospel is not a choice between personal piety or social action. It is a both/and experience. The kingdom message transforms both the individual and society.

Our next woe, verse 15.

Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when you have succeeded, you make them twice as much a child of hell as you are." Or as the Message bible has it; "You're hopeless, you religion scholars and Pharisees! Frauds! You go halfway around the world to make a convert, but once you get him you make him into a replica of yourselves, double-damned."

There were those who found themselves drawn to the  religion of the Pharisees. After all it was a religion with clear rules that made you stand out from the crowd as being a religious person. In our own day there are many attracted to religious movements that do all the thinking for them and offer clear cut answers to life's most perplexing questions. The gospel of Fundamentalism has it's appeal. Such takes away any real responsibility. All you have to do is pay your tithe, follow the rules and never question what the senior pastor teaches you.

Then, as now, it wasn't easy to be a convert. It took a lot of commitment to be 'in with the in crowd'. Fundamentalist churches today often make heavy demands from their members, if not in writing then in unspoken expectations and requirements. They often practice an unhealthy amount of intrusion into their members lives, in everything from what folk can wear, what they can watch, who they can hang out with, how they should vote etc, etc. (One commentator described the phenomena as 'Heavy Shepherding'). And they will often go to great lengths to attract converts.

Likewise the Pharisees would go to great lengths if they felt somebody was warming to their approach. Particularly if it meant they turned against the kinds of ministry Jesus seemed to be up to. They loved that kind of convert!

Commenting on the phrase 'You make them twice as much a child of hell as you are.' William Barclay writes 'The most converted were the most perverted' pointing out that it can often turn out that a convert becomes even more of a fanatical follower of a movement than those who converted them.

I remember a chap who was fanatical about the Welsh language and cause. He would only speak a word of English with the greatest reluctance as 'every word spoken in English was a word less spoken for the Welsh cause'. I thought it was because he had a fierce streak of national pride. I only later discovered that he was born and bred in England, to English parents, and had only learned to speak Welsh later in life. His only real claim to 'Welshness' was his linguistic ability. Common sense and religion do not always sit well together. Things can become warped. Read 16-22

 "Woe to you, blind guides! You say, 'If anyone swears by the temple, it means nothing; but anyone who swears by the gold of the temple is bound by that oath.' You blind fools! Which is greater: the gold, or the temple that makes the gold sacred?  You also say, 'If anyone swears by the altar, it means nothing; but anyone who swears by the gift on the altar is bound by that oath.'  You blind men! Which is greater: the gift, or the altar that makes the gift sacred? Therefore, anyone who swears by the altar swears by it and by everything on it. And anyone who swears by the temple swears by it and by the one who dwells in it.  And anyone who swears by heaven swears by God's throne and by the one who sits on it."

This passage recalls the teaching in the sermon on the mount that Jesus gives in Matthew 5:37 when, in the context of making promises He tells us:  “All you need to say is simply 'Yes' or 'No'; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.” The Pharisees had developed a whole system of rules to get out of fulfilling obligations. That way you could look good by saying you were going to do something, and then look even better by not doing it, on the basis of some technicality in the law. They had elevated the science of evasion to unprecedented heights.

A distinction was made between promises that actually invoked the name of God and those which didn't. The gold in the temple was seen as especially belonging to God (and had financial implications)... so if you swore by God's gold, then that was it, you were committed. But if you just promised to do something in the name of the temple, then it was OK to go back on that promise.  Likewise a distinction was made between the altar... and the 'gift on the altar'. If you said something at the altar, and then went back on it, well no big deal. But if you had some financial obligation, with the 'gift on the altar'...then... no way, you have to see that one through.

Now lest we think the Pharisees were being ridiculous, consider this. Whenever a member is received into a Presbyterian Church they make a promise, in church, to support the life of that church with their time, talents and treasures. But you know, and I know, that there are church members who make their church just about the last thing on their list of priorities. They will commit to this and to that, but if something else comes up, 'Oh no, this is much more important!' and the church commitment is the first thing to go. The one exception can be if some financial commitment has been made. It's not exactly a comforting thought that at times we appear not that far away from the woeful actions of Pharisees.

We move from the science of evasion to the loss of proportion. Verses 23-24.

"Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices--mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law--justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.  You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel."

The Pharisees were very strict and and precise in the smaller matters of the law, but careless and loose when it came to the weightier duties of religion. They happily ignored passages such as Micah 6:8 'He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” Then they get themselves all out of shape arguing over trivialities peculiar to their own traditions, which Jesus pictures as 'tithing spices'.

Again, for us, this is a call to make a reality check! I would like to say that in all my years as a pastor I have witnessed that churches always veer on the side of the weightier matters. But if you have ever sat through a three hour Session meeting whose main cause of concern was a heated and passionate debate, about the color of the sanctuary carpet, then you may feel differently. If you have ever been privy to conversations with church members who threaten to resign or withdraw their support of their local church over something they read in a tabloid newspaper about a supposed decision of a General Assembly, then, again, you may feel there is ample justification for Jesus describing Pharisaic attitudes as those which  “strain out a gnat and swallow a camel”.

The Pharisees always seemed to be able to justify their actions, however reprehensible,  by referring to some minute detail of their law or traditions. Later in our studies we will see how when Judas betrays Jesus to them, they pay him blood money amounting to the miserly sum of thirty pieces of silver. Judas throws it back at them. They then get into an argument about whether it was moral to put that money back into the temple treasury!

But there's more. Jesus, as He has done in the Sermon on the Mount, identifies all these negative attitudes as something that come from a persons inner sense of values. Outward actions reflected what was really going on in the heart. Verses 25-28

"Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean. "Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean.  In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness."

No need to say much here. They focused on outward appearances, when within they were filled with greed and pride. (point 8 on sheet).  In this they were just like their “fathers” (Predecessors) who, when they had authority, killed the prophets and wise men God sent to Israel. Read 29 – 32.

 "Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous. And you say, 'If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.'  So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants If those who murdered the prophets.  Go ahead, then, and complete what your ancestors started!"

I find that one of our most moving Good Friday hymns is 'Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” In our less enlightened moments we like to think that if we were there, we would have stood on the right side of the equation. It's a wonderful thing that Jesus died for our sins.

At the same time it's a disturbing thing. If Jesus died BECAUSE of our sins, that identifies our lives with the forces that nailed Him to the Cross. That's an uneasy place to be, because I know how I feel about folk who persecute others and cause them great suffering.  And it's not a good or benevolent feeling! I know what I feel they deserve. And so we reach some of the harshest words in this whole passage. Verses 33-36.

"You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell?  Therefore I am sending you prophets and sages and teachers. Some of them you will kill and crucify; others you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town. And so upon you will come all the righteous blood that has been shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Berekiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar.  Truly I tell you, all this will come on this generation."

In the Hebrew bible, that the Pharisees were familiar with, the first book is the Book of Genesis, but the final book in their canon is 2 Chronicles. We are probably familiar with the story in Genesis of Abel's murder by his brother Cain. We are not so familiar of the story of the murder of the prophet Zechariah during the reign of King Joash. In their canon it is the closing account of the murder of one of Israel's prophets. So Jesus is telling them that from first to last, from A -Z (and in English lit. 'Able to Zach') their history had been one of persecuting the prophets of God.

And it wasn't going to change. They would continue to make martyrs of the disciples of the new Covenant, those who were disciples of Jesus. From the perspective of Matthew's church this had become a reality. From the stoning of Stephen onward they would witness many martyred for their faith.

Sadly the passage  'upon you will come all the righteous blood that has been shed on earth' has been seized upon by anti-Semites to justify the persecution of the Jewish people. They have been pictured as Christ-killers who only got what they deserved. Such a view could not be further from the grace of God that Jesus offered to them. For sure, what goes around, comes around, but judgment is the prerogative of God alone. And though Jesus burns with righteous indignation at the actions of the Pharisees, His closing words are not of judgment, but of longing to see them truly be embraced by the kingdom and experience the love of God.  Read 37-39.

 "Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.  Look, your house is left to you desolate. For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, 'Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.' "

Here is one of the most tender pictures in all of Scripture. Jesus pictured as a mother hen. The rebellious Pharisees as 'helpless chickens' whom Jesus wants to shelter and protect and gather into His loving care. Gone is the anger and fire and brimstone and here is the love and the grace of God taking precedence.

The pharisees needed exposing for their hypocrisy. It wasn't going to be pretty. But it was necessary. Jesus came as a truth teller and truth sometimes hurts. His intention was not to be a trouble-maker, but a refiner. Even His harshest words are spoken against a background of love and of grace.

As we review this chapter we do well to consider that the faults of the Pharisees are ones in which we often share. There is a saying 'There but for the grace of God go I'. Were it not for God's amazing grace we would all be lost. So, thanks be to God, for his love that though it may sometimes comes as a refiners fire, nevertheless intends to produce gold!

In Chapters 24 and 25 we will be dealing with Jesus predictions for the future. How would the kingdom come? When would it come? How would we know? All this and more are topics for the next two chapters.

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!