Wednesday, March 7, 2018

22. The Conflict Begins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read : Psalm 118 verses19-27.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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