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!

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