Monthly Archives: September 2020

Matthew 21: 12-17 Turning Tables and the Temple Upside Down

By Andrey Mironov 777 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=24847288

Matthew 21: 12-17

Parallel Mark 11:15-17; Luke 19: 45-56; John 2: 13-17

12 Then Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who were selling and buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves. 13 He said to them, “It is written,

‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’; but you are making it a den of robbers.”

14 The blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he cured them. 15 But when the chief priests and the scribes saw the amazing things that he did, and heard the children crying out in the temple, “Hosanna to the Son of David,” they became angry 16 and said to him, “Do you hear what these are saying?” Jesus said to them, “Yes; have you never read,

‘Out of the mouths of infants and nursing babies you have prepared praise for yourself’?”

17 He left them, went out of the city to Bethany, and spent the night there.

Jesus’ entry to Jerusalem culminates at the temple in Matthew’s gospel, and Matthew’s narration of this scene adds a lot of rich symbolism to the way Mark and Luke narrate this brief scene. Like the previous scene, many people remember this scene the way John narrates it with Jesus making a whip of cords to drive the moneychangers out of the temple (and John’s location of this event near the beginning of the gospel), but in Matthew, Mark and Luke this begins the direct conflict between Jesus and the temple authorities. Matthew in particular highlights many Davidic and prophetic themes in this purification of the temple.

Jesus has entered Jerusalem in a way that models Israel’s vision of an ideal king, and the rare good kings in Israel and Judah were responsible for bringing about reform in the temple. For example, Hezekiah’s repair and reform of the temple is narrated:

Hezekiah said, “Listen to me, Levites! Sanctify yourselves, and sanctify the house of the LORD, the God of your ancestors, and carry out the filth from this holy place. For our ancestors have been unfaithful and have done what is evil in the sight of the LORD our God; they have forsaken him, and have turned away their faces from the dwelling of the LORD, and turned their backs. 2 Chronicles 29: 5-6

The connection between this scene in 2 Chronicles and Matthew is strengthened when you realize that in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures) the word translated ‘carry out’ in 2 Chronicles is the same word translated ‘drove out’ in Matthew. The Greek word ekballo, which is used in both places, is more commonly translated in Matthew ‘cast out’ and is the term used when Jesus exorcises demons. While Matthew wants us to understand that Jesus is purifying the temple, he may also be communicating that Jesus is performing an exorcism on the temple. The action is further explained by joining together two pieces of scripture in quotation. The first is Isaiah 56:7:

These I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings will be accepted on my altar; for my house will be called a house of prayer for all peoples.

Isaiah 56 combines a vision of an expansive hope where foreigner and eunuchs once excluded from the temple are now included while the ‘sentinels and shepherds’ (Israel’s leaders-both religious and political) are condemned for their blindness. This is joined to Jeremiah 7:

Here you are, trusting in deceptive words to no avail. Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal, and go after other gods that you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house which is called by my name, and say, “We are safe!”—only to go on doing all these abominations? Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your sight? You know, I too am watching, says the LORD. Jeremiah 7: 8-11

Matthew is the only gospel when Jesus asks the disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” to specifically include the prophet Jeremiah as a portion of the answer (16: 14) and Matthew’s narration of the conflict between Jesus and the temple and the temple authorities echoes Jeremiah’s conflict with the temple and its leaders in his time. Both temples will be destroyed (the temple in Jeremiah’s time by Babylon, about 30 years after Jesus’ death the temple will be destroyed by Rome). Matthew will transition rapidly between prophetic and kingly allusions for Jesus throughout the crucifixion narrative, but this is not new in Matthew’s gospel. Just as the crowds in Matthew 16:14 (and entering Jerusalem in the previous section) could understand Jesus in terms of a prophet, Peter in 16:16 can highlight that ‘Messiah’ is an appropriate title for Jesus, and the crowds (as well as a foreigners (15:22) and the blind (9:27, 20:30)) can understand Jesus as the ‘Son of David.’

The moneychangers and dove sellers are replaced in the temple by the blind and the lame. Although Jesus is well known for his healing of the blind and the lame, this action is also symbolically rich when contrasted with David’s story. In 2 Samuel 5, the Jebusites who David conquers to take control of Jerusalem taunt David saying: “You will not come in here, even the blind and the lame will turn you back”  (2 Sam. 5: 6) and when David conquers Jerusalem the phrase is now turned around to exclude the blind and the lame from Jerusalem and David’s house (perhaps excluding those Jebusites who were maimed in the battle). Yet, Jesus entering the temple makes space for the blind and the lame, and just as Isaiah 56 expanded the house of God to the previously limited eunuchs and foreigners, now the blind and lame are now made whole and enter into the temple of God with Jesus. Children are also present, just as they have been present throughout the section immediately prior to entering Jerusalem (18: 1-9; 19: 13-15) speaking the words the crowds shouted upon entering Jerusalem.

Jesus has upset the sacrificial system in the temple and has directly overturned the world of the chief priests and the scribes who are responsible for the temple. They are indignant (I translated this term as resentful earlier with the disciples (20:24) and indignant or resentful work here as well).There is probably an element of political danger with the proclamation of Jesus as ‘Son of David’ that may endanger not only Jesus, but they may feel, justly, that anyone acting like a king could be a danger to not only themselves and their followers but to the temple and the city as well. Yet, their conflict with Jesus will often ignore the actions of Jesus (both the symbolic and the healings) and focus on authority. Yet, Jesus invites them to wonder at what is happening in their midst and to hear scripture in a new way. They hear in the crowds proclamation danger, instead of hearing Psalm 8:3

Out of the mouths of infants and nursing babies you have prepared praise for yourself’[1]

which helps the attentive reader understand that this is a time for praise because God is at work in the world and in the temple. Matthew quickly ends the day by taking Jesus and his followers outside Jerusalem to Bethany where he spends the night before returning to the temple again the following day.

[1] This is Psalm 8:2 in English/Hebrew, Matthew follows the Septuagint’s wording rather than the Hebrew text behind the NRSV and other translations. The versification in the Septuagint is different from most English translations in the Psalms, here it is only one verse difference but in other places it can be off by a chapter.

Matthew 21: 1-11 The Entry into Jerusalem

Matthew 21: 1-11

Parallels Mark 11: 1-10; Luke 19: 28-40; John 12: 12-29

When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, 2 saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. 3 If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.” 4 This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying,

5 “Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”

6 The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; 7 they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. 8 A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. 9 The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting,

“Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

10 When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” 11 The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”

The entrance to Jerusalem, celebrated at the beginning of Holy Week in liturgical churches, is often viewed as a triumphal procession, which in one way it is, but this rich prophetically symbolic event is sometimes lost amid the palm branches and joyous songs. The entrance to Jerusalem initiates the final section of the gospel which narrates the time between the entrance to Jerusalem and the resurrection. This even is narrated by all four gospels, but only in John are the branches mentioned to be the palms which give the liturgical celebration of Palm Sunday its name. Even though this initiates a new section as Jesus enters into conflict with the religious leaders in Jerusalem, Matthew as a skillful editor and storyteller weaves in numerous threads that connect this scene and the coming conflicts, parables, events and ultimately the crucifixion and resurrection to the teaching, parables, healings, and conflicts that have been a part of the ministry in Galilee and the approach to Judea.

The first connecting thread which ties this scene to the preceding narration in Matthew is the continued presence of doubling. Just as in the previous section where two blind men are healed (and this links the final scene of the narrative prior to entering to Jerusalem to scenes throughout Jesus’ ministry) now in this initial scene of the Jerusalem narrative we have two disciples sent to retrieve two animals. Just as Matthew begins his gospel with a genealogy which ties the gospel to the story of Israel, now Matthew begins his narration of the events that lead to Jesus’ death by connecting it structurally with the narration of Jesus’ ministry.

Throughout this journey through Matthew I have linked Jesus’ vision of the kingdom of heaven with the vision God intended for Israel as an alternative community to the ways of Egypt, Assyria, Babylon and now Rome. This insight helps hold together both sides of Jesus’ action of coming into Jerusalem on ‘a donkey and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’ While David Garland is right to identify Jesus’ action of riding a donkey into Jerusalem with this action by previous claimants to the throne of David[1] and with the expectations of the actions of the awaited messiah (Garland 2001, 213) but Warren Carter is also correct that this act is “making an ass out of Rome” in entering Jerusalem in a way that is a parody of the Roman triumphs, victories and arrivals of a governor or emperor. (Carter 2005, 413) The vision of what a king of Israel is to be, according to the law as outlined in Deuteronomy 17: 14-20 ,is the opposite of the ways the kings and rulers of nations like Egypt and Rome acted. The problem Israel experienced is that the kings of Israel often imitated the kings of the empires rather than the vision of God for Israel. Even the disciples of Jesus will struggle to understand what it means for Jesus to be the Christ (messiah) as they think of ‘earthly things’ rather than ‘heavenly things.’ Jesus’ birth caused Herod to be frightened and all Jerusalem with him, and now his entry the city is shaken (this is the Greek seio, where the English seismic comes from, this will also be used for the earthquake at the death and resurrection of Jesus) by this act of approaching on a donkey and a colt, surrounded by the crowds that have approached Jerusalem in his presence. The people of Jerusalem, the urban center where now Pilate sits as the emissary of Caesar instead of Herod and they understand the prophetic significance of the actions and words of Jesus and his followers.

Matthew makes explicit what Mark implied about the biblical symbolism by weaving together Isaiah 62:11 and Zechariah 9:9. While most readers probably assume Matthew’s use of scripture is merely predictive (pointing to texts from the Hebrew scriptures which demonstrate how Jesus fulfills scripture) but Matthew’s rich weaving of scripture can, for the careful reader, help illuminate a deeper engagement with what Jesus’ actions mean. As we begin this section of the story in Jerusalem Isaiah 62 and Zechariah will be two of the texts which help provide language which can explain what Jesus’ actions and eventual death will mean in this final section of Matthew. Isaiah 62 is a song of the restoration of Zion, and although Jesus’ actions will challenge the religious authorities in Jerusalem, this approach is ‘for Zion’s sake’ (Isaiah 62:1). This passage in Isaiah talks about the ending of Israel’s long exile and captivity to other empires. The specific verse which begins this intertwined quotation (the portion Matthew uses is underlined) is:

The LORD has proclaimed to the end of the earth: Say to daughter Zion “see your salvation has comes; his reward is with him, and his recompense is before him. (Isaiah 62:11)

Matthew is a careful editor, when he quotes scripture and brings together verses it is intentional rather than a scribal error. Matthew seems to have access to the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the New Testament) as he is writing this and is very skilled in reading texts. The remainder of this text comes from Zechariah 9:9 which Matthew slightly modifies (again what Matthew uses is underlined):

Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king is coming to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble, and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

Matthew leaves off the note of triumph and victory from this quotation, even as he carefully includes the two animals (which again works in Matthew’s doubling pattern). Zechariah will continue to echo in Matthew’s narration of the passion narrative, especially in the Lord’s Supper where both the language of the blood of the covenant and striking the shepherd are rich echoes of Zechariah.

This blended quotation also allows Matthew to reintroduce the adjective ‘meek’ when referring to Jesus (NRSV humble, the Greek praus is the same term used in 5:5 and 11:29). Jesus’ actions help us understand this important term for Matthew, it does not mean silence or temerity but rather it refers to those who wait upon the Lord to deliver them rather than rising up in resistance. If there is a triumph here, the triumph belongs to the Lord, the God of Israel, rather than any king. But for Matthew we have God’s action on behalf of Israel and the ‘God who is with us’ in Jesus blended together in a way that defies easy categorization. Jesus may embody titles like savior (which may be why the beginning of Isaiah 62:11 is used), messiah/Christ/king, Son of David, and prophet, but none of them adequately describe the totality of Jesus in Matthew. Each may illustrate some amount of openness to God’s work in Jesus’ presence, but they also remain open to misinterpretation.

The crowds who enter with Jesus can declare Jesus as ‘Son of David,’ ‘one who speaks in the name of the Lord’ and ‘prophet’ which illuminates that they understand in part who Jesus is, unlike Jerusalem which quakes at his approach. Although Matthew does not specify, this crowd which enters Jerusalem with Jesus is probably not the same crowd that calls for his crucifixion. It is likely that it is the crowds from the urban center of Jerusalem who do not, at the urging of the religious leaders in the city, embrace Jesus’ words and actions. It is possible that some of the approaching crowd become disillusioned with the way Jesus embodies these titles, like Judas Iscariot who moves from a disciple to one who betrays. This scene probably reflects those who have journeyed with Jesus to Jerusalem in this festival season who enter as outsiders to the city. The people of Jerusalem may have heard stories of Jesus’ ministry and work, but in Matthew this is the first time and only time that Jesus comes to Jerusalem.

Unlike in Mark, where Jesus withdraws to Bethany after arriving at the temple late in the day, we will see Jesus immediately move from one symbolically rich action in the approach of the city directly to the symbolically rich action of clearing out the money changers and animal sellers in the temple. From a perspective where this action parodies the Roman practice of a victory parade where the conqueror proceeds to the temple to offer a sacrifice, we see Matthew joining the action on entry together with the action in the temple. But from the prophetic and Jewish perspective there is the action of Jesus embodying what a king is supposed to be. For Matthew’s narration of these linked scenes the figure of David will stand in the background of the narration as Jesus is acclaimed as Son of David, and particularly in the next scene there are some clever allusions to David’s capture of Jerusalem. But hauntingly the people entering with Jesus describe him as a prophet who is entering a city with a reputation for rejecting prophets. While David was often thought of as a prophet, especially as he is attributed with many of the Psalms, we see in Jesus one who brings together the role of prophet and king in a way not seen in Israel, with the possible exception of Moses.

[1] Absalom is riding a mule in 2 Samuel 18:9 when he dies during his rebellion against David, Solomon rides a mule to is anointing in 1 Kings 1: 33

Reflection on C. S. Lewis’ the Chronicles of Narnia (1950-1956)

Time Magazine Top 100 Novels

Book 50: C. S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (1950)

This is a series of reflections reading through Time Magazine’s top 100 novels as selected by Lev Grossman and Richard Lacayo published since 1923 (when Time magazine was founded). For me this is an attempt to broaden my exposure to authors I may not encounter otherwise, especially as a person who was not a liberal arts major in college. Time’s list is alphabetical, so I decided to read through in a random order, and I plan to write a short reflection on each novel.

If you have read Lev Grossman’s the Magicians, it should clear of the influence of the Chronicles of Narnia on his writing since Narnia is slightly modified to become Fillory in his trilogy. I first read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe as a child and have read it multiple times both as a child and as an adult. Although it is a children’s story and can be read, on one level, as a simple fairy tale where four children find themselves in a magical world that they enter through a wardrobe, it also has moments of real profundity.

Since I own the Chronicles of Narnia I plan to add a brief reflection on each volume as I complete it:

The Magician’s Nephew:

Although it may be the sixth book written in the series, it is the beginning of the Narnia narrative. This is a creation story for Narnia and explains the origins of several features of the world and the entrance of the witch into Narnia. I listened to the audio version with Kenneth Branagh which is very well done. This is a well-done prequel to the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe

This story of a magical world and a conflict between good and evil also in a fable like manner touches in an allegorical way (whether C. S. Lewis intended or not) on many themes of Christianity, which C.S. Lewis also writes about explicitly in many of his other works. Even after many reads it is still an enjoyable story with many great images which I have been able to pull from at various times.

The Horse and His Boy

This story expands the world beyond Narnia by introducing the kingdom of Calormen. The Calormen are obviously based on Middle Eastern stereotypes, but setting aside the derogatory view of other cultures which are characteristic of Lewis’ time, the basic story of a talking horse from Narnia and a boy who are quickly joined by another talking horse and noble born young woman in their flight to freedom in Narnia. A simple but enjoyable story if you can set aside the stereotypes.

Prince Caspian

The fourth novel in the timeline of Narnia (2nd written) occurs in a time well after the time of the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe where Narnia is now ruled by the Telmarines, a group that invaded Narnia and has tried to eliminate the stories of Narnia. Prince Caspian, nephew of the current king, summons Peter, Susan, Edmond and Lucy back to Narnia as he struggles with the ‘old Narnians’ to end the Telmarine rule. This also is a simple but enjoyable short story where good triumphs in the end.

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

Fifth novel in the timeline of Narnia which occurs a couple years later in King Caspian’s reign where he sets out on a voyage to find seven friends of his father that were sent east as a punishment during the time preceding Prince Caspian. Edmond, Lucy and their relative Eustace are brought into Narnia for the voyage. I found some parts of the story directed towards younger children (like the Monopods) but overall an enjoyable voyage.

The Silver Chair

The penultimate novel in the timeline of Narnia now has Eustace and a girl from his school, Jill Pole arrive in Narnia once King Caspian is an old man. This was my least favorite of the chronicles so far, partially because neither Eustace or Jill are particularly likeable characters for much of the book. There is also an element where C.S. Lewis’ criticism of the secular direction of schooling and culture becomes very pointed in this work in an almost petulant manner. There are elements in the story where the dialogue involves C.S. Lewis’ characters knocking down ‘straw-man’ arguments. There are some very imaginative features of this walk through Narnia and the Under world but the story didn’t seem as imaginative or mythical as the other volumes.

Growing a Story

By FASTILY (TALK) – I created this work entirely by myself., CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6850324

Growing a Story

Some kernel of truth was planted in the fecund imagination
And as the new shoot broke from the warm moist ground
Spreading its initial leaves to breath in the air in a new world
As an alien sun showers the cotyledons of the seed with radiation
And the roots begin to drive into the soil feeding on the detritus
So many things can happen to this new seedling over its maturation
The environment it emerges into may be too toxic for it to endure
Animals and insects may eagerly devour its first green leaves
Or weeds may grow up around it choking its access to the sun
Drought may deny it the nourishment it needs or flood may overwhelm
Subterranean pests or diseases may devour the roots it sinks
But sometimes, against all the odds, the roots delve deep
The plant spreads its tender branches towards the heavens
And the story slowly grows, struggling to reach maturity
Putting forth leaves, flower and fruit and delighting the eye
Yet no story grows unchanged by the world it enters
The knots and gnarls that give it character as it grows
Some branches have to be pruned carefully by its author
As it takes its place among the orchard that invites the hungry
To walk among the collected trees and to taste the fruit
Which provides the seeds for the next generation of stories

Matthew 20: 29-34 Opening Eyes on the Way to Jerusalem

Jesus Healing the Blind From 12th Century Basilica Catedrale di Santa Maria Nouva di Monreale in Sicily.

Matthew 20: 29-34

Parallel Mark 10: 46-52; Luke 18: 35-43

29 As they were leaving Jericho, a large crowd followed him. 30 There were two blind men sitting by the roadside. When they heard that Jesus was passing by, they shouted, “Lord, have mercy on us, Son of David!” 31 The crowd sternly ordered them to be quiet; but they shouted even more loudly, “Have mercy on us, Lord, Son of David!” 32 Jesus stood still and called them, saying, “What do you want me to do for you?” 33 They said to him, “Lord, let our eyes be opened.” 34 Moved with compassion, Jesus touched their eyes. Immediately they regained their sight and followed him.

Matthew is a careful narrator bringing together the pieces of Jesus’ story in a way that illustrates connections across the gospel and bringing enhanced meaning to each individual scene. The first disciples called to follow Jesus are two sets of brothers, (4:18-22) and the last who follow are two blind men enabled to see. Just as the request of the demons possessing two men make a request of Jesus (8: 28-34) is closely followed by the previous healing of two blind men (­9:27-31) so this healing of the two blind men is preceded by the formal request of the mother of James and John (see previous section). This pattern of twos provide clues to the oral structure underlying Matthew’s narration and provide signposts that allow the hearer to pay attention to commonalities in the stories. This narration of healing the two blind men outside of Jericho closes the gathering of Jesus’ followers in Galilee and on the road to Jerusalem. Its use of the Son of David title for Jesus recalls the previous usages of this title in the gospel[1] and prepares us for the crowds proclamation of this title as Jesus enters Jerusalem.

Jesus begins his final approach to Jerusalem making his way up from Jericho and a great crowd is with him. The crowds, like the disciples with the children, are a barrier for these two blind men to be in the presence of Jesus, but the use of both ‘Lord’ and ‘Son of David’ in their address to Jesus prepare us for Jesus’ eventual granting of their request. Previously when Jesus healed two blind men he ordered them to be silent, but instead they go and spread news about Jesus to the surrounding district. Here, the great crowds attempt to silence the two blind men only results in the blind men shouting greatly for mercy from the Lord, the Son of David. Matthew uses Hosea 6:6, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” as a key to understanding a merciful interpretation of scripture,[2] and just as the merciful are blessed and will receive mercy, Jesus responds with healing to numerous requests for mercy.[3] Jesus responds to this request for mercy with compassion.[4]

In contrast to the previous scene where the audacious request of the mother of James and John for a position of honor for her sons is met with a paradoxical partial fulfillment which points to James and John suffering, in this scene the request for mercy is met with healing. The response of Jesus to both the mother of James and John and the two blind men is and identical “What do you will (Greek theleo). There is irony in these two stories placed next to one another where disciples are unable to see what they ask, where these blind men are aware of their blindness and ask to be able to see. Despite the attempts to silence them by the crowds, they are invited into the presence of Jesus, touched by him, and have their eyes opened. Unlike the previous healing of blind men where faith was a primary portion of the story, the question of faith is unaddressed but assumed by both the titles used and the persistence of these blind men who become followers on the road to Jerusalem. Ironically, the words that the crowds attempt to silence from these two blind men becomes their shout as they surround Jesus to enter Jerusalem.

[1] The two blind men in 9:27 and the Canaanite woman in 15:22 use this title asking for healing and the crowd wonders could this be the Son of David in 12:23. For a fuller discussion of the use of the Son of David title see Son of David, Son of God, Son of Man Titles in Matthew’s Gospel.

[2] See 9:13 and 12:7

[3] 5:7 in the Sermon on the Mount; healings after requests for mercy: 2 Blind men (9:27-31), Canaanite woman (15: 21-28), Father of the moonstruck son (17:14-21) see also the request for mercy in the parable of the unforgiving slave (18:30-32)

[4] Previously Jesus has had compassion for the crowds (9:36, 14:18, and 15:32) but not for individuals. Compassion also is the expected action of the unforgiving slave in the parable (18:27)

Matthew 20: 17-28 Greatness in the Kingdom

Domine, quo Vadis? by Annibale Carracci, 1062

Matthew 20: 17-28

Parallels Mark 10: 32-45; Luke 18: 31-34, 22: 24-27

17 While Jesus was going up to Jerusalem, he took the twelve disciples aside by themselves, and said to them on the way, 18 “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death; 19 then they will hand him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified; and on the third day he will be raised.”

20 Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came to him with her sons, and kneeling before him, she asked a favor of him. 21 And he said to her, “What do you want?” She said to him, “Declare that these two sons of mine will sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.” 22 But Jesus answered, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?” They said to him, “We are able.” 23 He said to them, “You will indeed drink my cup, but to sit at my right hand and at my left, this is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.”

24 When the ten heard it, they were angry with the two brothers. 25 But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. 26 It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; 28 just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

Central to the organization of the last three chapters of Matthew’s gospel has been a response to ‘greatness’ in the kingdom of heaven. Jesus is not a Messiah (king) like the kings of the nations but instead is one who comes to serve instead of serving. The world imagined by the kingdom of heaven is an alternative to the worldview of the nations of the earth, and in this world reoriented has drastic implications for these disciples of Jesus as they consider the shape of their own lives. Even as we stand at the threshold of closing Jesus’ ministry of teaching and prepare to enter the narration of the final week in Jerusalem the disciples and those around them continue to require a conversion of their imaginations (to use Richard B. Hays’ terminology) to embody this new society as an alternative to the ways of the nations.

The section begins with the final foretelling of Jesus’ coming betrayal, condemnation, humiliation, and crucifixion. Two previous times[1] (three if you count the words spoken to Peter, James, and John after the Transfiguration) Jesus has foretold the events that will occur in Jerusalem and been met with resistance, distress and now misunderstanding. As people who are able to read and hear this narrative repeatedly and who understand the narrative in light of the resurrection it is easy to become judgmental of the disciple’s inability to understand a crucified and resurrected messiah, but the disciples, like all the other characters of Matthew’s gospel, attempt to make sense of Jesus’ identity, actions, and words from within the worldview they inherited from their society. Perhaps one of the reasons that Matthew’s gospel is more charitable to the disciples than Mark’s is a pastoral understanding (in the sense of the responsibility for the forming of a community) of the need for patience as the kingdom’s worldview slowly begins to transform the engrained ways of the nations.

In Matthew’s gospel it is the mother of James and John who makes the request rather than the two disciples themselves. This, perhaps for Matthew, provides a little space between the disciples in the narrative who have just heard for the fourth time (since James and John were at the Transfiguration) about the upcoming death of Jesus. The mother comes and prostrates herself before Jesus which may be simply ‘bowing down or paying honor’ but within Matthew’s continued usage of the Greek proskuneo it is also used at times in an ambiguous way where ‘worship’ is implied and there is a revelation of Jesus being ‘God with us.’[2] Regardless the mother of James and John shows some openness to who Jesus is, but she and her sons continue to construct that identity in terms of the rulers of the nations. She comes to ask ‘a certain thing/something’ of Jesus (translations often translate this as a favor but this ritualistic request has a greater weight than asking for a favor) and Jesus responds to her request with “What is your will/desire?” (the Greek theleo is often translated as wish, but wishing in English is more ephemeral than this term for willing something to be) Her request for positions of high honor in the coming kingdom of Jesus for her sons shows both insight into a portion of Jesus’ identity and a misunderstanding of greatness in the kingdom of heaven. A ritual request for a declaration is a powerful and binding thing, and so if Jesus makes this statement he, as a king, is bound to it.[3] Jesus could deal with her, her sons, and later the disciples in a harsh way, but Jesus instead uses the moment as one more opportunity to talk about greatness in the kingdom of heaven.

Jesus addresses the request by trying to help James and John understand the request that is made. In the context of having foretold his own death in Jerusalem we are introduced to the idea of ‘drinking the cup’ that Jesus is about to drink. This will be resonant image in both the Hebrew scriptures and in the passion narrative that will begin in the coming chapter. In the Hebrew Scriptures drinking the cup (particularly the cup of the LORD) often used in the prophets as the language of suffering[4] but as Warren Carter notes it can also denote the LORD’s provision or deliverance.[5] (Carter 2005, 402) It may seem paradoxical that suffering and salvation are joined together in an image, but this is after all a kingdom where those who ‘want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.’ (16:25 emphasis on life is intentional, see below) In the coming passion narrative the cup will feature in both the last supper (26:27-29) and a Gethsemane. (26:39-46) Ultimately Jesus, after asking if they are powerful enough to drink the cup he is to drink, partially grants their request in an odd way. James and John will share both the suffering and the life that is to come, but their ability to fill the spots to the left and right of Jesus in his kingdom are not his to grant. Matthew’s linkage of this scene with the crucifixion is also echoed by the placement of the bandits who are crucified with him, “one on his right and one on his left.”

The response of the remaining ten disciples to James and John is often translated as ‘angry’ or ‘indignant’ which are typically used to translate the Greek aganakteo, but I am going to risk using a more precise word ‘resentful.’ While indignant may be a word that expresses anger or annoyance at unfair treatment, I think it is a word that is outside most of our emotional vocabulary. I do think we need to work on teaching the skill of “labeling our emotions with a nuanced vocabulary.” (Brackett 2019, 19) and anger is a large emotion which covers many of what Marc Brackett describes as low pleasantness high energy emotions. Resentful is a word in English that most people understand that captures the anger or annoyance at unfair treatment that the older indignant represents. I also think that it is an understandable emotion in terms of the requested honor and partially favorable response that James and John have received. All of the disciples are still viewing Jesus’ message from within the worldview they inherited from their parents and the society around them, and even now Jesus continues to patiently reorient them to the very different values of the kingdom of heaven.

Jesus directly engages the worldview of the nations and their perceptions of greatness and contrasts them to the values of the kingdom of heaven. Instead of the values of the nations where the rulers lord it over their followers and the great ones exercise authority over (this doesn’t have the negative implication in modern English that tyrants does: the Greek is a conjunction of the prefix kata (according to) and ekousia (authority)) the great in the kingdom of heaven are servants and the first is a slave. Throughout this section the disciples have been told they need to be humble like a child placed in their midst (18:4) instead of a rich young man (19:16-30 a person who has every advantage in that society) who would need to give away his possessions to embrace the kingdom. Jesus embodies these values for his disciples and his serving instead of being served will be the model for them to emulate.

Early in my ministry I once caused a minor controversy in a class I was teaching when I stated that Mark (and Matthew) by extension did not have any atonement theology where Christ died for our sins to redeem us. Ultimately Matthew and Mark do not have any type of atonement theology like Anselm of Canterbury talks about in Cur Deus Homo (Why God Became Man one of the classic texts of medieval classic atonement theology) but here in 20:28 we do have the only introduction of the idea of ransom in Matthew (and its parallel in Mark). In the Hebrew scriptures the idea of ransom is often used in the context of freeing the people of Israel from their captivity under other nations (Exodus 6:6; Isaiah 43:1-7; 44:22) and while this may be connected with the sins of the people which led to their exile, this is not an individualistic salvation from one’s sins. Throughout Matthew, from the beginning when the angel of the Lord tells Joseph, “he will save his people from his sins” (1:21) I have written about this in terms of Jesus bringing about the end of the exile of the chosen people. Although Stanley Hauerwas comments on this passage are an interesting place to begin discussion:

Rather, he has ransomed us from the very temptations he resisted in the desert, to make possible our participation in the only politics that can save us. He has brought to an end our slavery to the politics based on fear of death, making it possible for us to be servants to one another and the world. (Hauerwas 2006, 179-180)

The temptation to define power in the ways of the nations of the world is to fall into the devilish temptation that Jesus avoided. Jesus’ kingdom does not involve the death and destruction of his enemies, but for those he has patiently worked upon to transform their values and worldview it is the beginning of a new way of understanding power. The great in the kingdom of heaven are the servants of the world, the first are slaves. Or in Martin Luther’s famous paradox from the Freedom of a Christian:

A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all (Luther 1989, 596)

What the Son of Man uses in ransom in his psuche which is normally translated elsewhere as ‘soul’ but as I discussed in 10:39 and 16: 25-26  in Hebrew thought the soul is not detachable from one’s life but is the very essence of it. There is no body/soul duality that would become engrained in later Christian vocabulary. To give up one’s psuche is to give up everything of oneself. Just as the disciples earlier could state they gave up everything in following Jesus while thinking of their possessions and relationships, now Jesus demonstrates a world where one’s entire being is placed completely in the service of God. As Paul could say in his letter to the Romans:

I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God. Romans 12: 1

[1] Matthew 16:21; 17:22-23 (17:12)

[2] See the fuller discussion in Matthew 14:22-33

[3] At least in terms of the rulers of the nations: think for example of how the words of King Ahasuerus throughout the book of Esther bound him or how King Darius in Daniel 7 is bound by his own ordinance. These stories would be a part of the worldview of both the mother and the sons in this story.

[4] Isaiah 51: 17; Jeremiah 25:15-38; Jeremiah 49:12; Ezekiel 23: 32-34; Habakkuk 2: 15-16; see also Psalm 75:8

[5] See particularly Psalm 16:5 and Psalm 116:3