Monthly Archives: October 2020

Matthew 22: 1-14 The Call of the King

By Bernardo Strozzi – Own work, Daderot, 2013-09-25 11:42:46, CC0,

Matthew 22: 1-14

Parallel Luke 14: 15-24

Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying: 2 “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. 3 He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. 4 Again he sent other slaves, saying, ‘Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.’ 5 But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, 6 while the rest seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them. 7 The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. 8 Then he said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. 9 Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’ 10 Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests.

11 “But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, 12 and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ And he was speechless. 13 Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ 14 For many are called, but few are chosen.”

This final parable continues to be challenging for many modern readers of Matthew who struggle with the wrathful king’s judgment on both those who reject their calling and on the improperly attired guest. Many scholars who view the versions of this parable in Matthew and Luke coming from a common source argue that Luke’s easier to reconcile version is closer to the parable that Jesus originally told as a way of distancing themselves from the portions of the parable which make them uncomfortable. Yet, Matthew’s version uses several prophetic motifs which are probably unfamiliar to many modern readers of the New Testament which are worth slowing down to engage and hear. Perhaps Matthew has something to teach our communities about the way we attempt to eliminate God’s judgment because it is uncomfortable for people living in peaceful, affluent communities very different from either Jesus or Matthew’s time.

Matthew groups parables together in a way that they build upon one another in a group of three. In hearing this parable, it is important to place it alongside the previous two vineyard parables (two sons and wicked stewards) as Jesus uses a new image, that of a wedding banquet. While there are images in Israel of people being invited to a great feast prepared by God for people, perhaps the best known coming in Isaiah 25: 6

On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged-wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged-wines strained clear.

Yet, the idea that this feast is a wedding celebration is unique to Matthew and there is not an echo of God throwing a wedding banquet that I am aware of in either the Hebrew Scriptures or the Apocrypha. Yet, Matthew has used this image previously in 9:15 with Jesus referring to his disciples’ conduct during his presence among them:

And Jesus said to them, “The wedding guests cannot mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them, can they? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will mourn.”

This image of a wedding celebration will also link this parable to the first parable in the next and final set of parables in 25: 1-13. The parable links both images of the feast of rich foods prepared by God for all people and with the identity of Jesus as the bridegroom and son of the king in Matthew.

Yet, the story turns upon the rejection of the call of those who are called. The Greek work kaleo (to call) occurs frequently throughout this narrative as the king sends his slaves to call the ones ‘having been called.’ In our culture we think of invitations as optional, but these who have been called to appear by the king and snub that call by extension reject the authority of the king to summon them. As Warren Carter notes, “Refusing the king’s invitation is tantamount to rebellion.” (Carter 2001, 434)  This is heightened by the action of those who seize, mistreat, and kill the slaves sent[1] who like the vineyard workers in the previous parable invite, and in the answer of the hearers of the previous parable require the ‘housemaster’ and now the king to “put those wretches to a miserable death.” (21:41)

The wrath[2] of the king is perhaps difficult to many modern readers who are used to thinking about God as unemotional or immovable, but these modern conceptions of God are based more on Greek philosophical ideals rather than the God of the scriptures. A God who sends his loyal slaves over and over with the hope of a harvest or the invitation to the celebration of the wedding of his Son, only to see these slaves mistreated and killed is compelled to act on behalf of the slaves. If, as most interpreters assume, Matthew is using this parable as an explanation of the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple by Rome in 70 CE (destroyed those murders and burned their city) they seem unable to reconcile this God who invites with the God who destroys. Yet, perhaps this says more about our unwillingness to stand under God’s judgment or our desire to take judgment into our own hands. That God’s troops would include the Roman legions which destroyed Jerusalem, who like Babylon and Persia previously had served God’s purposes without knowing it, should not surprise, nor should the experience of  God’s people receiving judgment for being unwilling to respond to God’s continued call.

I am not a fire and brimstone preacher, as a Lutheran pastor I’d rather focus on the grace of God, but I’ve also come to understand that the wrath of God or anger of God is not the opposite of God’s grace. God is angry because God care: God cares about the slave sent to carry the message, God cares about the wedding banquet which they have been invited to, and, although it may seem strange to modern ears, God does care about the called ones. The God of Israel may be patient and slow to anger, but this God will not be taken for granted. God continues to desire repentance and is willing to continue to send those precious to God to seek a change, but eventually God’s patience becomes too costly for those who carry God’s message, and like the saints under the altar in Revelation 6: 9-11 they cry out,“Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long will it be before you judge and avenge our blood on the inhabitants of the earth.

That Jesus, and Matthew, understand God at work in the movement of the nations is a part of the bold claim of the faith of Israel that their God is not only their God, but the creator of the world and the Lord over all nations. This may be challenging for modern believers who have separated the spiritual world from the political world and who may be slightly embarrassed to suggest that God can be at work in the world in strange and mysterious ways, but that also highlights the way culture has changed our faith. The early followers of Jesus could trust that God’s kingdom would come into the world, that God’s will would be done on earth just as they assumed it was done in heaven. This is faith was an openness to perceive the ways that God was at work in the world, an awareness of the time they found themselves within with the bridegroom, and a trust that while God will is ultimately good for them, for the people of God and for all the nations, God the creator of the world should neither be tamed or domesticated into a household god that served the desires of those who called upon the name of the Lord.

There is a common strand with this parable and wisdom literature where the character of wisdom is not heeded:

Because I have called and you refused, have stretched out my hand and no one heeded, and because you ignored my counsel and would have none of my reproof, I also will laugh at your calamity; I will mock when panic strikes you, when panic strikes you like a storm, and you calamity comes like a whirlwind, when distress and anguish come upon you. Then they will call upon me, but I will not answer; they will seek me, but will not find me. Proverbs 1: 24-28 (see also Proverbs 8:35-36 and Jeremiah 6:16-17)

There is an call from their God (or from Wisdom on behalf of God) which is refused, and although the call is extended with the hope that the called ones will finally turn (or repent) the continued reality of rejection is not met with indifference by God. Yet, this rejection can also be used in strange ways to extend the invitation to others. In the parable now the slaves are sent to the crossroads or the roads leading out of town to gather everyone to the banquet, both good and bad, filling the wedding celebration with guests. Just as the tax collectors and prostitutes heard John the Baptist’s message and turned even though the Pharisees and Sadducees did not (21:31) now those on the streets find themselves in the wedding hall.

The final scene of this parable, unique to Matthew, with the guest not wearing the proper attire has also caused distress for many readers for the same reason as the earlier judgment, and again many scholars want to view this as an addition to the original parable of Jesus, but before we pass judgment on it, perhaps we should hear it out. Just as the rejection by the ones called to the banquet was tantamount to rebellion, so is being present in a way that is disrespectful to the host. We often assume referring to someone as ‘friend’ assumes intimacy, but in Matthew’s gospel, and in ancient cultures, it can imply a power differential or distance between the speaker and hearer. (20:13, 26:50) The fact that one is invited later does not give one permission not to heed counsel or ignore reproof, and as Matthew’s gospel has focused on building a community of Christ where the actions of the individuals in the community matter, just as the original invitees can find themselves encountering their king’s wrath, so can the newly invited.

One final word, Matthew’s gospel paradoxically is viewed both as the most Jewish and the most hostile to the Jewish people, since these parables and many other things we will encounter in these final chapters have often been read in a supersessionist way by Christians.  I will continue to address this as we move through these final chapters, but it is important to note that in this parable those invited are still a part of the king’s original people, not from new nations, and throughout these parables what are sought are more responsive sons, tenants, and subjects, not a new people. Much of Jesus’ conflicts will be with the chief priests, the scribes, the elders, the Sadducees and the Pharisees and not with the people as a whole, and Jesus’ life from the beginning of Matthew is to, “save his people from their sins.” (1:21) That Jesus, like the prophets (or in the parables slaves), who went before him challenges the leaders of the people is a part of the reason the people are able to see him as a prophet, and like the prophets his calls often fall upon ears that cannot hear. Yet, I think Matthew would echo Paul when he says to Gentile Christians who came to be a part of the community of Christ:

But if some branches were broken off, and you, a wild olive shoot, were grafted in their place to share the rich root of the olive tree, do not boast over the branches. If you do boast, remember that it is not you that support the root, but the root that supports you. You will say, “Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.” That is true. They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand only through faith. So do not become proud, but stand in awe. For if God did not spare the natural branches, perhaps he will not spare you. Romans 11: 17-21

[1] The word for sent is the verb apostello where we get our English apostle (sent ones).

[2] This is the Greek orgizo, which is the verbal form of orge, which often is used to refer to the wrath of God in judgment against God’s people (for example in Exodus) or upon those in continued rebellion in Revelation.

Matthew 21:33-46 The Parable of the Wicked Tenants

By James Tissot – Online Collection of Brooklyn Museum; Photo: Brooklyn Museum, 2007, 00.159.139_PS2.jpg, Public Domain,

Matthew 21: 33-46

Parallel Mark 12: 1-12; Luke 20: 9-19

33 “Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. 34 When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. 35 But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. 36 Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. 37 Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ 38 But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.’ 39 So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. 40 Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” 41 They said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.”

42 Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the scriptures: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone;this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes’?

43 Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom. 44 The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.”

45 When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. 46 They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.

The imagery of the vineyard in this and the preceding parable, combined with the fig tree in the prophetic sign prior to the parables and the great banquet in the closing parable of this trilogy all work together in ways that reinforce Jesus’ answer to the chief priests and the elders. Even if the hearers of the previous parable did not catch the imagery of the vineyard representing Israel, now Matthew (and Mark beforehand) include the references of digging a wine press in it and building a watchtower which show that Isaiah 5 provides the imagery for this parable:

Let me sing for my beloved my love-song concerning his vineyard: My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill. He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines; he built a watchtower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it; he expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes. Isaiah 5: 1-2

Yet, even as the imagery of Isaiah 5 is used, some important transformations are made which recast the imagery into a new image to fit the context of Jesus’ interactions with the chief priests and elders in the temple. Into the midst of the space between the beloved (the LORD of hosts in Isaiah) and the vineyard (Israel in Isaiah) the parable introduces workers responsible for the care of the vineyard of the ‘house master.’[1] Many modern commentators have missed the point of this parable by assuming the that the ‘housemaster’ is neglectful of the vineyard, and this is not helped by the NRSV and other translations adding ‘to another country’ which is not in the Greek. The ‘housemaster’ merely departed on a journey after hiring workers to care for the vineyard during the time the ‘housemaster’ is away.[2] The imagery in this parable, pulled from Isaiah, explicitly links the vineyard as Israel and God as the master of the vineyard (Isaiah 5:7), and even though in the Hebrew Scriptures the LORD is the God of Israel, the LORD is not only the God of Israel but the God of the entire earth and who watches over the Gentiles (the nations) as well. The people of Israel’s relationship with the land is contingent upon their relationship with their God, and they are reminded:

the land shall not be sold in perpetuity; for the land is mine; with me you are but aliens and tenants. Leviticus 3:23

While the people of Israel are ‘aliens and tenants’ on land that is owned by God, here Israel is also the vineyards and the ‘tenants’ or ‘vinedressers’ are the leaders. Jesus stands in a long prophetic line of criticizing the leaders of Israel (both political and religious) who have led the people away from the way of the LORD. One example of this is both Jeremiah 50: 6-7 and Ezekiel 34 criticizing the ‘shepherds’ who have led the sheep astray. The language that Jesus is using is understood by the chief priests, elders, Pharisees as well as the crowds who are present with him in the temple. The slaves of the ‘house master’ who come to collect the fruit in this parable and who invite to the banquet in the following parable are the prophets and messengers of God who have come to Israel and have often been abused or killed. Jesus tells this parable in Jerusalem, a city whose leaders have often not heeded the prophets when they came. The parables follow the question of the chief priests and the elders about the authority of Jesus to do these things, and now, in parable form, the answer is presented by his identification with the son of the ‘house master’ who the ‘house master’ believes the tenants will respect but whom they see as a hindrance to their continued control and possession of the fruit of the vineyard. The ‘house master’ has shown incredible forbearance with these recalcitrant tenants who have abused and killed his servants, but with the death of the son outside the vineyard the response of the ‘housemaster’ is given not by Jesus but by those he is speaking to.

Irony is at work in the scene as these religious leaders call for the condemnation of the ‘tenants’ speaking their own condemnation, much like the scene where king David condemns the man in the prophet Nathan’s telling only to be told, “You are the man!” (2 Sam. 12:1-15) Yet, for David there was repentance and mourning after his condemnation but for these leaders their desire is to remove this pesky prophet. Instead of being righteous who are “like trees planted by streams of water, who yield their fruit in its season”(Psalm 1:3) they find themselves in the place of the wicked who “will not stand in the judgment,”(Psalm 1:5) Throughout scriptures the desire of God is for repentance, just like the ‘house master’ who continues to send slaves for the harvest even when they have been met with hostility in the past. Just as the religious leaders were unable to acknowledge God’s work in the ministry of John the Baptist, they remain unable to acknowledge their positions as ‘tenants’ before the son.

Jesus’ quotation of Psalm 118:22 changes the metaphor from tenants and slaves/sons/’housemaster’ to builders and cornerstones, but the central point remains the same. The leaders are charged with rejecting that which is central, and while they have been a stumbling block preventing others from recognizing the kingdom of heaven’s work in their midst, now they will stumble over this stone they rejected. The chief priests and the Pharisees, now introduced to the Jerusalem narrative, perceive that they are the targets of these words, but they are constrained by fear of the crowds who have gathered around Jesus.

Although this has often been used to support a reading where Israel is bypassed for the Gentiles, that is not the intent of Matthew. In the parable it is not Israel, the vineyard, who is replaced, but rather the leaders, the tenants. While, ironically, they can realize they are the focus of Jesus’ parables, they also speak their own judgment. If, like most scholars believe, that Matthew is written after the war with Rome in 66-73 CE it is apparent that Matthew understands the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple by Rome in 70 as a part of God’s judgment on these leaders who have not produced the fruits of the vineyard. But the ‘house master’ is seeking better sons to work in the vineyard, better tenants to produce the fruits at the appointed time, and as we will soon see in the final parable those who respond to the summons to the long awaited great banquet.

[1] This is the Greek oikodespotes which links this passage with the parable in 20:1-16 and Matthew is the only gospel which titles the owner of the vineyard as a ‘house master.’ See the fuller discussion of oikodespotes in my comments on Matthew 20:1-16

[2] The Greek apedemesen is depart on a journey, the addition of to another country attempts to harmonize this telling with Luke’s version of the story, but the departure for another country is not there in the Greek in Matthew and Mark.

Matthew 21: 23-32 Authority and the Parable of the Two Sons

A.N. Mironav, Parable of the Two Sons, CC by SA 4.0,

Matthew 21: 23-32

Mark 11: 27-33, Luke 20: 1-8

23 When he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” 24 Jesus said to them, “I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. 25 Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” And they argued with one another, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ 26 But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.” 27 So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.

28 “What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ 29 He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. 30 The fatherwent to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. 31 Which of the two didthe will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. 32 For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.

Jesus re-enters the temple after the night in Bethany. He has already upended, at least temporarily, the business of the temple and once again his presence brings conflict with the religious leaders in the temple. Throughout Jesus’ ministry he has evoked conflict with the religious leaders in the area he works, primarily with the Pharisees in Galilee and now with the religious elite of Jerusalem. Like the prophets who clashed with religious authorities before Jesus, it is helpful to remember that Jesus’ words, actions, and presence is unsettling to those with religious and political authority in his world. As Richard B. Hays can state:

Jesus’ message was controversial and threatening to the established institutions of religious and political power in his society: the message carried with it a fundamental transvaluation of values, an exalting of the humble and a critique of the mighty. The theme of reversal seems to have been pervasive in his thought. (Hays 1996, 163)

This conflict which opens a series of parables about reversal is a conflict between two perspectives on faithfulness. The chief priests and the elders represent the voice of the established order of the temple and in a reductionist way the priestly voice speaks to orthodoxy (right prayer/worship)[1] while Jesus, John, and the prophets have generally focused on orthopraxis (right actions). The authority of the chief priests and the elder comes from their position in the temple, but they do not have faith which allows them to see how God is at work in the things Jesus does and says.

The prophets and the psalms frequently criticize the people who continue to worship God in the temple but who fail to live in accordance with the covenant. Both John and Jesus have, in their own way, attempted to call the people into the ways of righteousness and have been resisted by the religious and political leaders in their proclamation and work. Jesus is now doing this work in the temple, and the chief priests and the elders say to him, “by what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” Jesus is doing the work, which included healing and teaching as well as the work of driving out the moneychangers, and especially with works like healing the authority must come from somewhere. The primary question is not whether Jesus has the authority to do what he is visibly doing, but where the authority is coming from. Previously Jesus was accused by the Pharisees of deriving power from Beelzebul (12:22-32), and while Warren Carter is correct that “the question is not about his identity but whether they will recognize it.” (Carter 2005, 423) Yet, from Matthew’s perspective the issue is not the ability of the chief priests and the scribes to acknowledge Jesus’ authority as proper but rather will the chief priests and elders have faith to recognize the works, the baptism of John, and John (and Jesus’) way of righteousness coming from heaven.

Politicians are famous for not answering the question that is asked, but I do not believe that is what Jesus is doing here. This scene sets up three interlocking parables, but Jesus’ question helps the reader (and has the potential to help the religious leaders) understand the first question better. Matthew links the language of Jesus and John the Baptist throughout the gospel[2] and so a question about the things John does gives the answer to the authority for the things Jesus does. If the authority of John is from heaven, the works that Jesus does are authorized by heaven, but if one cannot see the baptism of John and the transformation it brought into the lives of those who came to John as an action of the kingdom of God then one will not have the faith to understand how God is at work in the things Jesus does. Throughout this passage what the NRSV renders ‘believe’ is ‘have faith’[3] but even though Jesus does not directly answer their question, the first short parable gives them the answer.

Entering this and the following parable, it is helpful to understand that just like the fig tree the vineyard is a representation of Israel. Probably the most familiar reference to Israel being the vineyard of the Lord is Isaiah 5 where the LORD does everything possible for a vineyard to be fruitful, but it only bears wild grapes:

For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting; he expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness but heard a cry. Isaiah 5:7

It is important to note that in these parables of Jesus the vineyard is not destroyed, instead better sons (in this parable) and faithful stewards (in the following) parable are sought to work in the vineyard. It is not Israel that is the primary problem but the leaders who resist the will of the father. In this parable the father goes to the first son who states “I do not will/desire to go[4] but this son repents[5] and does the work of the father. The second son in contrast declares “I am, lord” but does not go. The inclusion for the second son of lord (Greek kurios) which can mean ‘sir’ but missing that this means ‘lord’ misses the connection with Matthew 7:21:

Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.

The one who repents and goes into the vineyard does the will of their father, just like the sinners that observed John’s coming in the way of righteousness and had faith in him by repenting and changing their life did the will of God and enter into the kingdom of God. The religious leaders have seen the change in others but have resisted both John and Jesus and could not see God’s kingdom at work in the things they do.

[1] Orthodoxy is normally understood as correct beliefs, but the word itself means ‘right praise/prayer.’ The high priests and the elders are primarily concerned (as they are portrayed) focusing on the proper operation of the temple in its worship of God.

[2] Compare John’s message in 3:1-12 with Jesus in 4:17 and 10:7

[3] This may seem like semantics, but faith in Matthew’s gospel is an openness to where God is at work in the things Jesus (and John) are doing. For more on this see my discussion on Faith in Matthew’s gospel.

[4] The Greek thelo is the act of willing or desiring, so the action is not merely declining but stating it is not the desire of the son to do what the father asked.

[5] Greek metamelomai which means regret or repent.

Matthew 21: 18-22 The Fig Tree and the Mountain

By Maahmaah – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Matthew 21: 18-22

Parallel Mark 11: 12-14, 20-26

18 In the morning, when he returned to the city, he was hungry. 19 And seeing a fig tree by the side of the road, he went to it and found nothing at all on it but leaves. Then he said to it, “May no fruit ever come from you again!” And the fig tree withered at once. 20 When the disciples saw it, they were amazed, saying, “How did the fig tree wither at once?” 21 Jesus answered them, “Truly I tell you, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only will you do what has been done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be lifted up and thrown into the sea,’ it will be done. 22 Whatever you ask for in prayer with faith, you will receive.”

The symbolism in this scene is so rich, and perhaps the disciples miss the mountain for the fig tree but so have most modern readers. Although this can be simply read as a story about the power of faith, a reader immersed in the language of scripture and who has some awareness of location in the narrative will see how Matthew (and Mark beforehand) is tapping into a rich prophetic language of the conflict between the religious leaders of the temple and the prophets declaring God’s judgment on the temple. Perhaps a fig tree is simply a fig tree and a mountain merely a mountain in the narrative but with Matthew’s (and Mark’s) careful use of the language of scripture this is unlikely.

The fig tree is one of the central images for Israel. It can be used as an image of what prosperity in Israel looks like when Israel is faithful to God:

For the LORD your God is bringing you into a good land, a land with flowing streams, with springs and underground waters welling up in valleys and hills, a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees. Deuteronomy 8:7-8[1]

But figs and fig trees are also frequently used by the prophets as images that reflect judgment:

Woe is me! For I have become like one who, after the summer fruit has been gathered, after the vintage has been gleaned, finds no cluster to eat; the is no first ripe fig for which I hunger. The faithful have disappeared from the land, and the is no one left who is upright; Micah 7: 1-2a

When I wanted to gather them, says the LORD, there are no grapes on the vine, nor figs on the fig tree; even the leaves are withered, and what I gave them has passed away from them. Jeremiah 8:13[2]

Fig trees typically are harvested in June for early figs and in fall for mature figs. Although the Passover (in March/April) would be early for figs, the green figs which will develop will be on the tree. Yet, the symbolism of the fruitless tree, a tree which is an important image in Israel,which is cursed and withers is more than just Jesus reacting in hunger. This is a symbolic prophetic act, especially sandwiched between two times when Jesus enters the temple. The language of this action is also tied to the upcoming parable of the vineyard where the tenant refuse to provide the ‘fruits at the appointed time.’ It is possible that the disciples miss the significance of this action and are caught in the wonder of how Jesus did this action, but Matthew (and Mark beforehand) have crafted their narratives in ways that show that they understand this action as a, “symbolic act of one coming to judge those who do not bear fruit.” (Case-Winters 2015, 253)

Matthew places Jesus and the temple in conflict. The conflict between Jesus and the authorities in the temple as well as the talk of the coming destruction of the temple (and Jerusalem) will consume much of the next four chapters. Jesus stands in a long prophetic tradition which condemns the way the temple and its worship has displaced the covenant life desired by the God of Israel. It is also significant to understand the location that Jesus is speaking from, the mountain he is moving towards is the temple mount and when Jesus says “even if you say to this mountain” it is not a generic mountain.

Faith in Matthew is an openness to what God is doing, and for Matthew and his community they expect God to be at work in the world bringing about the kingdom of heaven. A recurring theme in the next chapters will be the resistance, or lack of faith, among the religious leaders in Jerusalem. While Matthew views the destruction of the temple and Jerusalem by Rome as a judgment from God, much as Jeremiah would view Babylon’s destruction of temple and the city in his time, he also sees in this the beginning of God doing something new. Although I will note it frequently in the coming chapters, it is worth saying up front that Jesus’ primary conflict is with the leaders and not with the Jewish people. Matthew’s community is trying to figure out how to make sense of a radically transformed world where Jerusalem and the temple are no longer present and where they are trying to live faithful lives among the nations. Too often the texts that come at the end of Matthew have been used to justify the persecution or exclusion of the Jewish people, but Matthew, being the most Jewish of the gospels, calls for a much closer reading in light of the law, prophets and the psalms. That Jesus stands with a long line of Hebrew prophets who have condemned the actions of the temple and who call the people to a different vision of embodying the covenant should not be surprising, the crowds all seem to understand Jesus as a prophet. It also shouldn’t be surprising that Matthew’s community, living in the aftermath of the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple as most scholars believe, would remember words and actions of Jesus that help them understand the destruction of temple and city. The followers of Jesus will need faith to understand how they can move beyond the temple and Jerusalem to find their identity in the community of Christ. Faith may move mountains, but it also helps the disciples understand how to live their life once mountains have been moved.

[1] see also Numbers 20:15, 1 Maccabees 14:12 as well as 1 Kings 4:25, Micah 4:4 and Zechariah 3:10 which I mentioned when discussing Matthew 20: 1-16

[2] See also Isaiah 34:4;Jeremiah 24: 1-10, 29: 17; Hosea 2:12, 9:10; Joel 1:7,