Tag Archives: Matthew 21

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, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10957416

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, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:The_Two_Sons

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, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=21625760

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,

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