Monday, October 03, 2011

Matthew 21:23–46

Matthew 21:23–46 (ESV): Jesus speaks to the religious leaders

Synopsis

For this passage I’m departing from my usual method of going by the ESV headings and lumping a few headings together, since this is all part of one discussion between Jesus and the Jewish religious leaders.

In the first passage, verses 23–27 (ESV), Jesus reenters the temple, but this time the chief priests and elders aren’t just going to sit idly by while Jesus starts causing chaos again. They confront him, and ask him by whose authority he’s doing the things he’s doing. But Jesus tells them that he’ll answer their question only if they can answer one of his: where did the baptism of John (the Baptist) come from? From heaven or from men? This puts the religious leaders in a quandary; if they say it came from heaven then Jesus will ask them why they didn’t believe in him, but they’re also afraid of the crowd—who believes that John was a prophet—so they’re afraid to say that his baptism came from men. So they tell Jesus that they don’t know, and likewise he tells them that he won’t tell them where his authority comes from.

But Jesus doesn’t let the conversation rest there, he pushes it further. He gives them a metaphor about a man with two sons: the man tells each to go and work in his vineyard; the first says no, but then ends up going and working there anyway, while the second agrees to go and do the work, but doesn’t. Jesus then asks the religious leaders: which of the sons did the father’s will? They correctly answer that the first son did, and Jesus tells them that this is why the prostitutes and tax collectors are going to enter heaven before they will—John the Baptist came “in the way of righteousness” (verse 32 (ESV)) but the religious leaders didn’t believe him, while the prostitutes and tax collectors did. And then, even when the religious leaders saw this, they still didn’t believe John.

Jesus then takes the conversation even further, with a parable about a man who owns a vineyard and rents it out to tenants (a practice which the ESV Study Bible notes indicate was very common at the time). When the time comes for him to collect from his tenants he sends some servants to do so, but the tenants beat and kill and stone the servants. So the man sends even more servants, and the tenants do the same. So he finally sends his son, thinking that they’ll at least respect him, but instead the tenants decide to kill the son, and take his inheritance, which they do. Jesus then asks the religious leaders, to whom he’s speaking, what they think the landowner will do when he comes himself, and they answer him:

They said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death and let out the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the fruits in their seasons.” (verse 41 (ESV))
Jesus doesn’t even bother to acknowledge their answer as being right or wrong, he pushes the argument forward:

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 marvelous in our eyes’?”

(verse 42 (ESV), quoting Psalm 118:22–23 (ESV))

Jesus continues to say that therefore the kingdom of God will be taken away from the religious leaders and given to “a people producing its fruits” (verse 43 (ESV)), and that anyone falling on the stone will be “broken to pieces,” and anyone the stone falls on will be “crushed” (verse 44 (ESV)).

Of course the religious leaders aren’t stupid, and they realize that Jesus is talking about them, so they would like to arrest him, but the crowds still believe that he is a prophet, so they (the religious leaders) don’t know how to proceed, for fear of the crowds.

Thoughts

For the first section, it’s fairly obvious that the religious leaders don’t believe John’s baptism came from heaven, but they couldn’t say so for fear of the crowd. I guess they assumed the crowd would riot, because other than that they don’t seem to care what the crowd thinks.

But when they ask Jesus where his authority comes from, it’s more than just a test of some kind; they’re looking for a reason to accuse him of blasphemy. If Jesus goes too far over the line into claiming that his powers or his authority come from God, then they will have reason to accuse him of blasphemy—which is quite obviously ironic, in hindsight, since Jesus was the only human who ever lived who could make such claims and not be blaspheming.

The “Parable of the Two Sons” (I’m simply calling it a “metaphor” above, based on the way Jesus is using it in the conversation) nicely illustrates the problem of the religious leaders: They know what to say, but their actions don’t follow. Verbally, the first son in the metaphor disobeys his father while his second son obeys, but in their actions—which is what really matters—the first son doesn’t actually obey, but the second son, despite his words, does. Taken another way, at first glance the first son seemed to be obedient while the second son didn’t—just like the religious leaders of Jesus’ day seemed to be doing God’s will while the prostitutes and tax collectors didn’t—but when it came to actually following through, appearances didn’t matter, it was actions. We can say we follow God all we want, we can say we’re Christians all we want, but if we aren’t living it out then we’re liars and the truth is not in us (see, for example, 1 John 2:1–6 (ESV)).

If there’s anyone who follows this blog regularly then you’ve probably heard over and over again—either explicitly or implicitly—that the Scriptures teach that we’re not saved by our actions. If there was anything we could do ourselves—if we could earn our salvation through our own righteousness—then Jesus wouldn’t have needed to come to the earth and die on our behalf. Salvation is in Christ alone, and the credit is due to Him alone. (See, for example, Ephesians 2:1–10 (ESV).) However, the Scriptures don’t stop there: They also teach that if you are saved, your life will be changed, and you will become more Godly. Not all at once, and it won’t be a straight line—there will be steps forward and steps backward—but over time, your life will become more and more Godly. If there were prostitutes and tax collectors who claimed to believe John’s message but their lives didn’t change, or there was no evidence for it besides their words, they wouldn’t be part of the group that Jesus is praising in this passage. But the ones who did would be directly calling into question the Jewish religious leaders of the day. The ones who studied the law, and should have known how impressive it was for prostitutes and tax collectors—the lowest of the low, when it came to sinners; people had just as big of hangups about prostitutes then as they do now—and yet didn’t believe, despite their advantages in religious study.

For the final parable, when Jesus is talking about the “landowner” sending “servants” who are mistreated, the obvious inference to draw is that he’s alluding to God sending His prophets to Israel over the centuries, and how they were treated by the Israelites. And obviously when he refers to the landowner sending his “son” it’s not much of a tax on the brain to realize that he’s referring to himself. In the context of this parable, however, I find the tenants’ decision to kill the son interesting: How did they expect to receive the son’s inheritance by killing him?!? That’s not how inheritances work! It’s not like the landowner would see that they’d killed his son and then decide to change his will to leave everything to the tenants! But that brings up the same question about the religious leaders of Jesus’ day: Jesus is making the point in this passage that they should have believed in him; they had all the information, they had all of the religious background, they should have seen what was happening in front of their noses. So… what did they expect to gain by killing Jesus? When I look at it from the point of view of them not really understanding that He is who He is, thinking that he was a false prophet, things make a lot of sense; if they did know who He is, then what did they expect to gain by killing him?

This is probably a pretty common piece of knowledge, but just in case it’s not, when Jesus talks about a cornerstone, he’s talking about the core, central stone that’s built into a building’s structure. Wikipedia defines it nicely: “The cornerstone (or foundation stone) concept is derived from the first stone set in the construction of a masonry foundation, important since all other stones will be set in reference to this stone, thus determining the position of the entire structure.” So now look at Jesus’ quotation of Psalm 118 in that light: The “stone” (Jesus) that the “builders” (the Jewish religious leaders) rejected has become the cornerstone—they rejected Jesus, and God made Him the foundation of Christianity, and our relationship with God is built on Jesus and His work. And, needless to say, it is marvelous in our eyes!
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