The New Testament in Review: Matthew 16 – 23
Welcome again to The New Testament In Review. I hope that you’ve been following along with previous posts in this series, and that you are enjoying what I’ve posted so far. If you haven’t had a chance to read my other entries, go ahead and do so now. We’ll wait for you to catch up. [grin]
Okay, are you up to speed? Good, because we are rolling into the second half of the Gospel of Matthew. And either Matthew’s writing has gotten better along the way, or I am getting more in tune with him. It’s probably that Matthew dedicates huge chunks of the following chapters to recording Jesus’s words. If you have a bible that prints Jesus’s words in red type, then most of your pages in these chapters are going to be blocks of red text with black text sprinkled here and there.
Oh, wait, I didn’t read ahead far enough. Jesus clarifies the situation: it is two separate events, and the Disciples memories suck: “Don’t you remember the five loaves for the 5,000 and how many baskets you collected, or the seven loaves for the 4,000?” (Matt 16:9-10)
Chapter 16 is one of those chapters where a lot happens. Jesus warns his disciples not to listen to the teachings of the Pharisees. He asks the disciples who others think he is (either the Baptist or one of the prophets reincarnated) and who they think he is (the son of god). He tells them that the Pharisees are going to torture him and kill him, but that he’ll rise from the dead on the third day. Jesus first tells Peter that Jesus will build his church on the truth that Peter has said, but then calls Peter “Satan.” Ayup, Jesus was definitely starting to feel the pressure by this point.
One interesting note: Jesus and the Disciples thought that judgement day would occur within a few decades. Jesus basically says so himself: “Truly I tell you, some people standing here will not experience death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.” (Matt 16:28) So either Jesus thought some of his Disciples were going to live for thousands of years, or he thought the day of his return would be within a lifetime.
Wow. The first part of Chapter 17 sounds a bit like a really lucid dream. Matthew dips deep into the supernatural world, telling the story of Elijah and Moses coming to talk with Jesus. It’s really trippy, especially since I don’t remember any walking-after-death elements from the stories of Elijah and Moses? Maybe I missed them… anyway, this LSD trip ends with God again saying that Jesus is his son, and Jesus is good. Oh, and apparently John the Baptist is Elijah reincarnated? I dunno…
Jesus then expels a demon that the disciples cannot (proving that Jesus is still the master and the disciples the students) and warns the disciples that Jesus is going to be betrayed and murdered. The disciples were saddened by this, and so immediately walked back to Capernaum (the city that is going to suffer a fate worse than Sodom’s). Apparently just so Jesus could have a fish spit out a coin, which Peter gave to the tax collector.
Don’t ask me, I dunno. This has gotta be either a lucid dream or a weird trip.
Here’s a discussion about who gets into heaven, and when to forgive your brother. The short answers: those who can become childlike, and 77 times. Oh, and forgive your brother, and anyone else who would do you harm. And act toward others as you would have others act towards you. Chapter 18 is kind of a mish mash, actually.
The chapter starts off with a discussion about divorce between the Pharisees, the disciples and Jesus. The jist of it is: Moses only allowed a decree of divorce because of the hardness of people’s hearts. Jesus points out scripture states that marriage creates one flesh, and that what God joined, man must not separate. Except in the case of adultery (“sexual immorality”). The disciples don’t like this very much, and ask who in their right minds would marry then? Jesus ends the discussion by saying that not everyone will accept this. And I wonder why Matthew couldn’t have found a less boring discussion for this part of his Gospel.
Jesus proceeds to list the commandments he thinks a person must follow: “don’t murder, don’t commit adultery, don’t steal, don’t give false testimony (lie), honor your parents and love your neighbor. (Matt 19:18-19) Which I guess means it’s okay to have other gods, make idols, take the Lord’s name in vain, and not keep the sabbath? (Jesus has proven that he doesn’t care a flip about the Sabbath, but for the others…)
Matthew 19 has to be the chapter that rich people wish weren’t in the Bible. The last section of chapter 19 is all about how hard it is for someone who is rich to get into heaven. It is not that being rich is necesarrily bad (which every wealthy person uses to give them hope through this chapter). It is that those who are rich tend to like money and wealth. And as stated in an earlier chapter, a man cannot serve two masters. Jesus knows this well, and warns “it is easier for a camel to squeeze through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to get into the kingdom of God.” (Matt 19:24)
More parables! I truly love Jesus’s parables. They are well told and make a lot of sense. It always surprises me when some Christian sects say that Jesus spoke in parables to hide the truth from his listeners. The parables are very clear, even without Christ explaining them. They are like Daoist meditation verses, meant to be dwelled on, not necessarily solved.
This chapter’s parable is one I don’t recall reading before: A landowner hires workers for his vineyard every three hours. Those hired first end up working a 10-hour day, those hired last end up with a one hour day. The landowner pays everyone the same wage at the end of the day, which annoys those hired first. They complain, but the landowner simply says “you and I agreed to this amount for the day’s work, and that is what you get. You don’t have any right to complain to me what I pay to others.”
Jesus again warns his disciples that he is about to be tortured, mocked and killed. The mother of two of his disciples asks that her kids be given special consideration. The other 10 aren’t happy about this, apparently either forgetting or ignoring the parable that Jesus just told them. Oy vey! Jesus mildly rebukes them: “That’s not the way it should be among you. Instead, whoever wants to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must be your slave.” (Matt 20:26)
By this point in his life, you can feel the anger and weariness that is torturing Jesus. His life is a a constant struggle between his followers who adore him and are constantly asking him for blessings and miracles, and the Pharisees and their followers whose hatred for Christ grows by the minute. How could Jesus not be bitter by now? All of this comes out in this chapter.
As these chapters progress, they get harder to read. Jesus’s life rapidly spiraled into hell the last year or so of his life, and these chapters recount that. It’s uncomfortable hearing that kind of story. Which is one of the reasons that the Bible is such an amazing literary work. It forces a reader down this path, whether the reader wants to go there or not.
Jesus’s descent and subsequent death is mostly the fault of the Pharisees. But both Jesus and Jesus’s followers played a part, too, as they continued to stir the fire underneath the Pharisees. By this point, Jesus’s followers are publicly pronouncing Jesus as one of the great prophets, and singing his praises (“Hosanna to the Son of David.”) From the Pharisees point of view, Jesus is stealing away their followers. There’s one thing that people in power don’t like, and that is to lose power. The Pharisees could see their power slipping away as more people turned towards Christ’s teachings.
Christ helped this process along as he openly challenged the Pharisees, and plainly told everyone who would listen that the Pharisees were hypocrites who had no claim to power. There is an interesting power play in Matt 21:23-27. The Pharisees ask Jesus where his authority comes from. Jesus says “I’ll tell you if you answer one question: where did John the Baptist’s authority to baptize people come from, heaven or humans?” The Pharisees wanted to avoid being trapped, so they said “We don’t know.” To which Christ mockingly replies, “Then I won’t tell you by what authority I am doing these things.” Double BURN!!!!
Christ decides he isn’t through provoking and humiliating the Pharisees, though. This time, he decides to do so in parable. First, the parable of the landowner who builds a vineyard and turns the vineyards care over to farmers. When the land owner prepares to return, he sends his servants to check on the status of the vineyard. The farmers wanted to keep the riches of the vineyard, however, so they killed the servants. The landowner finally sent his son, and the farmers killed the son, too. Jesus asked the Pharisees what they thought the landowner would do to the farmers?” The Pharisees were wise enough to realize that Jesus was out-and-out threatening them with divine retribution!
Jesus is on a roll with bitter parables, so he continues with another. This one regards a king who is giving a wedding banquet. His invited guests all refuse to come, some actually killing the servants sent to fetch the guests. Maybe they were turned off by the idea of having ox for dinner? Anyway, the king says “to hell with this” and sends his army out to slaugher the murderers. And to destroy their city. (I tell ya, Christ was very bitter by the time he tells this parable.) The king then has his servants go and round up people from the highway to join him for the wedding banquet. Everyone accepts – who could say no to roast ox? But one of the men is not wearing appropriate clothing, so the king has his servants tie the mans hands and feet and throw the man out into the darkness.
Any doubt as to who Christ was talking about in this parable? Didn’t think so.
The Pharisees finally decide that, if Christ is goin to mock them openly, they’ll start trying to trap him openly. First they try to trick him into saying people don’t need to pay taxes to the Romans. Jesus flicks this aside with the famous “give back to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” (I actually really, really like that line, from Matt 22:21.)
Next up are the Sadducees, who make the mistake of trying to go toe-to-toe about scripture with Jesus. It’s like Forrest Gump trying to outsmart Will Hunting. The Sadducees want to know in heaven which of 7 dead brothers would be married to their shared wife. Christ answers that in heaven people are not married, nor given in marriage, but are like angels. And then Christ decides to do a little more teaching, this time in regards to resurrection. On this point, I actually agree with the Sadducees, but that is totally besides the point.
The Pharisees try to trip him up with commandments, but Jesus also avoids that trap, stating that the law and the prophets depend on two commandments: love the lord your god with all your heart, and love your neighbor as yourself.
“How terrible it will be for you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites!” This is Christ’s mantra throughout chapter 23. It cements the Pharisees hatred of Christ, and pretty much signs Christ’s death sentence. But at this point, Jesus doesn’t care. Chapter 23 is a rant, plain and simple, against the Pharisees.
Christ repeats the “How terrible it will be” mantra seven times, laying a different charge with each repetition. Closing the door to heaven in people’s faces, corrupting converts, swearing oaths to money, neglecting justice, mercy and faithfulness, being full of greed and self-indulgence, being lawless hypocrites, being descendants of those who murdered ancient prophets.
Needless to say, the rest of the Gospel of Matthew is not going to be a fun read. The battle lines are clearly drawn here: Christ and the Pharisees are mortal enemies by this point, and the battle looms.
New installments of The New Testament In Review will be posted each Monday and Thursday. The new posts will always be on my blog, http://biffster.org. The entire series is accessible via http://biffster.org/ntir. If you are one of my Facebook friends, you can get an advance preview on my Facebook page. You can also follow me (@biffster) on Twitter to be alerted to new posts.