First Thoughts on Passages from Matthew in the Lectionary

Pentecost 15

William Loader

Pentecost 15: 25 September Matthew 21:23-32

The first part of this passage is based on Mark 11:27-33. The second part, 21:28-32, is found only in Matthew. Earlier in Matthew 21 Jesus had entered the city and then entered the temple where he drove out those who were buying and selling and overturned the tables of the money changers (21:12-13). Matthew has that all happen on the one day. Mark also has Jesus enter the temple on the first day (11:11), but the incident occurs the next day (11:15-19). Mark has Jesus curse the unfruitful fig tree on the way to entering the temple (11:12-14). Immediately following the account of the incident, he recounts the withering of the fig tree (11:20-26). The symbolism of judgement on the temple (ie. the temple leadership and system) because of its unfruitfulness could hardly be clearer. Mark is developing the theme that the Christian community is the new temple. This was not the path which Matthew wanted to follow. He undoes the way the cursing of the fig tree is a commentary on Jesus' action in the temple (21:12-13). Instead he recounts it separately and uses it to emphasise miraculous faith (21:18-22).

The confrontation with the chief priests and the elders over Jesus' authority (21:23-27) remains close to Mark's account. While in Matthew Jesus' behaviour towards the religious institutions and the Law, which undergirded them, is not as radical as it is in Mark, nevertheless there is a problem. What right did Jesus have to interfere with the way things were running? They are not the only religious leaders who 'get toey' about unauthorised interference!

It is not surprising that Jesus confronts them with the question of John's authority. John had been baptising people for the forgiveness of sins. Rituals for the forgiveness of sins were largely in the hands of the priests and the temple. That was one of its main functions. While there was technically nothing wrong with John's rather novel rite, in the eyes of those properly ordained to priestly tasks it amounted to something of a maverick enterprise. Very closely related is the controversy about Jesus' declaring God's forgiveness (see Mark 2:6-10). The issue would not have been blasphemy as Mark now suggests (2:7) but authority (so 2:9-10). Could someone like Jesus declare God's forgiveness, pronounce absolution? The answer was not that it was wrong, but it sailed close to the wind. Such 'charismatic' authority was outside the control of the order established by the Law, by Scripture. Power exercised in healing and exorcism was similarly a quandary if not a threat. It is altogether too easy for us to understand, who mainly belong to orders which claim a similar kind of permanent sanction and make it difficult for us sometimes to entertain alternatives. Both John and Jesus spoke of the Spirit. How do you balance such claims against the order received by inspired tradition?

Matthew would seem to have a clear answer on these issues. It is in terms of fruit, attitude and actions which cohere with Scripture when interpreted from the central themes of love and compassion. 'Anything goes' was not an option for Matthew, even when it is allegedly 'anything goes with the Spirit'. 7:21-23 makes that very clear. Matthew also has clear lines of authority and, as we have seen in recent weeks, is concerned that there is control and oversight in the community. But it is clear that Matthew refuses claims to authority based solely on status and succession. That is clear already in the words of John the Baptist about the claims to being children of Abraham. It is clear also in relation to Peter. Being called never means you cannot sink, as Peter well learned.

Having baffled the authorities by confronting them with the issue of John's authority, Jesus, in Mark, continues the defence by recounting the parable of the labourers in the vineyard who kill the owner's beloved Son (12:1-12). Matthew will also include this as part of the response of Jesus, but on either side of it he includes two new parables. Jesus' response now consists of three parables. The first speaks about people's response to John. It is the rest of today's reading (21:28-32). The second speaks of people's response to Jesus (21:33-46), as in Mark (12:1-12). The third speaks of people's response to the disciples and their mission (22:1-14). These latter will be the readings for the next two Sundays.

The first parable has a simple structure: 2 sons whose expression of willingness or unwillingness to work in the vineyard is reversed in practice. As in the next parable the vineyard is a standard image of Israel. The chief priest and elders are set in contrast to the prostitutes and tax collectors. The former engage in the rhetoric of obedience, but fail to do God's will. The latter disqualify themselves, but then turn to God. Note that all this is in response to the ministry of John the Baptist. For Matthew, of course, already John proclaimed the kingdom of God (3:2) in the same terms as Jesus (4:17) and the disciples (10:7). Indeed, as it says in 21:32, John came 'in the way of righteousness', another of Matthew's key terms, beside 'kingdom of God' (21:31). These are the terms that embrace the beatitudes (5:3,6,10).

Matthew has a way of cutting through the red tape and of by-passing the religious bureaucracy. There is no room for pretence or pretentiousness. The prostitutes and toll collectors, the lousy rich and the women they exploited, got the point, at least some of them. Is it because they allowed themselves to be vulnerable, to be moved, to let the word of compelling compassion address their deeper needs? Were the religious leaders so defensive in protecting their system - in the name of the people of God and the Scripture - that they suppressed their inner cries, stopped their ears? It is odd that we still find so many people inside the church who have a greater problem moving with compassion for change in society than many outside the church. They seem bent on protecting God.

Epistle: Pentecost 15: 25 September  Philippians 2:1-13

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