This week we’re covering a lot of ground in Matthew’s gospel. It will help us to keep three things in mind as we read this week. First, Jesus continues preaching about the kingdom of heaven and how it will grow even in the face of resistance. Second, Jesus is focused on teaching and training his disciples – especially during their interactions with the crowds and the Jewish leaders. Third, the conflicts and questions surrounding Jesus are designed to lead readers toward the cross and resurrection in Jerusalem. On the way, Jesus is quoting and interpreting Old Testament passages that shed light on his true identity. When you see a quotation, pause and consider the point Jesus is trying to make with that text.
In Matthew 13, we read a collection of Jesus’ parables with an explanation of why Jesus speaks in parables. No surprise, the parables are linked to fulfilling an Old Testament prophecy from Isaiah. At the conclusion of chapter 13, Jesus is rejected in his hometown of Nazareth and the dull hearts, deaf ears, and blind eyes of the Jews are confirmed. The one who fulfills Isaiah’s prophecies has no honor in his hometown. But Jesus is more than just a prophet. Isaiah told us God would dwell with his people. Matthew 14 combines two accounts that clearly reveal Jesus as Yahweh. He gives bread, walks on water, and heals – things God does in the Old Testament.
Matthew 15 has an interesting progression from start to finish. Jesus confronts the traditions of the Pharisees (which break the commandment of God). Then while confronting those traditions, he addresses what actually defiles someone. Immediately afterwards, Jesus heals a Canaanite woman (who would’ve been considered unclean) and many of the outcast, blind, and lame. He then fed four thousand men (likely Gentiles) in a majority Gentile region of Galilee. As the capstone of the chapter, the number seven appears frequently in the feeding of the four thousand. The number seven is the number of “completion” which should clue us in to the theme of “completion” foreshadowing the inclusion of Gentiles in the kingdom of God. Following the surprising turn in chapter 15, the Pharisees emerge again asking for a sign. Can you see the irony in their request? But Jesus warns his disciples about the Pharisees and Sadducees teaching. And though the Jewish leaders fail to understand who Jesus is, the disciples begin to understand and confess that Jesus is the Christ.
After Jesus tells the disciples for the first time about his death and resurrection, the Father reveals the Son fully to Peter, James, and John commanding them to listen to the Son. In the encounter with Jesus following his transfiguration, a demon seizes and injures a young boy. I think we can relate to this father, who desperately wants Jesus to help him, but isn’t sure what or how to ask. Sometimes, we just ask him to help our unbelief because it’s not the amount of our faith but the object of our faith that matters. In chapter 18, it becomes clear that greatness by the world’s standards means nothing in the eyes of Jesus. The greatest is one who humbles himself or herself. Without humility, it’s impossible to even enter the kingdom, let alone be ‘greatest.’ Worse still is the one who causes the children of the kingdom to sin by temptation. But what if a brother sins against you? How often should we forgive? We forgive to the extent we’ve been forgiven – which is immeasurably.
The lessons of Matthew 19 are more focused on the teaching of the Law. The Pharisees test Jesus about divorce and he reminds them that the creation order was not always so. Second, the story about children follows with the saying “to such belong the kingdom…” Third comes the rich ruler. Matthew differs from Mark in recording a lengthier list of the Ten Commandments – but notice which ones he omitted: have no other gods, make no idols, and do not covet. I think that’s significant to get at the true heart of the rich ruler. The last line of chapter 19, “many who are first will be last and the last first,” leads us into chapter 20 with the parable of the laborers in the vineyard, the foretelling of Jesus’ death, the question of power and place in the kingdom.
With the start of Matthew 21, we’re entering the climactic chapters of Matthew’s gospel. All the threads begin to come together as the conflict with the Jewish leaders comes to a tense series of discussion and the prophetic fulfillments escalate toward a suffering Servant-King. Chapter 22 continues showing us the tests and theological discussions between Jesus and Jewish leaders. As you read, note the irony and blatant hypocrisy that is no longer hidden or subtle. The Sadducees who don’t believe in the resurrection, ask a question about the resurrection. The Pharisees partner with Herod’s loyalists (these tribes are strange bedfellows) to ask about paying taxes to Caesar. In these chapters, we get to hear Jesus interpret Scripture for the Jewish leaders with the repeated question, “Have you never read…?”
Jesus concludes his day of teaching with a blistering condemnation and judgment on the scribes and Pharisees. On their way back toward the Mount of Olives, the disciples are amazed by the Temple complex and its construction. Jesus corrects their perspective when he predicts its ultimate destruction. Upon arrival at the Mount of Olives in Mt. 24, the disciples ask Jesus two questions: (1) when will the temple be destroyed and (2) what signs will accompany it? Jesus answers the second question in vv. 4-35. Pay careful attention to v. 34, which makes clear that these signs will happen within the lifetime of the disciples (the Romans destroyed the Temple in 70 A.D.). Jesus answers the first question in vv. 36-51. The Temple will be ultimately destroyed when Jesus returns, but only the Father knows the time that will occur.
Jesus continues telling the disciples what to expect at his return using two parables. The first is about ten virgins who carry lamps while waiting for the bridegroom. Five are prepared and five are not. The faithful virgins have prepared for the return of the bridegroom in order that they may enter the banquet with him. The second parable similarly deals with how the church is to live “between the times” by using the gifts given to expand the master’s kingdom. Jesus then finishes his saying to the disciples by giving them a vision of his return with implications for how his followers are to be about his work – namely, by caring for the least of these. In Matthew 26, the events of Jesus’ final days click into fast forward as his time is now at hand. He is anointed, betrayed, eats Passover, prays in Gethsemane submitting his human will to the Father’s will, is arrested, falsely accused, and denied by Peter. All of this takes place that the Scripture might be fulfilled. Amid chaos and injustice, the purpose of God still goes forth.