This is the sixth (of seven) brief overviews from a study I’m leading at my church on Matthew’s gospel. It is a literary analysis that focuses on how the story is put together, while still touching on individual passages at times. The later posts have become more lengthy and have focused on specific elements within the overall narrative. This is due, in part, to the fact that I’ve been lazy and haven’t condensed my notes to focus more on the narrative progression (as in the first couple posts) and due, in part, to the fact that there are ideas I wanted to share about specific portions of the narrative. In the final post I will provide a summary/outline of the overarching structure of Matthew (as I see it at least).
This section is structured around three major movements: Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem (21.1-22), his interactions in the Jerusalem Temple (21.23-23.39) and his final sermon/discourse on the Mount of Olives just outside the city (24.1-25.46).
Jesus’ entrance into the city is one of humility and comedy, in contrast to the Roman entrance of Pilate that is one of great esteem and formality. Jesus doesn’t ride in gallantly on a white horse. He arrives without any elegance and a lot of awkwardness, as Matthew pictures Jesus nearly doing the splits to sit on both the donkey and its colt. He feels as awkward as he looks, and all of the shouting that he is the son of David who has come to save Jerusalem is getting on his nerves, not because it’s completely untrue, but because they don’t know what they’re saying, don’t know what they’re doing, don’t know that this Messiah is not going to try and overthrow the Romans through yet another military coup but by letting them unjustly string him up on a cross.
Once Jesus arrives in the city, he journeys into the Temple courts, where the majority of the action and discussion takes place in this section of the narrative. Most of our Bibles include a title about Jesus “cleansing” the Temple, but in light of the fig tree narrative that follows (21.18-22), it seems more appropriate to call it Jesus’ “condemning” of the Temple.
Jesus curses the fig tree because it has the appearance of fruitfulness but is actually fruitless. The cursing is Jesus exposing the fruitless tree for what it is. Thus, the withering is the true reflection of reality revealed by Jesus. In the same way, Jesus enters the Temple in order to expose its fruitlessness. It has the appearances of being fruitful, but Jesus reveals that it cannot do so because it is based on a faulty assumption—namely, that God requires violence and death in order for worshippers to be in right relationship with God. “May no fruit come from you again!” is a call for the end of the sacrificial system, not a reformation of it. In other words, may no one find fruitfulness in the logic of divinely ordained violence ever again.
Jesus is not reforming a system of sacrifice that had become corrupt and needing correction or purification. Like the Hebrew prophets before him, Jesus is challenging the entire system by exposing it as fruitless and thereby seeking to rid the world of the violence of sacrifice that humanity has always used to cover over and conceal our violence (see Rene Girard’s mimetic theory). Jesus joins the prophetic refrain—“God desires mercy not violent sacrifice”—and calls us to turn from (to repent of) our violence that we seek to justify in the name of religion and embrace a path in which mercy has the first and the last word. In other words, Jesus says that the true God will not justify our violence, and any god we concoct to do so is a false god, is (in fact) the satan, the accuser, the devil that sows discord. If it seems impossible to reject such a powerful delusion that enslaves all humanity, Jesus calls us to have a just a little faith and that will allow us to move even this great mountain and cast it into the sea (a metaphor for chaos and disorder) from which it first came.
After Jesus cleanses (exposes) the Temple (and, thus, the religious leaders who run the show) as fruitless, the religious leaders come up with a “last ditch” effort to get rid of Jesus by discrediting him. They question Jesus authority by which he condemned the Temple. Jesus responds with several difficult and confusing parables. These will be discussed in a separate blog post, but suffice it to say that I will argue that the ones who are excluded (who are cast out into the outer darkness) are the fortunate ones who refuse to live by the ethics of violence and injustice and unpeace. Thus, they become the scapegoats who are cast out (a thinly veiled reference to their death at the hands of the mob), which is to share the same fate as Jesus. The darkness is not God’s judgment, it is humanity’s. It is the darkness of human injustice and violence which is inflicted upon those who bring the light of God’s reign and thus face persecution and death because of it. It is these who become the foundation for the new humanity, the new creation, the coming conflation of heaven and earth. “The stone the builders rejected (i.e. cast out into the outer darkness, again, a reference to death) becomes the foundation stone.” These rejected stones (Jesus, and all who follow his ethic) find vindication at the great reversal (25.31-46) when those who helped the least (those who opposed injustice and violence and were cast out/killed because of it) are ushered into the presence of the true God. While in the Temple, the religious leaders also present Jesus with several difficult and divisive questions—each could very easily get him into trouble with a significant segment of the crowds that have been following him around. They ask him questions about paying taxes to the government, a volatile question then and now (vv 15-22); about the resurrection, a divisive issue between two Jewish sects (vv 23-29); and about the greatest, most important commandment (vv 30-40), a longstanding debate within Judaism. Jesus responds to each of these in a way that silences his critics and amazes the crowds, and then offers his own question to his questioners, one which they (in contrast to Jesus) are unable to answer at all (vv 41-45), and they give up this effort all together (v 46).
Having answered all of the questions from the religious leaders (21.23-22.46) and having stumped them with his own, Jesus offers a lengthy polemic against his critics and questioners (23.1-36), all of which recalls the recurring exhortation in Matthew: “bear good fruit in keeping with repentance.” The critique is the same that Jesus makes in the Temple—there is the appearance of fruitfulness but there isn’t any good fruit, and his critique culminates in a despairing cry over the city of Jerusalem—the city that “kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it.”
The final sermon (24.3-25.46) is a call to remain faithful to the ethic of mercy and compassion that has been set forth in the sermon on the mount (5-7), that has been carried to Israel (10), that has been showed to be a “grassroots” endeavor that takes time and patience (13) and that has been applied within the community that embraces this ethic (17.24-18). The sermon reveals the difficulty of embracing mercy in a world of violence, but it encourages the disciples to hold fast because of a great reversal of fortunes that will be made manifest at the final judgment.