Matthew 22-24

The gospel of Matthew relates a parable about a wedding banquet for the son of a king. When the guests do not come, the king fills the hall with people from the streets. One of the guests, however, is not properly dressed in wedding clothes, and therefore the king has him bound and thrown into the dark place "of wailing and grinding of teeth." This parable does not seem difficult to understand. The chief priests and elders of the Jewish nation have rejected the kingdom of heaven, and thus it is being given to the Greek-speaking Jews and Gentiles of the Roman Empire. Repentance and faith will also be required of these converts. The wedding banquet is not a "free lunch," to use a contemporary expression. "Many are invited," Jesus says, "but few are chosen."

The story continues, as in the gospel of Mark, with Pharisees trying to "trap him in argument" by asking if they should pay taxes to the Roman emperor. When they show him the coin they are carrying with the likeness of Caesar, he tells them: "Pay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God." (This story reminds us that the Jews are using Roman coins. The moneychangers in the temple are changing these to Jewish coins, so the sacrificial animals will not be purchased with Gentile money.) Then Sadducees, who do not believe in the resurrection of the dead, put a question to Jesus about marriage among the resurrected, which they obviously believe makes the very notion of resurrection ridiculous. Jesus answers that "they know neither the scriptures nor the power of God" because, in the resurrection, men and women do not marry but "live like angels in heaven."

The gospel of Matthew also records that Jesus is asked, "Which is the greatest commandment in the law?" Jesus answers, as he does in the gospel of Mark, but in that earlier gospel the scribe who asks the question then commends Jesus for his answer and Jesus responds by saying, "You are not far from the kingdom of God." The author of the gospel of Matthew, however, has Pharisees ask Jesus the question about the greatest commandment and does not report that any of them understand or are close to the kingdom of heaven. Again, we see that the gospel of Matthew judges the Jewish authorities even more harshly than the gospel of Mark.

Chapter 22 of the gospel of Matthew ends with the argument by Jesus from Psalm 110:1 that the Messiah cannot be the Son of David, because David calls the Messiah "Lord." As in the gospel of Mark, there is no reply to this strange teaching. (It is strange, because the gospel of Matthew begins with a genealogy that identifies Jesus as a descendant of David.) It may simply be a clue that Jesus will not meet the expectations of the crowds, who greeted him as he entered the city as the "Son of David." This would help to explain why they so quickly turn against him.

Then Jesus in the gospel of Matthew (but not in the gospel of Mark) tells "the crowds and his disciples" that, "The scribes and the Pharisees occupy Moses' seat; so be careful to do whatever they tell you." The people are not to follow the way these hypocrites live, "for they say one thing and do another." The burden that Jesus requires of his followers is light compared to that of the Pharisees: "They make up heavy loads and pile them on the shoulders of others, but will not themselves lift a finger to ease the burden."

Speaking to the Crowd

It is significant that Jesus is now speaking both to his disciples and the crowds. There is no distinction, nor is Jesus speaking in parables to the crowds and explaining the parables to his disciples. He is speaking in plain language, and the meaning cannot be mistaken. Jesus tells his followers that the Pharisees wear amulets (phylacteries) on the forehead and arm during prayer, prefer fancy prayer shawls, and seek places of honor at feasts and in the synagogues, because everything "they do is done for show." Now Jesus tells the people they have only "one rabbi," that is "one teacher” ― the Messiah (Christ). Therefore, all who follow him are "brothers," and they are not to call any man on earth "father," for they have "one Father, and he is in heaven."

If they are all brothers, then the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount that concern the relations between brothers are not only for the disciples but for all who repent and have faith in Jesus as the Messiah. Moreover, if their teacher is only to be Jesus, then it is the Jesus of the gospel of Matthew who will be their guide. This Jesus is not quite the same as the Jesus of the gospel of Mark, as we have seen. And the Jesus of the gospel of Matthew is also somewhat different from Jesus we will meet in the gospels attributed to Luke and John.

The Pharisees

The Jesus of the gospel of Matthew then repeats six times the phrase, "Alas for you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!" as he castigates them for "shutting the door of the kingdom of heaven in people's faces" and overlooking "the weightier demands of the law-justice, mercy, and good faith. It is these you should have practiced, without neglecting the others." We see once again that the gospel of Matthew does not reject the law, but instead condemns the hypocrisy of the Pharisees. They are "blind guides," "tombs covered with whitewash," and "snakes," who are "condemned to hell." Jesus also says that the Pharisees are "the sons of those who killed the prophets" and goads them: "Go on then, finish off what your fathers began!"

This diatribe against the Pharisees is not recorded in the gospel of Mark, but part of it is in the gospel of Luke including the charge that their father killed the prophets. Very few of the ancient prophets of Israel, however, were killed, so the charge seems more rhetorical than true. The fact that this material is used by the authors of the gospel of Matthew and the gospel of Luke, but does not appear in the gospel of Mark, suggests that it written after the gospel of Mark. It may reflect the bitter struggle going on between Pharisees and Jewish Christians after the destruction of the temple in 70.

In the account of the gospel of Matthew, Jesus then says: "I am sending you therefore prophets and wise men and teachers of the law; some of them you will kill and crucify, others you will flog in your synagogues and hound from city to city." Contrast this with what Jesus says in the gospel of Luke: "This is what the Wisdom of God said, 'I will send them prophets and messengers; and some of these they will persecute and kill'." In the gospel of Luke, Jesus seems to be quoting from a book, whereas Jesus in the gospel of Matthew speaks for God. Both gospel accounts, however, have Jesus say that the guilt of all the attacks on the innocent will be borne by "this generation" of Pharisees.

Paul's letters never refer to his Jewish opponents as Pharisees. In fact, when defending his Jewish credentials, Paul tells the Philippians he is "in his practice of the law a Pharisee." (This may come as a shock to most readers, who because of the gospels think of Pharisees only as hypocrites.) Paul goes on to say that his Jewish credentials mean nothing compared to knowing Christ. But he does not hide his background as a Pharisee and even presents it as indicating how devoted to the LORD God he was (and is).

In all four gospels Pharisees are the adversaries of Jesus, but this is not the case for Paul. His adversaries are Jewish Christians or the leaders of synagogues. If the Pharisees were actively opposing Jesus and his disciples, as the gospels suggest, it seems unlikely that they would have ignored the ministry of Paul. Once again, knowing that the letters of Paul were written before the gospels gives us the clue we need to solve this mystery. 

The chief priests and scribes were the leaders of the Jewish community during the time of Jesus. Some of these may have been Pharisees, for to be a Pharisee meant to be aligned with a movement of reform that sought to recover and purify the Jewish faith. A priest or a scribe could be a Pharisee but might not be. Some members of a synagogue might be Pharisees, whereas others would not be. In the gospels we read that priests, scribes, and Pharisees oppose Jesus, but Pharisees seem to be condemned more than others.

Probably the Pharisees were identified as the enemies of Jesus in the gospel stories because they were the primary opposition of the Jewish Christians during the time the gospels were written. Pharisees and Jewish Christians were for a time competing in the synagogues for the allegiance of Jews. Pharisees were emphasizing a more strict interpretation of the law of Moses. Jewish Christians were proclaiming that Jesus was the Messiah promised by the prophets and thus was empowered to give a new interpretation to Jewish law. After the destruction of the temple in 70 the Pharisees led the movement among the surviving rabbis to define Jewish life and faith. The Christian church and rabbinical Judaism, therefore, came into being at the same time ― each movement for reform defining itself against the other.

In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus lays the burden of the sins against the prophets upon the Pharisees who oppose the "prophets and wise men and teachers" organizing the church. Then he mourns for Jerusalem, "the city that murders the prophets and stones the messengers sent to her." Jesus says look at "your temple, forsaken by God and laid waste." (Notice that he does not say "our temple.") 

Finally, he prophesies that they will not see him again until the time when they say, "Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!" This seems to be written after the destruction of the Jerusalem. Moreover, it uses the destruction of the temple as an argument against the Pharisees and as an appeal to join the church. If the church was preaching this message, it should hardly be surprising that the Pharisees opposed the church.

Coming Time of Trial

Then Jesus leaves the temple, saying, "not one stone will be left upon another." He and his disciples walk to the Mount of Olives and there, sitting together, the disciples ask him, "What will be the sign of your coming and the end of the age?" Chapter 24 of the gospel of Matthew slightly expands chapter 13 of the gospel of Mark. In the gospel of Mark, Jesus speaks with only four of his disciples, but in the gospel of Matthew we read that "the disciples" were present. He tells them that false messiahs will come in his name, that wars, famines, and earthquakes in many places will be "the first birth pains of the new age." Then the disciples will be persecuted.

Jesus warns that "all nations will hate you for your allegiance to me." Many "will fall from their faith" and even "betray one another." There will be "false prophets" and lawlessness will spread." Yet, "whoever endures to the end will be saved." And "this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the earth as a testimony to all nations" before the end comes. The gospel explains that "the abomination of desolation," which is also mentioned in the gospel of Mark, refers to the prophecy of Daniel (9:27). And Jesus tells them to pray that it might not be "winter or a sabbath" when they have to take to the hills to make their escape. As the gospel of Mark only refers to winter, we see that Jesus in the gospel of Matthew believes the Jewish commandment to observe the sabbath as a day of rest should be kept even during the coming time of tribulation!

The gospel account warns of false appearances of the Messiah by imposters and those who say the Messiah is "in the wilderness" or "in the inner room." But the disciples are not to be misled. "Like a flash of lightning, that lights the sky from east to west, will be the coming of the Son of Man." All will be dark, and then the Son of Man will come "on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory." He will send out his angels (with a trumpet blast, the gospel of Matthew says), and "they will gather his chosen from the four winds." Moreover, Jesus promises in the gospel of Matthew as he did in the gospel of Mark, "the present generation will live to see it all."

Then the gospel urges the disciples (and the readers) to stay awake, as no one but the Father knows when the end will come, "not even the Son." To emphasize the point, the author of the gospel of Matthew adds to the account in the gospel of Mark allusions to the time of Noah and a householder watching for a thief in the night. (We saw that Paul also uses this second example to urge his followers to remain alert.) 

Finally the gospel of Matthew says of a servant, who is at work when his master comes home, that "he will be put in charge of all his master's property." Whereas, a servant who abuses his trust will, when his master returns, be cut into pieces and put "where there is wailing and grinding of teeth." As usual, the gospel of Matthew adds more gruesome details to the account in the gospel of Mark concerning the punishments for the unfaithful at the end of the age. © Robert Traer 2016