THE BEGINNING OF THE LAST ACT (Matthew 21:1-11)
21:1-11 When they had come near to Jerusalem, and when they had come to Bethphage, to the Mount of Olives, then Jesus sent on two disciples ahead. "Go into the village which is facing you," he said, "and immediately you will find an ass tethered, and a colt with her. Loose them, and bring them to me. And, if anyone says anything to you, say, 'The Master needs them.' Immediately he will send them on." This was done that there might be fulfilled that which was spoken through the prophet, when he said, "Say to the daughter of Sion, Look you, your king comes to you, gentle, and riding upon an ass, and a colt, the foal of a beast who bears the yoke." So the disciples went, and they carried out Jesus' orders, and they brought the ass and the colt, and put their cloaks upon them; and he took his seat on them. The very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road. Others cut down branches from the trees and strewed them on the road; and the crowds who went in front and followed behind kept shouting, "Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed in the name of the Lord is he who comes. Hosanna in the highest!" As he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was shaken. "Who is this?" they asked; and the crowds said, "This is the prophet, Jesus, who comes from Nazareth in Galilee."
With this passage we embark on the last act in the drama of the life of Jesus; and here indeed is a dramatic moment.
It was the Passover time, and Jerusalem and the whole surrounding neighbourhood was crowded with pilgrims. Thirty years later a Roman governor was to take a census of the lambs slain in Jerusalem for the Passover and find that the number was not far off a quarter of a million. It was the Passover regulation that there must be a party of a minimum of ten for each lamb which means that at that Passover time more than two and a half million people had crowded their way into Jerusalem. The law was that every adult male Jew who lived within twenty miles of Jerusalem must come to the Passover; but not only the Jews of Palestine, Jews from every corner of the world made their way to the greatest of their national festivals. Jesus could not have chosen a more dramatic moment; it was into a city surging with people keyed up with religious expectations that he came.
Nor was this a sudden decision of Jesus, taken on the moment. It was something which he had prepared in advance. The whole tone of the story shows that he was carrying out plans which he had made ahead. He sent his disciples into "the village" to collect the ass and her foal. Matthew mentions Bethphage only (the pronunciation is not Bethphage with the age as in the English word page; the "e" at the end is pronounced as "ae"; the word is Bethphagae). But Mark also mentions Bethany (Mark 11:1). No doubt the village was Bethany. Jesus had already arranged that the ass and her foal should be waiting for him, for he must have had many friends in Bethany; and the phrase, "The Master needs them," was a password by which their owner would know that the hour which Jesus had arranged had come.
So Jesus rode into Jerusalem. The fact that the ass had never been ridden before made it specially suitable for sacred purposes. The red heifer which was used in the ceremonies of cleansing must be a beast "upon which a yoke has never come" (Numbers 19:2; Deuteronomy 21:3); the cart on which the ark of the Lord was carried had to be a vehicle which had never been used for any other purpose (1 Samuel 6:7). The special sacredness of the occasion was underlined by the fact that the ass had never been ridden by any man before.
The crowd received Jesus like a king. They spread their cloaks in front of him. That is what his friends had done when Jehu was proclaimed king (2 Kings 9:13). They cut down and waved the palm branches. That is what they did when Simon Maccabaeus entered Jerusalem after one of his most notable victories (1 Maccabees 13:51).
They greeted him as they would greet a pilgrim, for the greeting: "Blessed be he who enters in the name of the Lord" (Psalms 118:26) was the greeting which was addressed to pilgrims as they came to the Feast.
They shouted "Hosanna!" We must be careful to see what this word means. Hosanna means Save now! and it was the cry for help which a people in distress addressed to their king or their god. It is really a kind of quotation from Psalms 118:25 : "Save us, we beseech Thee, O Lord." The phrase, "Hosanna in the highest!" must mean, "Let even the angels in the highest heights of heaven cry unto God, Save now!"
It may be that the word hosanna had lost some of its original meaning; and that it had become to some extent only a cry of welcome and of acclamation, like "Hail!"; but essentially it is a people's cry for deliverance and for help in the day of their trouble; it is an oppressed people's cry to their saviour and their king.
THE INTENTION OF JESUS (Matthew 21:1-11 continued)
We may then take it that Jesus' actions in this incident were planned and deliberate. He was following a method of awakening men's minds which was deeply interwoven with the methods of the prophets. Again and again in the religious history of Israel, when a prophet felt that words were of no avail against a barrier of indifference or incomprehension, he put his message into a dramatic act which men could not fail to see and to understand. Out of many Old Testament instances we choose two of the most outstanding.
When it became clear that the kingdom would not stand the excesses and extravagances of Rehoboam, and that Jeroboam was marked out as the rising power, the prophet Ahijah the Shilonite chose a dramatic way of foretelling the future. He clad himself in a new garment; he went out and he met Jeroboam alone; he took the new garment and tore it into twelve pieces; then of the pieces he gave to Jeroboam ten and two of the pieces he kept; and by this dramatic action he made it clear that ten of the twelve tribes were about to revolt in support of Jeroboam, while only two would remain faithful to Rehoboam (1 Kings 11:29-32). Here is the prophetic message delivered in dramatic action.
When Jeremiah was convinced that Babylon was about to conquer Palestine in spite of the easy optimism of the people, he made bonds and yokes and sent them to Edom, to Moab, to Ammon, to Tyre and to Sidon; and put a yoke upon his own neck that all might see it. By this dramatic action he made it clear that, as he saw it, nothing but slavery and servitude lay ahead (Jeremiah 27:1-6); and when Hananiah, the false prophet with the mistaken optimism, wished to show that he thought Jeremiah's gloomy foreboding altogether wrong, he took the yoke from Jeremiah's neck and broke it (Jeremiah 28:10-11).
It was the custom of the prophets to express their message in dramatic action when they felt that words were not enough. And that was what Jesus was doing when he entered Jerusalem.
There are two pictures behind Jesus' dramatic action.
(i) There is the picture of Zechariah 9:9, in which the prophet saw the king coming to Jerusalem, humble and riding upon an ass, on a colt the foal of an ass. In the first instance, Jesus' dramatic action is a deliberate Messianic claim. He was here offering himself to the people, at a time when Jerusalem was surging with Jews from all over the country and from all over the world, as the Anointed One of God. Just what Jesus meant by that claim we shall go on to see; but that he made the claim there is no doubt.
(ii) There may have been another intention in Jesus' mind. One of the supreme disasters of Jewish history was the capture of Jerusalem by Antiochus Epiphanes about 175 B.C. Antiochus was determined to stamp out Judaism and to introduce into Palestine Greek ways of life and worship. He deliberately profaned the Temple, offering swine's flesh on the altar, making sacrifices to Olympian Zeus, and even turning the Temple chambers into public brothels. It was then that the Maccabees rose against him, and ultimately rescued their native land. In due time Jerusalem was retaken and the desecrated Temple was restored and purified and rededicated. In 2 Maccabees 10:7 we read of the rejoicing of that great day: "Therefore they bare branches, and fair boughs, and palms also, and sang psalms unto Him that had given them good success in cleansing His place." On that day the people carried the palm branches and sung their psalms; it is an almost exact description of the actions of the crowd who welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem.
It is at least possible that Jesus knew this, and that he entered into Jerusalem with the deliberate intention of cleansing God's house as Judas Maccabaeus had done two hundred years before. That was in fact what Jesus did. He may well be saying in dramatic symbol, not only that he was the Anointed One of God, but also that he had come to cleanse the House of God from the abuses which defiled it and its worship. Had not Malachi said that the Lord would suddenly come to his Temple (Malachi 3:1)? And, in his vision of judgment had not Ezekiel seen the terrible judgment of God begin at the sanctuary (Ezekiel 9:6)?
THE CLAIM OF THE KING (Matthew 21:1-11 continued)
To conclude our study of this incident, let us look at Jesus in its setting. It shows us three things about him.
(i) I shows us his courage. Jesus knew full well that he was entering a hostile city. However enthusiastic the crowd might be, the authorities hated him and had sworn to eliminate him; and with them lay the last word. Almost any man in such a case would have considered discretion the better part of valour; and, if he had come to Jerusalem at all, would have slipped in under cover of night and kept prudently to the back streets until he reached his shelter. But Jesus entered Jerusalem in a way that deliberately set himself in the centre of the stage and deliberately riveted every eye upon himself. All through his last days there is in his every action a kind of magnificent and sublime defence; and here he begins the last act with a flinging down of the gauntlet, a deliberate challenge to the authorities to do their worst.
(ii) It shows us his claim. Certainly it shows us his claim to be God's Messiah, God's Anointed One; very probably it shows us his claim to be the cleanser of the Temple. If Jesus had been content to claim to be a prophet, the probability is that he need never have died. But he could be satisfied with nothing less than the topmost place. With Jesus it is all or nothing. Men must acknowledge him as king, or not receive him at all.
(iii) Equally it shows us his appeal. It was not the kingship of the throne which he claimed; it was the kingship of the heart. He came humbly and riding upon an ass. We must be careful to see the real meaning of that. In western lands the ass is a despised beast; but in the east the ass could be a noble animal. Often a king came riding upon an ass, but when he did, it was the sign that he came in peace. The horse was the mount of war; the ass was the mount of peace. So when Jesus claimed to be king, he claimed to be the king of peace. He showed that he came, not to destroy, but to love; not to condemn, but to help; not in the might of arms, but in the strength of love.
So here, at one and the same time, we see the courage of Christ, the claim of Christ, and the appeal of Christ. It was a last invitation to men to open, not their palaces but their hearts to him.
THE SCENE IN THE TEMPLE (Matthew 21:12-14)
21:12-14 And Jesus entered into the precincts of the Temple of God, and cast out all who were selling and buying in the Temple precincts, and overturned the tables of the money-changers, and of those who were selling doves. "It is written," he said to them, "My house shall be called a house of prayer, but you make it 'a robbers' cave.'"
And the blind and the lame came to him in the Temple and he healed them.
If the entry into Jerusalem had been defiance, here is defiance added to defiance. To see this scene unfolding before our eyes we need to visualize the picture of the Temple.
There are in the New Testament two words which are translated Temple, and rightly so, but there is a clear distinction between them. The Temple itself is called the naos (Greek #3485). It was a comparatively small building, and contained the Holy Place and the Holy of Holies into which only the High Priest might enter, and he only on the great Day of Atonement. But the naos (Greek #3485) itself was surrounded by a vast space which was occupied by successive and ascending courtyards. First there was the Court of the Gentiles, into which anyone might come, and beyond which it was death for a Gentile to penetrate. Then there came the Court of the Women, entered by the Beautiful Gate of the Temple, into which any Israelite might come. Next there came the Court of the Israelites, entered by the gate called Nicanor's Gate, a great gate of Corinthian bronze which needed twenty men to open and shut it. It was in this court that the people assembled for the Temple services. Lastly there came the Court Of the Priests, into which only the priests might enter; in it there stood the great altar of the burnt-offering, the altar of the incense, the seven-branched lamp-stand, the table of the shewbread, and the great brazen laver; and at the back of it there stood the naos (Greek #3485) itself. This whole area, including all the courts, is also in the Revised Standard Version called the Temple; the Greek is hieron (Greek #2411). It is better to keep a distinction between the two words; and to retain the word Temple for the Temple proper, that is the naos (Greek #3485), and to use the term the Temple Precincts, for the whole area, that is the word hieron (Greek #2411).
The scene of this incident was the Court of the Gentiles into which anyone might come. It was always crowded and busy; but at Passover, with pilgrims there from all over the world, it was thronged to capacity. There would, even at any time, be many Gentiles there, for the Temple at Jerusalem was famous throughout the world, so that even the Roman writers described it as one of the world's most amazing buildings.
In this Court of the Gentiles two kinds of trading were going on. There was the business of money-changing. Every Jew had to pay a temple tax of one half-shekel, and that tax had to be paid near to the Passover time. A month before, booths were set up in all the towns and villages, and the money could be paid there, but after a certain date it could be paid only in the Temple itself; and it would be there that the vast majority of pilgrim Jews from other lands paid it. This tax had to be paid in certain currency, although for general purposes all kinds of currencies were equally valid in Palestine. It must not be paid in ingots of silver, but in stamped currency; it must not be paid in coins of inferior alloy or coins which had been clipped, but in coins of high-grade silver. It could be paid in shekels of the sanctuary, in Galilaean half-shekels, and especially in Tyrian currency which was of a very high standard.
The function of the money-changers was to change unsuitable currency into the correct currency. That seems on the face of it to be an entirely necessary function; but the trouble was that these money-changers charged the equivalent of 1p for changing the currency at all; and, if the coin was of greater value than a half-shekel, they charged another lp for giving back the surplus change. That is to say, many a pilgrim had not only to pay his half-shekel--which was about 7 pence in value--but another 2 pence also in changing dues; and this has to be evaluated against a background where a working man's wage was about 3 pence a day.
This surplus charge was called the qolbon (compare kollubistes, Greek #2855). It did not by any means all go into the money-changer's pockets; some of it was classed as freewill offerings; some of it went to the repair of the roads; some of it went to purchase the gold plates with which it was planned entirely to cover the Temple proper; and some of it found its way into the Temple treasury. The whole matter was not necessarily an abuse; but the trouble was that it lent itself to abuse. It lent itself to the exploitation of the pilgrims who had come to worship, and there is no doubt that the Temple money-changers made large profits out of it.
The selling of doves was worse. For most visits to the Temple some kind of offering was essential. Doves, for instance, were necessary when a woman came for purification after childbirth, or when a leper came to have his cure attested and certified (Leviticus 12:8; Leviticus 14:22; Leviticus 15:14; Leviticus 15:29). It was easy enough to buy animals for sacrifice outside the Temple; but any animal offered in sacrifice must be without blemish. There were official inspectors of the animals, and it was to all intents and purposes certain that they would reject an animal bought outside and would direct the worshipper to the Temple stalls and booths.
No great harm would have been done if the prices had been the same inside and outside the Temple, but a pair of doves could cost as little as 4 pence outside the Temple and as much as 75 pence inside the Temple. This was an old abuse. A certain Rabbi, Simon ben Gamaliel, was remembered with gratitude because "he had caused doves to be sold for sliver coins instead of gold." Clearly he had attacked this abuse. Further, these stalls where the victims were sold were called the Bazaars of Annas, and were the private property of the family of the High Priest of that name.
Here, again, there was no necessary abuse. There must have been many honest and sympathetic traders. But abuse readily and easily crept in. Burkitt can say that "the Temple had become a meeting place of scamps," the worst kind of commercial monopoly and vested interest. Sir George Adam Smith can write: "In those days every priest must have been a trader." There was every danger of shameless exploitation of poor and humble pilgrims--and it was that exploitation which raised the wrath of Jesus.
THE WRATH AND THE LOVE (Matthew 21:12-14 continued)
There is hardly anywhere in the gospel story where we need to make a more deliberate and more conscious effort to be fair than in this passage. It is easy to use it as a basis for a complete condemnation of the whole Temple worship. There are two things to be said.
There were many traders and hucksters in the Temple Court, but there were also many whose hearts were set on God. As Aristotle said long ago, a man and an institution must be judged at their best, and not at their worst.
The other thing to be said is simply this--let the man and the Church without sin cast the first stone. The traders were not all exploiters, and even those who seized the opportunity of making a quick profit were not all simply money-grabbers. The great Jewish scholar Israel Abrahams has a comment on the too common Christian treatment of this passage: "When Jesus overturned the money-changers and ejected the sellers of doves from the Temple, he did a service to Judaism. . . . But were the money-changers and the dove-sellers the only people who visited the Temple? And was everyone who bought or sold a dove a mere formalist? Last Easter I was in Jerusalem, and along the facade of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre I saw the stalls of the vendors of sacred relics, of painted beads and inscribed ribbons, of coloured candles, gilded crucifixes, and bottles of Jordan water. There these Christians babbled and swayed and bargained, a crowd of buyers and sellers in front of the Church sacred to the memory of Jesus. Would, I thought, that Jesus were come again to overthrow these false servants of his, even as he overthrew his false brothers in Israel long ago."
This incident shows us certain things about Jesus.
(i) It shows us one of the fiercest manifestations of his anger directed against those who exploited their fellow-men, and especially against those who exploited them in the name of religion. It was Jeremiah who had said that men made the Temple a den of thieves (Jeremiah 7:11). Jesus could not bear to see simple people exploited for profit.
Too often the Church has been silent in such a situation; it has a duty to protect those who in a highly competitive economic situation cannot protect themselves.
(ii) It shows us his anger was specially directed against those who made it impossible for simple people to worship in the House of God. It was Isaiah who said that God's House was a House of Prayer for all peoples (Isaiah 56:7). The Court of the Gentiles was, in fact, the only part of the Temple into which Gentiles might come. It is not to be thought that every Gentile came to sight-see. Some, at least, must have come with haunting longings in their souls to worship and to pray. But in that uproar of buying and selling and bargaining and auctioneering prayer was impossible. Those who sought God's presence were being debarred from it by the very people of God's House.
God will never hold guiltless those who make it impossible for others to worship him. It can happen yet. A spirit of bitterness, a spirit of argument, a spirit of strife can get into a Church, which makes worship impossible. Men and office-bearers can become so concerned with their rights and their wrongs, their dignities and their prestiges, their practice and their procedure, that in the end no one can worship God in the atmosphere which is created. Even ministers of God can be more concerned with imposing their ways of doing things on a congregation than with preaching the gospel, and the end is a service with an atmosphere which makes true worship impossible. The worship of God and the disputes of men can never go together. Let us remember the wrath of Jesus at those who blocked the approach to God for their fellow-men.
(iii) There remains one thing to note. Our passage ends with Jesus healing the blind and the lame in the Temple Court. They were still there; Jesus did not clear everyone out. Only those with guilty consciences fled before the eyes of his wrath. Those who needed him stayed.
Need is never sent empty away by Jesus Christ. Jesus' anger was never merely negative; it never stopped with the attack on that which was wrong; it always went on to the positive helping of those who were in need. In the truly great man anger and love go hand in hand. There is anger at those who exploit the simple and bar the seeker; but there is love for those whose need is great. The destructive force of anger must always go hand in hand with the healing power of love.
THE KNOWLEDGE OF THE SIMPLE IN HEART (Matthew 21:15-17)
21:15-17 When the chief priests and Scribes saw the wonderful things that he did, and the children shouting in the Temple, "Hosanna to the Son of David!" they were angry. "Do you hear what these are saying?" they said. Jesus said to them, "Yes! Have you never read: 'Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings you have the perfect praise'?" And he left them, and went out of the city to Bethany, and lodged there.
Some scholars have found difficulty with this passage. It is said that it is unlikely that there would be crowds of children in the Temple Court; and that, if the children were there at all, the Temple police would have dealt swiftly and efficiently with them if they had dared to cry out as this passage says they did. Now earlier in the story Luke has an incident where the disciples are depicted as shouting their glad cries to Jesus, and where the authorities are described as trying to silence them (Luke 19:39-40). Very often a Rabbi's disciples were called his children. We see, for instance, the phrase my little children occurring in the writings of John. So it is suggested that Luke and Matthew are really telling the same story and that the children are in fact the disciples of Jesus.
No such explanation is necessary. The use that Matthew makes of the quotation from Psalms 8:2 makes it clear that he had real children in mind; and, in any event, things were happening that day in the Temple Court which had never happened before. It was not every day that the traders and the money-changers were sent packing; and it was not every day that the blind and the lame were healed. Maybe ordinarily it would have been impossible for the children to shout like this, but this was no ordinary day.
When we take this story just as it stands and listen again to the fresh, clear voices of the children shouting their praises, we are faced with one great fact. There are truths which only the simple in heart can see and which are hidden from the wise and the learned and the sophisticated. There are many times when heaven is nearer the child than it is to the cleverest men.
Thorwaldsen, the great sculptor, once carved a statue of Jesus. He wished to see if the statue would cause the right reaction in those who saw it. He brought a little child to look at the statue and asked him: "Who do you think that is?" The child answered: "It is a great man." Thorwaldsen knew that he had failed; so he scrapped his statue and began again. Again when he had finished, he brought the child and asked the same question: "Who do you think that is?" The child smiled and answered: "That is Jesus who said: 'Let the children come to me.'" Thorwaldsen knew that this time he had succeeded. The statue had passed the test of a child's eyes.
That is no bad test. George Macdonald once said that he placed no value on the alleged Christianity of a man at whose door, or at whose garden gate, the children were afraid to play. If a child thinks a person good, the likelihood is that he is good; if a child shrinks away, a man may be great but certainly he is not Christlike. Somewhere Barrie draws a picture of a mother putting her little one to bed at night and looking down on him when he is half asleep, with an unspoken question in her eyes and in her heart: "My child, have I done well today?" The goodness which can meet the clear gaze of a child and stand the test of a child's simplicity is goodness indeed. It was but natural that the children should recognize Jesus when the scholars were blind.
THE WAY OF THE FIG TREE (Matthew 21:18-22)
21:18-22 When Jesus was returning to the city early in the morning, he was hungry. When he saw a fig tree by the roadside, he went up to it, and found nothing but leaves. He said to it, "Let no fruit come from you any more for ever!" And immediately the fig tree withered away. When the disciples saw it, they were astonished. "How did the fig tree immediately wither away?" they said. Jesus answered them: "This is the truth I tell you--if you have faith, and, if you do not doubt, not only will you do what happened to the fig tree, but you will even say to this mountain: 'Be removed and be cast into the sea,' and it will happen. All that you ask in prayer, if you believe, you will receive."
Few honest readers of the Bible would deny that this is perhaps the most uncomfortably difficult passage in the New Testament. If it be taken with complete literalism, it shows Jesus in an action which is an acute shock to our whole conception of him. It must, therefore, be approached with a real desire to find out the truth which lies behind it and with the courage to think our way through it.
Mark also tells this story (Mark 11:12-14; Mark 11:20-21) but with one basic difference. In Matthew the withering of the fig tree takes place at once. (The King James Version has: "And presently the fig tree withered away." In Elizabethan English presently meant immediately, at that present moment. The Greek is parachrema (Greek #3916), which the Revised Standard Version translates at once, and which Moffatt translates instantly.) On the other hand, in Mark nothing happened to the tree immediately, and it is only next morning, when they are passing on the same road, that the disciples see that the tree has withered away. From the existence of these two versions of the story, it is quite clear that some development has taken place; and, since Mark's is the earliest gospel, it is equally clear that his version must be nearer to the actual historical facts.
It is necessary to understand the growing and fruit-bearing habits of fig trees. The fig tree was the favourite of all trees. The picture of the Promised Land was the picture of "a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees" (Deuteronomy 8:8). Pomegranates and figs were part of the treasures which the spies brought back to show the rich fertility of the land (Numbers 13:23). The picture of peace and prosperity which is common to every part of the old Testament is the picture of a time when every man will sit under his own vine and his own fig tree (1 Kings 4:25; Micah 4:4; Zechariah 3:10). The picture of the wrath of God is the picture of a day when he would smite and destroy the fig trees (Psalms 105:33; Jeremiah 8:13; Hosea 2:12). The fig tree is the very symbol of fertility and peace and prosperity.
The tree itself is a handsome tree; it can be three feet thick in its trunk. It grows to a height of from fifteen to twenty feet; and the spread of its thick branches can be twenty-five to thirty feet. It was, therefore, much valued for its shade. In Cyprus the cottages have their fig trees at the door, and Tristram tells how often he sheltered under them and found coolness on the hottest day. Very commonly the fig tree grows overshadowing wells so that there is shade and water in the one place. Often it was the shade of the fig tree which was a man's private room for meditation and prayer; and that is why Nathanael was amazed that Jesus had marked him under the fig tree (John 1:48).
But it is the fig tree's habit of fruit-bearing which is relevant here. The fig tree is unique in that it bears two full crops in the year. The first is borne on the old wood. Quite early in the year little green knobs appear at the end of the branches. They are called Paggim and they will one day be the figs. These fruit buds come in April but they are quite uneatable. Bit by bit the leaves and the flowers open out, and another unique thing about the fig is that it is in full fruit and full leaf and full flower all at the same time; that happens by June. No fig tree ever bore fruit in April; that is far too early. The process is then repeated with the new wood; and the second crop comes in September.
The strangest thing about this story is twofold. First, it tells of a fig tree in full leaf in April. Jesus was at Jerusalem for the Passover; the Passover fell on 15th April; and this incident happened a week before. The second thing is that Jesus looked for figs on a tree where no figs could possibly be; and Mark says, "For it was not the season for figs" (Mark 11:13).
The difficulty of this story is not so much a difficulty of possibility. It is a moral difficulty; and it is twofold. First, we see Jesus blasting a fig tree for not doing what it was not able to do. The tree could not have borne fruit in the second week of April, and yet we see Jesus destroying it for not doing that very thing. Second, we see Jesus using his miraculous powers for his own ends. That is precisely what in the temptations in the wilderness he determined never to do. He would not turn stones into bread to satisfy his own hunger. The plain truth is this--if we had read of anyone else blasting a fig tree for not bearing figs in April, we would have said it was the act of ill-tempered petulance, springing from personal disappointment. In Jesus that is inconceivable; therefore there must be some explanation. What is it?
Some have found an explanation on the following lines. In Luke there is the parable of the fig tree which failed to bear fruit. Twice the gardener pleaded for mercy for it; twice mercy and delay were granted; in the end it was still fruitless and was therefore destroyed (Luke 13:6-9). The curious thing is that Luke has the parable of the barren fig tree, but he has not this incident of the withering of the fig tree; Matthew and Mark have this incident of the withering of the fig tree, but they have not the parable of the barren fig tree. It looks very much as if the gospel writers felt that if they included the one they did not need to include the other. It is suggested that the parable of the barren fig tree has been misunderstood and been turned into an actual incident. Confusion has changed a story Jesus told into an action Jesus did. That is by no means impossible; but it seems to us that the real explanation must be sought elsewhere. And now we go on to seek it.
PROMISE WITHOUT PERFORMANCE (Matthew 21:18-22 continued)
When we were studying the story of the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, we saw that frequently the prophets made use of symbolic actions; that when they felt that words would not penetrate, they did something dramatic to drive a lesson home. Let us suppose that some such symbolic action is at the back of this story.
Jesus, let us suppose, was on his way to Jerusalem. By the wayside he saw a tree in full leaf. It was perfectly legitimate for him to pluck the figs from it, if there had been any. Jewish law allowed that (Deuteronomy 23:24-25); and Thomson in The Land and the Book tells us that even in modern times the wayside fig tree is open to all. Jesus went up to the fig tree, well knowing that there could be no fruit, and well knowing that there must be something radically wrong with it. One of two things could have happened. The fig tree could have reverted to its wild state, just as roses revert to briars. Or, it could be in some way diseased. Then Jesus said: "This tree will never bear fruit; it will certainly wither." It was the statement of a man who knew nature, because he had lived with nature. And on the next day it was clear that the diagnosis of his expert eye of Jesus was exactly right.
If this was a symbolic action, it was meant to teach something. What it was meant to teach was two things about the Jewish nation.
(i) It taught that uselessness invites disaster. That is the law of life. Anything which is useless is on the way to elimination; any thing can justify its existence only by fulfilling the end for which it was created. The fig tree was useless; therefore it was doomed.
The nation of Israel had been brought into existence for one reason and one reason only--that from it there might come God's Anointed One. He had come; the nation had faded to recognize him; more, they were about to crucify him. The nation had failed in its function which was to welcome God's Son--therefore the nation was doomed.
(ii) It taught that profession without practice is condemned The tree had leaves; the leaves were a claim to have figs; the tree had no figs; its claim was false; therefore it was doomed. The Jewish nation professed faith in God; but in practice they were out for the blood of God's Son; therefore they stood condemned.
Profession without practice was not only the curse of the Jews; it has been throughout the ages the curse, of the Church. During his early days in South Africa--in Pretoria--Gandhi enquired into Christianity. For several Sundays he attended a Christian Church, but, he says, "the congregation did not strike me as being particularly religious; they were not an assembly of devout souls, but appeared rather to be worldly-minded people going to Church for recreation and in conformity to custom." He, therefore, concluded that there was nothing in Christianity which he did not already possess--and so Gandhi was lost to the Christian Church with incalculable consequences to India and to the world.
Profession without practice is something of which we are all more or less guilty. It does incalculable harm to the Christian Church; and it is doomed to disaster, for it produces a faith which cannot do anything else but wither away.
We may well believe that Jesus used the lesson of a diseased and degenerate fig tree to say to the Jews--and to us--that uselessness invites disaster, and profession without practice is doomed. That is surely what this story means, for we cannot think of Jesus as literally and physically blasting a fig tree for failing to bear fruit at a season when fruit was impossible.
THE DYNAMIC OF PRAYER (Matthew 21:18-22 continued)
This passage concludes with certain words of Jesus about the dynamic of prayer. If these words are misunderstood, they can bring nothing but heartbreak; but if they are correctly understood, they can bring nothing but power.
In them Jesus says two things; that prayer can remove mountains, and that, if we ask in belief, we will receive. It is abundantly clear that these promises are not to be taken physically and literally. Neither Jesus himself nor anyone else ever removed a physical, geographical mountain by prayer. Moreover, many and many a person has prayed with passionate faith that something may happen or that something may not happen, that something may be given or that someone may be spared from death, and in the literal sense of the words that prayer has not been answered. What then is Jesus promising us through prayer?
(i) He promises that prayer gives us the ability to do. Prayer is never the easy way out; never simply pushing things on to God for him to do them for us. Prayer is power. It is not asking God to do something; it is asking him to make us able to do it ourselves. Prayer is not taking the easy way; it is the way to receive power to take the hard way. It is the channel through which comes power to tackle and remove mountains of difficulty by ourselves with the help of God. If it were simply a method of getting things done for us, prayer would be very bad for us, for it would make us flabby and lazy and inefficient. Prayer is the means whereby we receive power to do things for ourselves. Therefore, no man should pray and then sit and wait; he must pray and then rise and work; but he will find that, when he does, a new dynamic enters his life, and that in truth with God all things are possible, and with God the impossible becomes that which can be done.
(ii) Prayer is the ability to accept, and in accepting, to transform. It is not meant to bring deliverance from a situation; it is meant to bring the ability to accept it and transform it. There are two great examples of that in the New Testament.
The one is the example of Paul. Desperately he prayed that he might be delivered from the thorn in his flesh. He was not delivered from that situation; he was made able to accept it; and in that very situation he discovered the strength that was made perfect in his weakness and the grace which was sufficient for all things--and in that strength and grace the situation was not only accepted, but also transformed into glory (2 Corinthians 12:1-10).
The other is Jesus himself. In Gethsemane he prayed that the cup might pass from him and he be delivered from the agonizing situation in which he found himself; that request could not be granted, but in that prayer he found the ability to accept the situation; and, in being accepted, the situation was transformed, and the agony of the Cross led straight to the glory of the Resurrection. We must always remember that prayer does not bring deliverance from a situation; it brings conquest of it. Prayer is not a means of running away from a situation; it is a means whereby we may gallantly face it.
(iii) Prayer brings the ability to bear. It is natural and inevitable that, in our human need and with our human hearts and our human weakness, there should be things which we feel we cannot bear. We see some situation developing; we see some tragic happening approaching with a grim inevitability; we see some task looming ahead which is obviously going to demand more than we have to give to it. At such a time our inevitable feeling is that we cannot bear this thing. Prayer does not remove the tragedy; it does not give us escape from the situation; it does not give us exemption from the task; but it does make us able to bear the unbearable, to face the unfaceable, to pass the breaking point and not to break.
So long as we regard prayer as escape, nothing but bewildered disappointment can result; but when we regard it as the way to conquest and the divine dynamic, things happen.
THE EXPEDIENT IGNORANCE (Matthew 21:23-27)
21:23-27 When Jesus had come into the Temple precincts, the chief priests and elders of the people came to him as he was teaching and said, "By what authority do you do these things? And who gave you this authority?" Jesus answered them, "I will ask you one question, and if you give me an answer to it, I too will tell you by what authority I do these things. Whence was the baptism of John? Was it from heaven? Or, was it from men?" They debated within themselves. "If," they said, "we say 'From heaven,' he will say to us, 'Why then did you not believe in him?' But, if we say, 'From men,' we fear the crowd, for all regard John as a prophet." So they answered Jesus, "We do not know." So he too said to them, "Neither do I tell you by what authority I do these things."
When we think of the extraordinary things Jesus had been doing, we cannot be surprised that the Jewish authorities asked him what right he had to do them. At the moment Jesus was not prepared to give them the direct answer that his authority came from the fact that he was the Son of God. To do so would have been to precipitate the end. There were actions still to be done and teaching still to be given. It sometimes takes more courage to bide one's time and to await the necessary moment, than it does to throw oneself on the enemy and invite the end. For Jesus everything had to be done in God's time; and the time for the final crisis had not yet come.
So he countered the question of the Jewish authorities with a question of his own, one which placed them in a dilemma. He asked them whether John's ministry came from heaven or from men, whether it was divine or merely human in its origin. Were those who went out to be baptized at the Jordan responding to a merely human impulse or were they in fact answering a divine challenge? The dilemma of the Jewish authorities was this. If they said that the ministry of John was from God, then they had no alternative to admitting that Jesus was the Messiah, for John had borne definite and unmistakable witness to that fact. On the other hand, if they denied that John's ministry came from God, then they would have to bear the anger of the people, who were convinced that he was the messenger of God.
For a moment the Jewish chief priests and elders were silent. Then they gave the lamest of all lame answers. They said, "We do not know." If ever men stood self-condemned, they did. They ought to have known; it was part of the duty of the Sanhedrin, of which they were members, to distinguish between true and false prophets; and they were saying that they were unable to make that distinction. Their dilemma drove them into a shameful self-humiliation.
There is a grim warning here. There is such a thing as the deliberately assumed ignorance of cowardice. If a man consults expediency rather than principle, his first question will be, not, "What is the truth?" but, "What is it safe to say?" Again and again his worship of expediency will drive him to a cowardly silence. He will lamely say, "I do not know the answer," when he well knows the answer, but is afraid to give it. The true question is not: "What is it safe to say?" but, "What is it right to say?"
The deliberately assumed ignorance of fear, the cowardly silence of expediency are shameful things. If a man knows the truth, he is under obligation to tell it, though the heavens should fall.
THE BETTER OF TWO BAD SONS (Matthew 21:28-32)
21:28-32 Jesus said: "What do you think? A man had two children, He went to the first and said, 'Child, go and work in my vineyard today.' He answered, 'I will not.' But afterwards he changed his mind and went. He went to the second and spoke to him in the same way. He answered, 'Certainly, sir.' And he did not go. Which of these two did the will of his father?" "The first," they answered. Jesus said to them: "This is the truth I tell you--the tax-collectors and harlots go into the Kingdom of Heaven before you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe in him; but the tax-gatherers and harlots did believe in him. And when you saw this, you did not even then change your minds, and so come to believe in him."
The meaning of this parable is crystal clear. The Jewish leaders are the people who said they would obey God and then did not. The tax-gatherers and the harlots are those who said that they would go their own way and then took God's way.
The key to the correct understanding of this parable is that it is not really praising anyone. It is setting before us a picture of two very imperfect sets of people, of whom one set were none the less better than the other. Neither son in the story was the kind of son to bring full joy to his father. Both were unsatisfactory; but the one who in the end obeyed was incalculably better than the other. The ideal son would be the son who accepted the father's orders with obedience and with respect and who unquestioningly and fully carried them out. But there are truths in this parable which go far beyond the situation in which it was first spoken.
It tells us that there are two very common classes of people in this world. First, there are the people whose profession is much better than their practice. They will promise anything; they make great protestations of piety and fidelity; but their practice lags far behind. Second, there are those whose practice is far better than their profession. They claim to be tough, hardheaded materialists, but somehow they are found out doing kindly and generous things, almost in secret, as if they were ashamed of it. They profess to have no interest in the Church and in religion, and yet, when it comes to the bit, they live more Christian lives than many professing Christians.
We have all of us met these people, those whose practice is far away from the almost sanctimonious piety of their profession, and those whose practice is far ahead of the sometimes cynical, and sometimes almost irreligious, profession which they make. The real point of the parable is that, while the second class are infinitely to be preferred to the first, neither is anything like perfect. The really good man is the man in whom profession and practice meet and match.
Further, this parable teaches us that promises can never take the place of performance, and fine words are never a substitute for fine deeds. The son who said he would go, and did not, had all the outward marks of courtesy. In his answer he called his father "Sir" with all respect. But a courtesy which never gets beyond words is a totally illusory thing. True courtesy is obedience, willingly and graciously given. On the other hand the parable teaches us that a man can easily spoil a good thing by the way he does it. He can do a fine thing with a lack of graciousness and a lack of winsomeness which spoil the whole deed. Here we learn that the Christian way is in performance and not promise, and that the mark of a Christian is obedience graciously and courteously given.
THE VINEYARD OF THE LORD (Matthew 21:33-46)
21:33-46 Jesus said, "Listen to another parable. There was a householder who planted a vineyard, and surrounded it with a hedge, and dug a wine press in it, and built a tower, and gave it out to cultivators and went away. When the time of the fruits had come, he dispatched his servants to the cultivators, to receive his fruits; and the cultivators took his servants, and beat one of them, and killed another of them, and stoned another of them. Again he dispatched other servants, more than the first; and they did the same to them. Afterwards he dispatched his son to them. 'They will respect my son,' he said. But when the cultivators saw the son, they said to themselves, 'This is the heir. Come, let us kill him, and let us take the inheritance.' And they threw him out of the vineyard and killed him. When the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to these cultivators?" They said to him, "He will bring these evil men to an evil end, and he will give out the vineyard to other cultivators, who will pay him the fruits at their correct time." Jesus said to them, "Have you never read in the Scriptures: ' The stone which the builders rejected, this has become the headstone of the corner. This is the doing of the Lord, and it is amazing in our eyes? That is why I tell you that the Kingdom of God will be taken from you, and will be given to a nation which produces its fruits. And he who falls against the stone will be broken; and it will shatter to powder him on whom it falls."
When the chief priests and Pharisees heard his parables, they knew that he was speaking about them. They tried to find a way to lay hold on him, but they were afraid of the crowds, for they regarded him as a prophet.
In interpreting a parable it is normally a first principle that every parable has only one point and that the details are not to be stressed. Normally to try to find a meaning for every detail is to make the mistake of treating the parable as an allegory. But in this case it is different. In this parable the details do have a meaning and the chief priests and the Pharisees well knew what Jesus was meaning this parable to say to them.
Every detail is founded on what, for those who heard it, was familiar fact. The Jewish nation as the vineyard of God was a familiar prophetic picture. "The vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel" (Isaiah 5:7). The hedge was a thick-set thorn hedge, designed to keep out both the wild boars who might ravage the vineyard, and the thieves who might steal the grapes. Every vineyard had its wine press. The wine press consisted of two troughs either hollowed out of the rock, or built of bricks; the one was a little higher than the other, and was connected with the lower one by a channel. The grapes were pressed in the higher trough and the juice ran off into the lower trough. The tower served a double purpose. It served as a watch-tower, from which to watch for thieves when the grapes were ripening; and it served as a lodging for those who were working in the vineyard.
The actions of the owner of the vineyard were an quite normal. In the time of Jesus, Palestine was a troubled place with little luxury; it was, therefore, very familiar with absentee landlords, who let out their estates and were interested only in collecting the rental at the right time. The rent might be paid in any of three ways. It might be a money rent; it might be a fixed amount of the fruit, no matter what the crop might be; and it might be an agreed percentage of the crop.
Even the action of the cultivators was not out of the common. The country was seething with economic unrest; the working people were discontented and rebellious; and the action of the cultivators in seeking to eliminate the son was not by any means impossible.
As we have said, it would be easy for those who heard this parable to make the necessary identifications. Before we treat it in detail, let us set these identifications down. The vineyard is the nation of Israel, and its owner is God. The cultivators are the religious leaders of Israel, who as it were had charge for God of the welfare of the nation. The messengers who were sent successively are the prophets sent by God and so often rejected and killed. The son who came last is none other than Jesus himself. Here in a vivid story Jesus set out at one and the same time the history and the doom of Israel.
PRIVILEGE AND RESPONSIBILITY (Matthew 21:33-46 continued)
This parable has much to tell us in three directions.
(i) It has much to tell us about God.
(a) It tells of God's trust in men. The owner of the vineyard entrusted it to the cultivators. He did not even stand over them to exercise a police-like supervision. He went away and left them with their task. God pays men the compliment of entrusting them with his work. Every task we receive is a task given us to do by God.
(b) It tells of God's patience. The master sent messenger after messenger. He did not come with sudden vengeance when one messenger had been abused and ill-treated. He gave the cultivators chance after chance to respond to his appeal. God bears with men in all their sinning and will not cast them off.
(c) It tells of God's judgment. In the end the master of the vineyard took the vineyard from the cultivators and gave it to others. God's sternest judgment is when he takes out of our hands the task which he meant us to do. A man has sunk to his lowest level when he has become useless to God.
(ii) It has much to tell us about men.
(a) It tells of human privilege. The vineyard was equipped with everything--the hedge, the wine press, the tower--which would make the task of the cultivators easy and enable them to discharge it well. God does not only give us a task to do; he also gives us the means whereby to do it.
(b) It tells of human freedom. The master left the cultivators to do the task as they liked. God is no tyrannical task-master; he is like a wise commander who allocates a task and then trusts a man to do it.
(c) It tells of human answerability. To all men comes a day of reckoning. We are answerable for the way in which we have carried out the task God gave us to do.
(d) It tells of the deliberateness of human sin. The cultivators carry out a deliberate policy of rebellion and disobedience towards the master. Sin is deliberate opposite to God; it is the taking of our own way when we know quite well what the way of God is.
(iii) It has much to tell us about Jesus.
(a) It tells of the claim of Jesus. It shows us quite clearly Jesus lifting himself out of the succession of the prophets. Those who come before him were the messengers of God; no one could deny them that honour; but they were servants; he was the Son. This parable contains one of the clearest claims Jesus ever made to be unique, to be different from even the greatest of those who went before.
(b) It tells of the sacrifice of Jesus. It makes it clear that Jesus knew what lay ahead. In the parable the hands of wicked men killed the son. Jesus was never in any doubt of what lay ahead. He did not die because he was compelled to die; he went willingly and open-eyed to death.
THE SYMBOL OF THE STONE (Matthew 21:33-46 continued)
The parable concludes with the picture of the stone. There are two pictures really.
(i) The first is quite clear. It is the picture of a stone which the builders rejected but became the most important stone in the whole building. The picture is from Psalms 118:22 : "The stone which the builders rejected has become the head of the corner." Originally the Psalmist meant this as a picture of the nation of Israel. Israel was the nation which was despised and rejected. The Jews were hated by all men. They had been servants and slaves of many nations; but none the less the nation which all men despised was the chosen people of God.
It may be that men reject Christ, and refuse him, and seek to eliminate him, but they will yet find that the Christ whom they rejected is the most important person in the world. It was Julian, the Roman Emperor, who tried to turn the clock back, tried to banish Christianity, and to bring back the old pagan gods. He failed and failed completely; and at the end of it the dramatist makes him say, "To shoulder Christ from out the topmost niche was not for me." The man upon the Cross has become the Judge and King of all the world.
(ii) The second "stone" picture is in Matthew 21:44, although it is to be noted that some manuscripts omit this verse altogether. This is a more difficult picture--of a stone which breaks a man, if he stumbles against it, and which crushes a man to powder, if it falls upon him. It is a composite picture, put together from three Old Testament passages. The first is Isaiah 8:13-15 : "The Lord of hosts him you shall regard as holy; let him be your fear, and let him be your dread. And he will become a sanctuary, and a stone of offence, and a rock of stumbling to both houses of Israel a trap and a snare to the inhabitants of Jerusalem. And many shall stumble thereon; they shall fall and be broken; they shall be snared and taken." The second is Isaiah 28:16 : "Behold, I am laying in Zion for a foundation a stone, a tested stone, a precious cornerstone, of a sure foundation." The third is Daniel 2:34; Daniel 2:44-45 where there is a strange picture of a stone, cut without hands, which broke in pieces the enemies of God.
The idea behind this is that all these Old Testament pictures of a stone are summed up in Jesus Christ. Jesus is the foundation stone on which everything is built, and the corner stone which holds everything together. To refuse his way is to batter one's head against the walls of the law of God. To defy him is in the end to be crushed out of life. However strange these pictures may seem to us, they were familiar to every Jew who knew the prophets.
-Barclay's Daily Study Bible (NT)
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Barclay, William. "Commentary on Matthew 21". "William Barclay's Daily Study Bible". https://www.studylight.org/
the Second Week after Epiphany