The Motivation to Serve

10      But Jesus, aware of this, said to them, “Why do you bother the woman? For she has done a good deed to Me.
11      “For you always have the poor with you; but you do not always have Me.
12      “For when she poured this perfume on My body, she did it to prepare Me for burial.
13      “Truly I say to you, wherever this gospel is preached in the whole world, what this woman has done will also be spoken of in memory of her.”
(Matthew 26:10-13)

A few things stand out at me from this passage: Continue reading The Motivation to Serve

Woe to You

13 “But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you shut off the kingdom of heaven from people; for you do not enter in yourselves, nor do you allow those who are entering to go in.
14 [“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you devour widows’ houses, and for a pretense you make long prayers; therefore you will receive greater condemnation.]
15 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you travel around on sea and land to make one proselyte; and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as yourselves.
16 “Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‘Whoever swears by the temple, that is nothing; but whoever swears by the gold of the temple is obligated.’
17 “You fools and blind men! Which is more important, the gold or the temple that sanctified the gold?
18 “And, ‘Whoever swears by the altar, that is nothing, but whoever swears by the offering on it, he is obligated.’
19 “You blind men, which is more important, the offering, or the altar that sanctifies the offering?
20 “Therefore, whoever swears by the altar, swears both by the altar and by everything on it.
21 “And whoever swears by the temple, swears both by the temple and by Him who dwells within it.
22 “And whoever swears by heaven, swears both by the throne of God and by Him who sits upon it.
(Matthew 23:13-22)

I have mixed feelings about this chapter. On the one hand, I love it because it obliterates the image of Jesus as a dull, boring, serious guy with no sense of humor. There are exclamation points everywhere (at least there are in translations other than the NASB, which I quoted here). He calls the scribes and Pharisees hypocrites and blind guides. He uses hyperbole and sarcasm to drive his points home. I can just imagine spectators with their mouths agape or snickering into their hands as Jesus verbally undressed these men who took themselves entirely too seriously. On the other hand, I hate it because it exposes my own Pharisaical heart. It’s hard to laugh too much at Jesus’ exaggerations and insults without wondering if they are aimed at me as well.

In verse 13, Jesus begins pronouncing 7 (or 8, depending on your translation) “woes” upon the scribes and Pharisees for actions that motivated his use of the word “hypocrite” to point out that they were appearing one way while acting another. Their very attempts to give the appearance of righteousness showed their lack of righteousness, and today Jesus goes beyond their appearance to expose their hearts. This entire section reminds me of James 3:1, “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.” The Pharisees failed to correctly teach and lead the people God had entrusted to them, and Jesus judges them harshly. Let’s look at why. Continue reading Woe to You

Producing Fruit

The parable of the tenants reminds me a little bit of Nathan confronting David over the Bathsheba incident. Nathan got David to condemn himself by condemning an anonymous person for a similar crime. Jesus does the same thing to the religious leaders with the parable of the tenants. After telling them the parable, he asked them what the master of the house will do when he discovers what the tenants had done. They replied that he will put the tenants to death and find other tenants who will give him the fruits of the vineyard when they ought.

In today’s verses, Jesus, like Nathan before him, tells his audience that they have condemned themselves with their answer:

42 Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the Scriptures:

“‘The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone;
this was the Lord’s doing,
and it is marvelous in our eyes’?

43 Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruits. (Matthew 21:42-43)

I’m not sure what the religious leaders thought Jesus was trying to tell them with the parable, but it clearly wasn’t this. In verse 42, Jesus quotes Psalm 118:22-23 to show that he is the son that the tenants rejected and killed. As we saw when we looked at Matthew 16:18, this idea of Jesus being the rejected cornerstone was not lost on the early church, especially Peter (Acts 4:11; 1 Peter 2:4-8). In verse 43, Jesus confirms that God, as master of the house, would indeed take his vineyard (the kingdom of God) away from the tenants who rejected and killed his son (Israel) and give it to people who would produce its fruits (typically interpreted as the Church). Continue reading Producing Fruit

Dealing with Stupid Questions

23 And when he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came up to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” 24 Jesus answered them, “I also will ask you one question, and if you tell me the answer, then I also will tell you by what authority I do these things. 25 The baptism of John, from where did it come? From heaven or from man?” And they discussed it among themselves, saying, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ 26 But if we say, ‘From man,’ we are afraid of the crowd, for they all hold that John was a prophet.” 27 So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things. (Matthew 21:23-27)

Jesus hadn’t exactly blended into the background since arriving in Jerusalem. After entering the city to a kingly welcome, he proceeded to chase the money-changers and vendors out of the temple before taking up a spot to teach and heal the people who came to him. Not surprisingly, the religious leaders of the day weren’t thrilled by this series of events, and in this passage they come to Jesus to question him yet again.

I’ve never believed in the old maxim that there is no such thing as a stupid question. Having spent most of my life in a classroom, either as a student or a teacher, I can positively state that there are indeed stupid questions. I’ve also found that the stupid questions are usually the ones that are not thought through all the way before being asked or the ones asked from ulterior motives. The chief priests and elders provide further proof of that here.

By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority? If this is an honest question (and I don’t think it is), then we seriously need to question the intelligence of the Jewish leaders. In John 10, Jesus is in Jerusalem, walking around the temple, when the following exchange takes place: Continue reading Dealing with Stupid Questions

Was Jesus an Angry Anti-Capitalist?

12 And Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who sold and bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons. 13 He said to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer,’ but you make it a den of robbers.” (Matthew 21:12-13)

Due to the dispersion of the Jews throughout the ancient world by the Assyrians, Babylonians, Greeks, etc., by Jesus’ time Jerusalem would have been filled with all kinds of travelers and pilgrims at Passover. These travelers would have had foreign money or Roman money and might not have had adequate sacrifices to offer. From the 4 gospel accounts (Mt. 21:12-13; Mk. 11:15-19; Lk. 19:45-48; Jn. 2:14-16) and other historical sources, we can say that the following transactions were taking place within the temple walls (probably in the court of the Gentiles): people would enter the temple and exchange (for a fee) foreign and Roman coins for shekels to be used for offerings and the temple tax; they would then take their shekels and buy animals for the sacrifice (at a mark up appropriate with the fact that there was low supply and high demand).

Although Matthew transitions immediately from Jesus being welcomed with palm branches in verses 1-11 to him arriving at the temple in verse 12, we know from Mark’s account that Jesus actually left Jerusalem after the Triumphal Entry and spent the night in Bethany. It is when he returns to the city the next morning that he clears the temple out.

I’ve found that seemingly everybody has some familiarity with this story, even if they know little else about the gospels. I’ve heard these verses used (by both Christians and non-Christians alike) to condemn capitalism in general and anything resembling commerce on church premises specifically. I’ve also heard them used to excuse aggression and anger. I think each of these interpretations misses the point.

So what’s going on here? Before we talk about what Jesus was doing, let me explain what he was not doing. Continue reading Was Jesus an Angry Anti-Capitalist?

Consider the Cost

Jesus answered, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am to drink?” They said to him, “We are able.” He said to them, “You will drink my cup, but to sit at my right hand and at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.” And when the ten heard it, they were indignant at the two brothers. (Matthew 20:22-24)

Almost 5 years ago, I was in Barnes & Noble, looking through the history and current events section, when I saw a book that was written by an ex-soldier who deserted the army and fled to Canada. The summary on the inside cover told how this man had enlisted in the military as a way to make a living and that he thought he would not be deployed unless World War III broke out. When George W. Bush ordered the invasion of Iraq, he was deployed there and eventually deserted. As a history teacher, it was unfathomable to me that anyone actually thought this way. By a conservative count, America has spent more than 1/4 of its history at war and averaged at least one major war every generation. And this doesn’t even count the various other military conflicts (Indian Wars, the invasion of Grenada, U.N. police actions in Kosovo and Somalia, etc.) in between those bigger wars. The idea that someone would enlist in the military as a way to get a free education, a good salary and benefits package, and a comfortable career, yet not expect to see combat at some point is just stupid. Someone wasn’t paying attention in history class. This guy wanted all the benefit of being part of the U.S. military without any of the risk. He enlisted without considering the cost.

I remembered that book as I read this passage in Matthew because really that’s exactly what’s happening here with James and John. In the preceding verses, they had their mother ask Jesus to give them a place of honor in his kingdom. Jesus, like an ethical army recruiter, tried to warn them of what they were asking. “Are you able to drink the cup that I am to drink?” is a loaded question that went back to what he had taught the disciples a few verses earlier: Continue reading Consider the Cost

Are You a Wise Man?: Three Possible Responses to the Christmas Story

“The Magi Journeying” by James Tissot

1 Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, 2 saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” 3 When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; 4 and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. 5 They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet: 

6 “‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
     are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
     who will shepherd my people Israel.’” 

7 Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared. 8 And he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him.” 9 After listening to the king, they went on their way. And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. 11 And going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. 12 And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way. (Matthew 2:1-12)

I’ve always been struck by this story, so much so in fact that it often finds its way into my devotionals this time of year. Matthew sets up such a stark contrast between Herod, the chief priests and scribes, and the wise men from the east, all of whom were operating with the same information, but none of whom reacted to that information in the same way. While at various points in the story, all three parties knew who had been born (v. 2), where he had been born (v. 5), and why he had been born (v. 6), their responses were vastly different, and I believe mirror the only 3 responses any of us will have to Jesus’ birth story this Christmas: Continue reading Are You a Wise Man?: Three Possible Responses to the Christmas Story

What Has Your Heart?

Jesus said to him, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions. (Matthew 19:21-22)

A quick summary of the preceding context: a man asked Jesus what he must do to have eternal life, Jesus told him to keep the commandments, and the man replied that he had kept all of them and asked what else he is lacking.

Jesus then tells him that if he wants to be perfect, he must sell everything he has and give it to the poor and then follow him. Whoa. Continue reading What Has Your Heart?

Divorce & Remarriage According to Jesus

They said to him, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?” (Matthew 19:7)

a letter of divorce dating back to the 1st century AD (source: 1000 Bible Images, German Bible Society)
a letter of divorce dating back to the 1st century AD
(source: 1000 Bible Images, German Bible Society)

Jesus had been confronted with the question of divorce. The Pharisees, trying to trick Jesus into painting himself into a corner on a controversial issue, asked if a man could divorce his wife for any reason. Jesus responded by pointing them back to Genesis where the man and woman became one flesh, says they were made so by God, and declares that no man should separate what God has joined together.

The Pharisees think they have Jesus trapped. Jesus declared in verse 6 that man should not separate what God has joined together, but the Law clearly allowed for the possibility of divorce. They think their knowledge of the Law was finally superior to Jesus’. In the succeeding verses, we see how Jesus responds to this follow-up question, but for now we’ll look at the passage from Deuteronomy that the Pharisees were referring to: Continue reading Divorce & Remarriage According to Jesus