Things to watch for as you read these chapters.
Monday, January 27, Chapter 19
When it comes to divorce, the Old Testament is not very clear. In Malachi 2:16, we read that God hates divorce, but other statements allow divorce. Jesus goes to the heart of the issue. God created humans as equals, as companions to one another. After the fall, men and women had to procreate, so began to marry. Jesus always argues from the point of perfection. In Heaven, there is no need to marry; on earth, there is a need. Within that need we must always seek perfection, meaning in this case, equality. Jesus rejected both the major schools of thought of his day because they both assumed that only men could or should seek divorce. As Paul wrote later, men and women must treat each other equally within the marriage.
Verse 10 brings up another issue and Jesus’ response seems to cloud the picture. Jesus and John the Baptizer, as far as we know, did not marry because their mission required all their time and attention. Most of us do marry because our missions are not as demanding. God will let us know if we are to remain celibate.
What about becoming a eunuch? Jesus dismissed that as something that happens sometimes, but is not to be sought. Men and women, alike, become eunuchs in practice by not marrying, no surgery necessary. Origen of Alexandria (185-254 AD) in youthful enthusiasm, operated on himself to become a more committed Christian. He later wrote that it was foolish and unnecessary. And while we’re at it, don’t poke out your eye either.
It is sad that the disciples tried to keep the children away from Jesus. You would think that they would have understood, just having heard his comments about being as innocent as a child. By laying on his hands, Jesus blessed them. That had a stronger meaning in Jesus’ day than it does for us now. A blessing was a powerful gift from God.
This brings us to the rich young man. Jesus told him to sell his possessions; he went away sad. In his defense, we must realize that in that culture, still true today, he was responsible for all his relatives, servants, and slaves. He may also have been in charge of the village, more responsibilities. That was a great deal to put at risk. He did not understand that he would gain so much more by taking up that particular cross. We Americans are rich. A billion people in this world live on $2 or less per day. Can we give up our wealth for Jesus?
The eye of a needle. Just read it as written. Only God can get a camel through something that small. Can a rich man get into Heaven? Yes, the same way a camel goes through a needle. If I can give all I have to Jesus, God will still have to pull me into Heaven through the eye of a needle. Doing good deeds is not enough because I am still a sinner. When I get to the Heavenly banquet, I plan to head to the table in the back, next to the kitchen.
Tuesday, January 28, Chapter 20
The parable of the Vineyard Workers is found only in Matthew. It is a parable of Grace; an expression of God’s willingness to save all of us, even if we return to him late in the day.
A denarius was a small silver coin used throughout the Roman Empire to pay Roman soldiers as well as unskilled workers for a day’s work. No one who heard Jesus even paid attention that routine amount. Notice what the man says in verse 4, ‘what is right’. Now, his listeners were thinking several of the lesser bronze coins and fewer coins as the owner hired additional men. At the last hour, he hired the remaining men without suggesting that they would be paid.
At sundown, three surprises occur. First, the master sends his foreman to make the payments. Then he tells him to ‘pay the wage’. That is the direct Greek reading. Jesus’ listeners would have understood it to mean a denarius. In a couple of sentences, Jesus has started to turn the parable on its ear. The third surprise is that the men should be paid in reverse order, allowing those who worked 12 hours to see the one hour workers getting a denarius each. Now the crowd is thinking that everyone will get a raise, but no.
This is yet another story of the Grace of God. As an eleventh century scholar wrote, Simeon held the baby at the beginning of Jesus life and the thief hung beside him at the end. They both joined him in Heaven. Those who suffer the most in this world can look forward to ‘going to the front of the line’ in Heaven. Not to worry, the rest of us will receive the same pay.
Once again, Jesus tells his disciples that he will soon die. To ‘drink the cup’ is a common euphemism generally referring to suffering. Judas aside, James was the first of the Twelve to drink the cup when he was beheaded. His brother was the last. His cup was different that the others who are believed to have been killed. John watched them all go and died of old age, probably in his 90’s.
Verse 26 gives us a basic lesson in being a follower of Jesus: be a servant to everyone. Jesus followed that verbal lesson with a visual one when he healed the two blind men. Taken together, the two lessons tell us that we must open our eyes to the Love of God before we can enter with him into the New Jerusalem.
Wednesday, January 29, Chapter 21
Before Creation, God and His Son planned every day of the life of Jesus. Once the Son became a human, he had to grow and mature the same as the rest of us. The difference is that he was always able to hear the still small voice of God. From my readings of the Gospels, I believe that Jesus was given knowledge when he needed it. Why else would it take him 30 years to prepare for his ministry? Additionally, if he knew everything, he would not be human.
Regardless, Jesus did know that a donkey was waiting for pickup. He may have arranged it. What is important is that it fulfilled Zechariah 9:9. The two men sent to pick it up could have been any of his regular followers. Matthew is alone in saying the colt was with its mother. He also has the strange image of preparing both animals for riding, as if he could. Mark and Luke write that he rode the colt.
Spreading the cloaks on the street was only done for royalty. The reason for the branches is not known. There is some evidence that large groups of pilgrims arriving in Jerusalem would stage just such a parade to celebrate and perhaps even encourage the long-expected Messiah’s arrival. It would have been a bit like a Santa parade today. In that case, most of the people watching would have failed to note that the One True Messiah had indeed arrived.
The quotes in verse 9 come from Psalm 118:25-26 and Jeremiah 31:7; shouted in no particular order. While Jesus had not visited Jerusalem in two years, he was well-known by reputation. As people learned who the rider really was, the buzz of excitement must have increased. They may not have seen him as the Messiah, but they knew he was a famous teacher.
His first move had most of those same people rethinking their opinion of Jesus. For him, it made perfect sense; he had to clean his Father’s House. There were two main targets, the money changers and the sellers of animals for sacrifice. Both activities were allowed and necessary. The problem was that they were being done inside the Temple walls in the Court of the Gentiles. Jesus did not put a stop to them; they continued to the destruction of the Temple nearly 40 years later. It was a symbolic cleansing. In fact, every step, every word of Jesus in the last week carries powerful symbols.
Cursing the fig tree is another of the hard sayings of Jesus. Yet, when we look at it as a symbol, it becomes easy. If I do not bear good fruit, I will face punishment.
The question of authority is important. It is a fair question, then and now. Either Jesus is the Messiah or he is an impostor. The leaders were seeking proof; fair enough except that Jesus had given them three years of proof already. Jesus knew they were really only trying to trick him, so poised his own question. John was baptized by God to announce the Messiah, so Jesus put the leaders on the knife’s edge.
The two parables illustrate what was about to happen. In the first, both sons are disobedient, but the one who repents is saved from judgment. The second parable gives us a picture of what will happen to the second son. The second son is anyone who says he follows God, but never takes care of the needy, always lives for himself. Jesus is talking to you and me, not just the Pharisees.
Thursday, January 30, Chapter 22
The next parable makes it clear that Jesus includes all of us who do not respond to his call. It is also in agreement with the vineyard workers of chapter 20; the lost ones of society will be brought into the kingdom. Reread the Beatitudes of Chapter 5.
Verse 11 begins another difficult section. On the surface, a man is punished for wearing the wrong clothes. But the symbolism is that some people say they want to join in the wedding with Jesus, but are not willing to do what is required to be his Bride. We say we are followers, but our dress proves we are not.
In verse 15, we learn how desperate the Pharisees are becoming; they join forces with the hated followers of Herod. Because Jesus is not himself a trickster, he deals only in the Truth. ‘Use physical goods in the physical world and spiritual goods in the spiritual world.’
Having fended off the combined assault of the Pharisees and Herodians, he faced the Sadducees. You should know that most priests and all Temple leaders were Sadducees. They were all about the Temple and their power ceased to exist after it was destroyed. Their question for Jesus stayed, they thought, with his spiritual theme. Who will she be married to? The answer is: the only marriage in heaven will be all of us married to the Messiah.
Next, for whatever reason, the Pharisees threw him a softball. The greatest command? Deut. 6:5 and the second is Lev 19:18. Why did you even ask?
Jesus turns the tables and asks the Pharisees a tough question. David, in Psalm 110:1, called the Messiah, Lord. The title was never used for one’s children, yet David clearly did that, why? The leaders gave up and left Jesus alone, at least until his arrest. The answer: the Messiah is superior to even King David, having existed with God before Creation. Jesus made a backhanded claim of Messiahship.
Friday, January 31. Chapter 23
This entire chapter is an attack on hypocrites. Jesus begins by pointing to the obvious for his followers, that the men attacking him were the leaders of the synagogues; that is, they sat in the Seat of Moses in the front of the meeting house. Jesus himself was often invited to sit there and never failed to impress people with his teachings.
God gave us the following: Lev 11:10 “But all creatures in the seas or streams that do not have fins and scales—whether among all the swarming things or among all the other living creatures in the water—you are to detest.” Eating shrimp is an abomination to God. Therefore, Pharisees believed they had to make sure they never came in contact with such things. They would never wade in the water or get near a fisherman for fear of accidental contact.
With that picture in mind, read verse 3 and reread 16:12. Jesus spends this entire chapter heaping condemnation of those leaders. It is doubtful that he intends for us to listen to them. It is much more likely that he is saying, ‘You are supposed to obey those who sit in Moses seat, but these hypocrites do not deserve your attention.’ They are busy creating cumbersome rules that do nothing to keep us close to God.
A phylactery is a small box tied to a man’s forehead while in prayer. The box contains four small scraps of paper, one each for the words of Ex. 13:1-10, Ex. 13:11-16, Deut. 6:4-9, and Deut. 11:13-21. They are words we should carry with us in our hearts.
A man’s outer garment also served as a prayer shawl by pulling up a kind of hood. Each of four corners had tassels attached. Each tassel contained a blue thread that symbolically connected the man to the priests of the Temple and thus to God. It did not mean their prayers had to go through the priests, but rather that they had the same standing with God as did the priests.
The meaning of verses 8-10 is made clear by verses 11-12. We cannot take the words literally. Call your parents father and mother. Jesus wants us to shy away from unnecessary pride in titles. Jimmy Carter follows that idea in down playing his rank of President. I have more respect for people who do not bother to add ‘PhD’ to their signatures.
Compare the seven woes to the six woes of Isa. 5:8-25, 28:1-35, & 10. Also the five woes in Hab. 2:6-20. Pride is the major issue. I am a worm before God. I cannot puff myself up to anything else.
Be righteous and do good.