Good morning! Today with Matthew 20-21 we finish the general ministry of Jesus and follow along as he makes the dramatic entry into Jerusalem for his final week. The key things I notice in this pair of chapters are Jesus’ emphasis on the inverted expectations of the kingdom of heaven, and the way parables take on a pointed, polemical purpose.
The opening parable in Matthew 20 serves to demonstrate how God’s realm differs from human priorities. When laborers in the vineyard are all given the same pay for different times working, Jesus suggests that an ethic of “you get what you deserve” doesn’t always apply in God’s realm. Sometimes grace isn’t fair, and mercy goes beyond what simple fairness would allow. The human challenge is to be okay with the fact that some people get better than they “deserve”, which doesn’t diminish the rewards that come more easily to those who feel they deserve whatever they’ve received. The exchange between Jesus, James, John and their mother also demonstrates that aspiring for classic success (being on the right and left side of power) is not a worthy goal in God’s realm. Jesus uses the situation as a chance to teach that the greatest people are those who serve.
Within chapter 21, Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem also displays inverted priorities in the ways it mocks Roman power. Matthew finds prophecy-fulfillment in Jesus choosing a donkey to ride on, and biblical historians also suggest it was an intentional contrast with the military warhorses that Roman generals rode when they marched into Jerusalem (likely in the same week, since they’d want to keep the peace during the busy Passover festival). Roman emperors also sometimes rode donkeys over a carpet of palm branches to shouts of “Hosanna!”, so these details make the commentary on power all the more explicit. One more example drives home the counter-cultural priorities and practices of Jesus: The blind and the lame are cured in the temple, yet the powerful priests and scribes receive only scorn.
Coming back to parables again at the end of chapter 21, Matthew includes two that are clear critiques of religious authority. The parable of two sons suggests that perceived wrongdoers and outsiders are more faithful than sanctimonious religious officials, because they actually do what the priests fail to do in the ways of righteousness. Likewise with the parable of wicked tenants, which sounds like it could come directly from one of the Hebrew prophets we read not so long ago. Here God is the landowner who has done everything to care for and make the vineyard fertile. The murderous tenants are religious leaders who have no respect for the prophets or Jesus himself. Jesus directly tells them the moral of the story: holier-than-thou words are not enough, and the religious leaders don’t have anything more than that. Therefore, God’s realm will go to those who can actually bear the fruits of the kingdom. Happy reading!
Please join discussion of this passage at the Daily Bible Facebook group, or comment below. The passage for tomorrow is Matthew 22-23. Thanks for reading!