Summary Matthew Chapter 21

This chapter began with the triumphal entry into Jerusalem. If I hurry, perhaps I can get this post up in time for Palm Sunday which is coming up. From there we had the cleansing of the Temple, the cursing of the fig tree, and we concluded with a couple of paragraphs about the sort of people who would get into the kingdom of the heavens. Hint: (self-)righteous Jews are not at the top of the list.

The cursing of the fig tree is one of the more interesting pieces of the chapter. The story was in Mark, but this version changes things around a bit. It always struck me as curious that a) Jesus expect the tree to have figs, even though it was spring, rather than the season for figs; and b) when his unreasonable quest for figs is thwarted, he gets really annoyed and curses the tree. In this story, it withers on the spot, whereas in Mark it happened over the course of the day. One question: rather than using his power to curse the tree, why not use it to produce figs? Well, of course, because the tree is a metaphor. It’s meant to tell us what will happen to those trees that do not bear good fruit; or any fruit at all. In which case, it’s again unlikely that this story reflects any kind of real-world experience that occurred with Jesus; of course, this necessarily implies that it was made up later. But is that any more likely? Let’s think about this for a moment. The point of the story is that those not bearing good fruit don’t make it to the kingdom of God/heaven/the heavens. How soon did that message become part of the teaching? Did it start with Jesus? And we need to realise that, just because teaching of the kingdom can (probably) be traced back to Jesus, that’s not the same thing as saying that some will be excluded from it. Personally, I think it makes more sense for this message to develop after a period of time, after the acceptance of Jesus among Jews had tapered off to a trickle, and after the higher caste of society perhaps did not find the message of Jesus as appealing as other members did. So I think this is a bit of ex-post-facto rationalization of the way this all developed.

And to emphasize this, we get the next two parables that tell us that those we might expect to inherit–the A-listers, as it were–would not be the ones to inherit the kingdom after all. The two sons tells us that it won’t be the righteous, the ones who agree on the outside, but with their fingers crossed, who enter the kingdom, but the repentant. It will be those who rebelled at first, taking the wrong path, but eventually they have a change of heart. This was also the message of the Workers in the Vineyard: yes, some will be late-comers, who won’t have worked through the heat of the day, but their reward will be the same. So we have the sinners, the tax collectors, the despised, upon whom the righteous look down upon with scorn who will enter the kingdom. The followers of Jesus were, apparently, a disreputable lot in the view of many of these self-same righteous people. But, oh well, the joke is on the righteous, apparently. On one hand, the Wicked Tenants does not have to be about Jews and Gentiles. It works perfectly well on a good vs bad level. Here, however, the wicked ones do not repent, but persist in their evil ways. It’s only when the high priests realize that Jesus was speaking about them does the Jew/pagan theme creep in, I think. After all, the high priests are not outwardly wicked, so their eventual exclusion is perhaps rather startling. If the priests won’t enter, who will?

Of course, the idea of the priests not being wicked should be qualified. They have not been wicked–yet. Of course their wicked behaviour is described when the Wicked Tenants kill the son of the owner of the vineyard. The role that the priests will play in the soon-t0-come death of Jesus is perfectly anticipated in the parable. Perfectly? A little too perfectly, doesn’t it seem? So this is more evidence that this piece was composed after Jesus’ death, when the outcome had become clear, even if the perpetrators had been invented.

But this latter was composed pretty early, since it was in Mark. I would tend to suspect it arose shortly after the Passion narrative came into circulation. This ties neatly in with that, anticipating what the high priests will do. Shall we give credit to James for this? Perhaps, but not necessarily so. Remember, there was not a single Jesus tradition, and this was true already in the time of Paul, who spoke about “other gospels”. And let’s remember that Paul got all his material directly from God, via divine inspiration. How many others like him were there? Or how many who had heard Jesus preach retold the stories of Jesus, which grew in the telling, which is how all true epic poetry comes about. And the story is growing. With Luke it will hit its culmination.

But let’s go back to the fig tree for a few moments. There are several tracks, or layers to this story, and two of them interrelate quite nicely. What is this story? It’s not a parable, but it be called some sort of a cautionary tale. But first and foremost, it’s a blatant demonstration of power. Jesus killed the tree with his words. And he did it in a fit of pique. This hard kernel sometimes gets lost under the metaphors and allegories, but the demonstration of power lies at the base of this. Think about it; how many bad movies have you seen in which personified Death makes the flowers wither and die just by passing too near them? It’s a cliché. That’s more or less what Jesus does here. What sort of person performs wondrous acts like this? Well, a wonder-worker. And this is a particularly unadulterated example of a wonder. Yes, we can–indeed, we did–allegorize this. But the combination of the anger and the power is not terribly edifying for the Messiah, but it is a pretty impressive display for a wonder-worker. This is not someone you want to cross. And the thing is, because it’s not exactly a flattering depiction or description of Jesus, I believe this story is very old. It might even trace to Jesus’ lifetime. Does this mean Jesus actually killed a tree with his words? Perhaps not, but I think it does indicate that people believed he did such things. Just as he healed the lame, gave the blind their sight, and expelled demons. In other words, he worked wonders.

Which leads us to the last part of this. I’ve said numerous times that I think Matthew was actually a bit embarrassed by Jesus’ miracles. I have the sense he found them a bit theatrical, and not in a good sense of the word. So why does he repeat this story? Because it was expected that he would tell this story. He was not excising stories, but he was presenting a more well-rounded picture of Jesus, one emphasizing his divinity. So, he keeps the story; killing a tree with words is the sort of thing a divine person could do, after all. But he has to change the ending, or perhaps the moral of the story. And this new twist takes this from being a rather vulgar display of power and turns it into a lesson about faith. After all, Jesus tells those disciples who witnessed the event that they could command mountains to throw into the sea. This theme of faith as cause of miraculous events is very old. This is part of the original stratum of Jesus’ teaching; that is, I believe that it was part of what Jesus himself actually taught. So Matthew rather kills two birds (fig trees?) with one stone: he taps into the tradition of Jesus’ teaching about faith and uses it to elevate what is, at heart, a somewhat unflattering depiction of the Messiah. And I just want to stress once again just how potentially embarrassing this story is, and how detrimental to the idea of Jesus as divine. It’s the spring; fruit ripens in the fall. Of course there are no figs, and what sort of person–divine, human, or otherwise–would expect there to be ripe fruit? So Matthew needs to change the subject, and quickly. That he didn’t simply leave this on the cutting room floor indicates, I think, just how strong the tradition of Jesus the wonder-worker was, even into Matthew’s day.

The only thing left to discuss is the events of that first Palm Sunday. Matthew doesn’t necessarily add too much to it. In Mark I believe we had a good description of a procession, Jesus in the midst of an entourage that stuck with him. Here, we got a few hints of the attraction this created among the onlookers. What is odd is that when the onlookers asked who Jesus was, Matthew did not take this opportunity to tell the crowd that this was the Messiah, or at least the scion of David. Instead, he settles for calling Jesus a prophet. Why the reticence? If the point of this gospel is to tell us who Jesus is, why not tell us here, too? Later in the Temple, the children are shouting “Hosanna to the son of David”, so why not here as well? Of course, this leads to the question did this happen in any way, shape or form? I’m halfway tempted to say that it did. People did continue to talk about Jesus after he died. Therefore, it’s certainly not outrageous to say that he impressed a fair number of people while he was alive. Think of it this way: Jesus comes to Jerusalem for Passover. He stays with followers who live in Bethany. They all troop into Jerusalem, surrounding Jesus, whether he’s riding a donkey or just walking. It’s not all that far-fetched. The owner of the house may have had that donkey, too. Or that may have belonged to another follower, who had told Jesus where to find the donkey. There is a certain amount of logic to this, and there is nothing terribly unlikely about it. He did draw followers. But from some rather humble beginnings, the story turns into the 50,000 of Simon Zealotes in Jesus Christ Superstar, or the mob scenes depicted in the movies made about Jesus. And here was the grain of sand around which the pearl of the Passion narrative grew. Perhaps Jesus’ entourage did make a bit too much noise, or too much of a spectacle, or interfered with someone or something and drew the attention of the Temple authorities. But did this lead to Jesus’ arrest? Probably not.

In Matthew’s narrative the Cleansing of the Temple was also part of the events of Palm Sunday. This, I feel confident to say, did not happen. This is exactly the sort of disruptive behaviour that would have gotten him arrested on the spot. Neither the Jews nor the Romans would have countenanced a ruckus in the Temple precinct, especially not with the swollen and possibly edgy crowd of visitors to Jerusalem. The question becomes, how odd of a thing was this to invent? My first instinct was “very odd”, but upon further reflection, perhaps not. The Temple commerce was a big deal; the Temple and the priests likely made money on this. So if you wanted to invent something that would irk them, a disruption of this commerce would be a very understandable tale to tell. Plus, it has the advantage of making them seem venal, and not particularly religious since they were only in it for the money.

So the procession into Jerusalem is possible, perhaps even likely. The cleansing of the Temple, perhaps not so much.

About James, brother of Jesus

I have a BA from the University of Toronto in Greek and Roman History. For this, I had to learn classical Greek and Latin. In seminar-style classes, we discussed both the meaning of the text and the language. U of T has a great Classics Dept. One of the professors I took a Senior Seminar with is now at Harvard. I started reading the New Testament as a way to brush up on my Greek, and the process grew into this. I plan to comment on as much of the NT as possible, starting with some of Paul's letters. After that, I'll start in on the Gospels, starting with Mark.

Posted on March 19, 2016, in Chapter 21, gospel commentary, gospels, Historical Jesus, Matthew's Gospel, Summary and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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