Our reading today begins with Jesus’s teaching about divorce. The Pharisees seek to catch Jesus in some misunderstanding of the Law in order to discredit Him (19:3). And the Pharisees ask Jesus about divorce – a topic as thorny then as it is today. And what they do is ask Jesus not what the law says, but if divorce is allowed for any cause. And Jesus answers the question not by correcting them on the Law, but by pointing them back to the original creation (vv. 4-5). This was before sin entered the world and when everything was as God created it to be. And Jesus’s conclusion is that we cannot separate what God has brought together (v. 6). Now the Pharisees have to point to what the Law says about divorce and ask, in essence, why Jesus’s answer seems to contradict it (v. 7). But the key is that divorce was never commanded, it was allowed. And why was it allowed? Because sin did enter the world, and things are not as God created them. In order to protect people from sin upon sin (the offended party because of the sin of another), God allowed divorce (v. 8) according to the Law (v. 9). And note that the sin Jesus describes is for remarriage after an unlawful divorce, not the divorce itself.
Divorce and remarriage was as rampant then as it is now. Of course, in a patriarchal society, only men could initiate divorce, which is why divorce was allowed: to protect women! The disciples see Jesus answer as a caution against marriage at all (v. 10). And Jesus explains that not everyone can stay unmarried to focus solely on the work of the kingdom (vv. 11-12). If you can go without marriage (i.e., lawful sex) then do so. If you cannot, there is nothing wrong with marriage (see 1 Cor 7).
Jesus then offers two object lessons to illustrate some previous teaching. First, when children are brought to Him so He can pray over them, His disciples try to stop it, thinking it a waste of their Teacher’s time (v. 13). But Jesus takes the time, reminding them of what He said about the kingdom belonging to little children, and the humility they need (v. 14 – see 18:1-4). Then, in His exchange with the Rich Young Ruler (vv.16-29), Jesus shows the need to seek first the kingdom of heaven (see 6:19-24, 8:18-22, 13:44, 45, 16:24-27). In this exchange, Jesus also shows the uselessness of outward acts when the heart is not willing to suffer loss in this world. Jesus tells the young man that choosing the heavenly (Jesus) over the earthly (possessions) will make him “perfect” (v. 21). This is what we are called to (see 5:48).
Jesus’s assertion that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for the rich to enter heaven (v. 24) shows the trouble with seeing only through earthly eyes. It is physically impossible for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle. It is also impossible to enter heaven when your priority is the physical! It is impossible without the Holy Spirit changing our hearts and priorities (v. 26). He then promises the disciples that their shunning of earthly things for Him will gain them everything, as it will all who seek Christ first (vv. 28-29 – see 6:33).
Chapter 20 begins with the Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard (20:1-16). Note that this was spoken only to the disciples. This is spoken on the heels of what we just saw in the previous chapter, especially 19:30. It is part of the same teaching, and it goes with the object lesson of the children. He is warning them against what he warned against in 18:1-4. Yes, they have left lands and family and possessions to follow Jesus. They were the first. And yes, they will receive manifold in the world to come for their sacrifice for the sake of the kingdom. But this is true of every true follower of Jesus.
Jesus then again tells them about His coming suffering, death, and resurrection (vv. 17-19). And then, Matthew records the request of the mother of John and James (v.20-21). This is exactly what Jesus just warned against. And the other Apostles reaction (v. 24)? This is exactly what Jesus just warned against. They would all suffer for His sake like He will suffer (v. 23). But He also came to serve (v. 28). Their desire should be to serve, not to be exalted (vv. 25-27).
Chapter 21 records the Triumphal Entry. Jesus ministry is coming to an end. He must now fulfill all that was prophesied of Him. So the time for secrecy was over, and it was time to reveal Himself to everyone. Jesus sends two of His disciples to find a donkey and her colt (21:1-2). Jesus is now fulfilling the prophecy of Zechariah 9:9, which was a Messianic prophecy. This is His public announcement of Who He is. And the crowds get it, loud and clear. Just as Solomon rode on the donkey of David to declare his kingship (1 Kings 1:33, 38), so the true Son of David enters in glorious procession to be declared the King.
And He is. The crowd spreads their coats and branches on the road (v. 8), not wanting the heavenly King’s steed to even touch the earth. And they shout the words of Psalm 118 (v.9), and refer to Jesus as the promised Son of David, and ask for His salvation. “Hosanna” is the Hebrew for “save us” from Psalm 118:25, a prayer that was directed to YHWH. Here, the crowds pray it to Jesus. And yet, He comes in the name of YHWH (Ps 118:26). He is God, but He is also here on behalf of God (see John 1:1, 14). Jesus fulfilled Psalm 118:25-26. He would next fulfill Psalm 118:27 through His sacrifice.
Jesus then cleanses the Temple for a second time (v. 12 – the cleansing in John 2:13-16 was the first time). He began His ministry in Jerusalem by doing this, and He does again here His final time in Jerusalem. The Jews made a place of spiritual worship into a place of physical gain (v. 13). Children then follow Jesus into the Temple and continue to yell “Hosanna to the Son of David” (v. 15). When the religious leaders ask Jesus indignantly “don’t you hear what they’re saying?!?” (v. 16), Jesus answers by quoting the Septuagint translation of Psalm 8:2. In essence, He is saying these children are right.
After spending the night at the home of His friend Lazarus in Bethany (which we will see in the Gospel of John), Jesus uses a fig tree as an object lesson of His teaching on trees and fruit (see 7:15-20, 12:33-35). The fig tree produces no fruit (v. 19) so Jesus destroyed it with a word (v. 20 – see 2 Thess 2:8, Rev 19:15). When the disciples are astonished at the withered tree (which Mark tells us was actually over the course of two days – see Mk 11:12-14, 20-21 – but again, Matthew is concerned with theology, not chronology), Jesus turns it into a lesson about faith. If they have faith, not only can they do what Jesus did to this tree, but they can move “this” mountain into the sea (v. 21).
Is Jesus saying that if we have enough faith we can physically destroy trees and physically move mountains into the sea? No. The tree represents spiritually “bad trees” – unbelievers. “This” mountain is the Temple mount. Whereas Mt. Hermon represented heaven and faith moves it “from here to there” (see 17:20 and what we said about that), here, the mountain that represents the unbelieving Jews can be moved, not from place to place to place, but into the sea (as in, destroyed). Jesus is telling His disciples that by faith, they can overcome the world (as in, the world over against God’s people).
Now Jesus enters the Temple again. The last thing He said to the religious leaders in the Temple was, in essence, “I am YHWH, the Messiah, and the Son of David” (see 21:16). Now, as He is teaching, they confront Him (along with the elders of the people) and demand to know by what authority He is doing what He is doing (v. 23). Jesus answers their question with a question about what they believe about John the Baptist (v. 25). And we see once again that they are not interested in truth. They are only interested in preserving their standing with the people (vv. 25-26). And Jesus then tells them that He will not answer their question (v. 27). It should be obvious to them, and they should learn from their mistake with their unjust persecution of John.
Then Jesus tells a Parable about them, to them (vv. 28-31). He asks, who does the will of the Father? The one who honors Him with his mouth, or the one who honors Him with his life? The one who cares about what people think of him, or the one who does the will of the Father with no one knowing? Jesus then condemns them for their disingenuous rejection of John because they wanted to protect their reputations (v. 32).
Jesus then tells them the Parable of the Tenants (vv. 33-39). The Master of the House is God. The vineyard is the Promised Land, as in, God’s promised rest (salvation). The tenants are the Jews. When they should have responded to Him in faith (produced fruit) God sent His prophets, and they beat them and killed them. So God sent His Son. Note that in the parable, it isn’t that the tenants didn’t know it was the Son! It is because they knew that they killed Him in order to preserve what they had. So what will happen to them (v. 40)? God will reject them like they rejected Him, and the promise will be given to others who have not been the tenants of the land (v. 41).
Jesus then quotes Psalm 118:22-23. Why? Because their confrontation was over His accepting the praise of Psalm 118:25 (v. 15). He then tells them in no uncertain terms that their rejection of Him will result in the giving of the kingdom to others (the Gentiles), and that they (the Jews) will be destroyed. And they completely understand what He is saying, but were too afraid to do anything about it (vv. 45-46).
Chapter 22 begins with another parable directed at the religious leaders. It is the Parable of the Wedding Feast (22:1-14). While it reveals the same truth as the Parable of the Tenants – Israel will be rejected and the Gentiles given the promise by faith – it differentiates between the universal call of the Gospel and the effectual call of the Gospel. Both good and bad are called (v. 10), because everyone is called to respond to the Gospel. But not all will respond with faith (see John 3:36 where faith is contrasted with disobedience – faith is obedience). Without faith, one is not covered with the righteousness of Christ (v. 11), and he will be judged (v. 13). Many are called (universal call) but few are chosen (effectual call). There is no denying the sovereignty of God in salvation in this parable.
But the religious leaders don’t give up yet! The Pharisees try to trip up Jesus by making Him declare allegiance to Israel or to Rome. They are deceitful in their “compliment” of Jesus (v. 16) and then ask Him about taxes (v. 17). In asking if it is lawful, they are asking Jesus if people should obey the Law of God, or the law of their earthly rulers. It is, however, a false dilemma. Taxes are due to earthly rulers, obedience is due to God. (v. 21). The Pharisees wanted to offer neither!
Then the Sadducees, who did not believe in the resurrection (or much of the spiritual realm) ask Jesus a question about the Law. It is a reductio ad absurdum argument. Since Levirate Marriage is the Law (v. 24 – see Deut 25:5-6), then in certain situations (vv. 25-27) things will be awfully confusing if there is a resurrection (v. 28). So Jesus exposes their ignorance of the Law, the resurrection, and of God (v. 29)! Marriage is meant as an earthly picture of our relationship with God, and when this earth passes away, so does that picture, because we will live the reality (v. 30). And of they don’t believe in everlasting life, they don’t believe in God (vv. 31-32).
Now the Pharisees take another shot. Since Jesus is so well versed in the Law (and why wouldn’t He be? It is His law!), then they want to know which Law is the most important. If they can get Him to answer on the importance of one, they may be able to say that He downplays the other 612. So Jesus answers by quoting the Shema (v. 37 – see Deut 6:5), and He calls it the great and first commandment (v. 38). Why? Well, remember the First Commandment (Ex 20:2-3). All the other commandments are an exposition of this first one. But then Jesus adds to it with a second like it, and quotes Leviticus 19:18 (v. 39). This is how the first and great commandment is lived out.
But Jesus doesn’t give them the chance to respond to His answer. He asks them a question first. He asks Who’s Son the Christ is (v. 42). And the Pharisees answer that He is the Son of David. But Jesus quotes Psalm 110:1 to show that this cannot be the case, since David refers to the Messiah as his Lord (vv. 43-45). In other words, the Messiah is not just the Son of David. He is the Son of God. And with this, the Pharisees and Sadducees give up trying to discredit Him (v. 46). They will just kill Him…