On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets (Matt 22)

In our Gospel this coming Sunday (Matt 22:34-40), Jesus reinforces the centrality of loving God in all that we do in our discipleship, as well as underlining the importance of loving our neighbour in all that we do. See https://johntsquires.com/2020/10/12/the-greatest-and-first-commandment-and-a-second-like-it-matt-22/

Thos affirmation of these traditions of the faith that Jesus knew and held have carried on in the movement which was initiated in the years after his life, death, and resurrection. Christianity stands on the firm foundation of Jewish faith and ethics, placing love of God and love of neighbour at the very centre of life.

There are other places in our Gospels where, with careful reading, we can see how Jesus affirms, strengthens, and intensifies the Jewish traditions which he has inherited, in the words that he offers his disciples. This is particularly the case in Matthew’s book of origins, which we have been reading this year.

Prayer. Whilst instructing his disciples how to pray (Matt 6:5–15), the Matthean Jesus offers a distinctive formula for prayer (6:9–13). Although this prayer has become known as the distinctive Christian prayer, a close study of Hebrew Scriptures shows that the concept in each clause (and in almost every case, the precise terminology of each clause) has originated in Jewish thought, as the following list indicates:

God is Father (our Father in heaven): Isa 63:16; 64:8; Jer 3:19; Mal 1:6

God is holy (hallowed be your name): Lev 19:1–2; Exod 19:5–6; Isa 6:3

God is King (your kingdom come): Ps 47:2, 8; Ezek 20:33)

God’s will is to be sought (your will be done, on earth as in heaven): Isa 46:10–11; Ps 143:9–10

God’s gift of bread is to be accepted (give us today our daily bread): Ps 104:14–15; 132:15; Lam 1:11).

God remits debt (forgive us our debts): Laws for the remission of debts are found in Deut 15, Exod 21, and Lev 25; deliverance by God is sought in numerous psalm (for instance, Ps 31:15–16; 39:7–8; 66:10; 79:9)

For yours is the kingdom, the power and the glory, the doxology which forms part of the traditional form of this prayer (it is included in some later manuscripts of Matthew) is similar to David’s prayer at the end of his reign as King (1 Chron 29:10–13).

Indeed, all the elements of this prayer are reflected in the synagogue Prayer of Eighteen Benedictions which was most likely in existence at this time, even though we do not have the precise wording prayer of Jesus thus reflects traditional Jewish piety. The central prayer of Jesus thus reflects traditional Jewish piety.

Beatitudes. Jesus begins his Sermon on the Mount with a series of Beatitudes, or blessings. Each one of these beatitudes is based on texts found in the Hebrew Scriptures.

In blessing the poor (5:3) and the meek (5:5), Jesus echoes those psalms which speak of those who are poor and meek, who will receive the justice of God and an earth cleansed of evil-doers as their reward (Ps 9:18; 10:1–2, 8–9; 12:5; 14:6; 40:17; 70:5; 72:4, 12; 140:12). Isaiah 61:1 speaks of the good news to the poor; Proverbs 16:19 commends being poor and having a lowly spirit as desirable for those who trust in God.

The blessing offered to the meek, for they will inherit the earth, recalls the refrain of one of the psalms (Ps 37:11, 22, 29), whilst the blessing on the merciful evokes the prophetic valuing of mercy (Micah 6:6–8; Hosea 6:5–6).

The blessing of the pure in heart who will see God recalls Moses (Exod 3:4; 33:7–11, 12–20; Deut 34:10) as well as words of the psalmist (Ps 17:15; 27:7–9).

Jesus’ blessing of those who hunger and thirst (5:6) similarly evokes earlier biblical blessings on such people (Ps 107:4–9, 33–38; Ezek 34:25–31; Isa 32:1–6; 49:8–12). But in this saying of Jesus, it is specifically those who hunger and thirst for the righteous-justice, of God who are blessed. That righteous-justice, is a central motif of Hebrew scripture.

Righteous-justice is highlighted in the story of Abraham (Gen 15:1-6, 18:19), is found in many psalms (Pss 5:8, 7:17, 33:5, etc), and recurs regularly in the oracles of various prophets (Amos 5:24, Zeph 2:3, Zech 8:7-8, Mal 4:1-2, Jer 9:24, 33:14-16) as well as many times in Isaiah (Isa 9:7, 11:1-5, 42:6, etc). Jesus draws on this tradition in his blessings, and in other teachings.

The blessings uttered by Jesus upon those who are persecuted (5:10, 11–12) recall the promises of God to such people (Ps 34:15–22), as well as the psalms of the righteous sufferer (Ps 22, 31, 69, 71, etc.). God’s blessing is especially granted in situations of persecution.

The Beatitudes resonate strongly with key themes from Hebrew Scripture.

Sermon on the Mount. Later in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus affirms the central religious practices of his faith—alms, prayer and fasting—but instructs his disciples to carry them out with a different motivation : “do not display your piety before others” (6:1–18). Here, Jesus does not represent a radical break with the past, but the fulfilment of prophecy. The new does not replace the old; rather, it has evolved from the old.

We should readily recognise that the three acts which Jesus affirms are central to Jewish faith.

Prayer, of course, runs throughout so many of the stories told in scripture, and shapes the hymn book of ancient Israel, the book of Psalms. There are substantial prayers recorded at 1 Kings 8 and 2 Chron 6 (both Solomon), 2 Kings 19 (Hezekiah), 1 Chron 17 and 1 Chron 29 (both David), Ezra 9 (Ezra), amd Nehemiah 1 and 9 (both Nehemiah). “Hear my prayer” is a regular petition in the Psalms (4:1, 39:12, 54:2, 84:8, 102:1, 143:1).

Likewise, fasting is reflected in the Psalms (35,13, 69:10, 109:24) and in various stories in scripture (1 Ki 21:9, 2 Chron 20:3, Ezra 8:21, 9:5, Neh 1:4, 9:1).

Giving alms, by contrast, is not directly instructed in the Torah. This instruction appears in later Jewish literature, at Sirach 7:10 (linked with prayer) and is referred to a number of times in Tobit. Nevertheless, such generous action is certainly encouraged through the many commandments which instruct care for the poor (Lev 19:9-10, 15, 23:22; Deut 15:11, 24:10-15), the orphans and the widows (Deut 14:28-29, 16:11, 14, 26:12-15; Ps 68:5-6) and the stranger in the land (Deut 10:17-19; Ps 146:9).

The Sermon on the Mount includes the Golden Rule (7:12), a rule that is repeated in various ways throughout the Gospel. All that Jesus has been teaching and encouraging in 5:17–7:11 is summarised by this rule, which is the essence of the law and prophets. This Golden Rule is modelled on Lev 19:18, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself”, and emerges in various forms in the rabbinic writings.

In Jewish traditions, there is a story told about Hillel and Shammai, two Rabbis who consistently held opposite interpretations of Scripture. The story goes that a Gentile asked Shammai to explain to him the entire Jewish law while standing on one foot (i.e. briefly). Shammai drove him away. The Gentile made the same request to Hillel, and was told “What is hateful to you, do not do to anyone. That is the whole law; all the rest is commentary.” That’s as close as can be to the words of Jesus in Matt 7:12.

Towards the end of the Sermon, Jesus criticises those who mouth the confession, “Lord, Lord”, but fail to do God’s will (7:21–23). Such people are condemned as “evildoers” in the NRSV; a more accurate translation is conveyed by the phrase “lawless ones”. It is their inability to live by Torah, the Law, which condemns them.

Alongside the affirmation of the Law in this Sermon (7:12) stands a fierce condemnation of those who do not follow its paths (7:23). The same Greek term (literally, “without law”) is applied in eschatological contexts to those who do not follow the Law (13:41; 24:12) and, with great irony, to the Pharisees (23:28)—those charged with the teaching of the Law! This provides a cutting edge to the stance of the Matthean Jesus: to follow his way means to take seriously the Torah—something which even its authorised teachers appear unable to do.

A relevant story is found in the writings about Hillel and Shammai, two Rabbis who consistently held opposite interpretations of Scripture. The story goes that a Gentile asked Shammai to explain to him the entire Jewish law while standing on one foot (i.e. briefly). Shammai drove him away. The Gentile made the same request to Hillel, and was told “What is hateful to you, do not do to anyone. That is the whole law; all the rest is commentary.”

Which brings us back to the discussion between Jesus and the scribe in Matt 22, where the question posed to Jesus is about identifying the greatest commandment, the instruction which sits as the foundation of the whole Law. Jesus offers his answer, “love God … love neighbour”, and then concludes with the assertion, “on these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (22:40). He strongly affirms these elements of his Jewish tradition as fundamental for discipleship.

The greatest and first commandment … and a second, like it (Matt 22)

The section of the book of origins which is offered as the Gospel reading this coming Sunday (Matt 22:34-40) reveals the fundamental commitment which Jesus of Nazareth had to the Jewish faith and ethic with which he was raised.

The Jewish nature of Jesus is evident right throughout this book, and indeed in each Gospel account in our Bible. The Torah and the covenant with God which were so important for Jesus, also undergird contemporary Judaism and continue as fundamental to the Christian life.

This is made very clear in the first part of this week’s passage (Matt 22:34-40), when Jesus engages in conversation with a teacher of the Torah (the law). To the question, “which commandment in the law is the greatest?”, Jesus responds by citing two, each drawn from Hebrew Scripture, noting that he has quoted “the greatest and first commandment … and a second, like it” (Matt 22:38-39).

Love God. The first commandment cited by Jesus, “love God” (22:37-38), comes from Deuteronomy, the book which provides a comprehensive report of “the statutes and ordinances that I am teaching you to observe” (a phrase which occurs regularly—4:1,5,8,14,40,45, 5:1,31, 6:1,20, 7:11, etc).

Specifically, the command to “love God” is located immediately after The Ten Words were given to Moses and through him to the people (5:1-33), at the very start of the long recital of these “statutes and ordinances” (6:1-26:19).

Indeed, this commandment is nestled into the passage which forms the basis of the daily prayer of faithful Jews: “Hear, O Israel: the Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God ….” (6:4-9). The prayer is known as the Shema (שְׁמַע), which is simply the opening word in Hebrew: Hear!

The offering of these words in prayer twice each day is in response to the clear instruction to “recite them with your children and talk about them … when you lie down and when you rise” at all times (Deut 6:7). To this day, it is traditional for Jews to seek to say the Shema as their last words, and for parents to teach their children to say it before they go to sleep at night.

This portion of Deuteronomy also contains the instruction to “bind [these words] on your hand, fix them … on your forehead, wrote them on the door posts of your house and on your gates” (Deut 6:8)—from which the classic traditional pious Jewish garb is derived.

The third century document, the Mishnah (Berakhot 2:5), links the reciting of the Shema with re-affirming a personal relationship with God’s rule. Reciting the Shema was considered to be akin to “receiving the kingdom of heaven.”

In developing Jewish tradition, two additional texts were added to the Deut 6 text, to produce an expanded Shema: Deut 6:4-9, the fundamental instruction to love God; Deut 11:13-21, reiterating the words about binding and talking, and the blessings that ensue; and Num 15:37-41, reiterating the words about fringes as an important reminder to be obedient to God.

Centuries later, the Talmud points out that subtle references to the Ten Commandments the can be found in the three portions, so the Shema is seen as an opportunity to commemorate the Ten Commandments.

The importance of this commandment is clear in Hebrew Scripture, and continues in the tradition which Jesus has inherited, in that “love God” is the fundamental commandment.

Love Neighbour. The second commandment which Jesus cites, “love your neighbour” (22:39), comes from Leviticus, a book whose name comes from a Greek word derived from the priestly tribe of Levi, as many of its laws relate to priests.

Leviticus unfairly bears a negative reputation, our time, for containing pages and pages of “boring, archaic, irrelevant” laws and regulations. (That is, unless you are talking about *that issue*—in which case Lev 18:22 and 20:13, taken quite out of context, suddenly become of primary and enduring significance.)

The command to “love your neighbour” culminates a series a instructions regarding to the relationship with neighbour: “you shall not defraud your neighbour .. with justice you shall judge your neighbour … you shall not profit by the blood of your neighbour … you shall not reprove your neighbour (19:13-18).

It sits within the section of the book which is often called The Holiness Code—a section which emphasises the word to Israel, that “you shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy” (Lev 19:2; also 20:7,26).

Part of the Paleo-Hebrew Leviticus scroll from the Dead Sea Scrolls,
found in cave 11 at Qumran, the which contains
the oldest known copy of the Holiness Code.

Holiness was central to the people of Israel. Those who ministered to God within the Temple, as priests, were to be especially concerned about holiness in their daily life and their regular activities in the Temple (Exod 28-29; Lev 8-9). The temple priests claimed their role as the authorised interpreters of the Torah, and they were responsible for determining how the matter of holiness was to be worked out in the system of sacrifices brought to the Temple (Ezekiel 44:15–16, 23–24).

Pharisees and scribes alike specialised in the interpretation of Torah and in the application of Torah to ensure that holiness was observed in daily living. They undertook the highly significant task of showing how the Torah was relevant to the daily life of Jewish people.

Whilst the Pharisees clustered around the larger towns in Judea, the scribes were to be found in the synagogues of villages throughout greater Israel, and indeed in any place where Jews were settled. Their task was to educate the people as to the ways of holiness that were commanded in the Torah. It was possible, they argued, to live as God’s holy people at every point of one’s life, quite apart from any pilgrimages made to the Temple in Jerusalem. So there was already an “alternative pathway” for living out holiness in daily life.

“Love your neighbour”, then, was a critical way by which the life of holiness was to be demonstrated.

In this context, then, Jesus reinforces the centrality of loving God in all that we do in our discipleship, as well as underlining the importance of loving our neighbour in all that we do. On these two commandments, says Jesus, “hang all the law and the prophets” (22:40).

That peculiar term, “hang”, has very clear resonances in Jewish tradition. In the third century document, the Mishnah (Hagigah 1.8), we find the claim that “the rules about the Sabbath … are as mountains hanging by a hair”. Centuries later, the Babylonian Talmud (b.Ber. 63a) makes the affirmation that Proverbs 3:6 (“in all your ways acknowledge him”) is “a short text … upon which all the essential principles of the Torah hang”.

Jesus’ affirmation of these traditions of his faith have carried on in the movement which was initiated in the years after his life, death, and resurrection. Paul of course, affirms that “love is the fulfilling of the law” (Rom 13:8-10) and that “the whole law is summed up in a single commandment” (Gal 5:14). In both places he explicitly quotes Lev 19:18.

Centuries later in the developing Christian tradition, Augustine wrote that “all of God’s commandments … are carried out in the right manner when they are motivated by love of God, and because of God, for our neighbour” (Enchiridion 32.121). Still later, the 9th century mystic Theodore of Edessa affirmed that “love unites and protects the virtues” (A Century of Spiritual Texts 83).

We stand on the shoulders of a long line of Jewish faithfulness.

See also https://johntsquires.com/2020/10/01/producing-the-fruits-of-the-kingdom-matt-21/ and the Uniting Church Assembly Statement on Jews and Judaism, https://assembly.uca.org.au/resources/key-papers-reports/item/1704-jews-and-judaism

Darkness, weeping, and gnashing of teeth: the scene of judgement (Matt 22)

Come to the banquet, there’s a place for you … sit you down, be fed and blessed … in your strength or in your weakness, you are welcome: come!

I always enjoyed singing that song, back in the days when we were able to sing when we gathered together for worship. It came to mind as I thought about the parable of the banquet that appears in the Lectionary, as the Gospel reading, this coming Sunday (Matt 22:1-14).

And the story that Jesus tells has wonderful moments of blessing–especially for those who didn’t receive an invitation to the banquet in the initial round of invitations. These people, “both good and bad”, invited in to the banquet hall direct from their business on the streets, were able to share in the largesse of the king (22:9-10). Is it a parable that points to the gracious welcome of God, as all manner of people come into the kingdom?

The very fact that there were, not one, not even two, but three rounds of invitations, underlines this point, surely? The king (presumably a symbol for God) really wants people to take part in this celebratory feast! And even the behaviour of those who decline the invitation might be explained in some reasonable way–the farm needs attending to, the business won’t look after itself (22:5), so their declining the invitation is understandable.

Although, it might be noted that declining the invitation was a breach of the honour-shame code which was dominant in the culture of the time. Reciprocity in relationships and dependence on a wealthy patron would surely have mandated accepting the invitation, one would have thought.

Indeed, the story that Jesus tells doesn’t necessarily lead to the result of blessing for all who come. Indeed, this parable is wracked by tragedy: as many in the first two rounds of people invited to the banquet decline the invitation, some of them mistreat and kill the messengers (22:6). This provokes a murderous retribution by the unhappy king, as he orders his troops to “destroy those murders and burn their city” (22:7). It sounds like yet another parable of judgement. (Matthew has quite a number of these parables–in case you hadn’t noticed!)

And, even when the guests are all present in the banquet hall, the king remains unhappy. Displeased at the lack of appropriate attire seen on one person, he gives the unfortunate guest a tongue lashing (22:12), and orders that a vicious punishment be enacted (22:13).

The parable and ancient customs

It had started off in the typical life-like setting of many of the parables: a scene known to the people to whom Jesus was speaking–or, at least, envisaged in realistic ways by them, even if they had not personally experienced such a scene. It sounded plausible, like it really could be happening.

There’s a wealthy king, a fine banquet, a hall filled with guests, tables laden with an abundance of food. A scene that the more wealthy would have experienced, and that the poorer would perhaps often have dreamed of. Jesus was a master at telling such tales; he knew how to draw people in and engage them fully in the scene.

In many ways, this parables reflects the code of behaviour ingrained in the culture. Meals were locations of intricate and complex rituals which set the patterns of behaviour required. There were expectations of rituals to be followed at the door, as guests arrive and wash their feet (see Gen 18:4, 19:1-2, 24:32; Luke 7:38).

There were rituals in greeting one another, following the prescribed sequence of blessing appropriate for the occasion and for the status of the people involved (amongst numerous examples in Hebrew Scripture, see Gen 18:2, 29:13, 43:27; Ruth 2:4).

There were rituals relating to the seating arrangements, which followed very strictly the hierarchy of status amongst those present (as Gen 43:33 and Prov 25:6-7 each indicate). Once seated, there were rituals relating to the food that was to be served and the order by which it was served to people, once again following the status hierarchy.

And, it would seem, there were rituals relating to the desired form of dress when attending a celebratory wedding banquet (perhaps Eccles. 9:8 is relevant; and maybe Rev 3:5 offers a glimpse of this?). Such rituals were expected to be kept with scrupulous care.

But one guest has breached protocol (22:11). It is precisely when the king pronounces the sentence on the guest who had not donned the prescribed wedding robe (22:12-14), that the parable blurs. The very end of the parable snaps out of the “realistic imaginary scene” that had been painted up to this point. The guest is not wearing his white robe. The guest is not “clothed with righteousness”.

The parable and aspects of judgement

The carnage from the aggressive interaction between the king, his messengers, the reluctant people of the town, and the murderous troops sent by the king (22:3-7), is bad enough. That might well be connected with the behaviour of arrogant, powerful men, who then (as now) ruled the world through the power of their armies; who even ordered the destruction of cities in enemy territory. That still has a ring of realism about it.

However, right at the end of the parable, the words of judgement and punishment that come from the mouth of the king plunges the story right into the midst of the hell-fire and brimstone, judgement and punishment rhetoric, that characterises the distinctive figure of Jesus who is centre-stage in the book of origins, the account of Jesus that we attribute to Matthew.

We have stepped out of the “parable scene”, and into the world of “eternal judgement”. We are no longer listening to Jesus the teller of enticing tales, but Jesus the fiery preacher of apocalyptic doom.

The instruction to “throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (22:14), recalls earlier pronouncements by Jesus in this book of origins: in his words of judgement spoken in Capernaum, where he encounters a distressed centurion (8:12), in his explanation of the parable of the weeds and the wheat (13:42), in the parable of the good and bad fish (13:50).

It is found also in subsequent pronouncements: to his disciples during his final apocalyptic teachings (24:51), and in the climactic parable of the sheep and the goats (25:30). In each case, darkness, weeping, and gnashing of teeth are threatened.

The vision that is depicted in this parable of Jesus is hardly an irenic, thoroughly enjoyable scenario. This is the way that “the heavenly banquet” is often depicted in Hebrew Scriptures–see Isaiah 25:6-7, 55:1-5, 65:17-25; Psalm 36:7-9; Proverbs 9:1-6. Not so, however, in this parable.

Along with those entering the kingdom in joy, there are those debarred from the kingdom, excluded with wrath, destined to endure severe punishment. The king who reigns in this realm exercises definitive judgement and imposes a decisive punishment (Matt 22:13). This is fear-inducing stuff.

Signs of Matthew’s hand in the parable

There are clear signs that Matthew’s hand has been at work throughout this parable, reshaping the story which Jesus told. The phrases found in the ending are one clear sign. Another sign comes from the kind of comparative analysis that we can do, when we compare this version of the parable with two other versions, known to us in literature of the time.

The Gospel of Luke reports that Jesus told this parable (Luke 14:15-24); this version is located in quite a different context, where the focus is on “seeking the lost” (Luke 14:12-14 and 15:1-32). In Matthew, the context is one of judgement and punishment, as is clear in the way the preceding parable ends (Matt 21:42-46). And the Gospel of Thomas also has a version of this parable, one of the teachings of Jesus found in that work (Gos. Thomas 64). Of course, in the Gospel of Thomas, there is no narrative context; the work is comprised of a long string of independent sayings of Jesus.

The host of the banquet in both those alternative versions (Luke and Thomas) was simply “a man”, not a king. That man had “a servant”, not a whole collection of slaves. The invitation was simply to “a dinner” (Thomas) or “a great dinner” (Luke), rather than to “a wedding banquet for his son”. Matthew has really ramped up the setting, placing the story in a very regal setting.

Whilst those unable to attend sent explanations (they are the same in Luke and Thomas), in Matthew’s version “they made light of it”. And the murderous rampage by the king is not found in either alternate version (Luke or Thomas). The whole scene has been ramped up to the highest possible level in Matthew’s version. Everything hangs on what transpires in the story. While the parable in Luke ends with a scene of inclusive celebration, in Matthew the parable ends with savage judgement.

Back to the theme of judgement in Matthew’s Gospel

This outcome of judgement is a recurring theme in the Gospel of Matthew. And this is the challenge for us, today, as we reflect on the version of the parable found in this Gospel. What do we make of a story that points to the inevitable judgement that God will exercise?

It is clear that the function of judgement belongs to God (7:1-2; 10:15; 11:21-24; 12:36). Jesus sets this into the eschatological framework of “the end of time”, when the Son of Man will implement this judgement (13:41; 16:27-28; 19:28; 24:29-31; 25:31).

This judgement is described in graphic terms in the final parable of Jesus in this Gospel (25:31-46). The division of people, at this moment of judgement, into “good and bad”, “sheep and goats”, is made abundantly clear. Those failing to show compassion to “the least” are clearly differentiated from those who are called “the righteous”.

That division has run through the Gospel. We see people distinguished as “evil and good” (5:45; 12:35; 22:10), we see “good trees” and “bad trees” (7:15-19; 12:33), “good seed” and “weeds” (13:24-25, 37-38), “good fish” and “bad fish” (13:47-48).

The Jesus who is presented in this Gospel is a fearful and demanding figure. In his capacity as God’s Messiah, he frequently promises (or threatens) judgement (5:21–26; 7:1–2; 10:15; 11:21–24; 12:36–37; 19:28–30; 21:33–44; 22:1–14; 24:29–31, 36-44, 45–51; 25:1–13, 14–30, 31–46; 26:64). Many of these declarations occur in eschatological contexts, where Jesus is warning about the punishment that is to come unless righteousness is followed in the present.

So the kingdom of heaven will be established “at the end of the age”, when the final judgement of righteous and unrighteous will take place (13:39–40, 49; 24:3). The key connection here must be with the demand for righteous-justice, which has been the central demand of the message preached by Jesus throughout this Gospel, from the early affirmations (3:15; 5:6, 10; 5:20; 6:33), through the parables in chapter 13 (see 13:17, 43, 49), through to the climactic final parable (25:37, 46). See https://johntsquires.com/2020/02/06/an-excess-of-righteous-justice-matt-5/

Judgement is linked to doing what makes for righteous-justice. Here is the key criteria for divine assessment. The man cast out of the wedding banquet was rejected because he was not “clothed in righteous-justice”.

Here is the central call for ethical living from the lips of Jesus, which strengthened and intensified throughout Matthew’s account. Here is the fundamental worldview of the fierce apocalyptic prophet, who comes from Nazareth onto the world stage, to effect judgement.

Now that is a challenge to preach today!!

Producing the fruits of the kingdom (Matt 21)

The parable of Jesus which is set in this Sunday’s lectionary appears to offer an invitation to adopt a negative approach towards Jews and Judaism. The author of the book of origins (by tradition, the evangelist Matthew) interpreted this story as a polemic against the Jewish authorities (Matt 21:33-46).

The parable is set in a vineyard. That’s an age-old symbol for the people of Israel—indeed, this week the lectionary offers us two supplementary passages from Hebrew Scripture (Isaiah 5:1-7 and Psalm 80:7-15) which show how old and enduring this imagery was.

The parable that Jesus tells recounts the hard-hearted way in which the tenants in the vineyard (a traditional symbol for the people of Israel) reject the messengers sent to them by the landowner (seen as a symbol for God), culminating in the atrocious treatment meted out to the landowner’s son (whom we are meant to identify as Jesus, son of God).

The son is put to death. The punchline that Jesus crafts for this parable is potent: those who do not produce the fruits of the kingdom will not inherit the kingdom (21:43). That’s a consistent motif in the teaching of Jesus in this Gospel. But the author of the Gospel reshapes the conclusion so that it seems to apply solely to “the chief priests and the Pharisees” (21:45).

The parable of the vineyard is one of the passages that has been difficult for us to understand accurately. When taken at a literal level, it has led to modern interpretations that are as damaging as they are unfair.

The assumption is that the Pharisees and scribes are the ‘bad guys’, and this has led to the belief that Pharisee equals hypocrite. It is disturbing that such a stereotype has found its way into the language of our modern church.

The context of the parable suggests that although its message was aimed at the chief priests and the Pharisees, it does not exclude other Jewish people. The parable immediately before it refers to the importance of doing the will of God (21:28-31), and concludes that “tax-collectors and prostitutes going into the kingdom of God ahead of you [i.e. the Pharisees and chief priests]” (21:31). The kingdom will certainly provide an interesting gathering of all manner of people! So the parable is a warning about obedience, not a denunciation of the leaders.

Equally disturbing is the notion that Jesus here seems to contradict his own teaching about loving one’s enemy and turning the other cheek. He depicts God as the avenging Lord. So what is really happening here?

I don’t think the parable of Jesus is intended to be simply an anti-Jewish polemic, an invitation to deride or dismiss Judaism and Jews.

It is true that, in the Gospel of Matthew, we find Jesus making some strident accusations and engaging in some vigorous debate with the Jewish authorities. But does he really believe that no faithful Jew will ever again enter the kingdom of heaven?

We need to read in context the rhetoric that Matthew places on the lips of Jesus in this Gospel. Judaism was in a state of flux as people lived under the continuing oppression of Roman rule. The destruction of the Temple in 70 CE was a pivotal moment. Evidence indicates that, during this time, there were various sectarian groups within Judaism who were contesting with each other for recognition and influence. Instead of making common cause against Rome, they continued to fight each other. Vigorous polemic and robust debate amongst Jews were not uncommon.

See https://johntsquires.com/2020/06/11/go-nowhere-among-the-gentiles-matt-105-the-mission-of-jesus-in-the-book-of-origins/

During this period, the Pharisees were becoming increasingly important as an alternative to the Temple cult, and emerging as the dominant Jewish religious movement. Their power base was moved from Jerusalem and spread throughout the area. When the Temple was destroyed, they moved into the vacuum that was created, and became even more dominant.

(From this time on, Pharisees evolved into the “Rabbis”, and they developed the kind of Judaism that became dominant through to the present time. We need to be sensitized to the fact that, for many modern Jews, when we make damning criticisms of the Pharisees, they hear that as a criticism of their Rabbis, and, by extension, of the faith that they practise today.)

The kind of debates that we see in the Gospels—debates where Jesus goes head-on with the Pharisees—need to be understood in this context. Jesus was not “cutting the cord” of his connection with Judaism. He was not rejecting his faith as irrelevant or obsolete.

He was advocating, vigorously and persistently, for the kind of faith that he firmly believed in—and criticisng the Pharisees for their failure, in his eyes, to adhere to all that they taught. He wanted to renew Israel, to refresh the covenant, as the prophets before him had done.

And let’s remember that the accounts that we have of these debates come from years later than when they actually occurred; years that had been strongly shaped by the polemic and antagonism of the intervening decades.

Older academic Christian scholarship and popular evangelical Christian tradition perpetuate the stereotype that the Judaism of the time of Jesus was a harsh, legalistic, rigid religion—a stereotype heightened by an unquestioning acceptance of the New Testament caricature of the Pharisees as hypocritical legalists who made heavy demands but had no soul commitment to their faith. It was claimed that they were the leaders of a static, dying religion.

This stereotype has been completely demolished in recent decades—both through the growing interaction between Christian and Jewish scholarship, and also through a more critical reading of the relevant primary texts. I am very pleased that the church to which I belong, the Uniting Church in Australia, has made it very clear that we do not adhere to these inaccurate and hurtful stereotypes.

In 2009, the UCA national Assembly adopted a Statement which says, amongst other things:

The Uniting Church does not accept Christian teaching that is derogatory towards Jews and Judaism; a belief that God has abolished the covenant with the Jewish people;  supersessionism, the belief that Christians have replaced Jews in the love and purpose of God; and forms of relationships with Jews that require them to become Christian, including coercion and manipulation, that violate their humanity, dignity and freedom.

We do not accept these things.

See https://assembly.uca.org.au/resources/key-papers-reports/item/1704-jews-and-judaism

Indeed, when we look at the whole of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus does nothing to overturn the Law or to encourage his followers to disregard the Law; he is portrayed as a Jew who keeps Torah to the full. “I have come, not to destroy, but to fulfil the Law”, he says (5:17).

See https://johntsquires.com/2020/02/13/you-have-heard-it-said-but-i-say-to-you-matt-5/

And in that same section of the Gospel, Jesus is quoted as advocating for a better righteous-justice; a righteous-justice that “exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees” (5:20).

See https://johntsquires.com/2020/02/06/an-excess-of-righteous-justice-matt-5/

Virtually all of his criticisms of the Pharisees can be understood within the framework of first century debates over the meaning and application of Law. The memory of Jesus in this Gospel is as a Torah-abiding Jew, who nevertheless stakes out a distinctive position within the context of those contemporary debates.

We should not interpret the parable of Jesus in Matt 21 as an outright condemnation of Judaism as a whole. As he debates the Jewish leadership of his day, he makes strong statements. But let’s not claim that Jesus validates any sense of anti-Jewish or antisemitic attitude.

Unfortunately, these words of Jesus and other parts of the New Testament story have been used throughout the centuries to validate anti-Jewish attitudes, to foster antisemitic hatred of the Jews. It is important for us to remember the real sense of the words of Jesus, and not follow the pathway to bigotry, hatred, persecution, and tragic attempts to annihilate the Jews.

See also https://johntsquires.com/2020/09/29/an-invitation-that-you-just-cannot-accept/

An invitation that you just cannot … accept!

We are all used to receiving invitations. Sometimes, those invitations come as an invitation that you just cannot refuse—the special performance that is a must-see, the party that you don’t want to miss, the occasion with a special friend that wouldn’t be the same without you being there.

This week, the lectionary provides us with a series of invitations. Do you want to refuse them? Are you going to say, “this is an invitation that I just cannot refuse” ? I hope not. Because I want to convince you, that you do have to refuse those invitations. In fact, you need to be clear that you are not going to accept any of these invitations.

The invitations are shaped by the way that the Christian Church has approached and interpreted its scriptures. The invitations are subtle and pervasive; they simply invite us to read and understand the passages in this week’s lectionary in the way that so many interpreters, throughout the history of the church, have interpreted these passages. The invitations invite us to adopt an anti-Israel, anti-Jewish, antisemitic way of reading these texts.

My exhortation this week is: don’t accept those invitations. Don’t get drawn into traditional ways of interpreting scripture that lead down the pathway of negative stereotyping of Jews. Don’t get caught in the traditions of antisemitism that grew and flourished across the many centuries of the existence of the church. Don’t judge negatively, don’t demean or deride, don’t open the door for destructive depictions and careless caricatures of our Jewish sisters and brothers.

The first invitation comes in the reading from Hebrew Scripture that is set in the lectionary this week (Exodus 20:1-20). It is an invitation to reflect on the heavy burden of the Law, the weight of demands that were placed on the people of Israel through the giving of the Law. It is a recounting of the Ten Commandments, and the importance of following them to the letter—to have “the fear of God” instilled in us to obey them and not sin (Ex 20:20).

The second invitation comes in the section of the letter which Paul wrote to the Philippians (Phil 3:4-14). It is an invitation to cast the whole of Jewish scripture and tradition as being of no value whatsoever. In this part of his letter, Paul reflects on his upbringing, and has a very colourful description for what he learnt, as a member of Israel, a Pharisee devoted to living a blameless life under the Law. Of all that he learnt as he was raised in this way, Paul writes, “I regard them as rubbish”—the ultra-polite way that the NRSV translates what, in Greek, reads literally as “I consider them all to be bullshit!” (Phil 3:8).

And the third invitation comes in the parable of Jesus which is included in ‘the book of origins’, and which its author (by tradition, the evangelist Matthew) interpreted as a polemic against the Jewish authorities (Matt 21:33-46). The parable is set in a vineyard. That’s an age-old symbol for the people of Israel—indeed, the lectionary offers us two passages from Hebrew Scripture (Isaiah 5:1-7 and Psalm 80:7-15) which show how old and enduring this imagery was.

The parable that Jesus tells recounts the hard-hearted way in which the tenants in the vineyard (a traditional symbol for the people of Israel) reject the messengers sent to them by the landowner (seen as a symbol for God), culminating in the atrocious treatment meted out to the landowner’s son (whom we presumably are meant to identify as Jesus, son of God), who is put to death. The punchline that Jesus crafts for this parable is potent: “the kingdom will be taken away from you” (Matt 21:43), he tells “the chief priests and the Pharisees” (Matt 21:45).

Do not be taken in by these three invitations! Do not succumb to even the merest whisper of anti-Jewish sentiment as you reflect on these passages! Do not be shy to decline these “invitations you cannot refuse”!

Why?

First: because the Law was given, not to be a burden, a heavy weight, a set of endless demands; the Law was given as a gift. In the Law, Israel was given a way of strengthening the Covenant relationship with God, of providing practical means for remaining in covenant relationship with God. No Jew regards the Law as a burden; universally, the Law is celebrated as a gift, and valued as a way to ensure a healthy and vibrant relationship with God.

The Ten Commandments need to be read in the context of the story as it transpired over time. The giving of the Law (Exodus 20) sits in the midst of the stories about Moses ascending the mountain, encountering God, and formalising the covenant relationship with God (Ex 19:16-25; and Ex 24:1-18). Before the Law is given (Ex 20), the Covenant is formalised (Ex 19). The requirements of Law follow on from the gift of Covenant. In this way, the Law itself becomes a gift—a way to ensure the strength of the Covenant.

And these scenes of Moses making the covenant with God and then ratifying it with all the people, need to be seen in the context of the still larger scope of the storyline, which tells of a series of covenants: with Noah, with Abraham, with Isaac, with Jacob (and on into future centuries, with David, with Solomon, through Jeremiah).

It is the covenant which is the primary context: the means by which God chooses, nurtures, and remains in relationship with Israel. The Law comes as the consequence of the gift of the Covenant; the Law provides a clear set of guidelines for maintaining that covenant and continuing in relationship with God.

That Law is embraced, valued, and celebrated in Jewish tradition and scripture. Just look at how it is described in the Psalm offered in this week’s lectionary selection, where the commandments and precepts of the Law are praised as “perfect, reviving the soul … sure, making wise …right, rejoicing the heart … clear, enlightening the eyes … true and righteous altogether … more to be desired are they than gold .. sweeter also than honey” (Ps 19:7-10).

Second: because the Jewish upbringing and Pharisaic practices that Paul had, were never totally jettisoned, even though this one colourful comment seems to suggest this. Paul has many ways by which he demonstrates that his Jewish upbringing, his years of study as a Pharisee, his intense dedication to the Law, all still continue to shape his life, his words, his actions, his very being, right through the years that he was a faithful follower of Jesus.

Paul had an extensive knowledge of Hebrew scripture; we see this demonstrated at many place in his letters (Rom 1:16–17; 3:9–20; 4:1–25; 9:6–11:12; 11:25–27; 1 Cor 1:19–25; 2:6–16; 2 Cor 8:15, 9:9; Gal 4:21–31) as well as in the reports of his preaching in Acts (Acts 13:32–41; 17:2–3; 26:22–23; 28:25–28). The whole argument that is developed in his letter to the Romans is an exposition of a key affirmation, made at Rom 1:16-17, which itself quotes and draws from the words of Habakkuk, a late 7th century Israelite prophet (Hab 2:4). That argument engages consistently and in complex ways with the Hebraic traditions and understandings that were so central to Paul’s spiritual life. He uses pearl-stringing, argument by analogy, diatribal argumentation, midrashic storytelling, and other techniques which he undoubtedly learnt from his Pharisaic teachers.

(See also https://johntsquires.com/2020/07/20/spirit-and-scripture-in-romans-rom-8/)

In writing to the Galatians, Paul asserts that the Law serves as a paidagogos (3:21–24)—a position in Greek society in which a tutor both instructs and disciplines a young man until he reaches his maturity. So Paul does not portray the Law as obsolete and completely irrelevant and; rather, he insists that “the Law is not opposed to the promises of God” (3:21). In fact, he supports his position with an argument drawn from “the Law”, that is, Hebrew scripture—the accounts of the two children of Abraham (found in Gen 16 and 21) provides an allegory for the two covenants made by God (4:21–31). And in Romans he affirms that “the Law is holy, and the commandment is holy and just and good” (Rom 7:12).

There are many other examples of how Paul uses the debating techniques and reflects the theological insights that he learnt during his formative years, right through into his mature years, even when he was the most intense and most passionate follower of Jesus. So let’s not get caught into the trap of adopting an anti-Jewish attitude and claiming that we are simply following the lead of the Apostle Paul. His understanding was far deeper than that, and his engagement with the issue much more complex. (We might well say that his claim that his Jewish past was “bullshit” to him, is itself a claim that is, well, “bullshit”!)

Third: because the parable of Jesus is not intended to be simply an anti-Jewish polemic without any further refinement of understanding. It is true that, in the Gospel of Matthew, we find Jesus making some strident accusations and engaging in some vigorous debate with the Jewish authorities. But does he really believe that no faithful Jew will ever again enter the kingdom of heaven?

We need to read in context the rhetoric that Matthew places on the lips of Jesus in this Gospel. Judaism was in a state of flux as people lived under the continuing oppression of Roman rule. Guerilla groups initiated battles with the Romans on and off throughout the first century. These encounters intensified from 66 CE onwards. The destruction of the Temple in 70 CE was a pivotal moment. Evidence indicates that, during this time, there were various sectarian groups within Judaism who were contesting with each other for recognition and influence. Vigorous polemic and robust debate were not uncommon.

During this period, the Pharisees were becoming increasingly important as an alternative to the Temple cult, and emerging as the dominant Jewish religious movement. Their power base was moved from Jerusalem and spread throughout the area. When the Temple was destroyed, they moved the vacuum that was created, and became even more dominant. (From this time on, Pharisees evolved into the “Rabbis”, and they developed the kind of Judaism that became dominant through to the present time.)

The kind of debates that we see in the Gospels—debates where Jesus goes head-on with the Pharisees—need to be understood in this context. Jesus was not “cutting the cord” of his connection with Judaism. He was advocating, vigorously and persistently, for the kind of faith that he firmly believed in—and attacking the Pharisees for their failure, in his eyes, to adhere to all that they taught. And the accounts that we have of these debates come from years later than when they actually occurred; years that had been strongly shaped by the polemic and antagonism of the intervening decades.

Older academic Christian scholarship and popular Christian tradition both contain a preponderance of the stereotype that the Judaism of the time of Jesus was a harsh, legalistic, rigid religion—precisely because of the claimed “hardness of heart” of the Pharisees in their debates with Jesus. This stereotype was heightened by an unquestioning acceptance of the New Testament caricature of the Pharisees as hypocritical legalists who made heavy demands but had no soul commitment to their faith. It was claimed that they were the leaders of a static, dying religion.

This stereotype has been completely demolished in recent decades—both through the growing interaction between Christian and Jewish scholarship, and also through a more critical reading of the relevant primary texts. I am very pleased that my own church, the Uniting Church in Australia, has made it very clear that we do not adhere to these inaccurate and hurtful stereotypes.

(See https://assembly.uca.org.au/resources/key-papers-reports/item/1704-jews-and-judaism and the Statement linked at that page.)

Indeed, in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus does nothing to overturn the Law or to encourage his followers to disregard the Law; he is portrayed as a Jew who keeps Torah to the full. Virtually all of his criticisms of the Pharisees can be understood within the framework of first century debates over the meaning and application of Law. The memory of Jesus in this Gospel is as a Torah-abiding Jew, who nevertheless stakes out a distinctive position within the context of those contemporary debates.

(See also https://johntsquires.com/2020/02/06/an-excess-of-righteous-justice-matt-5/)

Later written accounts of Jesus reflect the intensity of fervent debate as he encountered the scribes and Pharisees (see especially Luke 11:37-54; Matt 23:1-36). We should not interpret the parable of Jesus in Matt 21 as an outright condemnation of Judaism as a whole. As he debates the Jewish leadership of his day, he makes strong statements. But let’s not claim that Jesus validates any sense of anti-Jewish or antisemitic attitude.

(See https://johntsquires.com/2020/10/01/producing-the-fruits-of-the-kingdom-matt-21/)

(See also https://johntsquires.com/2019/04/18/easter-in-christian-tradition-and-its-relation-to-jewish-tradition/)

A rock, some keys, and a binding: clues to the identity of Jesus (Matt 16)

This year, the Revised Common Lectionary is offering us passages each Sunday from the book of origins, the Gospel that we attribute to Matthew. It is a Gospel with some distinctive and interesting elements.

It is only in this Gospel that Jesus commands Peter to offer forgiveness “seventy times seven” (18:22; the parallel version in Luke speaks only of seven times). The special name given to Jesus, “Emmanuel” (God with us), is reported only in Matt 1:23, while the assurance of Jesus’ abiding presence with believers (18:20) and his offer of “rest for your souls” (11:29) are sayings reported only in this Gospel. One of the most often-quoted verses in this Gospel comes right at the end of the gospel, in a text where the supreme missionary charter is set out: “go…and make disciples of all nations” (28:19).

Another distinctive in this book is the text which we find in this coming Sunday’s passage, which has been used to validate the Roman episcopacy as first among equals: “you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church” (16:18). How intriguing that the same Gospel has been used as the fundamental warrant for the way in which the Church has been structured by Roman Catholics and evangelical missionaries!

The book of origins is unique, amongst the canonical gospels, in indicating the authority which was to be given to Peter, the first leader of this community (16:17–19). Three of the terms used here come from the heritage of Hebrew Scripture. They also function within the contemporary context as sectarian markers, setting apart as distinctive the community in which they author is located—the community for whom the Gospel was written.

First, only in this gospel does Jesus declare to Peter, “on this rock I will build my church” (16:18). The phrase evokes the rock which provides the “sure foundation” (Isa 28:16-17). This language is used by the Dead Sea

sectarians to make similar claims about their fidelity to the Law. Peter (a name meaning ‘rock’) becomes the foundation of the church, put in place by Jesus, who has the authority to make this declaration.

Second, the imagery of the “keys” which Jesus gives to Peter (Matt 16:19) also makes claims about his authority. We find this image in Jewish texts which are dated after 70 CE (2 Baruch 10:18; 3 Baruch 11:1–2; 4 Baruch 4:4); here, the loss of the keys represent the failure of various Jewish priests to perform their duties correctly and faithfully, and thus protect the temple.

With the loss of the keys (which in the texts of 2 and 4 Baruch are thrown up towards heaven, to be taken back by God), comes the loss of authority as leaders of the people. Matthew claims the keys (and presumably the authority to interpret the will of God) for his own community (16:19). Jesus, holder of the keys, hands them over to Peter. The scriptural text which underlies this is Isaiah 22:20–22, which speaks of “the key to the house of David” being given to someone worthy of possessing authority over Jerusalem.

A third set of terms describes the authority that Jesus gives to Peter as an authority to “bind and loose” (16:19; it is subsequently granted to the whole community, 18:18). The Greek terms used by Matthew are equivalent to the terms used by Josephus to denote the authority granted the Pharisees under Salome Alexandra (Jewish War 1.110–111). Once again, Jesus holds this authority, and passes it on to Peter.

These terms are thus considered to be equivalent to the Hebrew terms for “forbid and permit” which are to be found in rabbinic writings, as a way for the rabbis to of claim their authority in leadership. The terms “binding and loosing” clearly referred to the political and legal powers of those in authority.

By reporting that Jesus gives these powers to Peter, and then to the whole community, Matthew emphasizes that Jesus is a rival to the authority of the Pharisees, and that the teachers in Matthew’s community possess the authority to challenge the teachings offered in the synagogues.

*****

The Matthean Jesus uses a number of symbols and terms that were used by the Pharisees and other Jewish groups. Matthew includes them to strengthen his claims about Jesus and to enhance the authority of his community. They are used to demonstrate the validity of the way that the people of this community, followers of The Way, disciples of the Messiah, Jesus, adherents to the details of the Law, over against the teaching about the Law provided by the Pharisees and other teachers of the time.

The Pharisees were scribes who specialised in the interpretation of Torah and in the application of Torah to ensure that holiness was observed in daily living. In contrast to the priestly Sadducees, the Pharisees were very popular amongst the ordinary Jewish folk. This may well have been because they undertook the highly significant task of showing how the Torah was relevant to the daily life of Jewish people.

The story of Ezra, told in Nehemiah 8, gives an example of this in practice, referring especially those who “helped the people to understand the law” (Neh 8:7). Whilst the priests upheld the Torah as the ultimate set of rules for operating the Temple, the Pharisees showed how the Torah could be applied to every aspect of daily life as a Jew.

Most Jews went to the Temple only rarely—and found it to be an expensive enterprise when they got there! But in seeking guidance for daily life, the people were greatly helped by those skilled interpreters of Torah, the scribes and the Pharisees. Josephus comments that the Pharisees were usually held in high regard by the ordinary people of the day.

Since nine out of every ten persons could not read, the importance of scribes —literate, educated, and sympathetic—could not be underestimated. Whilst the Pharisees clustered around towns in Judea, the scribes were to be found in the synagogues of villages throughout greater Israel, and indeed in any place where Jews were settled.

The task of the Pharisees was to educate the people as to the ways of holiness that were commanded in the Torah. It was possible, they argued, to live as God’s holy people at every point of one’s life, quite apart from any pilgrimages made to the Temple in Jerusalem.

The Pharisees thus held sway in the synagogues, in all the places where dispersed Jews were living. Their interpretations were highly regarded amongst the people. But they stand as the chief sparring partners for Jesus, reflecting the competing claims for authoritative teaching about the Law.

As Matthew writes his Gospel, he intensifies the way that Jesus stands in competition with the Pharisees, and draws on a range of scriptural terms and ideas to underscore the “richness” of the teachings of Jesus.

*****

This blog draws on material in MESSIAH, MOUNTAINS, AND MISSION: an exploration of the Gospel for Year A, by Elizabeth Raine and John Squires (self-published 2012)

See also

https://johntsquires.com/2020/07/14/let-anyone-with-ears-hear-matt-13/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/07/09/parables-the-craft-of-storytelling-in-the-book-of-origins-matt-13/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/07/03/come-to-me-take-my-yoke-i-will-give-you-rest-matt-11/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/06/11/go-nowhere-among-the-gentiles-matt-105-the-mission-of-jesus-in-the-book-of-origins/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/02/13/you-have-heard-it-said-but-i-say-to-you-matt-5/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/02/06/an-excess-of-righteous-justice-matt-5/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/01/30/blessed-are-you-the-beatitudes-of-matthew-5/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/01/23/repentance-for-the-kingdom-matt-4/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/12/27/reading-matthews-gospel-alongside-the-ahebrew-scriptures-exploring-matthew-2/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/12/19/descended-from-david-according-to-the-flesh-rom-1/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/12/04/for-our-instruction-that-we-might-have-hope-rom-15-isa-11-matt-3/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/11/28/leaving-luke-meeting-matthew/

Let anyone with ears, hear! (Matt 13)

Jesus used parables as the chief means of his story-telling. A parable is a story told in a specific way to make a single clear point. Parables are conundrums. They contain unresolved tensions. They invite multiple understandings. They press for exploration and investigation. We have another parable in the Gospel reading for this coming Sunday!

The accounts of Jesus that we have in scripture—Mark’s beginning of the good news of Jesus, Matthew’s book of origins of Jesus, Chosen One, and Luke’s orderly account of the things fulfilled—each contain a number of parables. Even in John’s book of signs, there are some parable-like sections, buried in the midst of the long discourses that this book contains.

This week, the lectionary offers the second parable in Matt 13. Last week, we had the parable of the seeds and the sower (13:3-9) and its interpretation (13:18-23). This week, we will hear the weeds among the wheat (13:24-30) and its interpretation (13:36-43). Then in the following week, we will hear the other five parables in this chapter: the mustard seed (13:31-32), the yeast in the flour (13:33), hidden treasure (13:44), a pearl of great value (13:45-46), and the net that caught fish (13:47-48)—each one offered without interpretation.

As with last week, so also this week we are given a parable, followed immediately by an interpretation of the parable. I had a spout last week about the way that a later allegorising understanding of the parable has been placed on the lips of Jesus, in this Gospel account. You can read that at https://johntsquires.com/2020/07/09/parables-the-craft-of-storytelling-in-the-book-of-origins-matt-13/

I don’t believe that Jesus would have spoken the words in this interpretation (13:26-43). I think it is a later addition from a tradition that found it hard to leave the parable standing in its own right. Somebody, somewhere, wanted to offer a definitive reading. The same thing happened last week, as the parable of the seeds and the sower was interpreted in a certain way (13:18-23). It has happened again this week, in relation to the parable of the weeds and the wheat (13:24-30).

In the parable itself, there is a simple contrast drawn between the weeds and the wheat. That is typical of parables that Jesus told. A number of these parables were short and direct, making a single point and needing little explanation: see the parables of the treasure (13:44) and the pearl (13:45), for instance. This made the parable easy to remember and repeat orally.

These parables are little more than an introduction (“the kingdom of heaven is like…”) and a single image which is used to describe a characteristic of the kingdom (hidden treasure, or fine pearls). The first part of this week’s parable (13:24-26) has this form. It is short and direct.

It starts with the classic introduction, “the kingdom of heaven may be compared to …”. It goes on to tell of the good seeds, which grow into wheat, and the bad seeds, which grow into weeds. This part of the parable has a simple contrasting form, like the parable of the good fish and the bad fish caught in the net, as told in the last of the seven parables (13:47-48).

But the parable has a story attached to these weeds among the wheat (13:27-30). So Jesus continues with a little plot development, which brings in a reflection on the human characters who sowed the seeds. In this regard, this is like other parables of Jesus, which are a little more developed; they still make a single point, but it is developed or explained a little more.

The parable of the mustard seed (13:31–32) is a good example of this. This parable uses the same introductory phrase and conveys its main point in an image (mustard seed, 13:31) which is further developed to convey what happens to the mustard seed as it grows and forms “the greatest of shrubs” (13:32).

So the plot of the parable of the wheat and the weeds continues until the punchline is reached. It is not during the growing that any distinction is to be made; it is at the harvest that this distinction is enforced. Wheat that grew from good seeds is to be collected and stored; weeds that grew from bad seeds are to be bundled and burnt (13:28-30).

That much, as a parable, has a clear message: don’t intervene into the process of growing, don’t judge (recalling 7:1), but let the end result of the process of growing be the moment when the judgement occurs. And that taps into a strong interest, throughout the book of origins, for depicting Jesus as the preacher of judgement.

Consistently throughout the book of origins, Jesus is presented as a fearful and demanding figure. In his capacity as God’s Messiah, he frequently promises (or threatens) judgement (5:21–26; 7:1–2; 10:15; 11:21–24; 12:36–37; 19:28– 30; 21:33–44; 22:1–14; 24:29–31, 36-44, 45–51; 25:1–13, 14–30, 31–46; 26:64). Many of these declarations occur in eschatological contexts, where Jesus is warning about the punishment that is to come at “the end of time”, unless righteous-justice is followed in the present.

In the previous chapter, a quotation from the prophet Isaiah (Isa 42:1-4, at Matt 12:15–21) includes an extended quotation from Isaiah 42, where the servant of the Lord proclaims judgement to the Gentiles and they are said to have hope in his name (presumably because they repent and believe him). This is the function that Jesus, as God’s servant, the Chosen One, carries out. It’s not for us human beings to take on the role of judge. That belongs to God, carried out through his chosen agent, Jesus.

The parable of the wheat and the weeds has an intensity because of its focus and orientation towards this fearsome judgement, executed by Jesus in obedience to the desire of God. The interpretation of the parable defuses the intensity of the parable by fussing about what each element refers to: the Sower is the Son of Man, the good seeds are the children of the kingdom, the bad seeds are the children of the evil one, the enemy is the devil, and so on (13:39).

The interpretation ends with a repetition and expansion of the scene of judgement that ended the parable—but the good seed is not simply stored, it morphs into the righteous in the kingdom, and the bad seed is not burnt as seed, but it becomes the ones who disobeyed the law, burning in the furnace (13:41-43). And there will be “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (13:42; see also 13:50; 22:14; 25:30). So the same punchline holds in this section, as in the parable itself.

Interestingly, the interpretation ends with the same punchline that concluded the parable of the seeds and the sower: “let anyone with ears, listen!” (13:53, cf. 13:9). Jesus continues to press the point. Judgement is inevitable.

This blog draws on material in MESSIAH, MOUNTAINS, AND MISSION: an exploration of the Gospel for Year A, by Elizabeth Raine and John Squires (self-published 2012)

Parables: the craft of storytelling in the book of origins (Matt 13)

This week, the Gospel passage comes from the book of origins, whose account of Jesus we have been following for much of this current year. The chapter we are reading contains the first of seven parables that Jesus tells. The parable of the seeds and the sower is told in Matt 13:3-9 and an interpretation is then offered at 13:18-23. This interpretation shapes and orients our understanding of what “the seed” means; it directs us to interpret “the seed” as “the word of the kingdom” (13:19).

This is the first of seven parables in this chapter, and one of twenty-four parables in the book of origins. Many of those parables are explicitly identified as parables of the kingdom. After all, the kingdom was the focus of the preaching of Jesus, as is signalled in his opening public proclamation earlier in the book (4:17). (See https://johntsquires.com/2020/01/23/repentance-for-the-kingdom-matt-4/)

The kingdom features in the Beatitudes (5:3, 10), the Sermon on the Mount (5:19-20, 6:10, 33, 7:21), and then in many of the teachings of Jesus (such as 8:11-12, 18:3-4, 19:14, 23-24).

Preaching the kingdom was central to the activities of Jesus (9:35) and his followers (10:7) and will remain a key focus until the time when “the end will come” (24:14). And parables formed an important contribution to the ways that Jesus spoke about the kingdom in his teachings.

In this chapter, after the parable of the seeds and the sower, we find another six parables: the weeds among the wheat (13:24-30), the mustard seed (13:31-32), the yeast in the flour (13:33), hidden treasure (13:44), a pearl of great value (13:45-46), and the net that caught fish (13:47-48). Interestingly, every key item in these seven parables is a small, even seemingly insignificant, item: seeds, seeds, yeast, a pearl, and fish.

Later in the Gospel, there are further parables of the kingdom: the labourers in the vineyard (20:1-16), the two sons (21:28-32), the wicked tenants (21:33-44), and the wedding banquet (22:2-14). In the final section of Jesus’s teaching the disciples, he tells three further parables of the kingdom: the ten bridesmaids (25:1-13), the talents (25:14-30), and the sheep and the goats (25:31-46).

1 Understanding Parables

What are we to make of these many parables? Parables were quite widespread in the society of Jesus’ day. They were evocative and effective means for telling stories. The most common means of entertainment in the ancient world was telling stories. This was done by word of mouth, from one person to another, or in small groups gathered in market places, courtyards or houses. Education also relied on the voice.

Written materials were costly and only a small percentage of the population was literate. The natural tendency to tell stories was widely accepted, so that the most familiar pattern was that learning took place through the passing on of stories. So oral story telling was commonplace in the synagogues where Jews gathered for worship and instruction.

We can see the dominance of the oral medium most clearly in the literature which tells about the rabbis of Judaism. The story was the foundational building block for all the rabbis’ teaching activities. Beyond Judaism, we see it in the popularity of written biographies, romances, histories and adventure stories, throughout the ancient world. Indeed, a second century Christian (Papias, the Bishop of Hierapolis) is reported as having stated that stories spoken by teachers are to be preferred as more reliable than written works (such as the Gospels)—an attitude that sounds incredible to our modern ears!

A parable is an important type of story-telling. A parable is a story told in a specific way to make a single clear point. Parables are found in Jewish literature; the most famous examples in the Hebrew Bible are Samuel’s parable comparing David with a callous rich herdsman in 2 Samuel 12 and the prophet’s parable comparing Israel with an unfruitful vineyard in Isaiah 5.

Rabbis at the time of Jesus, and later, have used parables to make their point in their teachings. The Hebrew word for this form was mashal, a word meaning “to be like” or “a comparison”. Parables were told to make a point about something that may not be easily understood, by drawing a comparison with something else that was well-known or easily understood.

The mashal also opens up the possibility of a more developed form of comparison, the similitude, of which the best example is Nathan’s parable to David concerning the stolen lamb (2 Sam 12:1–4). This form flourishes in later Judaism, both in rabbinic literature, and in the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ parables (“the kingdom of heaven is like…”). In fact, the parables told by Jesus follow the patterns and customs of the rabbinic mashal.

2 Understanding the Parable of the Seeds and the Sower

The specific parable that we hear in worship this Sunday, the parable of the seeds and the sower, is a particularly provocative parable. It leaves us with various questions. Why was the sower so extravagant in broadcasting the seeds, casting them not only onto fertile ground but also onto rocky ground and into the midst of thorns? Why did the sower not adopt good agricultural practice, culling the thorny plants as they grew, to enable the seeds to grow into healthy plants?

Other questions arise, as well, if we read the parable (13:3-9) without including the interpretation that is offered (13:18-23). That interpretation guides us to see the seeds as representing “the word of the kingdom”, and that understanding seems reasonably evident from the parable in its own right. But what does the path represent? And what about the thorns? And the rocky ground? Or the sun—is it a symbol of something?

The interpretation included in Matthew 13 closes down these questions. Many scholars believe that the interpretation did not actually come from the lips of Jesus, but, rather, was added by the author of the Gospel, drawing on interpretations that had developed over the intervening decades after the lifetime of Jesus. (This assumes, quite reasonably, that the Gospel was written some 30-50 years after the death of Jesus; and also, more controversially, perhaps, that the author was somewhat creative in reporting the actions and words of Jesus.)

One of the reasons for this view is that the interpretation really treats the parable as an allegory, rather than as a mashal-like parable. In an allegory, each and every character and event in the story is regarded as being a symbol for something else beyond the story.

Allegory literally means, “to say something other”; it comes from two Greek words, the verb agoreuo (to speak in the assembly), and the prefix allos (other). Allegories are found in ancient literature; in Greek, from the earliest literature, that of Homer, through to Plato, and on into the writings of people centuries after the time of Jesus. They were commonplace across Greek and Latin literature.

But not so, in Hebrew Scriptures, the tradition from which Jesus regularly drew. Here, there are more often parables, only rarely any fully-developed allegory. And parables are not allegories. A parable is a mashal—a story told in a specific way to make a single clear point. And the single point of a parable is given in its punchline: which, in this case, is the enigmatic, “let anyone with ears, hear!” (13:9). If the seed is the word, the demand of this parable is clear: listen!

And yet, as the verses that follow make clear (13:10-17), understanding a parable is a tricky business. Its meaning is not self-evident. As Jesus speaks in parables, “seeing, they do not perceive, and hearing, they do not listen” (13:13, quoting directly from Isaiah 6:9-10). Parables are conundrums. They contain unresolved tensions. They invite multiple understandings. They press for exploration and investigation.

The technique of a parable is not to lay everything out in plain form, in straight-forward propositions—but rather to weave a story, to draw the listeners into the story, to invite wondering, to foster creative thinking and thoughtful grappling within the story. Nothing is set in stone. All sorts of possibilities arise, from the narrative of a story that is well-crafted and persuasively-presented. As we imagine that Jesus did in creating and telling his stories in parable form.

3 The Parable of the Seeds and the Sower in the Revised Common Lectionary

So the offering of the interpretation (13:18-23) immediately after the telling of the parable (13:1-9) that the Revised Common Lectionary offers (and that the author of the book of origins includes in this chapter) skews our approach to the parable. It closes off the possibilities of understanding. It limits the range of options for clearly comprehending what Jesus was offering. In my mind, it’s something of a menace.

So here’s the challenge: this Sunday, why not simply read the parable (13:1-9)—and then, STOP. Don’t read the interpretation (13:18-23). Let the parable stand in its own right. Invite your audience to imagine, explore, interpret. Encourage them with the sense that there is “no right answer”, or “no one interpretation”. Invite people to engage in the process that the very first followers of Jesus took part in: “let anyone with ears, listen!” And then invite them to respond. And rejoice in the richness and diversity of understandings that arise!

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This blog draws on material in MESSIAH, MOUNTAINS, AND MISSION: an exploration of the Gospel for Year A, by Elizabeth Raine and John Squires (self-published 2012).

For a gentle, poetic retelling of the parable from Sarah Agnew, see https://praythestory.blogspot.com/2020/07/falling-seeds.html?m=1

Consideration of issues raised in this blog continues in https://johntsquires.com/2020/07/14/let-anyone-with-ears-hear-matt-13/