Monday, February 01, 2010

The New Testament in a Year: Matthew 21-25

For my own personal study, I am using a combination of tools. These include listening to an audio version of the Bible (TNIV) and a series of commentaries in addition to the text itself. I recognize that not everyone will have access to these materials. I can at least provide a link to the Biblical text itself. For this purpose, I've found that is a very useful tool. Not only does it include the TNIV, which enables me to link to the same text as what I'm listening to with the audio version, but one can easily switch to another translation (if one so desires) simply by using the drop-down menus. I hope that this is helpful.

This week, I am working through Matthew, chapters 21 through 25.

Chapter 21

  • It's not quite Lent yet, but I find it interesting that we come to this section with Lent right around the corner.  I'm sure we'll get to the parallel passage in Mark shortly after Lent begins, and maybe even to the version in Luke before Easter, which wasn't planned, exactly, but seems rather appropriate.
  • Verses 4-7 - Matthew's attempt to tie the actions of Jesus to Old Testament prophecy creates an interesting hiccup, here.  The Old Testament passage in question is Zechariah 9:9.  The oddity comes less from the Old Testament itself, but rather from how the action plays out in this gospel.  In Zechariah, there seems to be but one animal: a donkey referred to as a colt.  Matthew clearly depicts two animals: a donkey and a colt. In fact, Matthew seems unclear about which of the two Jesus rode upon.  Some English translations (the KJV, for example) seem to depict the improbable picture of Jesus riding upon the two animals simultaneously!  Although Hagner notes that the other gospels only have one animal, he dismisses the idea that Matthew was confused about the Zechariah passage (reading two animals where only one was originally intended) as unrealistic for one as well-versed in the Jewish scriptures and tradition as Matthew.  Rather, he suggests that "an unbroken colt... was usually introduced into service while accompanied by its parent" and suggests that it is therefore probable that both animals did, in fact, enter Jerusalem with Jesus (who, it would appear, rode on the younger animal).1
  • Verses 18-22 - I'm going to leave aside the symbolism of the fig tree for now (this passage is paralleled elsewhere, and I need to leave a few things to talk about later), but I do want to call attention to Jesus' emphasis on faith without doubt again.  These passages trouble me, because I've seen them abused so often.  If something goes wrong for a person, even after prayer, the person is often made to feel as though it is the person's own fault, due to lack of sufficient faith.  My best response is that of the man in Mark 9:24: "I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!"
  • Verses 33-44 - I know that this is a parable, but I'm struggling to understand the internal logic by which tenants would ever come to think that killing a landlord's son would make them heirs....
Chapter 22
  • Verses 11-14 - Why does Jesus put such importance on this person who managed to show up without wedding clothes?  Again, Jesus says something that strikes against the common notion that our works don't matter.  But what "important work of response" is this meant to suggest for us?  Hagner notes that, although the parable these verses are a part of appears in Mark and Luke, this part is unique to Matthew.2
  • Verse 21: "Give back to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's." - I have heard preachers use this quote to say that there are two categories suggested here: things that are Caesar's and other things that are God's.  This almost certainly is an erroneous interpretation.  What can be said to be not God's?  Hagner has an interesting note on this passage, highlighting that an earlier incident where Jesus addresses an issue about paying tax was in regard to the Jewish temple tax, whereas this incident concerns a tax to the Romans.3
  • Verse 41-46 - Why should this teaching, regarding the "son of David" being called "Lord" by David himself, be the one that causes everyone to no longer "dare" to ask Jesus any more questions?
Chapter 23
  • Verses 8-12 - So, should Christians refrain from all honorary titles, including (for example) "reverend"?
  • Verses 13-39: "Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites!" - I count six times that Jesus uses this exact phrase.  "Angry Jesus" is definitely on full display here!  (The TNIV has the heading "Seven Woes..." for this passage.  Verse 16 is the seventh, but it uses "Woe to you, blind guides!"  "Blind priests" seems to be a favorite epithet of Margaret Fell, as I recall.  I wonder if she had this passage in mind....) 
Chapter 24
  • There is some confusion about how much of this chapter (and Chapter 25, really) is about the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem (in 70 AD, which had already taken place by the time Matthew was written down) and how much is about the End Times.  It's worth noting that, for the disciples in Jesus' context, there really was no comprehension of a difference between the two.4
  • Verse 36 - The idea that even Jesus himself admitted to not knowing something (specifically, the time of his Second Coming, and of the End) was apparently so scandalous to the early church that some copyists removed the reference to the Son's ignorance entirely (both here and in the parallel passage in Mark).5 Back when I was taking classes from Dr. Hagner (one reason I'm using his commentary for now. I'll try to use Fuller professors whenever I have a commentary of theirs available), I learned about the "criterion of embarrassment."  That is to say, if evidence exists for different versions of a text, the one that would have been considered "embarrassing" to the church is the one most likely to be changed by the church later on (thus explaining the variation), and is thus more likely to be original.  The "criterion of embarrassment" is, of course, not the only criterion used to determine textual authenticity, of course.  However, it's obviously a relevant one here. 
Chapter 25
  • Verses 14-30 - The point about being faithful with what one has been entrusted with is obvious enough, but I wonder why, in this particular story, "faithfulness" and "ability" are correlated.  It seems to be the case that, as often as not (in both other parts of Scripture and in the world around us), those who have very little are often very faithful with what little they have, yet those with great wealth are often hostile to matters of faith, and indeed often have obtained their wealth itself through less-than-honest means.  Why does Jesus go the other direction in this instance?
  • Verse 24 - For that matter, the servant seems to think that the master himself is less than honest.  Surely Jesus is not trying to say such a thing about God!
  • Verses 31-46 - For the purposes of this teaching, Jesus sets up two distinct and separate categories of people: "sheep" and "goats."  However, it seems to me that this does not accurately describe our reality.  I may (through the grace of God) do kind deeds for those in need from time to time, but I also fail to do more often than I care to admit.  Am I a sheep, because I occasionally do what is right, or a goat, because I occasionally fail to do so?  
  • (Same verses) - Although it may not be obvious from the passage itself, there is also the question of whether Jesus intends for the "sheep" to do good deeds for literally everyone, or if he is limiting the scope of this teaching to say that good deeds must be done for fellow followers of Jesus.  Hagner suggests that the latter is the original intention,6 but this would by no means preclude good deeds to all as a general principle of behavior.

1Dr. Donald Hagner, Matthew 14-28 (Word Biblical Commentary), Dallas, TX: Word Books, 1995. p. 594.
2Hagner, pp. 627, 631.
3Hagner, p. 636, although the text of Hagner erroneously cites Matthew 17:4, rather than 17:24.
4See Hagner, p. 688.
5Hagner, p. 716.
6Hagner, pp. 742-747.

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