Toward Understanding the New Testament
Obert C. Tanner, Lewis M. Rogers, Sterling M. McMurrin
Last Days in Jerusalem
[p.195]Matthew described Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem mounted on an ass as another fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. In this instance it was Zechariah 9:9 and Isaiah 62:11, “Tell the daughter of Zion, Behold, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on an ass, and on a colt, the foal of an ass” (Mt 21:5).1 The entry, according to all four Gospels, was indeed triumphant. In Matthew’s account crowds went before Jesus shouting hosannas and proclaimed him the Son of David, the prophet from Nazareth (Mt 12:9-11). For Matthew, this was Jesus’s public confession of his messiahship. Mark added, “Blessed is the kingdom of our father David that is coming!” (Mk 11:10). Perhaps for Mark Jesus’s entry was not the public proclamation of the Messiah, as claimed by Matthew, but rather a declaration of the coming of God’s kingdom. The Gospel of John records that the crowds proclaimed Jesus king of Israel (Jn 12:12-14).
Some scholars have held that Jesus may have entered Jerusalem on the occasion of the Passover, hoping to arouse the multitude to his support. It is well to recall, however, that according to Mark, Jesus was reluctant to disclose his identity even though some Galileans believed that he was the one like Moses who would deliver Israel from oppression.
The Confrontation in the Temple
There is ample evidence in the Gospels that Jesus profoundly respected both the Temple and the synagogue. His attendance [p.196]in the synagogue is recorded several times in the Gospels. Now his entry into Jerusalem brought him and his followers to the Temple. From the days of Jeremiah after the discovery of “the Book of the Law” in the Temple and the renewal of the Mosaic covenant which followed, the Israelites had concentrated their religious worship at a central shrine.2 The historical and prophetic books of the Old Testament are replete with indications that centralization of religious rituals was strongly advocated by both secular and religious leaders. This centralization can now be seen as essential to the definition and integrity of the Hebrew faith. The ancient Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem, from the tenth century until its destruction by the Babylonians in 586 BCE, was the focal point of pilgrimage and worship of the Israelites. After their return from the Babylonian captivity in 538 BCE, the Jews erected a second but less impressive temple. Its construction extended probably from about 520 to 515 BCE. Herod the Great undertook a renovation and expansion of this “Second Temple” about 20 BCE. The new structure was unparalleled in Jewish history and was one of the great buildings of the Roman Empire. At the time of Jesus’s ministry, the Temple and its outer buildings were still under construction. It was not completed until just before the Roman conquest of Jerusalem at the close of the Jewish rebellion in CE 70, when it was destroyed by fire.
In Mark’s account, when Jesus entered Jerusalem he went first into the Temple and then went out to Bethany with the twelve (Mk 11:11). The next day he entered the Temple again “and began to drive out those who sold and those who bought” (Mk 11:15).3 Jesus said to them, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for [p.197]all the nations?’ But you have made it a den of robbers” (Mk 11:17).4 John referred specifically to the sellers of oxen, sheep, and pigeons (Jn 2:14) and provided additional detail on Jesus’s activity at the Temple. “And making a whip of cords, he drove them all, with the sheep and oxen, out of the temple; and he poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables” (Jn 2:15).5 From John’s account and from ancient descriptions of the Temple sacrificial rituals, it is evident that animals were brought to the Temple to be offered as sacrifices.6 For the Jews who came to Jerusalem from the Diaspora as well as froth Galilee and Judea to fulfill one of their most important religious duties, the sacrificial offering, the Temple market and the money-changers were a convenience, as well apparently as a source of income for the Temple establishment.
According to Mark, the strange case of Jesus cursing the fig tree occurred on the way from Bethany as he and his disciples journeyed to the Temple. This is a miracle unlike any others attributed to Jesus; Luke and John make no reference to it. “When he came to it, he found nothing but leaves. … And he said to it, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again'” (Mk 11:12-14). The report of the fig tree cursing was undoubtedly intended by Mark to convey a symbolic meaning. Otherwise, it seems quite senseless. In Mark three episodes stand together as a literary unit: cursing the fig tree, cleansing the Temple, and Jesus’s discourse in the Temple. Jerusalem was the central shrine, the city of David, the seat of ancient traditions and promises, and, in Mark’s view, the center of opposition and hostility to Jesus. For Mark, Jesus’s act of cleansing the Temple and cursing the tree brought an end to the Temple and to [p.198]traditional Judaism as the means of fulfilling Abraham’s promise.7 Earlier, John the Baptist had warned Jewish religious leaders and officials against the complacency of the claim to “have Abraham as our father” (Mt 3:9; Lk 3:8). Descent from Abraham was not a guarantee of salvation in God’s kingdom.
Jesus’s rejection of the Temple officials is reminiscent of the harsh words of the Prophet Jeremiah against the priests and prophets of his day who induced attitudes of arrogance and self-satisfaction among the people. “They dress my people’s wound, but skin-deep only, with their saying, ‘All is well.’ All well? Nothing is well” (Jer 8:11). In his famous Temple sermon, Jeremiah rebuked the people for their complacency. “You keep saying ‘This place is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord!’ This catchword of yours is a lie; put no trust in it” (Jer 8:11).8
Conflict with the Officiants
In his rebuke, according to the Synoptics, Jesus utilized the pronouncements of both Isaiah and Jeremiah. “For my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples” (Is 56:7), and “Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your eyes?” (Jer 7:11). Judaism had been expected to bear fruit for the kingdom, but like the fig tree whose leaves held out only the promise of fruit, Judaism was barren. The next morning as they passed by, Mark reported that the fig tree had “withered away to its roots. And Peter remembered” (Mk 11:20f). This was the occasion for Jesus to comment upon the essentials for life under the new Covenant after the rejection of Judaism—the necessity for belief without doubt, for fidelity, for prayer, and for forgiveness (Mk 11:22-25). Thus, the Temple—as the fig tree—was judged sterile and unproductive. [p.199]For Mark, this meant that the old institutions connected with Jerusalem would be rejected as the foundation of the kingdom of God which is to come.
Mark reported that when Jesus returned to the Temple, he was addressed by the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders (Mk 11:27f). Perhaps they were an official committee from the Sanhedrin. Mark said earlier that the chief priests and scribes heard about Jesus’s performance the day before and that they sought a way to destroy him because of the influence of his teaching upon the masses (Mk 11:18, 28). The question, “By what authority are you doing these things?” no doubt referred to Jesus’s actions in the Temple and to the fact that he did not have any formal rabbinical training. But he countered with a question about the authority of John’s baptism. John had no formal credentials, for like Jesus he had not been authorized by any formal body such as the Sanhedrin. Yet John the Baptist was so popular that those who opposed him did not dare challenge him openly. According to Mark Jesus needed no further defense (Mk 11:33).
By reporting verbal exchanges between Jesus and his opponents, Matthew apparently intended to illustrate the following points: (1) that Jesus was superior in wisdom and argument to the Sadducees and Pharisees; (2) that Jesus was the Messiah whose coming was predicted in the Old Testament; and (3) that the Jewish view of the Messiah was not adequate—Jesus, as the son of God, had status far beyond that envisioned in Jewish expectations.
Matthew records that certain of the Pharisees and some Herodians were sent to discredit Jesus before the people and their Roman rulers. Their attack was carefully and cleverly planned. Ordinarily, the Pharisees opposed the Herodians, but in this case Pharisees and Herodians joined in a common effort to entangle Jesus and destroy his credibility.9 To dispel any suspicions the people might have, they offered, though in a rather superficial [p.200]way, their respect for him. “Teacher, we know that you are true, and teach the way of God truthfully.” Then they asked, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” (Mt 22:16f). At first it appeared that their question could be easily answered “yes” or “no.” However, Jesus was quick to see the trap. On the one hand, had he answered “no,” the Herodians, the partisans of the Romans, would have charged him with treason for failing to support Roman rule. But, had he answered “yes,” the common people would have charged him with insincerity or with being a traitor to the Jewish cause.
According to Matthew, Jesus perceived their intentions and offered a practical solution. “Show me the money for the tax.” The coin bore the face and name familiar to all.10 “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” Only one answer was possible: “Caesar’s.” Sovereignty belonged to Rome, and in Matthew’s view Jesus was not involved in supporting those who favored the popular resistance movement against Rome. The carefully set trap failed to ensnare Jesus, who uttered the famous words, “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.” He then pressed the issue further by pointing out to his questioners the all-important matter which they seemed to have forgotten—”Render … to God the things that are God’s.” According to Matthew, Jesus’s antagonists marveled at his knowledge and skill and went away (Mt 22:19-22).
In Jesus’s time the Sadducees were the chief power in Judea, and in Jerusalem, with the priests and Levites, they controlled the Temple.11 From the moment Jesus entered Jerusalem and opposed the Temple establishment, he was confronted with the power of this religious-political party. Apparently the Sadducees were the chief instigators of his arrest. But why is this fact not more obvious in the Gospel reports? Perhaps because in the period when the Gospels were composed, not earlier than the rebellion of 66-[p.201]70 CE, the Sadducees were no longer an important factor in Jewish-Christian relations. With the destruction of the Temple and the breakdown of centralized Jewish control, the priestly caste and the aristocratic Sadducees lost their traditional function and authority. The Pharisees assumed leadership among the Jews in the period of reconstruction following the Roman destruction. In that role they became the chief rivals of the primitive Jewish-Christian churches. The Gospels reflected the emerging influence of Pharisaic Judaism, the tension between the Christians and Pharisees, and the growing resentment among Christians toward Jews.
Questions of Marriage
Certain Sadducees approached Jesus with a test case based upon the law of Levirate marriage found in Deuteronomy 25:5-10, which states that a surviving brother should marry the older brother’s widow and raise children in his name. They asked Jesus a question which was intended to show that on the basis of that “scripture” the doctrine of resurrection was absurd.12
Teacher, Moses said, “If a man dies, having no children, his brother must marry the widow, and raise up children for his brother.” Now there were seven brothers among us; the first married, and died, and having no children left his wife to his brother. So too the second and third, down to the seventh. After them all, the woman died. In the resurrection, therefore, to which of the seven will she be wife? For they all had her. (Mt 22:24-28)
The question was complicated and presented what seemed to be an impossible dilemma for those believing in both the Levirate commandment and the doctrine of resurrection, but Jesus did not turn it aside.13 He showed the Sadducees how they were wrong [p.202]in the way they presented the question, “because you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God. For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven” (Mt 22:29f). Here, in Matthew’s version, Jesus proceeded with the precision and clarity of rabbinic argumentation to show from texts that the Sadducees were mistaken. They had not taken seriously God’s power to raise up persons to a new life. Since there is no death, marrying and giving birth would make no sense.
The Great Commandments
Further, Jesus pointed out the implication of God’s words to Moses in Exodus 3:6, “I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” For Jesus this meant that “He is not God of the dead, but of the living.”(Mt 22:32.) This passage, presumed to have been spoken to Moses long after the deaths of the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, was cited by Jesus in support of the doctrine of resurrection. This interpretation was based upon the precise wording of the text which was accepted by orthodox Jews as the literal word of God. God’s pronouncement, “I am the God of Abraham” (not “I was”) established that Abraham and the other patriarchs were still alive.
Though some Jewish leaders and scholars opposed Jesus, they were not all hostile to him. Indeed, some apparently were impressed with the perceptive way in which he presented his arguments. According to Mark, when he observed that Jesus answered well, one scribe asked him the key question, “Which commandment is the first of all?”14 Immediately Jesus responded as a practicing, believing Jew, by quoting from the Law, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength” (Mk 12:28-30).15
[p.203]For Jesus, however, complete love of God required a commitment of love to others. Quoting Leviticus, he added, “The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself'” (Mk 12:31). These two verses, Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18, contained Jesus’s summation of the Law, but he was by no means the first to stress these principles as basic in religion. It is sometimes forgotten by Christians that Jesus was referring to well-known and commonly quoted passages from the Old Testament. Here he and the Pharisees were on common ground.16 The scribe was favorably impressed with Jesus’s teaching and replied, “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that he is one … and to love one’s neighbor as oneself, is much more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices” (Mk 12:32f). The scribe had discerned a central principle in Jesus’s teachings, that religion is more than ceremony. Jesus responded, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And, according to Mark, after that no one dared to question him (Mk 12:34).
At this point, according to Matthew, the Pharisees ceased to be the aggressors, and Jesus assumed the offensive. There was the common belief at that time that the Messiah to come would be the “son of David,” and many assumed that he would be an aggressive political leader. Jesus asked the Pharisees a question, “What do you think of the Christ? Whose son is he?” They replied that he was “The son of David.” Then Jesus asked them, “How is it then that David, inspired by the Spirit, calls him Lord saying, ‘The Lord said to my Lord …’? If David thus calls him Lord, how is he his son ?” (Mt 22:42-45.) The quote, “The Lord said to my Lord …,” is from Psalm 110, which, according to Matthew, was written by King David and implied that the Messiah is David’s Lord. On the basis of this technical, scriptural analysis the Messiah, as David’s Lord, could not be regarded merely as David’s son. It seems that Matthew did not intend to deny that Jesus was a son of David but rather to affirm that his status as the Christ was infinitely superior to David or any descendant of David.
The Parables in the Temple
[p.204]The Parables of the Two Sons, the Wicked Tenants, and the Marriage Feast were given in the context of Jesus’s discourse in the Temple, following his attack upon some of the Temple practices. Mark’s and Luke’s accounts are brief, but Matthew’s account of these parables illustrates in some detail Jesus’s confrontations with his antagonists.
The Two Sons
“What do you think? A man had two sons; and he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ And he answered, ‘I will not’; but afterward he repented and went. And he went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir,’ but did not go” (Mt 21:28-30). This parable is sometimes called the Parable of “the Test of Deeds.” It raised the penetrating question: Which son did the will of his father? The chief priests and the elders answered, “The first.” According to Matthew, those who presumed to be righteous, like the second son, failed to accept the way of the Baptist, but many of those whom they had called sinners, the tax collectors and harlots, were like the first of the two brothers and afterward repented and believed. Matthew’s apparent purpose in this parable was to show Jesus as fulfilling the promise and his opponents as failing “to believe” and “to do” the will of God.
The Wicked Tenants
The Parable of the Wicked Tenants, who beat or killed the landowner’s servants and son, is similar to an allegory found in the early apocryphal Gospel of Thomas. This story was apparently based upon the Song of the Vineyard in Isaiah (Is 5:1-7).17 For the Gospel of Matthew, the original parable was probably expanded and colored to fit the circumstances of the early church.18 In Matthew’s [p.205]version, the vineyard was Israel and the tenants were Israel’s leaders. Matthew made it plain that the Pharisees failed to discern Jesus’s identity and rejected him, and that Judaism in turn would be refused any future role in the kingdom of God. The “Kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a nation producing the fruits of it” (Mt 21:43). At this point the opponents of Jesus, realizing he was speaking of them, tried to arrest him, but fearing the multitudes who regarded him as a prophet, they failed to follow through with their attempt.
The Marriage Feast
The Parable of the Tenants is followed in Matthew (Mt 22:1-14) by the well-known Parable of the Marriage or Wedding Feast, but it occurs earlier in the gospel of Luke (Lk 14:16-24). This parable is sometimes called the “rejected invitation.” Jesus pointed out that those who were first expected to fulfill predictions of the kingdom rejected the invitation to the feast and were themselves rejected. “They would not come.… they made light of it.” Nevertheless, “The wedding is ready.” Therefore the invitation was extended to others, those gathered from the streets, “both bad and good,” and “the wedding hall was filled with guests” (Mt 22:2-10).
In the original parable Jesus may have meant to explain and justify his fellowship with “sinners” and tax collectors because Pharisees and others had steadfastly refused his invitation. However, Matthew expanded the meaning of the parable, applying it to his own time and to God’s relations with the Jews. Because of their rebelliousness the Jews would be rejected and a new invitation would be offered to the gentiles.
According to some scholars, the account of the wedding garment, the story of the guest who was rejected because of improper dress (Mt 22:11-14), was added to the original parable to show the gentiles of Matthew’s day that not all of those who were invited would be chosen. “For many are called, but few are chosen.” Luke added [p.206]a special note that “none of those men who were invited shall taste my banquet” (Lk 14:24). Applied to the Christian church, this meant that there would be great disappointment among Christians who believed that membership in the church would secure special privileges. Membership in the kingdom required faith and love, and the “stranger” and “accursed” who lived far off might prove more worthy than the so-called chosen ones.
Charges against the Pharisees
These parables, addressed by Jesus to the leaders who had confronted him, quite clearly expressed the attitude toward the Jewish establishment that prevailed in the Christian churches at the time of the writing of the synoptic Gospels. Jesus was represented, particularly in Matthew, as sternly opposed to the methods and practices of the scribes and Pharisees. His words according to Matthew were clear and cutting, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!” The word “Woe” was used to pronounce a curse. The denunciation, “Woe to you,” is repeated several times. Jesus accused the Pharisees of ostentation and hypocris. (Mt 23:3, 5f). Pharisees often used rules designed to protect persons against breaking the Law. However, sometimes the rules were so strict that from Jesus’s point of view they appeared to “shut the kingdom of heaven against men” (Mt 23:13).
In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus’s charges against the Pharisees were severe. They made proselytes as zealous for minutiae as themselves (Mt 23:15). They neglected the “weightier matters of the law, justice and mercy and faith,” in their concern for their minute regulations—”You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!” (Mt 23:23f). They kept the external conventions and allowed the inward reality of righteousness to be compromised (Mt 23:27). And they paid lip service to the memory of the great prophets while at the same time reinforcing the spirit of those who murdered the prophets (Mt 23:29-32). Matthew 23 ends with Jesus’s final rejection of the Jews and “their house,” the Jewish religion. “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killing the prophets.… How often would I have gathered your chil-[p.207]dren together … and you would not! Behold, your house is forsaken and desolate” (Mt 23:37-39). The bitterness of this attack upon the Pharisees can be attributed at least in part to the personal attitudes of the anonymous author of Matthew and to the circumstances which prompted his writing. According to Norman Perrin “the diatribe against ‘the scribes and Pharisees’ in Matthew 23 does not reflect a conflict between Jesus and the scribes and Pharisees of his day,” but the conflict fifty years later between Matthew and their descendants.19
Mark offers the reader a sharp contrast between what he saw as the false piety of the powerful and the genuine piety of the poor and under-privileged who, though they had almost nothing to offer, carried through in full faith with their religious obligations. Jesus and a few of his disciples sat down not far from the treasury in the court of the women. It was at the treasury that the people made free-will offerings to the Temple. He saw the rich as they placed large sums in the treasury. Then came the poor widow, a person without social status, who placed two copper coins in the treasury. Many had merely scraped the surface of their holdings, but this widow who had no surplus gave everything she owned. As Jesus said, she offered “her whole living” (Mk 12:40-44).
The Coming of the End
Jesus’s efforts to convince people of the coming of the kingdom were drawing to a close. Standing on the Mount of Olives, he and his disciples could see Jerusalem, across the valley of the Kidron. It was a magnificent sight. Little wonder that these Galileans were impressed. With its white marble pillars and well-polished cedar wood, the Temple was a sacred shrine for all of them. But the disciples were awed by the structure itself, and one of them exclaimed, “Look, Teacher, what wonderful stones and what wonderful buildings!” Jesus’s response to their exclamations was unexpected. “Do you see these great buildings? There will not be left here one stone upon another, that will not be thrown [p.208]down” (Mk 13:1f). For the disciples, steeped as they were in Jewish tradition, this seemed impossible. Then as “he sat on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter and James and John and Andrew asked him privately, ‘Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign when these things are all to be accomplished?'” (Mk 13:3f).20 This question set the stage for Jesus’s sermon on the End of the Age.
As it stands in the synoptic Gospels, this sermon is primarily a prediction by Jesus of events leading up to the end. But the account was written later, probably after the destruction of the Temple had taken place. There is a strong sense of urgency in the Gospels about the time of these final events. Yet the reader is cautioned again and again to be calm and not to be misled or to commit his expectations to any specific time.
Clearly, hopes were high in Jesus’s time for the coming of God’s kingdom. The belief that God’s agent, a descendant of David, would overthrow Roman rule and restore the ancient kingdom aroused great excitement among the masses. The early Christians in Jerusalem, who were Jewish in their religious and cultural background with Jewish expectations about the Messiah, obviously shared this hope and enthusiasm. No doubt many Jewish Christians after the death of Jesus became nationalistic in their views about Jesus’s role as the Messiah and Son of man. Many probably joined the Jewish enthusiasts, Zealots and Essenes, in open resistance to Roman authority.
The apocalyptic doctrine, the belief in the imminent end of the age, lent fanatic zeal to the resistance movement. No doubt early Christian prophets, filled with the Spirit, aroused the passions of the Christian fellowship by proclaiming the End and the “coming” of Jesus in power. Christians and Jews were thus joined in a common but catastrophic venture. Jerusalem and the Temple were destroyed in 70 CE; the Jewish nationalist religious parties collapsed; and the Jerusalem Christians, the “Followers of the [p.209]Way,” had either fled or were killed in the Roman seige and destruction of the city.21
With the disintegration of the early church in Jerusalem, new Christian centers were established outside of Palestine in the Mediterranean world. At this juncture an explanation of these catastrophic events from a Christian perspective was absolutely essential as the prerequisite for continuing with Jesus’s proclamation about the coming of God’s kingdom. The Gospel of Mark provided this explanation. Mark looked back upon the events preceding the war and examined the tradition about Jesus for clues which would serve to explain the destruction in 70 CE. He found the clues he needed for his account in Jesus’s teachings about the End of the Age. According to Mark’s interpretation, Jesus predicted the very happenings which led to the devastation of Jerusalem by Rome. This was recorded by Mark in Jesus’s sermon on the Mount of Olives (called the Little Apocalypse—Mark 13), which in Mark’s chronology occurred immediately after Jesus predicted the destruction of the Temple.
Jesus’s sermon began with warnings against being deceived and misled by false pretenders. “Take heed that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name, saying, “I am he!'” But before the end there will come wars and threats of war—nations in conflict—earthquakes, and famines. This, Mark claimed, is “but the beginning of the birthpangs.” The faithful will be taken before councils, synagogues, governors, and kings to bear witness, for, Mark continued, “the gospel must first be preached to all nations. And when they bring you to trial … do not be anxious … for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit. … And you will be hated by all for my name’s sake” (Mk 13:5-13).22
[p.210]In Mark’s version of the sermon, the climax will be reached at the moment of a great tribulation—when the “desolating sacrilege is set up where it ought not to be.” Undoubtedly, this referred to the desecration of the Jerusalem Temple predicted in Daniel.23 That Luke is clear about the meaning of Mark’s cryptic comment, “Let the reader understand,” seems evident from his observation, “But when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation has come near” (Lk 21:20). Then Mark continued, “Let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains” (Mk 13:14). And at the peak of suffering and great confusion there will arise “false Christs and false prophets” to lead astray even the elect. After this catastrophic “tribulation, the sun will be darkened … and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken” (Mk 13:22-25).24 Then, Mark continued, “They will see the Son of man coming in clouds with great power and glory. And then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect … from the ends of the earth” (Mk 13:28-30).25
Learn the lesson “from the fig tree,” Jesus said. When its leaves appear everyone knows that summer, the time of fruition, is imminent. Then “know that he is near, at the very gates. … This generation will not pass away before all these things take place” (Mk 13:28-30).26 Nevertheless, no one, not even “the Son” knows pre-[p.211]cisely the moment or the day. Only the Father knows the exact hour. Luke warned that the day will “come upon you suddenly like a snare” (Lk 21:34). And Mark, at the end of his account of the sermon, cautioned with great seriousness, “Watch therefore—for you do not know when the master … will come.” Do not let him “find you asleep. And what I say to you I say to all: Watch” (Mk 13:35-37).
At this point, according to Mark, Jesus ended his apocalyptic sermon. Mark held that Jesus pointed to a new beginning outside of Judea, possibly in Galilee: “But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee” (Mk 14:28). Mark retained the view that fulfillment of this promise is imminent, that Jesus would soon come in power as Lord and apocalyptic Son of man. Mark seems to have accepted a brief delay in the timetable, but Jesus promised to return, a promise to be fulfilled outside of Judea and Jerusalem, to bring about a new beginning for the faithful.
Matthew elaborated upon the uncertainty of the time of the end. For him the end was near, but not yet. Before the end there was to be a time for the building of the church, a time of preparation and of waiting with faith for the coming of the Son of man. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus followed his predictions concerning the destruction of Jerusalem with three parables which warn about the need for watchfulness: the parables of the Ten Maidens, of the Talents, and of the Last Judgment.27
The Apocalyptic Parables
The Ten Maidens
The Parable of the Ten Maidens is found only in Matthew (Mt 25:1-13). Five of the maidens were wise, and five were foolish. The foolish took no oil for their lamps, but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. The foolish lacked foresight. Their preparation was incomplete. Their intentions on the surface seemed sufficient, but the whole effort lacked genuine integrity. The bridegroom did not come as the maidens expected; his coming was delayed, and “they all slumbered and slept.” “But at midnight there was a cry, [p.212]’Behold, the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.'” Nothing more could be done. They must go at once if they were to attend the wedding. In a last effort the foolish tried to rectify their carelessness. They went to buy oil, but while they were gone the marriage was held and “the door was shut.”
In the Parable of the Talents (Mt 25:14-30), three servants were entrusted with different amounts—one five talents, another two, and the third only one talent. The two men who were given the five and two talents, through trust and some effort, doubled the amount that had been given them. The third lacked the courage to increase his talent but rather “dug in the ground and hid his master’s money.” When the master returned to settle accounts with his servants, the one who had received five talents and the one who received two were both rewarded with an enthusiastic and earnest “Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful over a little, I will set you over much.”
The point of the parable is to be found in the account of the man who received only one talent. “I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground,” he explained. And the master responded, “I should have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to him who has the ten talents” (Mt 25:25-28). This third servant who had hidden the talent probably expected praise for preserving what had been entrusted to him. But the situation required trust and risk. Because of his fear this servant risked nothing and earned nothing. According to the parable, timid and overcautious, even though scrupulous, behavior among disciples is tantamount to breach of trust. For Jesus, trust meant more than merely preserving the tradition intact; it meant making an all-out commitment to God and the kingdom in spite of great risk to one’s self.28
The Last Judgment
[p.213]The Parable of the Last Judgment, found only in Matthew (Mt 25:31-46). is the last in the series of three having to do with watchfulness, with being ready, and with rewards and punishments at the end. It is explicit about what kind of life will be rewarded. “When the Son of man comes … before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate them … as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. … For I was hungry … thirsty … was a stranger … naked … sick … in prison and you came to me” (Mt 25:31f, 35f). According to the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus had been building toward this conclusion: showing mercy toward the weak, poor, helpless, and childlike is a test of discipleship. This is a meaning of righteousness which extends beyond that of the scribes and Pharisees. The great failing of the Pharisees, according to Matthew, was that they “preach, but do not practice.” They bind heavy burdens upon the backs of ordinary people, “but they themselves will not move them with their finger. … Truly, I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me” (Mt 23:3f, 25:45).
This completed Matthew’s account of the sermons of Jesus. From this point until the end of his Gospel, Matthew provided examples of how Jesus put his teaching into practice. Jesus himself was given as the model for disciples to follow; righteousness required that teaching be followed by commitment and action.
[p.195]1. Matthew stated that Jesus rode on “them” (21:7), that is, two animals. In this instance, Matthew’s eagerness to fulfill the prophecy of Zechariah 9:9 with precise detail led to an awkward situation, for the passage from Zechariah referred to only one animal. The repetition of the theme, “on a colt, the foal of an ass,” is an instance of Hebrew parallelism which Matthew apparently misunderstood as meaning two animals.
2. These events, reported in 2 Kings 22, took place during the reign of the young King Josiah (640-609 BCE). See Bernard Anderson, Understanding the Old Testament, 3rd ed. (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, 1975), 348-62, for a discussion and interpretation of the historical details.
3. The Synoptics and John’s Gospel differ with respect to the time of the so-called cleansing of the Temple. John placed this incident at the beginning of Jesus’s ministry (2:12-22). However, Matthew, Mark, and Luke are in agreement that the cleansing of the Temple took place at the end (Mt 21:10-17; Mk 11:15-19; Lk 19:45-48).
5. “Money-changers” referred to the requirement that because all buying and selling in the Temple area was done in the currency of Tyre, other coins had to be changed. A fee of a half-shekel was paid for the exchange.
6. According to the Law (Lv 5:7, 12:8), either two “turtledoves or two young pigeons” were accepted as sacrifices for those who could not afford a lamb. A classic account of the Temple and its ritual is Alfred Edersheim’s work, The Temple: Its Ministry and Services, reprint (Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1982).
7. This interpretation of Mark follows Werner Kelber’s perceptive analysis of Mark 11:1-13:37 in Mark’s Story of Jesus (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1979), 57-66. In Mark’s gospel the Temple-figtree episode dramatizes Jesus’s final rejection of the Temple. See also N. Perrin, The New Testament (New York, 1974), 158.
9. The Herodians were not a religious party as the Pharisees were. They were partisans of Herod’s who favored collaboration with Rome. The Herodians supported taxation by Rome, for instance, which the Pharisees opposed.
11. Michael Grant in Jesus, An Historian’s Review of the Gospels (New York, 1977), 146f, interprets the Parable of the Good Samaritan as intending to show Jesus’s strong negative feelings toward priests and Levites.
12. The Sadducees kept the written Law but did not accept the oral tradition. Any beliefs not clearly established by the written Law were rejected. In this instance the Sadducees provided a test case intended to illustrate the absurdity of the doctrine of resurrection, which they did not accept. Resurrection of the body was an accepted Pharisaic belief.
18. J. Jeremias suggests that the original of Mk. 12:9 was a simple story “of a single messenger repeatedly dismissed by the tenants.” The original meaning, he says, was to vindicate “the offer of the gospel to the poor. You, it says, you tenants of the vineyard, you leaders of the people! you have opposed … God. Your cup is [p.205]full! Therefore shall the vineyard of God be given to ‘others.'” J. Jeremias, The Parables of Jesus, rev. ed. (New York, 1963), 72, 76.
20. Matthew’s text reads somewhat differently. “The disciples came to him” and said, “What will be the sign of your coming [parousia] and of the close of the age?” (Mt 24:3). Matthew is the only Gospel to use the expression coming (parousia). See Mt 24:27, 37, 39.
21. A later revolt occurred under the leadership of another messianic claimant, Bar-Kokhba, during the reign of the Emperor Hadrian. It came to a disastrous end at Bethat, Modern Bittir, in 135 CE, after three years of desperate fighting. Of the Jewish political or religious parties, only the Pharisees survived to carry on the Jewish tradition. For a scholarly treatment of the second revolt, see Yigael Yadin, Bar-Kokhba (New York, 1971).
22. That these were times of unrest and excitement is attested to in the Acts of the Apostles where Gamaliel warned his fellow council members against taking hasty [p.210]action against various claimants—for example, Theudas and Judas, the Galilean (Acts 5:27-39). Matthew observed that “many false prophets will arise and lead many astray” (Mt 24:11).
25. Matthew and Luke included the observation that the coming of the Son of man will be sudden, like the gathering of vultures to a carcass. Also, his coming will not go unobserved. It will be like lightning from the east which “shines as far as the west” (Mt 24:27; Lk 17:24).
26. The phrase “this generation” is controversial. Some interpreters have maintained that Jesus referred to the Jews or to “the human race in general.” “It is more likely,” says Professor Fenton, “that originally it meant the generation living at the time of Jesus.” J. C. Fenton, The Gospel of St. Matthew (Baltimore, 1963), 391.
28. While this parable appears only in Matthew, a similar teaching is to be found earlier in Luke’s special section (Lk 19:11-27). The two parables, the Pounds in Luke and the Talents in Matthew, are closely parallel. Also, the Gospel of the Hebrews, as reported in Eusebius’s Theophany, contains a third variation of this parable. The term “talent” referred to a measure of weight. It later came to denote a specific sum of gold or silver (approximately $1,000).