In the year 70 C.E., 10 to 20 years before many scholars think the gospel of Matthew was written, the city of Jerusalem and the Second Temple were destroyed by the Roman army in the first Jewish-Roman war. Although not mentioned by name in any of the gospel readings, the city of Jerusalem—and particularly the temple, which was the center of Jewish life, power, and sacrifice-based worship—is present in the parables of judgment and the controversy stories that we read this month. Jerusalem is background, foreshadowing, main character, and hermeneutical key.
Not 20 verses before the first gospel reading for this month are the dramatic events that we remember during Lent. Jesus enters Jerusalem, the political and religious center of Jewish life, “humble, and mounted on a donkey” (Matthew 21:5). The next day, “Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who were selling and buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold doves” (Matthew 21:12). It is against these conflicts with the Jerusalem leadership that we read the parables, controversies, and aphorisms that follow.
After the tables have been turned, an event that politically oriented commentators call the “temple action,” the gospel of Matthew contains a unique image. The center of worship is symbolically destroyed, but amid the scattered tables, coins, and livestock an alternative center is offered with the most marginal at its heart. The blind and lame, and children crying “hosanna” pour into the temple in a celebration of healing and praise for a very different kind of kingdom (Matthew 21:14-15). As we struggle to understand the destruction and violence, it is the little ones at the center who we must remember.
Laurel A. Dykstra is a scripture and justice educator living in Vancouver, British Columbia. She is the author of Set Them Free: The Other Side of Exodus. www.laureldykstra.com
At the Heart of the Parables
Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20; Psalm 19; Philippians 3:4-14; Matthew 21:33-46
Sometimes the order of the lectionary and the liturgical year separate texts that appear together in scripture. Unless we remember the flow of events in Matthew, it is difficult to understand the gospel reading this week.
The day after shouting children and people with disabilities anger the priests by their presence in the temple, Jesus returns there. On his way he curses a fig tree. Then in the temple itself, in the course of a public exchange with the chief priests, elders, and Pharisees, he tells three related parables: the parable of the two sons, which we read last week, the parable of the vineyard tenants, and the story of the wedding banquet, parallel passages that are assigned for this week and next. Behind these stories is the struggle to understand violence and loss, to explain how the city of Jerusalem and the temple could have been destroyed.
The parables are heavily allegorized to condemn the Jerusalem leadership for their rejection of John, Jesus, and the Matthean community. But the characters and settings of all these stories also point to first-century social and economic realities: agriculture, harvest, absentee landlords, working the land and owning the land, escalating violence, slaves and kings, the poor who are never invited and have no coat to wear, and the shocking impact of eating together at an open table—ignoring boundaries of class and culture. These realities have parallels today; whether we recognize them or not they remain central to the work and struggle of our Christian faith.
Euodia and Syntyche
Exodus 32:1-14; Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23; Philippians 4:1-9; Matthew 22:1-14
In Philippians 4:2-3, decades before the gospels were written, Paul provides a fascinating and provoking portrait of two women leaders in the early church.
Euodia and Syntyche, whose names mean “success or prosperity” and “fortunate,” are, with Lydia, founders of the church at Philippi. Mary Rose D’Angelo, professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame, describes them as a pair of missionary partners like Tryphaena and Tryphosa (Romans 16:12) and Mary and Martha of Bethany. The women are included in Paul’s vigorous athletic imagery of the church: “[T]hey have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel” (Philippians 4:3). Euodia and Syntyche are described by Paul as his co-workers; he does not instruct them but urges them as his equals.
The women are called, each in parallel, to resolve some conflict: “I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord” (Philippians 4:2). Typically this passage has been understood to refer to a women’s “quarrel” that threatens the stability of the community at Philippi. But it is also possible that the two women are in conflict with Paul, a situation modern readers may not find difficult to imagine.
Paul calls for unity, which is a theme of Philippians, and the phrase “be of the same mind” is characteristic of the letters most scholars consider to be written by Paul (Romans 12:16 and 15:5, Philippians 2:2). This is not a call to conformity or submission. The Greek word phroneo means to exercise the mind, and the role of the mind in the life of faith is a significant theme for Paul. It is striking that in this story of powerful women, exercising the mind—together in Christ and with the support of companions—is the way of problem-solving.
Exodus 33:12-23; Psalm 99; 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10; Matthew 22:15-22
This week’s reading from Matthew is a controversy story that appears in all three synoptic gospels (Matthew 22:15-22; Mark 12:13-17; and Luke 20:20-26). The story points to Jewish-Jewish and Jewish-Roman conflicts in Jesus’ time but also to conflicts in the Matthean community around Jewish identity. Jesus is shown besting two factions of the Jerusalem leadership by his skill in public exchange. In response to a question about paying taxes to the Romans—posed because any answer Jesus gives is going to make someone angry—Jesus asks to see a coin bearing an image of the emperor.
The tax here is not a duty on goods but the poll tax, a direct administrative tax levied by the Roman government on the Jewish people. The coin is a denarius mentioned in the parables of the debtors (Matthew 18:23-35) and the daily wage of the workers (Matthew 20:1-16). Jesus asks his opponents for a coin; he does not produce one of his own, the implication being that he does not have one.
Jesus asks whose “head and title” are on the coin. The coin bears the image of the emperor, a powerful message in a time and place much less image-saturated than our own. Because of the Jewish prohibition on images, coins without human images had been minted for Jewish use, but these opponents of Jesus—Jewish leaders—have carried an image of the emperor into the temple.
Then Jesus said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:21). By placing God and the emperor in parallel, Jesus also makes parallel their images, effectively asking “who or what bears God’s image? To whom do you belong?”
The NRSV says “give” to the emperor, but the word “render” from the King James Version is more familiar to many of us and retains the sense of the verb apodidomi, which means to give back. Jesus’ answer challenges not only the legitimacy of the tax but also the legitimacy of the emperor. “Each of us is made in the likeness of God. The coin? Give it back to the false god it belongs to, and give the whole of yourself to God.”
The Law of Love
Deuteronomy 34:1-12; Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17; 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8; Matthew 22:34-46
In the gospel today the exchanges continue between Jesus and the Jerusalem leadership. A Pharisee lawyer asks a very Jewish question: “Which of the commandments in the law is greatest?” Jesus answers, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Matthew 22:36-40).
But we read a verse very like this last month. Paul, with no indication that he is quoting Jesus, says, “The commandments … are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’” (Romans 13:9-10).
In Luke, the lawyer who challenges Jesus with a more universal question—“[W]hat must I do to inherit eternal life?” —supplies the answer himself: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:25-28). The gospel writer emphasizes that this is the kind of active love we spoke about last month by then moving to the parable of the good Samaritan.
Now, lest we assume this summary of the law is some Christian innovation, Rabbi Hillel, a prominent Pharisee who lived in Jerusalem a few years before Jesus was born, was challenged to teach all of the Torah, or law, standing on one foot. His response: “What is hateful to you do not do to others. The rest is commentary. Go learn.”
In different ways these other condensations of the law illustrate what is pervasive in Matthew: a Jewish emphasis on love over legalism, and condemnation and judgment of those who rely on role and position, but fail to listen to and to act in solidarity with the vulnerable.
“Preaching the Word,” Sojourners’ online resource for sermon preparation and Bible study, is available at www.sojo.net.