Sunday, April 20, 2014

No One Knows The Hour (part 7)

Prior to the words of the forty-third verse, and just to be sure that all understand that Jesus has the Temple in mind as He is speaking, Matthew’s Jesus rounds out His parable by saying “Have you never read in the Scriptures: ‘The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.  This is from the Lord, and it is marvelous in our eyes’?” (21:42)  Here, Jesus quotes from the one hundred eighteenth Psalm. 

The selection on offer from Jesus, which is to be called to mind by the section that He has quoted, begins with “Open for me the gates of the just king’s temple!  I will enter through them and give thanks to the Lord.  This is the Lord’s gate---the godly enter through it.  I will give you thanks, for you answered me, and have become my deliverer” (118:19-21).  What follows in the Psalm from that which is quoted by Jesus (though Jesus doesn’t quote it, or at least Matthew doesn’t report Jesus quoting it, would be called to mind by Jesus using the introductory words) is “This is the day the Lord has brought about.  We will be happy and rejoice in it.  Please Lord, deliver!  Please Lord, grant us success!  May the one who comes in the name of the Lord be blessed!  We will pronounce blessings on you in the Lord’s temple” (118:24-26). 

So not only is Jesus quite obviously speaking about the Temple, by using this Psalm He has actually gone back and effectively answered the question that was previously posed to Him about what He was doing and who it was that had given Him the right to do it.  He is the one who comes in the name of the Lord and He is acting in the Temple on behalf of Israel’s God.  In all of this section, when considering how to understand Jesus’ insistence that “no one knows the hour,” the Temple is the thing.      

After telling the parables of the two sons and the tenants, with Matthew having interjected Jesus’ thoughts concerning the kingdom of the covenant God, and letting his audience know that “the chief priests and the Pharisees… realized that He was speaking about them” (21:45), Jesus moves on to His next parable, which is that of the wedding banquet.  Having suggested that the kingdom of God, with its Temple-related connotations, was going to be taken from those that represented the Temple and its regime, this parable begins with “The kingdom of heaven can be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son” (22:2).  The parable, which shares similar features to the parable of the tenants, concludes with the king saying “For many are called, but few are chosen” (22:14). 

Though much can be made of this parable, and though there are obviously a great number of avenues of exploration that could be traveled (king and son and messianic understanding to say the least), because Jesus is dealing with the issue of the Temple, with the Temple consistently serving as the backdrop, suffice it to say that the connection between the kingdom of their God being taken away from the chief priests and the Pharisees, and the kingdom of heaven being limited to those that have been chosen for it, is rather obvious. 

One must be extremely careful to not exhume this statement about many being called and few being chosen from out of the ground in which it has been placed.  This is not an isolated statement nor an isolated parable from which one can construct a theology of predestination or limited atonement.  The statement should not be detached from its context and ever allowed to stand on its own.  This is a statement and a parable dealing with the Temple and those that represent that Temple, as Jesus builds on His previously enacted judgment of that Temple and those that run it.  Along with the setting and the audience, Jesus’ subject of concern remains unchanged.  This fact is obviously not lost on Jesus’ intended audience, as Matthew moves immediately to tell us that “Then the Pharisees went out and planned together to entrap Him with His own words” (22:15). 

To that end, the Pharisees proffer a question about the paying of taxes to Caesar.  The import of this question cannot be disconnected from Jesus’ triumphal entry---an event which would have stirred revolutionary notions, hopes concerning Israel’s king (messiah), the perceived illegitimacy of those that then ruled (Caesar), and the driving of the Romans from the land.  Taxes and revolution go hand in hand, and Jesus’ opinion in this area would have been used to great effect.  Also, it seems as if it is supposed to have the function of distracting Jesus from His main concern, which is the judged Temple and its judged functionaries.  However, Jesus’ answer will be heard with the Temple as a sounding board, and perhaps even as a critical rebuke of His interrogators when He says to “give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (22:21b).

Saturday, April 19, 2014

No One Knows The Hour (part 6)

So, with the Temple as the backdrop, Jesus embarks on a series of parables.  The first one of these is known as the “parable of the two sons.”  Not only is the parable offered in the Temple, but it begins with a question, “What do you think?” (Matthew 21:28a), with that being directed to “the chief priests and elders of the people” (21:23b).  They had posed a question to Jesus.  Jesus had not answered the question, but instead posed a question to them.  He continued to question them, as was just said, by prefacing a parable with a question. 

The parable of the two sons, spoken in the Temple and to the Temple authorities, uses a vineyard as its setting, with a father and two sons as the characters in the story.  Thus Israel as the point of reference is unmistakable.  The father and two sons theme is quite prevalent in Israel’s history: Abraham with Ishmael and Isaac, Isaac with Esau and Jacob, and Joseph with Manasseh and Ephraim.  The fact that it is being directed to whom it is being directed, in the place where it is being spoken, with the conclusion drawn about a failure to believe on the part of those to whom Jesus speaks (Temple authorities), builds on the Jeremiah theme and is further judgment upon the Temple and its system.  Remember, Jesus has already pronounced judgment on the Temple by way of His actions and His words in the Temple.  The fig tree has withered and He has spoken of the mountain to be thrown into the sea.  The setting has not changed, so it is correct to continue hearing Him speak according to this train of thought, without any unwarranted deviations from this path. 

Following the parable of the two sons is the “parable of the tenants.”  Jesus commences with “Listen to another parable” (21:33a), with this serving as a reminder that Jesus is speaking to the same people to whom He was speaking with the previous parable.  This parable tells a horrible story, and Jesus uses terms such as “evil” to describe the antagonists in the tale.  Of course, Matthew removes all ambiguity when he writes “When the chief priests (Temple authorities---representatives of the Temple) and the Pharisees heard this parable, they realized that He was speaking about them” (21:45).  Jesus is calling the chief priests “evil.”  Thus, He effectively de-legitimizes them, their positions, and that which they represent. 

With this, one cannot help but think about the Apostle Paul standing before the council in Jerusalem and being struck on the mouth.  Paul responds to his abuser by saying “God is going to strike you, you whitewashed wall!” (Acts 23:3a)  The reply that comes to this statement is “Do you dare insult God’s high priest?”  (23:4b)  Now, this is not to say that Jesus was speaking to or of the high priest, and of course He did not speak these words overtly, as they were implied in the parable and the chief priests made the connection themselves, but as one considers the issues of legitimacy and authority and the words of Jesus, it is interesting to note that Paul says “I did not realize, brothers, that he was the high priest, for it is written, ‘You must not speak evil about a ruler of your people.’” (23:5) 

Because Jesus refers to the antagonists in the parable of the vineyard as evil, with the knowledge that this epithet was meant for those who were challenging Him there in the Temple, Jesus may very well have been emphasizing that these men (and even the high priest) were not legitimate rulers, and that they were nothing more than the caretakers of a Temple and system that has been judged as illegitimate by Israel’s Creator God.  Indeed and to that point, Jesus also says “I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken from you” (21:43b), and it was the Temple---the place of God’s dwelling and the place where heaven and earth met---that represented the Creator God’s presence and His kingdom.  This carries meaning on multiple levels, especially if one considers that Matthew, using these words that are absent from Mark’s account, is most likely composed in a time following the destruction of the Temple at the hands of the Romans. 

Friday, April 18, 2014

No One Knows The Hour (part 5)

Here it must also be said that in Mark’s account in contrast to Matthew’s, rather than the withering of the fig tree being bracketed by Jesus’ actions in the Temple and a return to the Temple the following day in which He is challenged by the Temple authorities, it is Jesus’ dramatic actions in the Temple and pronouncement of judgment against it that is bracketed by the words spoken to the fig tree and the words spoken about and prompted by the withered fig tree.  It is then that Mark writes “They came again to Jerusalem” (11:27a), with Jesus being confronted with “By what authority are you doing these things?  Or who gave you the authority to do these things?” (11:28)      

So in Mark, the order of events is the triumphal entry that is accompanied by a trip to the Temple where Jesus merely looks around at everything (11:11), a departure to Bethany for the night, words to the fig tree the following day, another trip to Jerusalem and the Temple where He dramatically acts and speaks, another departure from Jerusalem (presumably to Bethany again), the disciples noticing the withered fig tree to which Jesus had spoken and doing so on the following morning on their way back to Jerusalem (thus prompting the previously mentioned commentary by Jesus), where Jesus makes another trip to the Temple. 

By way of review and contrast, Matthew has Jesus triumphally entering Jerusalem, acting and speaking in the Temple, departing for Bethany, speaking to the fig tree which produces an immediate withering and subsequent commentary on the fig tree, and an entrance into Jerusalem and the Temple where He is challenged.  Luke, by way of further contrast, has Jesus entering Jerusalem (for which He weeps while on His approach) and then speaking and acting in the Temple.  He is a bit more ambiguous in His timeline, as following Jesus’ recitation from Jeremiah he writes that “Jesus was teaching daily in the Temple courts.  The chief priests and the experts in the law and the prominent leaders among the people were seeking to assassinate Him, but they could not find a way to do it, for all the people hung on His words.  Now one day, as Jesus was teaching in the Temple courts and proclaiming the gospel, the chief priests and experts in the law with the elders came up and said to Him, ‘Tell us: By what authority are you doing these things?  Or who is it who gave you this authority?’” (19:47-20:2)     

All that follows from the twenty-third verse of the twenty-first chapter of Matthew when Jesus re-enters the Temple courts, until the first verse of the twenty-fourth chapter when Jesus goes out of the Temple courts and walks away, occurs without a change of scenery.  The same is true of Mark, as the setting does not change from the twenty-seventh verse of the eleventh chapter until the first verse of chapter thirteen. 

In Luke, the Temple is the scene of the narrative from the first verse of chapter twenty to verse thirty-seven of chapter twenty-one, which does not neatly change the setting, but simply breaks-up the narrative by informing the listener that “every day Jesus was teaching in the Temple courts, but at night He went and stayed on the Mount of Olives” (21:37).  For Luke, though Jesus embarks on His triumphal entry from Bethany, He does not return there each evening.  This helps to explain his omission of the story of the fig tree and its withering, which takes place in Matthew and Mark on the road from Bethany.  Throughout this entire section of the narrative, one must see and hear Jesus in the Temple courts, which provides a dramatic backdrop for all of the words that He speaks, along with the obviously Temple-related context for understanding His insistence that no one knows the hour . 

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

No One Knows The Hour (part 4)

For the sake of rounding out the Biblical picture, it’s worth noting what Mark presents in association with the fig tree and the mountain.  Mark reports Jesus as saying “Whenever you stand praying, if you have anything against anyone, forgive him, so that you Father in heaven will also forgive your sins” (11:25).  In contrast, and though clearly utilizing the Markan narrative to provide the basis for his own, Luke omits any mention of the fig tree or mountain, moving directly to Jesus return to the Temple courts and the challenge to Jesus’ authority that comes from the temple authorities. 

Though this study will not spill a great deal of ink with conjecture on why Matthew and Mark include the story of the withered fig tree whereas Luke does not, one could surmise that the appearances of the fig tree in the Matthean and Markan narratives, with both (Matthew most likely relying on Mark) connecting the withered fig tree with the mountain to be removed, could possibly have some bearing on the conclusions to be drawn.  Perhaps its appearance and correspondence to the mountain that is in view (the Temple mount, so it is both literal and metaphorical) is somehow linked to Jesus’ insistence that no man knows the day or the hour, which, as has been pointed out, is to be found in Matthew and Mark, but not in Luke.  Certainly, the fig tree did not expect to wither on that day and at that moment---it clearly did not know the hour.  

In addition, it is necessary to acknowledge and report the divergence in the Gospel stories surrounding Jesus’ triumphal entry.  An honest observer does not simply ignore these things and pretend that they are not there, though it is also quite possible to insist that differences in detail do not derail from the overall message of the accounts nor do the differences really present much cause for concern, primarily because the authors (and that world in general) did not operate with the strict, modern, western notions in regards to “doing history”.  Fluidity in reports were acceptable, as long as the major details remained intact, especially when any glaring problems could and would be corrected by the oral/aural community, which was often a far better guardian of stories in that day than was the written word.  

That said, Matthew’s account has already been detailed here quite well.  Owing to the fact that Mark is believed to be foundational for Matthew and Luke’s account, it must be said that it is Matthew’s account that is divergent, rather than Mark’s.  The divergences are accounted for by each author having slightly different goals for the telling of the Jesus story as received by their target audiences in the growing Jesus community that they want to achieve through the delivery of their accounts.  So even though each has the goal of setting forth the story of Jesus, each comes at it from a slightly different angle, which is perfectly understandable.  Honestly, it needs to be said that if each told the story in the same way, the world would have no need for multiple Gospels, and Christendom and the world at large would lack the rich and manifold witness to Jesus provided by these evangelists---not to mention their diverse perspectives and portrayals of Jesus that serve to provide a more complete sense and picture of the one that so many call Lord.

What are those divergences?  For Mark, Jesus does head to the Temple upon the occasion of His triumphal entry into Jerusalem.  However, Mark does not record Him immediately engaging with the buyers, sellers, and money changers, nor making His Jeremiah-esque stand.  In Mark’s telling, this takes place on the following day, which is also the day that Jesus speaks to the fig tree while on His way to Jerusalem.  However, in Mark’s presentation of that detail, and even though the fig tree may indeed have immediately withered, the disciples do not comment on this withering until the following day, which is when Jesus offers up His commentary concerning the fig tree, the mountain, and the need to offer forgiveness.  

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

No One Knows The Hour (part 3)

Returning to Matthew and to the day after Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, which took Him to the Temple to pronounce a symbolic judgment against it in the mode of Jeremiah (and for the same reasons), along with which He referred to the Temple authorities as robbers (for engaging in insurrection against the God of the Temple---an insurrection that will cause Israel’s God to bring upon Jerusalem and its Temple the same type of judgment that their God brought upon it by way of Babylon, which are the thoughts that Jesus’ words and actions would have stirred, therefore setting him at odds with the Temple authorities and the people, as also happened to Jeremiah), Jesus returns to Jerusalem and to the Temple, having spent the night in the nearby village of Bethany (the home of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus). 

On his way back to Jerusalem, Jesus is reported to have caused a fig tree to wither for not producing fruit.  This echoes Jeremiah’s repeated use of fig tree symbolism, and therefore becomes a clear allusion to the nation of Israel, which was failing in its task to be a light to the nations.  This withering of the fig tree also functions as an allusion to the well-understood curses of the twenty-sixth chapter of Leviticus and the twenty-eighth chapter of Deuteronomy, which the Creator God (as Matthew writes from the post-Resurrection perspective of Jesus as the physical embodiment of Israel’s Creator God) promised to bring upon His unfaithful people). 

This causing of the fig tree to wither, for Matthew, appears to stem from the reaction of “the chief priests and the experts in the law” (Temple authorities) when they “saw the wonderful things he did” (21:15a).  Matthew alone, to the exclusion of Mark and Luke, reports that following Jesus’ talk of the Temple as den of robbers, “The blind and the lame came to Him in the Temple courts, and He healed them” (21:14).  In addition, there were “children crying out in the Temple courts, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David’” (21:15b).  This is said to have caused the chief priests and the experts in the law to become “indignant” (21:15c). 

Those that represented Israel before their God were unable to celebrate Jesus’ entry in the way of Solomon as pronounced by Zechariah, they refused to repent when one who had been attempting to be a Jeremiah (and more than a Jeremiah) to the people for three years called them to account, and they refused to rejoice in what was a rather obvious coming of their Messiah (in the mold of Isaiah 61) and His healing of the blind and the lame in the Temple courts.  Little wonder then that Jesus spoke to and about the fig tree in such a way.  Matthew writes that “When the disciples saw it they were amazed” (21:20a), and wondered at what they had seen.  To their amazed inquiry, Jesus replied “I tell you the truth, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only will you do what was done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be lifted up and thrown into the sea,’ it will happen.  And whatever you ask in prayer, if you believe, you will receive” (21:21-22). 

As these words are heard, one must not lose sight of the fact that Jesus is on His way into Jerusalem.  Matthew will move immediately to add “Now after Jesus entered the Temple courts, the chief priests and elders of the people came up to Him as He was teaching and said, ‘By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?’” (21:23).  So the story of the fig tree and the words about the mountain are bracketed by Jesus being in the Temple (Israel’s God returning to Zion and to the Temple), where the legitimacy of His presence there is challenged by the Temple authorities.  This fact shall not be allowed to casually pass.  This makes the point that it is the Temple mount that Jesus has in view when He speaks about the mountain being cast into the sea.  It must be understood that it is the Temple that is central to Matthew’s narrative (along with Mark and Luke), and one must not lose sight of that fact while working towards an appropriate understanding of Jesus’ statement about the day and the hour that no one knows.   

Monday, April 14, 2014

No One Knows The Hour (part 2)

It might be of interest to note that, in order to call Jeremiah to mind, Jesus quotes the from the eleventh verse of the seventh chapter.  He may have been able to quote from another portion of the section provided above, but He did not.  He references the portion of Jeremiah’s polemic that speaks of “robbers.”  The Greek word translated as “robber” in Matthew is “leston.”  Now this is not to be found in Matthew’s narrative, but in the Gospel of John the man named Barabbas is described as a “robber,” using a derivation of the same Greek word used by both Jesus and Jeremiah. 

Matthew merely mentions the fact that Barabbas was a “notorious prisoner.”  Presumably, the people in Jerusalem knew who and what he was.  According to Mark, Barabbas “had committed murder during an insurrection” (15:7), and Luke also mentions the insurrection and murder (23:19).  This is interesting, as the Greek term applied to Barabbas by the author of John, which is the same one that is directed to the Temple authorities by Jesus, carries with it the notion of insurrection and revolution---going well beyond simple thievery.  Little wonder then that Barabbas was, to use Matthew’s language, a notorious prisoner. 

It is appropriate to here marvel at the genius of the author, as ironically, through His triumphal entry, Jesus is stirring thoughts of an insurrection to be carried out against the Romans, whereas those that run the Temple are carrying out an insurrection against the very God that they believe is going to act to deliver them from the power of Rome.  Ultimately, as is well known, Barabbas, the one that seeks to participate in revolutionary activity that may have the effect of driving the Romans from Jerusalem and from Israel through armed conflict, is the man that is released rather than Jesus.  Also in a horrific ironic twist, eventually the people of Israel will undertake a violent resurrection against Rome that will result in the destruction of the Temple and of Jerusalem, so that the very place in which Jesus stands and speaks will be thrown down to the ground.      

Matthew is not the only Gospel in which Jesus words about the day and hour are reported.  Mark records these words as well.  In the thirteenth chapter Jesus is heard to say “But as for that day or hour no one knows it---neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son---except the Father” (13:32).  Without any intervening material such as that which is to be found in Matthew, Mark moves immediately to Jesus saying “Watch out!  Stay alert!  For you do not know when the time will come” (13:33). 

Luke presents a similar narrative to what is heard in both Matthew and Mark, though it has its own differences that are peculiar to Luke’s presentation of Israel’s Messiah.  Luke does not have Jesus offering an opinion on whether or not one can know the day or the hour of the coming of the Son of Man, but he does alludes to it when he writes “But be on your guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of the life, and that day close down upon you suddenly like a trap.  For it will overtake all who live on the face of the earth.  But stay alert at all time, praying that you may have strength to escape all these things that must happen, and to stand before the Son of Man” (21:34-36). 

Sunday, April 13, 2014

No One Knows The Hour (part 1)

But as for that day and hour no one knows it---not even the angels in heaven---except the Father alone. – Matthew 24:36  (NET)

“Jesus was going out of the Temple courts and walking away” (Matthew 24:1a).  As He did so, “His disciples came to show Him the Temple buildings” (24:1b).  A couple of days prior to this, Jesus had made His “triumphal entry” into Jerusalem.  He rode into Jerusalem on a donkey.  As He rode, “A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road.  Others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road.  The crowds went ahead of Him and those following kept shouting, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David!  Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!  Hosanna in the highest!’” (21:8-9) 

This was a dramatic exhibition, full of provocative imagery, stirring passions within the people of Israel in regards to their King and Messiah and the coming of the kingdom of their Creator God.  Matthew reports that “As He entered Jerusalem the whole city was thrown into an uproar” (21:10a).  With His actions, Jesus was playing upon and creating certain expectations, not the least of which was that the time of Roman occupation was coming to an end.  However, rather than leading a mob to storm the Roman governor’s residence or the fortress housing the Roman soldiers in an attempt to take up His position of earthly power by overthrowing the local representatives of those that were then ruling over Israel, Jesus directed His steps toward the Temple. 

“Jesus entered the Temple area and drove out all those who were selling and buying in the temple courts, and turned over the tables of the money changers and the chairs of those selling doves.  And He said to them, ‘It is written, “My house will be called a house of prayer,” but you are turning it into a den of robbers!’” (21:12-13)  Some misguided (but perhaps well intentioned) souls look at this and see Jesus taking issue with buying and selling and money changing taking place in the Temple courts.  Unfortunately, because these things were actually legitimate and sanctioned activities that needed to take place in order to facilitate the sacrifices for the people, this is a shortsighted view and misses the context provided by what He has said in quoting from the prophet Jeremiah. 

In the seventh chapter of Jeremiah, speaking on behalf of Israel’s God, the man who called the world’s powers to account (prophet) can be heard to say “Do you think this Temple I have claimed as My own is to be a hideout for robbers?  You had better take note!  I have seen for Myself what you have done!  says the Lord” (7:11).  What was it that they had been doing?  Was Jeremiah simply conveying the Creator God’s disgust at the activities taking place in the Temple?  Yes of course, but on a far larger scale than what one might have in mind if offering a cursory glance at the text. 

What was it that preceded the question and statement of the eleventh verse?  Again, speaking for the Creator God, Jeremiah said “You must change the way you have been living and do what is right.  You must treat one another fairly.  Stop oppressing foreigners who live in your land, children who have lost their fathers, and women who have lost their husbands.  Stop killing innocent people in this land.  Stop paying allegiance to other gods.  If you stop doing these things, I will allow you to continue to live in the land which I gave to your ancestors as a lasting possession.  But just look at you!  Your are putting your confidence in a false belief that will not deliver you.  You steal.  You murder.  You commit adultery.  You lie when you swear on oath.  You sacrifice to the God Baal.  You pay allegiance to others gods whom you have not previously known.  Then you come and stand in My presence in this Temple I have claimed as My own and say, ‘We are safe!’  You think you are so safe that you go on doing all those hateful sins!” (7:5-10) 

It is this---far more than the simple and legitimate acts of buying and selling---to which Jesus makes reference with His words and actions in the Temple.  By quoting from Jeremiah, Jesus is accusing the Temple authorities of doing all of these things.  Therefore, and rather than condemning Israel’s then-current oppressors as a messiah would be expected to do, with His words and actions Jesus actually legitimates the ongoing rule of Rome over Israel, with this rule by Rome part of the Creator God’s faithful covenant actions towards His people.  Jesus does this in the face of those that might be expecting Him to act to overthrow that rule and attempt to drive out the Romans, as it was the things to which Jeremiah points that contributed mightily to the Creator God bringing Babylon to destroy the Temple and drag His covenant people into exile.