In this chapter, Jesus confronts the Pharisees, the religious rulers of the Jews. They resented His popularity among the Jewish people, and now their animosity would increase enormously in a short space of time.
Jesus confronts these rulers on the road to Jerusalem as He enters the city in triumph. As Jesus rode in, the people hailed Him as King and Messiah. This alone was enough to arouse the wrath of His enemies as it challenged and eroded their authority over the people. Jesus goes further. He chases the moneychangers out of the temple area. He refuses to tell the Pharisees the basis for His authority. The next day He relates a series of parables that tell the religious rulers in no uncertain terms that they are outside of God’s kingdom. The Kingdom is soon to be open to the weak, the downtrodden, the unclean and the sinners as well as the Gentiles, not the religious or the self-righteous.
The cursing of the fruitless fig tree is but a symbolic gesture of the cursing of Jerusalem and the Jewish leaders for rejecting Christ. It is no wonder they became enraged and sought to kill Him. The quote from Isaiah 8:14-15 tells us that Jesus is the cornerstone of the Kingdom of God, not the nation of Israel. Those who oppose Him will be broken and, ultimately, crushed into dust and blown away like chaff.
In this chapter Jesus says some things that are antithetical to what the world, our culture and society values. The parable of the workers in the vineyard alone is enough to knock people for a loop and cry out against such injustice and stupidity. Those who came to work later in the day were obviously shiftless idlers and goldbricks, lacking in ambition, skill and productivity. It is both unjust and poor business for this man to pay all his hired hands the same amount of money for differing amounts of work!
Although this parable shows the different economics of the Kingdom of God, the real message that Jesus conveys is about God’s mercy. Everyone who comes to repentance through the blood of Jesus finds forgiveness. That includes liars, selfish, the self-righteous and ourselves as well as those who we think “deserve” mercy less than we (or not at all): drug addicts, alcoholics, murderers, rapists, perverts, child abusers, prostitutes, sodomites etc. Jesus grants mercy to any and all who come to Him in humble repentance.
The other concept that runs counter to our cultural norms is the idea of servanthood. This idea, contained in verse 26-28, sums up the whole of the gospel of Matthew. Jesus has come to serve others by giving His life as a ransom. The supreme ruler of the Kingdom of God gave up His throne to humble Himself to die for those He created, for those who were disobedient, rebellious, unworthy and unlovable. Most people would probably find His sacrifice quite acceptable to them until they find out that He expects the same kind of unselfish sacrifice from His followers. He is fine as Savior, but as Lord, no way! Our society maintains that the servant is on the bottom of the social scale. It idolizes the leaders, celebrities, the rich, the movers and shakers, the talented, the famous and the beautiful. They care nothing for the well-being of their fans: all they want is their adoration and financial support as if they were gods. And many people including Christians are foolish enough to fall into this trap. But why would we want to? The Kingdom of God accepts those the world despises as losers and rejects.
In this passage we find two issues that illustrate the difficulties people have in obeying the Lord. The first concerns divorce. Jesus points out that divorce was never God’s will, but because of sin, He does allow it only when one spouse has already broken the relationship through sexual immorality. But in our society today, you would never know this considering the high rate of divorce. This is because many people, even Christians, think it is impossible to stay married when things get tough, when temptations arise, when one or both spouses don’t “feel” like loving anymore. Usually (not always) those who file for the divorce feel that working to improve the relationship, forgive wrongs, and fulfill the vows made before God (until death do us part) are too demanding, rigorous, and humbling. They want to find self-fulfillment and achieve self-actualization. What God wants is not on their agenda.
The second issue that addresses the difficulties people find with obedience occurs in the encounter between Jesus and the rich young man. This man came to Jesus desiring to be a disciple, a follower. His lifestyle indicated that he had no trouble obeying God, at least so far as the letter of the Law was concerned. But he found he could not obey what Jesus commanded; he could not give away all his money and possessions, nor forsake all he was and give himself fully to Jesus. He still wanted to do things on his own terms, in his own way, according to his own plans. What God wanted was not on his agenda either.
Therefore, if we think we can live according to our own plans and ideas, and still obey God, we will fail all the time. God is not one item on our agenda: He is the only item! The answer to this difficulty is in verse 26: “all things are possible with God.” When we give ourselves fully to the Lord, we can obey him because His Spirit is within us enabling us to do so.
The Pharisees here complained about the fact that Jesus’ apostles did not adhere to strict standards of ritual cleanliness. Jesus rightly called them hypocrites. They were the ones who were unclean within. On the outside they looked and talked like righteous men. They followed the Law to the letter. They held all the right moral values and espoused all the right moral and religious causes. But they were the ones who rejected Jesus and His message.
What was their problem? The Pharisees were so proud of their righteousness that they forget they were sinners in need of God. They also lost sight of God who desires to extend grace, love and mercy. They despised the people that found these attributes in Jesus: prostitutes, tax-collectors, lepers and sinners. The Pharisees also despised the pagans such as this woman who came to Jesus to ask for help for her demon-possessed daughter. Jesus appeared to insult her by referring to her as a dog. That was the term the 1st Century Jews applied to idol-worshipping pagans. But we must assume that it was not offered as an insult, for we know Jesus never insults or turns away anyone who earnestly seeks His help. He was testing her faith. She recognized Him not just as a miracle worker or a good man, but worshipped Him as God incarnate. Jesus did not turn her away, but rewarded her faith and persistence.
Many in the Church are like the Pharisees. They are zealous about the need for Christian moral values in our society to the point that it seems they are malicious and angry. While we must never condone, promote or ignore immorality, we must never forget to extend mercy, grace, kindness and love to sinners. Many of them seem happy and care free, but they are to be pitied for they covering up a world of hate, abuse and self-loathing. They are never satisfied with what they have for they are ever seeking more. And their end is eternal separation from God unless they are touched by His love incarnated in each of us.
This miracle of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes boggles our minds. We struggle to imagine how it happened. One moment Jesus is holding 5 loaves and 2 fish, and the next He is handing out thousands of loaves and fish, so much that everyone eats until they are full. And there were leftovers. Where did all that food come from? Out of thin air? Out of His hands? It was a spectacular miracle, and the people knew it.
The Jews of Jesus’ day expected many signs and wonders with the coming of the Messiah. One sign would be that He would bring manna, bread from heaven, as Moses gave the children of Israel in the desert. The manna God provided them was the only nourishment they needed. The Jews believed the Messiah would provide this bread.
And like Moses, the Messiah would lead the Jews out of slavery. Like Moses He would have power over all natural forces. Moses parted the waters of the Red Sea so the people could pass through the waters. But Jesus is Lord of the sea. He did not need to part it. Jesus walked on the surface of the water. He showed the apostles, as He shows us, that He is no mere man like Moses. He is greater than Moses. And He shows us He is no mere political or military leader. He is the Creator and sustainer of all life.
The Lord still is providing “bread” to people who are spiritually hungry. He gives us who He has called that bread, the truth of the gospel to share with others, not keep to ourselves. We can certainly give comfort to others blinded and lost in the darkness of sin by shining the light of the truth with words and deeds of love performed in the name of Christ Jesus our Lord.
In these parables, Jesus is teaching about the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, or a fishnet, or a pearl, or a treasure, or yeast. It often difficult to understand what Jesus is speaking about, and so these parables are subject to much varied interpretation. I have some ideas of my own, so see what you think. As always when looking at things in Scripture that are hard to understand or a little obscure, the wise person keep will not be didactic about his opinion, but remain open for other possibilities.
I think that there are at least two different aspects of the Kingdom that Jesus is trying to convey. First, the kingdom is like a man who buys a fine pearl or a field with a treasure in it. These items both represent us, human beings, those whom God calls. We are a very precious item which He, Jesus, buys or redeems with the cost of His own humiliation and death at the hands of sinful men. Secondly, the kingdom is like that man who buys the field to get the treasure. Most of the field is without treasure, but he has to buy the whole thing in order to get the good part. When compared to the other parables in this section it appears that Jesus is telling us that the Kingdom of God, at least the one we can see on earth, seems to be huge but its size is highly inflated. Not everyone who is connected to it belongs there. Like the man in the first parable, there are weeds mixed in with the good wheat.
So it is with the church. There are hundreds of millions who profess to be Christians, and many of them are true believers. But many are liars, false prophets, or simply deceived. When the Lord returns at the end of time He will sort things out. Till then we must use discernment and wisdom and teach the truth of the gospel of salvation by grace through faith in Christ alone thereby exposing the false teachers among us and leading the lost and downtrodden to the Kingdom of God.
Jesus used parables to convey truth in story form. Many people tend to learn more readily from stories and images rather than from straightforward lectures and didactic teaching. Stories, at least those that are noble, disquieting or comforting contain items that catch our attention and so are easy to remember.
The parable of the farmer sowing seed is in one sense a parable about parables! Jesus used it to explain why not all those who heard His parables understood the ideas He was trying to convey. Not all who heard believed in Him. They heard the truth but did not heed it. Their eyes, ears and hearts were closed to it. When Jesus interpreted the parable of the farmer sowing seed we learn the reasons why people do not believe the gospel. Some ignore it because they are spiritually dull, too sold out to the lies of Satan to recognize the truth. They think Jesus’ teaching to be just so much unrealistic nonsense on the level with fairy tales. Some are so attracted by Jesus at first because they think they understand or because the parable speaks to them. And yet when they find out what the cost of discipleship is, self-sacrifice and persecution, they cannot pay that price and so depart. Finally people are initially attracted to the gospel but then the allures and cares of the world take away their joy. Since it never had any root, they too hear but do not heed or obey. These all stand condemned and without excuse for they have heard the word but chose to disregard it.
So as we go forth to preach the gospel of faith in Christ, we have to be patient and loving. Not everyone we present the gospel to will accept it. And that is sad for they are choosing a tragic end: eternal separation from God.