This is the final public encounter between Jesus and his enemies in Matthew’s Gospel. They are seeking to expose his lack of professional knowledge of the Scriptures or to trap him into giving more weight to one of the Ten Commandments, which are viewed as equally important. Jesus cuts the ground from under them. No one could argue with his answer! But if the dual command of love was present in the Jewish Law, what new thing did Jesus bring? His originality places love of God and love of neighbour together. It is not possible to love God and despise people. God and the human situation are intimately interwoven. This is shown most perfectly in the person of Jesus himself: Son of Man and Son of God; fully human and fully divine. Followers of Jesus must also embody the dual commandment of love. Do you find it easier to love God or love other people? Are there ways you can make your response to the great commandment more balanced?
This was an interesting question posed to Jesus. Given the political and religious structures of the society in which he lived, this was a no-win situation! Jews were required to pay a denarius (a day’s wage) to the Roman overlords and were also required to pay a half-shekel (a standard silver coin) tax towards the running of the temple. If Jesus had answered ‘yes’, he could have been accused of betraying his religious duty. If he had answered ‘no’, he could have been reported to the Roman authorities for inciting others not to pay their taxes. This was a trick indeed. Jesus’ answer makes clear that there are obligations to the state for any citizen but also makes clear that there are obligations to God. The coin bears Caesar’s image and therefore belongs to him, but the whole of creation bears the imprint of God. The first loyalty of all created things is therefore to God.
This is the third in the series of parables Jesus tells in the tense atmosphere of his final days in Jerusalem. Opposition to him has gathered momentum. Rejection and condemnation lie ahead. The lines of battle have been drawn. All this is reflected in the accusing tone of the parables. Judgement is being passed on those who had the responsibility to listen and to lead. The gist of the parable is obvious enough. The ‘chief priest and elders of the people’ to whom all three parables are addressed are those accused of refusing to accept the king’s invitation. The guests who fill the wedding hall are the despised nobodies who are not righteous observers of the Law. Like its predecessors, this parable has continued to sound a warning to self-righteous leaders in every age. The behaviour of the king is modelled on the ruthless tyrants of the ancient world’ this makes it difficult to simply equate the king with God. The final section is also puzzling. On the face of it, the guest without the wedding garment is harshly treated. Presumably, this served as a warning for community members not to become complacent.
A form of the parable of the wicked tenants is found in each of the synoptic gospels. It may be that the original story has been lost because by the time it found its way in to the gospel tradition it had been “allegorised”. Simply put, an allegory is a story in which different elements are identified as having a specific meaning. This contrasts with the most authentic parables where it is an unexpected ending that discloses meaning and generates insight. In today’s version of the parable it is clear that we are intended to see the landowner as God, the vineyard as Israel, the servants as prophets, the tenants as the Jewish authorities, and the son as Jesus. It is crucial to remember where in the gospel narrative this story appears. Jesus has already entered Jerusalem for the last time, and the conflict between him and the religious leaders has become intense and irreversible. We must also be mindful of the role this story plays in later years as the Christina and Jewish communities begin to part company and see themselves as rivals.
A great deal has happened since last week’s gospel reading. Jesus is now in Jerusalem. He has entered the city (Matt. 21:1-11) and has taken possession of the temple driving out those who corrupt his Father’s house (Matt. 21:12-17). The crisis point of Jesus’ ministry has arrived and he will enter into conflict with the established religious authorities. The point of this text is that it is not the ‘conventionally’ religious’ – those who mouth all the right words and go through the rituals – who will enter the kingdom. Instead, it is the ones, who, by their actions, carry out God’s will and become the sons and daughters of God. John the Baptist, like Jesus himself, not only preached righteousness, he lived it. Jesus describes him as ‘a pattern of true righteousness’ (Matt. 21:32), and it was the broken people, the tax collectors, and prostitutes, who accepted what he had to bring. They believe in him repented and experienced a change of heart and life.
This gospel offers yet another challenge to human ideas about what is just and reveals the generosity of God. The Master makes a point of having those who came last paid first. One must imagine the queue, with the newly arrived workers at the head and those tired from a full day’s labour watching as the late-comers are paid in full. In many ways, the audience is drawn into sharing their disappointment and indignation. If those employed early had been at the head of the queue, they would have gone off happy with their contracted wage. The problem arises only when they see the latecomers reaping the same reward. This alludes to a problem that has arisen in Matthew’s community. Those Jewish Christians who have risked all and believed from the beginning are now seeing the newcomers to faith being offered the same reward. Jesus’ answer is simple: the kingdom is God’s. God can do as he likes, and what God chooses is to welcome all and offer reward to all who come to belief, no matter at what stage.
Jesus’ teaching about the need to settle the conflict, the basis of last week’s gospel, was a surprising summons for Christians to fly in the face of accepted standards of judgement and condemnation. Here the teaching becomes even more outrageous! There is no end to the forgiveness offered. For the average person, represented by Peter, forgiving another person seven times would show a very substantial commitment to mercy. Seven is used in the Bible to signify perfection, so Peter is not being mean in his suggestion. This is a very reasonable degree of tolerance. Yet Jesus, in his parable of the servant who is forgiven a debt equivalent to millions but cannot forgive his fellow a lesser sum, turns our human understanding of what constitutes a fair thing on its head. God’s forgiveness is prodigious, but it is dependent on our willingness to forgive each other in the same way. The inability or unwillingness of the servant to match the master’s forgiveness provides a powerful contrast. The master forgives in compassion, but the servant resorts to violence. If one has truly experienced the loving forgiveness of God, it must be shared with others.
The gospel readings for this week and next week come from a section of Matthew that deals with ways the community might regulate its behaviour. Clearly there were some in the group who were behaving in ways that brought the community into disrepute and were contrary to the teaching of Jesus. The question was how the community should confront such issues of human sinfulness and help each other in the spirit of love that Jesus professed. Matthew recalls the words of Jesus to suggest a way forward in this dilemma. This text comes immediately after the parable of the lost sheep, where the shepherd expends all possible effort to find the lost one and bring it back to the fold. For Matthew, the main point of that parable is the joy that the master expresses when the lost one returns. That point is emphasised in this text when Matthew again suggests that all possible effort must be made to correct those in the community who err before taking the final step of exclusion from the group. Even then, all is not lost, and Matthew reminds his community that they should pray together and that their prayers will be heard.
This gospel contains the first of three predictions of his passion and death that Jesus makes along his journey to Jerusalem. Matthew tells the story of that journey across the next four chapters of his gospel. Peter is highly disturbed by the predictions of Jesus’ suffering, but is soundly rebuked. The contrast between this text and the gospel of the previous week is stark! In the immediately prior episode, Peter is praised and rewarded for his sublime affirmation of faith, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’ In this text, Peter’s lack of understanding, both of what that means and of Jesus’ mission, causes him to be ridiculed as an obstacle to the divine mission. While we may have some sympathy for Peter in wanting to spare Jesus the pain and suffering he predicts, what is at issue is Peter’s failure to see that the cross is part of the plan and that discipleship will also involve the cross. Taking up the cross, however, will result in great reward and ultimate vindication when the time of judgment comes.
At this point in the gospel, Jesus and his chosen ones have travelled and lived together for some time. He invites them to explore what they understand of his identity. Even in his question, there is an explicit hint of his identity: ‘Who do people say the Son of Man is?’ The people offer a variety of opinions: John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah or one of the prophets. But it is Peter who adds to the title ‘Son of Man’ by recognising Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the living God. This same Peter, whose faith faltered when he was buffeted by the wind and waves (see the gospel for the 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time), has now shown that he is open to God and recognises Jesus for who he is. But this is not the end of Peter’s story. There are ups and downs in his response, as there are in our own. As long as we remain open to the gift of faith, we are offered forgiveness when we fail to treasure what God has given to us.