Jesus' Grace-based Judgment, part 1 (preaching resource for Oct. 1, 8, and 15 in 2023)
This post exegetes Matthew 21:18-22:14, providing context for the RCL Gospel readings on Oct. 1, 8 and 15 in 2023 (18th, 19th and 20th Sundays after Pentecost). This exegesis draws on commentary from Robert Capon ("Kingdom, Grace, Judgment"), RT France ("New Bible Commentary"), and Louis Barbieri ("Bible Knowledge Commentary"). This post is part of a four-part series; to access the other parts, click a number: 2, 3, 4.
In Matthew chapter 21, Jesus enters Jerusalem and the events during ‘Holy Week’ unfold. In Jerusalaem, Jesus ramps up his teaching, using enacted and spoken parables to reveal more about his identity and authority. This precipitates an intense confrontation with the Jewish religious establishment. Jesus’ arrest, death and resurrection are now just a few days away.
|"The Entrance of Jesus Into Jerusalem" by Gerome
(public domain via Wikimedia Commons)
The Gospel reading for 10/1/23 starts at Matthew 21:23. But let's back up to get the context. In vv 1-11, Jesus rides into Jerusalem. Then in vv12-17, he enters the Temple courts and drives out the money changers. Then in vv18-22, we are told of an event that apparently happened on Monday of Holy Week.
Cursing the fig-tree (21:18-22)
18 Early in the morning, as [Jesus] was on his way back to the city, he was hungry. 19 Seeing a fig tree by the road, he went up to it but found nothing on it except leaves. Then he said to it, "May you never bear fruit again!" Immediately the tree withered. 20 When the disciples saw this, they were amazed. "How did the fig tree wither so quickly?" they asked. 21 Jesus replied, "I tell you the truth, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only can you do what was done to the fig tree, but also you can say to this mountain, 'Go, throw yourself into the sea,' and it will be done. 22 If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer."
This seemingly bizarre incident is an enacted parable about Jesus’ authority and the nature of his grace and judgment (or we might say, about his grace-based judgment). In Israel, the fig tree symbolized the nation, and here Jesus shows that Israel has become fruitless and thus will be severely judged. However, the response Jesus wants from his disciples is not despair, but trust (faith) in him—the one who has come to save Israel (and all humanity, for Israel is appointed by God to represent humankind). The fruitless fig-tree also symbolizes the empty worship of the Temple (see Micah 7:1 and Jeremiah 8:13). And thus the tree’s withering is a prophecy of the Temple’s soon-coming destruction (see Mat 23:38; 24:2). The sheer power of Jesus’ words impress his disciples, and Jesus uses this incident to remind them of the power that is available through faith in him (see Matt. 17:20).
By what authority? (21:23-27)
23 Jesus entered the Temple courts, and, while he was teaching, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him. "By what authority are you doing these things?" they asked. "And who gave you this authority?" 24 Jesus replied, "I will also ask you one question. If you answer me, I will tell you by what authority I am doing these things. 25 John's baptism-- where did it come from? Was it from heaven, or from men?" They discussed it among themselves and said, "If we say, 'From heaven,' he will ask, 'Then why didn't you believe him?' 26 But if we say, 'From men'-- we are afraid of the people, for they all hold that John was a prophet." 27 So they answered Jesus, "We don't know." Then he said, "Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.
After Jesus’ provocative actions (including those addressed in chapter 21), an official response is inevitable. It comes from the chief priests and elders who are responsible for the Temple. Jesus is implicitly claiming an authority which threatens their role. They demand that he justify himself, but he refuses. His counter-question about John the Baptist effectively puts them in a corner. But this is not merely clever evasion—Jesus is establishing the two great issues that now come to the fore: his authority, and human response.
Jesus shows that his authority is that which was proclaimed by John. If John really was God’s messenger, which they dare not deny, then Jesus truly is who John said he is. Then Jesus notes the results of failing to respond in faith (belief) to this truth. Here is the ‘crux’ of the matter—it is belief, not works of the Law, that establish the identity of the true people of God. And now the ‘keepers’ of the Law—these religious leaders—are showing their true colors through their unbelief.
Who are God’s people? (21:28-22:14)
If the religious types are not God’s true people, then who are? Jesus answers this question with three parables. The October 1 Gospel reading includes the first, though its important to read it along-side the other two. Together, these three parables are Jesus’ response to the unbelief of the Jewish religious authorities. Each parable speaks of one group of people who are losing their privileged position and being replaced by those whom they despise. A fundamental change in the identity of the true people of God is taking place.
Parable 1: The two sons (21:28-32)
28 "What do you think? There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, 'Son, go and work today in the vineyard.' 29 "'I will not,' he answered, but later he changed his mind and went. 30 "Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, 'I will, sir,' but he did not go. 31 "Which of the two did what his father wanted?" "The first," they answered. Jesus said to them, "I tell you the truth, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. 32 For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him.
The two sons represent opposite responses to Jesus and his authority. One son responds to his father’s invitation with obedience (even if haltingly). This son represents the outcasts like tax collectors and prostitutes. Though they might be despised losers in the eyes of the religious establishment, they enter the kingdom first. Because of their works? No, because of their trust in Jesus. In this, they are following the way prescribed by John the Baptist, which is the way of righteousness—the way of looking to Jesus and to him alone. The other son responds by pretending to be obedient, but ultimately fails—they are all show and no substance. This son obviously represents the Jewish religious authorities. Though they put on a good show through their works of religious piety, they fail the one test of obedience, which is to believe in Jesus, the true Messiah; and to accept his grace, which alone qualifies them for entrance into the kingdom.
Parable 2: The tenants of the vineyard (21:33-46)
33 "Listen to another parable: There was a landowner who planted a vineyard. He put a wall around it, dug a winepress in it and built a watchtower. Then he rented the vineyard to some farmers and went away on a journey. 34 When the harvest time approached, he sent his servants to the tenants to collect his fruit. 35 The tenants seized his servants; they beat one, killed another, and stoned a third. 36 Then he sent other servants to them, more than the first time, and the tenants treated them the same way. 37 Last of all, he sent his son to them. 'They will respect my son,' he said. 38 But when the tenants saw the son, they said to each other, 'This is the heir. Come, let's kill him and take his inheritance.' 39 So they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him. 40 "Therefore, when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?" 41 "He will bring those wretches to a wretched end," they replied, "and he will rent the vineyard to other tenants, who will give him his share of the crop at harvest time." 42 Jesus said to them, "Have you never read in the Scriptures: "'The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone; the Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes'? 43 Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit. 44 He who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces, but he on whom it falls will be crushed." 45 When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard Jesus' parables, they knew he was talking about them. 46 They looked for a way to arrest him, but they were afraid of the crowd because the people held that he was a prophet.
Here the shift in the identity of the true people of God is made even more explicit. This parable tells of an absentee landowner and the tenant farmers who are obliged to pay him a fixed proportion of the produce as their rent. Their failure to do so is in itself sufficient reason for them to be replaced; the murder of his son makes matters far more serious. The point of Jesus’ parable is not lost on the chief priests and the Pharisees (v45). Jesus is making a direct allusion to the book of Isaiah, where the parable of the vineyard (Isa 5:1–7) symbolizes Israel’s failure to live up to God’s expectations. But the focus here is not on Israel as a whole but on its leadership, whose execution of God’s son is about to bring to a head the repeated rejection of God’s prophets in the past. What awaits them for their apostasy is a wretched end, and others will take their place.
Verses 42–44 work out the implications of this parable. Verse 42 (quoting Psa 118:22) illustrates the divine reversal which is now happening as the one rejected by Israel’s leaders is proved, through his death and resurrection, to be the one chosen for the place of highest honor. Verse 44 takes up the same metaphor with allusions to the destructive stones of Isa 8:14–15 and Daniel 2:34–35, 44–45. Verse 43 is more direct: the kingdom symbolized by the vineyard belongs to God not to them, and he will entrust it to someone more responsible.
'A people' (v43) suggests not just a change of leadership but that the very composition of the people of God is now being changed. It is not, however, a simple matter of Jews being replaced by Gentiles (that would have needed a reference to ‘peoples’ in the plural, the normal Greek term for Gentiles); rather a new community of God’s people is being created (see Matt. 16:18), in which both Jews and Gentiles will find their place. What characterizes this people is not their nationality, but that they produce fruit (see Matt. 21:18–20). This fruit is borne of faith in Jesus—for the fruit comes from him.
Parable 3: The wedding banquet (22:1-14)
1 Jesus spoke to them again in parables, saying: 2 "The kingdom of heaven is like a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son. 3 He sent his servants to those who had been invited to the banquet to tell them to come, but they refused to come. 4 Then he sent some more servants and said, 'Tell those who have been invited that I have prepared my dinner: My oxen and fattened cattle have been butchered, and everything is ready. Come to the wedding banquet.' 5 But they paid no attention and went off-- one to his field, another to his business. 6 The rest seized his servants, mistreated them and killed them. 7 The king was enraged. He sent his army and destroyed those murderers and burned their city. 8 Then he said to his servants, 'The wedding banquet is ready, but those I invited did not deserve to come. 9 Go to the street corners and invite to the banquet anyone you find.' 10 So the servants went out into the streets and gathered all the people they could find, both good and bad, and the wedding hall was filled with guests. 11 But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing wedding clothes. 12 'Friend,' he asked, 'how did you get in here without wedding clothes?' The man was speechless. 13 Then the king told the attendants, 'Tie him hand and foot, and throw him outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.' 14 For many are invited, but few are chosen."
The theme of the change in the identity of the people of God continues—now even stronger. Those who had been invited, refuse repeated calls and even murder the messengers—they correspond to the first tenants in the previous parable, and the substitute guests to the ‘new people’ of Matt. 21:43. And as in Matt. 21:31, the replacement party-goers a pretty unlikely group, coming from the street corners, including both good and bad. In short—all are invited, no matter what their status. This speaks to the scope of Jesus’ reconciling grace—everyone is included.
All people are reconciled to God and included in his love and life by virtue of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Here again the tables are turned. Once again the first are shown to be the last, and the last are first. This is God’s radical, lavish grace in Jesus. And it is at precisely this point that we find God’s ultimate judgment. Judgment is not the opposite of grace, rather it ushers from grace. It is only those who refuse God’s grace, which is already extended to them (as pictured by the original invitees refusing the invitation to the banquet), who suffer the pain of judgment.
So the key issue is this: many [as in 'all'] are invited—because of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and ascension, all humanity is reconciled to God—all are accepted, loved and forgiven by God. However, few are chosen. Why is that? Because not all embrace the forgiveness and inclusion that is extended to all. Some simply cannot fathom going into the banquet (the kingdom) with a bunch of losers! Why? Because they think of themselves as deserving, and they think of these losers as decidedly undeserving. The truth is that none are deserving. Yet, all are included. Now that’s grace of the Jesus kind!!
And so one question remains—will you go in? Will you respond in trust to the freely given invitation? Clearly, in this parable, the Jewish religious leaders are found rejecting the invitation. Sadly, they will suffer the consequences (judgment), symbolized in the parable by the military campaign. To burn their city seems an extreme reaction to a refusal of a dinner invitation! But we understand the symbolism—Israel (in its leaders) is refusing to respond in faith to Jesus. And that leads to judgment on the nation, which comes in the destruction of their city, Jerusalem. This will occur in A.D. 70, some 40 years hence (a point Jesus spells out in Matt. 23:38 and Matt. 24:2).
Here in Holy Week, the meaning and importance of Jesus’ soon-coming death and resurrection is being made clear. Entrance into his kingdom comes only through him. We go in with him by trusting him to be the one in whom we die and rise again to new (kingdom) life. Nothing we do qualifies us for this free gift. Jesus does it all. And so the message is clear—stop putting your trust elsewhere, including in your own supposed good works. Trust Jesus alone (and enjoy the party!!).