Read the passage here.
Though it’s been a little while since we’ve looked at Matthew’s gospel, we’re not going to do a complete review. However, a few of the key themes that we’ve been looking at include:
Jesus is the promised Messiah: Now remember, this is particular important precisely because people weren’t sure (or disagreed entirely). During Jesus’ lifetime, there was a great deal of debate and doubt about the legitimacy of Jesus’ Messiahship. Though many people followed Him, many others were not convinced. After Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension, the disciples held onto and carried on this truth (of Jesus’ messiahship), but still needed to convince others. And this is because Jesus, as the Messiah, did not look like the kind of Messiah that people expected or wanted. Which leads to the second point.
The [True] Kingdom of God: Specifically, what we mean by that is that one of the things that we’re seeing is Jesus proclaiming a Kingdom of God that is different than what people had been expecting. We’ve talked about this at length, so we won’t repeat what has been said, but in essence Jesus is saying that the Kingdom of God looks different, works differently (i.e. is administered differently), and acts differently than people expected or wanted. The Kingdom of God is precisely God’s kingdom – not the kingdom of those who merely claim to represent God.
As a side-note, John the Baptist’s message “repent for the kingdom of heaven has come near,” should take on renewed importance. For, as we have seen, the fundamental question becomes, “of what kingdom do we want to be a part?”
The Righteousness of the Kingdom: And a third thing that we’ve been seeing is a direct corollary of the previous two. That is, because the Kingdom of God is different than what people expected (and were told to expect), righteousness of the Kingdom looks very different than what people expected. We’ve seen how Jesus did things he wasn’t supposed to do (like healing people on the Sabbath), or how he interacted with and accepted people he wasn’t supposed to (like non-Israelites, sinners, and unclean people). And he didn’t revere the religious leaders, the teachers of the law, like one might expect a good Jewish person to do. Jesus didn’t just expect something different from “righteousness,” He expected much more. Righteousness for Jesus wasn’t just a matter of doing things you had to do or avoiding things you had to avoid – righteousness was about being a person of the Kingdom.
So, after that somewhat lengthy introduction, we return to Matthew for our text for today. We are looking at Matthew 22:41—23:12.
When we look at our passage today, we have to remember that, in particular, Matthew 22:41 picks up immediately where we left off prior to our Advent series. For the sake of brevity, I simply want to remind us that immediately prior to 22:41, we have just had a series of interactions between Jesus and the religious leaders where these religious leaders are essentially challenging Jesus. That is, they are challenging the claims to Jesus’ messiahship; they are challenging Jesus authority.
Again, this whole series of questioning seems to be not a genuine seeking for understanding, a genuine desire for truth, but rather it seems that the religious leaders are trying to trap or discredit Jesus and thereby refute the claims of his Messiahship.
It’s in response to this that we get the first part of our passage today.
41While the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them, 42 “What do you think about the Messiah? Whose son is he?”
“The son of David,” they replied.
43 He said to them, “How is it then that David, speaking by the Spirit, calls him ‘Lord’? For he says,
44 “‘The Lord said to my Lord:
“Sit at my right hand
until I put your enemies
under your feet.”’
45 If then David calls him ‘Lord,’ how can he be his son?” 46 No one could say a word in reply, and from that day on no one dared to ask him any more questions.Matthew 22:41-46
Now I don’t want to spend too much time examining this passage, but in short, Jesus is pointing to Psalm 110. This is a Psalm attributed to David and is likewise considered a Messianic passage by contemporary (to Jesus) Jewish scholarship.
The basic essence of Jesus’ argument is that David calls the Messiah, “Lord.” If the messiah were David’s descendant (that is, David’s great-great-etc. grandson), it would be culturally inappropriate for David to call him “Lord.” If anything the son should call the Father Lord, not the other way around.
Now Jesus’ assertion is not that the Messiah is therefore not a descendant of David (which Jesus, in fact, is). Rather, Jesus’ assertion is that the Messiah is not merely a descendant of David. The Messiah is more than his human lineage. Specifically, given the series of interactions with the religious leaders that we’ve just seen, Jesus seems to be making a claim to authority that doesn’t depend on human lineage or human expectations, but an authority that comes specifically from God (the Father).
Now we’ve gone through that quite quickly – though we actually did address this when we looked at the previous passage. But we’ve gone through it quickly because I don’t want to stop there. When we continue on in our text today, we read:
23:1 Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: 2 “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. 3 So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. 4 They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.
5 “Everything they do is done for people to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long; 6 they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; 7 they love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and to be called ‘Rabbi’ by others.Matthew 23:1-7
Now I’m also not going to spend much time on this section of text because I think that it (at least the force of it) is quite self-explanatory. Jesus is not being subtle here. The so-called teachers of the law, the supposed spiritual leaders of the Israelite people, have failed in their task.
Jesus says that the religious leaders “sit in Moses’ seat,” by which he likely means that they have the responsibility of transmitting the Law (it’s hard to imagine that Jesus means that they have the same kind of relationship with God that Moses did). And inasmuch as they do that, the people should listen to the – that is, they should pay attention to the Law. But certainly they shouldn’t live as the religious leaders do.
Because, as Jesus charges, the religious leaders only care about their position. They don’t care about the spiritual leadership of the people – they only care about what their leadership can get them. How will they profit from their position?
So, says Jesus, the religious leaders have failed in what they actually should be doing. They have failed to bring people closer to God.
Now all of this is important in the overall flow, the overall structure, of what we’re seeing in the gospel of Matthew.
As we might remember, this is all happening in the context of Jesus coming to Jerusalem, riding on a donkey, with people exclaiming, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” (21:1-11) And this immediately followed by Jesus going to the temple, overturning tables, and saying “My house will be called a house of prayer, but you are making it into a den of robbers.” (21:12-13). Which is immediately followed by Jesus cursing the fig tree.
And as we see, the interactions with the religious leaders (where they challenge Jesus) occur in the context of Jesus teaching at the temple.
Then, after our passage today, we get Jesus pronouncing curses on the religious leaders (the seven woes passage).
And then, immediately after the seven woes, we read in chapter 24:
24 Jesus left the temple and was walking away when his disciples came up to him to call his attention to its buildings. 2 “Do you see all these things?” he asked. “Truly I tell you, not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.”Matthew 24:1-2
All that to say that what we’re seeing is Jesus saying to the religious leaders—or Jesus saying about the religious system—“what you are doing, what you have done, is not what God is doing.” The things that are important to you are not the things that are important to God. The Kingdom of God is not the kingdoms of this world.
None of this is new for those of us who have been paying attention to Matthew’s gospel (though the intensity of Jesus’ criticism may be new). It should give us some insight as to what earthly circumstances lead to Jesus’ crucifixion. So if this is not new, what now? What do we take from this?
To think about this question (and I say “think about” because I’m not here to give you a definitive answer – a list of do’s and don’ts), to think about this question, I want to take a look at the closing verses in our passage today. Jesus says (to his disciples now, not the religious leaders – probably):
8 “But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers. 9 And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. 10 Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one Instructor, the Messiah. 11 The greatest among you will be your servant. 12 For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.Matthew 23:8-12
Once again, Jesus points to the truth that the economy of the kingdom is different from the economy of the world. And in the economy of the kingdom, the first will be last and the last will be first. For the disciples, Jesus says that those who are considered the authorities by earthly standards are not the authorities in God’s kingdom. Jesus doesn’t want His disciples to play into that game. In God’s kingdom, there is only one ultimate authority, only one source of truth – God Himself.
So I hope that it’s evident that Jesus isn’t saying that the disciples shouldn’t teach or that we shouldn’t seek teachers. I have a lot of thoughts about truth and knowledge, and about spiritual formation and pedagogies [– not least of which is that Jesus points to Himself, the Messiah, as the true teacher (and here He is talking about spiritual things) and God the Father as the only one we should look up to]. But that’s not what Jesus is concerned with here. Jesus is concerned with people.
Here, Jesus is criticizing the religious leaders and doesn’t want his disciples to become like them. He’s not saying to his disciples, “Don’t seek to teach,” or “Don’t seek knowledge or truth (again, about spiritual things).” He’s saying, don’t become like the Pharisees and teachers of the Law. Don’t use truth as a weapon; don’t use truth as a tool of oppression. Don’t seek knowledge to gain standing among others. Don’t keep others down in order to lift yourselves up.
We could go on, but in my opinion, Jesus is saying that character matters. It’s not a matter of having power or position; it’s not a matter of who has most successfully navigated the ladder of success; it’s about character.
And to this, I think Paul is saying something very similar in 1 Corinthians. He’s talking about food sacrificed to idols – about what rules we supposedly have to follow and etc. And he says:
We know that “We all possess knowledge.” But knowledge puffs up while love builds up. 2 Those who think they know something do not yet know as they ought to know. 3 But whoever loves God is known by God.1 Corinthians 8:1b-2
Again, this is the economy of the kingdom. Not, “how much do you have,” “how much do you know,” or “how can you get ahead.” Rather, the fundamental issue for people of the kingdom, the primary kingdom characteristic, is “how well do you love?” How well can we know the love of God for us? And how well can we share the love of God to others.
This is the kingdom that we are a part of. And this is the kingdom that we are trying to live out, by the grace of God.