Real Bible Studies: Matthew 21-22, Mark 11-12

After his adventures in Galilee, Yeshua arrives in Jerusalem to fulfill the destiny he’s been predicting in the ultimate of self-fulfilling prophecies. His “triumphal” entry into Jerusalem begins in Matthew 21 and Mark 11. It’s here that the conflicts between Yeshua and the Pharisees and Sadducees come to a head, and it becomes necessary to read between the lines to fully understand what’s happening. It is important to note that the authors of Mark and Matthew already knew the outcome, so the “prophecies” have the ring of authenticity, since they’re “predicting” events that have already happened.

While Matthew has based much of his account on Mark, it has been shown that on many points, Matthew differs from Mark in both approach and narrative details. In some cases, Matthew corrects some fact or conjecture Mark makes about Yeshua’s mission and intent, while other times, Matthew simply quotes Mark without altering a word. It can be implied from this that either Matthew was in agreement with Mark on these points, or the point Mark was making wasn’t considered important enough to merit comment from Matthew.

Where Matthew is most at odds with Mark is when Mark interprets Yeshua’s actions to be contrary to or in defiance of the Law as given in Exodus and Leviticus and was most likely reflected in The Septuagint. Matthew’s audience of educated, Egyptian Jews would have taken the Law very seriously, it being all they had left following the destruction of the Temple. Mark, most likely writing for an audience of Gentiles or Jews exiled in Rome, would have wanted to assure them they didn’t need to adopt Jewish customs to be good Christians or to counsel the Jews in his audience that it was no longer necessary to follow The Law.

Cleansing the Temple

Throughout the Gospels of Mark and Matthew, Yeshua’s behavior becomes more erratic the closer he comes to Jerusalem. This is first suggested earlier in both Gospels in the passages describing attempts by Yeshua’s family to apprehend him that he dismisses with his “Who is my mother?” speech. It is further reflected in relating the story of the fig tree that Yeshua curses for not bearing fruit even though it isn’t the season for it which Yeshua should have known. The tree may represent the relationship between Judea and Rome and the tree’s withering shows the relationship has not produced favorable results for the Jewish population but the meaning that would have been clear to the intended audiences has become obscured over time and is now subject to debate. Once Yeshua reaches Jerusalem, and, in particular, once his followers have taken over the Temple, his behavior is off the charts.

Apparently, a cottage industry sprang up for people wishing to sacrifice at the Temple but not wanting to bring livestock hundreds of miles just to sacrifice, and this was addressed by having money changers and merchants in the Temple complex who could sell the appropriate animal for sacrifice. Such a system favors the wealthy, who could afford to buy livestock in the Temple versus the less well to do, who had to bring animals from their flocks, at a significant loss to their livelihoods. They were the ones who truly sacrificed, because they gave from their own stores, versus the wealthy, who lived off the efforts of others and had the resources to avoid actually sacrificing their own animals.

This system was despised by people who trekked hundreds of miles with family members and animals to make their sacrifices and these individuals formed the core of Yeshua’s followers. Naturally, he’d have been angered at the abuses they suffered. Yeshua addresses the disparity in his comments praising the woman who tithes a few pennies and condemning the wealthy, who give more with much fanfare mainly to impress others. Modern Christians, who subscribe to the “prosperity Gospel” fail to realize (or, perhaps care) they are the very people Yeshua condemns in his ministry.

His message goes from words to deeds as Yeshua overturns the tables of the money changers and violently drives them from the Temple, no doubt with a great deal of assistance from his followers. He cites lines from Scripture to add weight to his actions. “My Temple should be a house of prayer and you have made it a den of thieves.” The actual passage is from Jeremiah, and conveys a slightly different message than what the authors of the Gospels imply. Once again, it’s an allusion to Ephraim (the majority tribe in the Kingdom of Israel) as a warning to Judah.

“Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your eyes? Behold, I myself have seen it, says the Lord. Go now to my place that was in Shiloh, where I made my name dwell at first, and see what I did to it for the wickedness of my people Israel.”

Jeremiah 7:11-12 (RSV)

Since this statement appears in all the synoptic Gospels (Mark, Matthew, Luke), and in a similar form in John’s Gospel, we can assume this was an actual quote by Yeshua, though each audience would have interpreted it differently than the others.

We also see evidence of the themes that have been developed throughout the Gospels. Yeshua is questioned by the priests, scribes, and elders, “By whose authority do you do these things?” Yeshua turns it back on them by asking, “Was the baptism of John of God or of man?”

The Temple officials know they’re being manipulated. “If we say ‘of God,’ he’ll say ‘Why didn’t you believe him?’ If we say ‘Of man,’ it will incite the crowds who believed John to be a prophet.” Instead, they tell Yeshua, “We cannot say.”

Yeshua replies, “Neither shall I tell you by whose authority I do these things.”

The response to Yeshua’s inquiry also hints at the dire situation faced by Temple authorities, who cite the size of the crowd in debating how they should answer. A typical crowd of worshippers would not have been moved to violence by a private discussion between the officials and a single individual. The way it’s described implies that the question to Yeshua and his answer were issued in the presence of his followers, who were viewed as a significant threat.

As is customary, Matthew changes significant portions of Mark. First, he continues on with the parable of the vineyard, and of the man with two sons, one who refuses to go into the field but goes anyway, and the second who says he will go but doesn’t. Mark saves both for the following chapter. Matthew also increases the size of the contingents the vineyard owner sends to receive his portion. Mark moves both parables to Chapter 12 of his Gospel. Significantly, Matthew also puts the response to Yeshua’s parable of the vineyard into the mouths of his followers while Mark has Yeshua interpret it himself. The message in both versions is clear.

“What will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and destroy the tenants, and give the vineyard to others.”

Mark 12:9 (RSV)

“When therefore the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” They said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and let out the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the fruits in their seasons.”

Matthew 21:40-41 (RSV)

In each case, the Temple officials correctly assume they are the target of the parables and the violent nature of both suggests what Yeshua and his followers have in store for them if they step out of line. This is further evidence that the Gospels of Mark and Matthew were set during the Jewish Rebellion from 66-70 CE which led to the sack of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple. The Temple complex was occupied throughout the Rebellion by various factions.

Mark concludes with several disagreements between Yeshua and the Scribes and Pharisees. First, they question him about paying taxes which leads to his “Render unto Caesar” pronouncement. Next, they question him about resurrection by giving him the situation of the wife who’s husband dies without an heir, so she marries each of his brothers to produce an heir. Those questioning Yeshua want to hear from him which one is her husband at the resurrection. Yeshua dismisses them by saying marriage is an earthly matter and that in Heaven, no one will be married, so it doesn’t matter. He also rejects their notion that the Messiah would be a “son of David” by pointing out that David addressed God as “Lord.”

After denouncing the scribes for their clothing and actions which placed them above others, Yeshua praises the widow for her simple donation as opposed to the elaborate amounts given by the well-to-do Temple officials.

And he called his disciples to him, and said to them, “Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For they all contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, her whole living.”

Mark 12:43-44 (RSV)

Matthew 22 mostly restates what’s in Mark 12 without much variation, but adds the parable of the Wedding Feast. It sets up the themes of the following chapters by introducing the element of watchfulness since no one knows when the Lord is coming. Matthew will expand a great deal on this theme in the following two chapters.

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