Matthew’s Gospel is one long narrative, with five themes that make up the five main sections of the book. Yet, even though there are shifts in theme, it is still one long narrative. Actually, if it helps you, we can think of the five main themes as phases of the narrative. Our discussion of this continuing narrative left off last time right in the middle of the section that comprises chapters 21-25 in which the theme (or phase) is the conflict between Jesus and the Jewish authorities.
During this time, Jesus acted in the role of an Old Testament prophet who exposes the utter hypocrisy of the Jewish leaders and their complete lack of righteousness (cf. Jer. 7:14, 26:4-12; Ex. 9:1-10; Dan. 9:26). By means of prophetic symbols (21:1-22) and parables (21:28-22:14) Jesus has warned the Jewish religious leadership of their impending judgment, and even of the impending judgment on the very temple over which they preside. When these leaders are reduced to silence in debate, Jesus seizes the offensive and exposes and denounces their prevailing character traits (23:1-36) and expounds on the doom that awaits them and the consequences that doom will bring upon their beloved city (23:37-39, 24:1-34).
There will be a shift of scene in this process (cf. 23:1 and 24:1-3) yet the theme continues, for chapter 23 prepares us to recognize what is being discussed in 24:4 -25. In these last two chapters, Jesus is answering the disciples’ questions that resulted from the narrative of chapter 23. The tone of chapter 23 seems harsh to our modern sensibilities, and we might wonder how such a loving Jesus could be so harsh. It is important for us to understand that the Jewish religious leadership has established a system that essentially excluded God, and in doing so, they were effectively trying to strangle the life out of God’s precious children; and why were they doing so? Because they had allowed themselves to become corrupt to their very cores. We can say that in chapter 23, Jesus brought this problem to their attention in a way that would have been hard for them to miss in one final attempt to bring them to repentance, or at least to bring some to repentance, and in this effort, Jesus succeeded. The majority as we know did not repent, and ultimately their actions caused the Son of God to be nailed to a cross to silence the truth.
In connection with this, it is also worth noting that the harsh things Jesus said in chapter 23 are well within the conventions of the ancient world for prophetic pronouncements, both in the Hellenistic world and in the Judaic past, which is to say that what sounds surprisingly harsh to the modern ear, would not have seemed as much so in Jesus’ time.
Finally, these verses carry a warning note for the church, lest we should succumb to same temptations to place our pride, prejudice, materialism and perceived position above the needs of the people we lead, and the will of God.
In our next post, we will join Jesus as He has a little heart-to-heart with the Jewish leadership.