Today, I’ll start to wrap up my posts on my Matthew daily quiet times (unless I get a gust of inspiration for future posts, of course). I’m reading Luke right now, so I’m somewhat eager to blog about that.
I have three topics that I want to touch on in this post: Jesus and the Sabbath, the parable of the laborers (Matthew 20:1-16), and the church’s replacement of the Pharisees as God’s stewards. In Part II, I’ll discuss Jesus’ refusal to defend himself at his trial, and the Pharisees’ rumor that the disciples stole Jesus’ body from the tomb.
1. Jesus and the Sabbath.
In Matthew 11:28-30, Jesus encourages the burdened to come to him for rest. Which is better, Jesus’ rest or Sabbath rest? I ask this because I’ve often heard Protestants say, “I don’t need to keep the Sabbath. Jesus is my rest!”
On the one hand, I think we need physical rest. I can believe in the doctrines of Christianity, but, if I’m working virtually non-stop each and every day, then I am not experiencing true rest. There is a place for literally, physically taking a break.
On the other hand, taking a break is not sufficient by itself. I need guidance and direction in life, a sense of purpose. Otherwise, I’m merely floating around through life, and even physical rest can become boring. And that is what Jesus’ yoke supposedly provides: commands that are easy. Also, I need a compassionate God who cares about my burdened self, and that is what Jesus is: meek and humble.
So I need a literal Sabbath rest and Jesus’ rest.
2. The Parable of the Laborers (Matthew 20:1-16).
In the parable of the laborers, there are workers in the field who have worked long hours in the scorching heat, and their master pays them the same wage that he does to the recently hired. The ones he hired much earlier are upset: “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat” (NRSV), they complain. The master reminds them that they agreed to their wage at the outset. Moreover, he says that he has a right to do what he wants with his property, and that they shouldn’t be mad because of his generosity.
Who are the disappointed workers? Many Christian commentators say that they represent the Jews, who are replaced by newcomers (the Gentiles) as God’s chosen people. I have another proposal: maybe the complaining workers are the disciples.
In the immediately preceding chapter (Matthew 19), a rich young man walks away from Jesus because he cannot give up his possessions. Jesus then says that it’s hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. When the disciples ask, “Who then can be saved?,” Jesus responds that all things are possible for God. Peter than says, “Look, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?” And Jesus promises them a reward.
Peter reminds me of the disappointed workers. Here Jesus is, talking about the generosity of God and his power to save even those who cling to their riches–people like the rich young man who had just walked away. And here Peter is, bragging about himself: “Well, Lord, that rich man walked away, but we’re not like that. We’re so much better. We left behind everything–family, homes, and property–just to follow you. What will our reward be? We deserve something special! We’ve been out in this scorching heat for such a long time!”
How would Peter react if God showed favor to people who did not sacrifice as much as he did? His tone tells me that he would’ve been disappointed. He wasn’t focusing on God’s grace, but on what God owed him for his personal sacrifice. And that attitude not only makes following God a burden. It also leads to a lack of love for others.
3. The Church’s Replacement of the Pharisees.
In my opinion, Matthew is about who will lead God’s people Israel: Will it be the Pharisees and the chief priests, or will it be the church?
I got to thinking about this when I read the parable of the bad tenants in Matthew 21:33-46. In it, God leases his vineyard to some rotten tenants, who kill the master’s slave and son when they come to collect the produce. The tenants do this for money and power. Jesus then tells the chief priests and the Pharisees, “Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.” And the Jewish leaders become angry when they realize that they are the bad stewards of Jesus’ parable (v 45).
Anthony Saldarini has argued that Matthew’s Jesus is not attacking the Jewish people or saying that the Gentiles will replace them. The bad tenants were the leaders of the Jewish people, not the Jewish people themselves.
Then why did Jesus say that the kingdom of God will be given to a nation–an ethnos–that produces the fruit of the kingdom? Maybe because the church in itself is a nation, one that consists of Jews and Gentiles (I Peter 2:9). God will take away the spiritual leadership of his people Israel from the chief priests and the Pharisees, giving it instead to a new nation: the church.
That’s why Jesus told his disciples to obey the Pharisees, who sit in Moses’ seat (Matthew 23:2-3). At the time, they had spiritual authority over Israel. They could interpret the law to clarify what God desired, and God would back up their decisions. But such stewardship was not an unconditional birthright, for God was about to remove their status from them. And he would give the authority to bind and loose to a new institution, the church (Matthew 16:19). That’s why Matthew talks about church discipline in Matthew 18:15-20: the church is to be the new steward of God’s people, so it is responsible to shepherd them from sin to repentance and restoration.
But can church leaders get away with abusive power-trips, now that they’re God’s recognized authority? Let Romans 11:21-22 serve as an answer: “For if God did not spare the natural branches, perhaps he will not spare you. Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God’s kindness toward you, provided you continue in his kindness; otherwise you also will be cut off.”
More to come later!