Read Matt 21:18-22.
Today, we are going to cover Matthew chapters 21 and 23 and we’ll discuss the problem of religion and some warning signs to avoid becoming religious. Starting from Matthew 21, the hostility between Jesus and the religious leaders begins to escalate sharply as Jesus enters Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. Jesus’ death is only a week away but we still have 8 chapters left. If this were a suspense movie, we would soon be reaching the climax so the movie director is deliberately slowing down the action and making sure the audience has a chance to notice every detail, every event, every conversation because from here on out, it’s all critical.
In chapters 21 and 23, we see one of the major themes of the gospel of Matthew coming to a head. You might have wondered why the theme of religion has come up so often in the sermons through Matthew. Am I just anti-religious? Is religion a pet peeve of mine, a topic that I just enjoy preaching against? The reason religion is a frequent topic is because Matthew, as a Jewish man, has a burden for his people, the nation of Israel, to come to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. That’s why Matthew records so many conversations between Jesus and the Pharisees and the Sadducees and the scribes. He wants his fellow countrymen to see the emptiness of their religious activities and to start over by repenting and placing their faith in Jesus.
It’s easier said than done. If you devoted your entire life to become a full-time Rabbi or Pharisee, then it’s not easy to admit you’ve got it all wrong and start over. Rather than repent, their hostility toward Jesus grows. You see the confrontation between Jesus and the religious leaders reaching a boiling point in Matt 21:12-17. It’s the Passover feast so thousands of Jews are traveling from over the region to come to Jerusalem for their annual pilgrimage during this most sacred holiday. Why is Jesus so upset? Why is he overturning tables and driving people out of the temple area? It’s because the religious leaders were taking advantage of the situation and profiting personally. Little known secret back then, but the religious leaders became rich during the Passover because you had a bunch of people from out of town who didn’t know where to buy sheep and doves, or animals without blemish to bring to the temple to be sacrificed.
So what did the religious leaders do? They capitalized on the situation. They saw a business opportunity. Let’s bring the animals to the temple area. It’s convenient. People don’t have to shop around. Maybe they started out with good intentions. Let’s make it easier for the distant travelers who are tired. One stop shopping and worship center in one convenient location. It’s like converting a Costco into a temple. The front section–buy your supplies–and then go to the back and offer your sacrifices. Makes sense.
But it gets worse. Because everyone is tired from traveling and many are from out of town and didn’t know where to shop to get good deals, the religious leaders could charge exorbitant prices. And in the process, the temple got filthy rich and the leaders shaved off for themselves a high margin and they, too, became filthy rich. It’s like graduations. You go there to cheer on your friend and there are those vendors outside that can charge you double for flowers because you don’t have flowers and they know you need flowers. It’s the same situation here–the religious leaders know you need the animals and so they can charge you as much as they want.
The temple was a place where any and everybody should be able to come and worship God. Lack of funds should never be an obstacle. God’s house was supposed to be a house of solemn worship and prayer and it had been turned into a busy marketplace. You couldn’t even pray silently because there probably was so much buzz outside, so much background noise. The religious leaders had turned the temple into a profit center and a place of extortion. So Jesus clears the temple. He overturns tables. And drives out the money changers.
I want to skip the fig tree for now and save it for later because I believe this is one of the climactic sections of the entire gospel of Matthew. For now, let’s jump down to the two parables recorded in this chapter starting in v28. The first parable is the Parable of the Two Sons. A father had two sons and he asked both to work in his vineyard. The first said, he wouldn’t work but he did. The second son said, he would work but he didn’t. Then, Jesus asks, which of the two did what his father wanted? And the obvious answer is the first son. Even though he said he wouldn’t work, he ended up working. He changed his mind. The verb for “changed his mind” has a similar root as the verb for “repent.” The first son changed his mind, he repented. Tax collectors and prostitutes are represented by the first sons who refused to work in the beginning, but they changed their minds. They repented and did God’s will and therefore entered the kingdom. Who is the second son who did not get to enter the kingdom? The nation of Israel. They told the father, I’ll work for you, I’ll worship you. I’ll live for you. But the bottom line is they didn’t.
Jesus continues to turn up the heat for these religious leaders in the next parable–v33, the Parable of the Tenants. There were a landowner with a vineyard and he allows some tenants, a bunch of farmers who are given the task to live on the land and to harvest the fruit. The harvest time comes and as you would expect, the landowner sends servants to go to the tenants to collect fruit. He’s the owner and he has every right to collect fruit. After all, it’s his land. Instead of handing the fruit over, the tenants beat, stoned and killed the servants. The landowner sends more servants to collect fruit a second time, but again, the servants are beaten, stoned and killed.
The two groups of servants failed to collect fruit for the landower, so as a last resort, the landowner sends his very own son to collect the fruit. But instead of respecting the son and giving him the fruit to give back to his father, the tenants kill the son. In response to this killing, what does the landowner do? v41–
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.”
The tenants are killed and then the vineyard is rented out to new tenants. The parallels cannot be any more obvious. Throughout the Old Testament, God sent to Israel prophet after prophet, king after king, servant after servant and each of them was ignored, shunned, even killed, culminating in the present moment where Israel is about to reject and kill the Son of God. And because the first tenants, the nation of Israel, rejected the Son of God, salvation has been handed over to new tenants, the Gentiles.
In v43, it’s interesting that Jesus chose to use the phrase, a people who will produce its FRUIT. This chapter is all about fruit. Jesus is telling the rulers at Jerusalem, you guys have no fruit. In fact, he is telling these religious leaders, in the same way that you rejected the messengers that God sent to you throughout history, you are about to kill THE messenger, the Son of God. This is tragic irony. Instead of heeding this warning from Jesus, these religious leaders hunt for ways to arrest him and kill him.
Matt 23 is one of the harshest rebukes in all of Scripture against the nation of Israel, specifically its religious leaders. Jesus sets the stage in v1-12 and then starting in v13, he launches into a series of seven woes against the religious leaders.
This first section, v1-12, is reminiscent of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew chapters 5-7. What’s the picture that emerges about these religious leaders? They mean well. They teach the Word of God. They are quite zealous. Yet they added things to the Word of God that were not there. The result was a piling on of a slew of rules and regulations, creating a huge burden, which crushed the people. The people who listened to their teaching were collapsing under the weight of these rules, but the leaders did not lift a finger to move the heavy load.
There are people in leadership in churches across the world who fall into this trap. They mean well. They are zealous. Their starting point is the Word of God. But over time, they start adding extra things. New requirements. New works that everyone must do. And if you follow these rules well, you are praised by the leaders. If you don’t follow, you are made to feel guilty. These leaders do more harm than good. They create unnecessary burden. They rob people of their freedom in Christ.
Some people, without even saying a word, create burden for everyone within 20 ft of them. You know what kind of people I am talking about. Just their eyes and their facial expression brings down the mood of the group. Because the wheels of a judgmental spirit are constantly spinning in their minds. He’s not doing that well. She’s unspiritual. What’s wrong with that guy? Highly religious people are often the most judgmental people because they evaluate others through a grid of performance based on rules that he or she made up in his or her own head.
Contrast this with Jesus. Jesus says, Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light. With Jesus, there is freedom. Freedom from sin. Freedom from burden. His yoke is easy and his burden is light.
The religious leaders were so blind that they could not recognize that God had left them long before and they could not see how the people under them were being chained, oppressed, crushed by their teachings. How did the religious leaders get this way? They got this way because they lived for the adoration and applause of men.
5 Everything they do is done for men 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 in the marketplaces and to have men call them ‘Rabbi.’
Phylacteries were small boxes containing a piece of parchment. And the parchment was inscribed with four texts from the law–2 passages from Exodus and 2 passages from Deuteronomy. The two texts from Exodus urge God’s people to remember God’s mighty deliverance from Egypt. The two texts from Deut are an exhortation to remember the Greatest Commandment and to pass these teachings on to our children. So four texts, but really two ideas. These boxes containing these texts were worn on the arm or tied to the forehead. It was supposed to be a sign of personal piety. They went out in public like this. Imagine how ridiculous this must have looked. Boxes flopping around their arms or their forehead and these leaders would go around seeking places of honor at dinners or the most important seats in the synagogues. And listen to v7–
7 they love to be greeted in the marketplaces and to have men call them ‘Rabbi.’
Rabbi can be translated as my teacher or my master. It was a mark of respect. Even Jesus was called Rabbi. Respect is a good thing. I don’t believe it’s healthy to flatten out all of your relationships to the point that a son calls their father or mother by their first name. Out of respect, kids should call their parents, Sir or Mam. We don’t go that far at our home, but some do. It is fitting at the very least to call your parents, Mom or Dad. In the case of these religious leaders, a rabbi was more than a title to show proper respect. The title, Rabbi, became inflated over time. A rabbi’s status at the time of Jesus was so inflated that a rabbi’s disciples had to obey him without question. And a disciple could never walk beside or in front of his rabbi. Always following behind. And a disciple could never greet a rabbi first. He had to wait for the rabbi to acknowledge him, then he could greet him.
You can see how the translation of rabbi morphed from simply, “my teacher,” to “my master.” It’s like grad students. You have professors. You take their classes. You learn things from them. They are your teachers. Then, you have your advisor. He or she is your master. Right? He determines your future, your research topic, who gets credit for the next publication, when you graduate, if you can graduate. Your advisor is like a master.