Matthew Week 5

Responses to the Kingdom: Matthew 11:2–13:53

By David Nienhuis

Seattle Pacific University Professor of New Testament Studies

Read this week’s Scripture: Matthew 11:2–13:53


Week 5
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Last week we saw that the deeds of Jesus (Chapters 8–9) elicited a variety of responses, and, in his subsequent teaching (Chapter 10), Jesus warned his followers that rejection would be the norm. Our readings for this week go on to explore that rejection more closely. Why do so many people in Israel reject their own Messiah? Why is the Kingdom of God not appearing directly, according to popular expectation? The emphasis of the whole section is on responses, and the negative response is closely explored.

Chapter 11: The Responses of John the Baptist and the Cities of Galilee

We were told earlier that John the Baptist had been thrown into prison (4:12). Though he has heard of Jesus’ deeds, what he has heard leaves him unsure as to whether Jesus is in fact the expected Messiah. Apparently even the one who came to prepare the way of the Lord is confused by the actions of the Lord who has now come! Strikingly, Jesus’ response doesn’t provide John with a straightforward answer.

Instead, he refers back to the teaching and doing of the previous chapters by means of an allusion to Isaiah 61:1–2 and ends by saying “blessed is anyone who takes no offense in me” (Matthew 11:4–6). Like the previous beatitudes, which pronounced blessing on the one who acts now in light of what is yet to come, so also this beatitude blesses those who accept Jesus’ teaching and doing now, even if they find the message to be confusing or hard to swallow.

John may be somewhat confused about Jesus’ identity, but Jesus does not want his disciples to be confused about John’s (11:7–19). The references to “a reed shaken by the wind” and “someone dressed in soft robes” in “royal palaces” are both allusions to King Herod Antipas, who opposed John (see 14:1–12). Yes, Jesus seems to be saying, John is a prophet like the many prophets of old who opposed the kings of their day, but, like Jesus himself, John is more than what he appears to be; he is “the Elijah who is to come” as prophesied in Malachi 3:1 (quoted in Matthew 11:10).

But despite his greatness, “the one who is least in the Kingdom of Heaven is greater than he,” because even John doesn’t have the authority to know what Jesus reveals. Indeed, even though no one from “this generation” has the capacity to understand (11:16–18), “wisdom is vindicated by her deeds” (11:19). Regardless of who does or doesn’t understand now, God’s plan being enacted in Jesus will be proved right in the end.

The next section makes it clear that the cities that witnessed the miracles of the previous chapters did not respond to them in faith (11:20–24). Jesus offers harsh “woes” corresponding to the earlier “blessing” on those who are not offended by him, and they press the point that the criterion of judgment will focus on how one responds to Jesus.

The crowds clamored after the miracles and were astounded by Jesus’ authority, but they did not repent (11:20). Like many of us, they craved the signs of God’s power but did not want to change their lives by following the narrow way of God’s Kingdom. Jesus’ subsequent speech (11:25–30) informs us that it is God’s good plan to reveal things in a surprising manner that will confuse those who think of themselves as “Lords” of the earth because of their wisdom and intelligence (11:25–26).

Jesus insists that he provides the only point of access to God, and no one can know God apart from what he reveals. Clamoring after powerful signs or seeking worldly wisdom will not do, for Christ himself is the revelation of the mysterious power and wisdom of God (1 Corinthians 1:18–31).

So “come to me,” Jesus says, “and I will give you rest.” Jesus’ “yoke” is light in comparison to that of the Scribes and Pharisees, whom Jesus will later condemn because they “tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders” (Matthew 23:4). Those of us who are used to thinking that the law is the “heavy burden” to be rejected must be careful here; God’s law was not considered burdensome, if Psalm 119 is to be trusted.

No, it was the application of God’s law by the religious leadership that was oppressive, as they employed it in a manner that lost sight of God’s mercy in their focus on strict external compliance.

Chapter 12: The Response of the Pharisees

The next two stories put a spotlight on this conflict. In the first (12:1–8), the Pharisees charge Jesus’ disciples with “doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath,” because they are gathering grain (see Exodus 34:21). Matthew alone among the gospels adds that the disciples were hungry: they were not defying the law, but acting out of authentic human need.

Jesus turns the Pharisees back to Scripture to show that Israel’s history (1 Samuel 21:1–6) and even the law itself (in having the priests work on the Sabbath) recognized the need for appropriate concessions in law observance. There are, in a sense, lighter and weightier laws, and human need takes precedence in determining which to apply, and when (Jesus will apply this very logic at Matthew 23:23). As the second story makes plain (12:9–14), Jesus taught that doing good to others trumps all other religious observances.

It must be remembered that the law was given as a gracious gift to instruct humans in how to live in loving, covenant relationship with God. But the desire for power over others is a perennial temptation for religious people; we often twist good religious regulations into a means of human oppression, lording over others as though we ourselves were the Lord of the Sabbath. Those who do this do not understand the word of Hosea 6:6, that God values mercy higher than acts of religious piety (12:7; note that Jesus referred to this verse once before at 9:13) [Author’s Note 1].

But the Pharisees are threatened. Worried about maintaining their power to pass judgment on religious matters, they conclude that Jesus must be destroyed (12:14). When he learns of this, Jesus acts in sharp contrast: he departs to continue his healing ministry, telling people not to make him known (12:15–16). This is not the first time Jesus has asked people to keep his activity a secret (8:4; 9:30), and Matthew explains this request by appeal to Isaiah 42:1–4, one of Isaiah’s “servant songs.”

This is the third such reference to Isaiah’s identifying Jesus as the servant described there (3:17; 8:17), so we should pay attention: in contrast to popular messianic expectation, this king comes in an unexpected manner; he does not “wrangle or cry aloud” or act violently (12:19–20), but in humility he serves the needy, bringing forth justice for everyone, even the Gentiles, at great cost to himself (12:18, 20–21).

Then 12:23 provides another snapshot of responses: the crowds ask, “This guy can’t be the Messiah, can he?” and the Pharisees answer by insisting once again that Jesus operates under demonic power. The rebuttal that follows is a kind of miniature sermon (12:25–45) designed to help the reader understand why Jesus is being opposed. His first response points out the absurdity of the claim that he is colluding with Satan (12:25–30): why would Satan be releasing people from satanic power? How can powers of evil display God’s mercy? How could Jesus exorcise demons without first overpowering Satan himself (12:29)?

No, the Pharisees are the blasphemers, for they have witnessed the work of the Spirit of God and called it evil — and that, apparently, is the one sin God will not forgive (12:30–32). Returning to the tree and its fruit metaphor from the sermon on discipleship (7:15–20), Jesus identifies the Pharisees as false prophets awaiting judgment from God for leading people astray (12:33–37).

The leadership then asks for clarity, requesting a “sign” of power so they might have some kind of proof of Jesus’ identity (12:38). Given all the miraculous deeds of the last few chapters, the request makes it plain that the Pharisees have a log in their eye that renders them unable to judge rightly (7:1–5).

The phrase “this generation” recurring throughout this section (11:16; 12:39, 41, 42, 45) recalls the generation of Israelites who were liberated from Egypt but barred from entering the promised land because of their stubborn faithlessness (e.g., Deuteronomy 1:35; 32:5, 20; see also Jesus’ words at Matthew 17:17). Hauntingly, their request for Jesus to prove his identity by means of powerful signs echoes Satan’s temptation in the wilderness.

Jesus responds that the real proof will be the “sign of Jonah” offered by God when Jesus dies and is resurrected after three days (12:39–40). Indeed, when the Messiah of Israel rises up, it will be the Gentiles who will rise up to recognize him, for as Israel’s history has shown, “outsiders” are often more inclined to respond to God’s word than those considered “insiders” (12:41–42).

The last paragraph (12:43–45), though confusing at first sight, contains an important teaching when read in light of the larger story. Jesus’ final response to the Pharisees describes a person who has been liberated from a demon as a “house” that is swept and put in order. When the demon revisits, it finds the house “empty” (NRSV) or “unoccupied” (NIV); the Greek word is a participle meaning “having leisure.” The demon finds the house “unoccupied” in the sense of “not occupied with any task” or “not devoted to anything”; it is “empty” in the sense that nothing has replaced what formerly empowered its action.

We have here an analogy for God’s people who have been cleansed by healing and exorcism but have not responded by becoming repentant disciples of Jesus. Like Israel of old, they have seen God’s power and tasted God’s forgiveness, but have not in turn devoted themselves in faith to a new way of life.

Chapter 13: The Sermon of Kingdom Parables

Chapters 12 and 13 both end with stories involving Jesus’ biological family (12:46–50; 13:54–58) that “frame” the third sermon in Matthew, a collection of parables about the Kingdom of Heaven (13:1–53). These twin stories press the depth of change required if people are to embrace the Kingdom. In the first, Jesus ignores the request of his biological family in order to insist that his real family consists of those who do God’s will (12:50).

Apparently, knowing Jesus externally isn’t enough; one must be like Jesus in the doing of God’s will to be considered a member of his family (compare 7:21–23). Likewise, in the second story, the citizens of his hometown are offended (recall 11:6) and unable to receive his words and deeds (13:54), because they know his biological family and seek to identify him accordingly. Such surface understanding will not enable them to embrace the deeper reality of the Kingdom of Heaven.

As Jesus said earlier, the revealing of God’s Kingdom produces division and rejection in hearers who feel at home in this world and its way of thinking (10:34–42). The question of why this is the case is explored more closely in the sermon of parables. The Greek word parabolē means “set alongside” or “set side by side.” A parable is a teaching illustration that can take the form of a story, a proverb, a comparison, or even a riddle, using figurative language to describe something that cannot be articulated in a straightforward manner.

It is significant that Jesus chose the parable form as his preferred method of teaching about God’s character and Kingdom, for parables require a response from the hearer. Since “the point” isn’t always provided in a clear, uncomplicated manner, hearers are forced to stop and wonder about the parable’s meaning and application.

Parables force us to set aside our certainties in order to be open to the mystery of what God is revealing; indeed, in an attempt to reveal hidden things (13:35), parables conceal and reveal at the same time. Those who are unwilling to set aside what they think they know about God will not be able to receive God’s Kingdom, for it comes from a source outside of human capacity to fully understand (hence Jesus’ explanation at 13:13–15).

The parable is the most appropriate way of communicating this fact; like the message of the Kingdom itself, a parable is a mystery that is communicated for our patient understanding even though we will never be able to master it rationally. Only those who are open — who have ears that hear and eyes that see (13:9, 16) — will be able to receive Jesus and the Kingdom he announces.

The parables in this chapter appear to provide answers to why it is so many people are rejecting Jesus. The first, that of the soils (13:3–9 and explained at 13:18–23), lays most of the blame at the feet of the hearer. Some simply do not take the time to patiently understand what it is they are hearing, so it is snatched away before it takes root (13:19). Others receive it joyfully but shallowly, so they cannot endure the trouble discipleship brings (13:20–21). Still others attempt to embrace the Kingdom while holding on to worldly securities like money (13:22), which of course cannot be done according to Jesus’ earlier teaching (6:19–24).

But human hearers aren’t the only ones to blame, for Satan is involved as well (13:24–30; 36–43). The devil works to steal away the seed of the Kingdom (13:19) and plants people (“children of the evil one”) who act like weeds to choke out the word of the Kingdom growing within the believer. Such people will themselves be weeded out and rejected when the time of harvest comes (13:40–42; see also the parable of the net at 13:47–50, and Jesus’ words to the Pharisees at 15:13–14).

The four remaining parables (the mustard seed, 13:31–32; the leaven, 13:33; the treasure, 13:44, and the pearl, 13:45–46) go on to suggest that many reject Jesus because of the nature of the Kingdom itself. Unlike worldly kingdoms that are known through their open expression of power, this Kingdom originates in small, insignificant things that grow over time into something much more substantial (13:31–32). Unlike worldly kingdoms, God’s Kingdom works mysteriously, like a small amount of yeast hidden within a much larger bowl of flour (13:33).

Indeed, God’s Kingdom is hidden from natural sight; it is something that requires patient searching — and when it is found, it must be treasured above all other things (13:44–45).

“Have you understood all this?” Jesus asks his disciples (13:51). Clearly, right understanding is crucial if disciples are to receive the Kingdom (13:32; 15:10; 16:12; 17:13). Given the riddle of the parables, this understanding is not purely intellectual; indeed, those who cling too tightly to their cognitive concept of God or to worldly security will not be able to understand.

But students of Jesus are like “scribes trained for the Kingdom of Heaven” who are able to treasure things new and old (13:52). The old is not uncritically rejected in favor of what captivates as new, and the new is not refused simply because it isn’t the cherished old. The church is to be characterized by both conservation and renovation.

Like Matthew’s gospel itself, which presents the good news of Jesus as both essentially connected to and creatively disconnected from the “old” of Israel’s past, so also disciples of Jesus are trained in a way of humility that treasures the “old, old story” of the tradition while simultaneously remaining open to God’s unexpected, surprising, and sometimes shockingly new activity in the world.

Questions for Further Reflection:

  1. When Jesus does not act according to popular messianic expectations, he responds, “Blessed is anyone who takes no offense in me” (11:4-6). This beatitude praises those who follow Jesus’ teaching and doing even if they find the message to be confusing or hard to swallow. What aspects of Jesus’ teaching “offend” you? Are there parts of his message you find hard to swallow?
  2. “The desire for power over others is a perennial temptation for religious people; we often twist good religious regulations into a means of human oppression, lording over others as though we ourselves were the Lord of the Sabbath.” How has this been true in your experience? Are there particular ways of being Christian in America today that contribute to this tendency? What are some Christian habits and practices that help us avoid this tendency?
  3. “Whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother” (12:50). Earlier, Jesus said, “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (10:37). How do you react to these redefinitions of one’s true family?
  4. “Students of Jesus are like ‘scribes trained for the kingdom of heaven’ who are able to treasure things new and old (13:52). Disciples are trained in a way of humility that treasures the ‘old, old story’ of the tradition while simultaneously remaining open to God’s unexpected, surprising, and sometimes shockingly new activity in the world.” Are you more inclined to treasure the tradition or reach out to the future in terms of your faith? What is gained, and what is lost, with each tendency? What is required of us to do both?

Author’s Notes

Author’s Note 1

The “something” to which Jesus refers that is greater than the temple (12:6) is in the neuter case in Greek, so it probably doesn’t refer to Jesus himself. It may simply be the mercy of God revealed in the gospel and made real in Jesus, the “Lord of the Sabbath,” who is authorized to instruct God’s people in the ways of right worship (12:8).


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