The Parable of the Two Sons (Matthew 21:28-32)

Klyne Snodgrass:

“God requires productive and obedient living from his people…. How did people ever get the idea that obedience to the will of God is optional?… Any separation of believing and doing is a distortion of the gospel message and is directly confronted by this parable. A person cannot believe apart from obedience….

“This parable also encourages us to remember that initial responses are not ultimate responses. An initial refusal does not have to stay a refusal, and an initial agreement is not enough. It must be lived.”

Klyne Snodgrass, Stories With Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus


The Parable of the Wicked Tenants (Matthew 21:33-46)

This is a parable of judgment against the Jewish religious leaders, but it is also a challenge to all of us: what are we doing with the spiritual potential God has given us? Are we laboring in the kingdom to produce more fruit, or are we just wasting its potential? Don’t be deceived–Jesus says that we will each be held accountable for our actions.

Today’s Scripture:

Matthew 21:28-46


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The Fig Tree

by Andrew Forrest

A fruitless fig tree was an Old Testament symbol of God’s judgment on Israel’s idolatry and corruption. For example:

“‘I will take away their harvest,
declares the Lord.
    There will be no grapes on the vine.
There will be no figs on the tree,
    and their leaves will wither.
What I have given them
    will be taken from them.’”

Jeremiah 8:13


So, the episode with the cursed fig tree is a living parable Jesus is acting out in front of the disciples. He is showing them the consequences for the hard-heartedness of the religious leaders.

Can prayer really cause a mountain to be thrown into the sea? I don’t really know.

What I do know is that prayer changes things.


Scripture Passage:

Matthew 21:18-27


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The reason there were moneychangers and merchants in the temple courts in Jerusalem was so that pilgrims who came in from far away could easily buy an animal for sacrifice. Galilee is in the north of Israel, e.g., and I’m told it was at least a 2 week walk from there to Jerusalem. Obviously, it wasn’t practical for Jews coming to worship and sacrifice in Jerusalem to bring animals with them, and the Jews of the Diaspora wouldn’t even have local money with them, hence the moneychangers.

I don’t think it is the presence of the moneychangers and the merchants that is necessarily wrong; it is their abuse of their position to which Jesus is objecting. If they had offered a fair rate of exchange and fair prices, then they would have been doing the pilgrims a service. But, it seems they were price-gouging, and thereby profaning the Temple.

Today’s Scripture:

Matthew 21:12-17


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I know almost nothing about Charles de Gaulle, and so I was intrigued by the recent essay about him by Peter Hitchens in First Things: “A Certain Idea of France.” One paragraph in particular struck me:

“De Gaulle possessed that great chivalrous virtue of being ready to walk unbowed and defiant in front of the powerful, while being gentle and even submissive to the defenseless and weak. He once became so angry with Churchill that he smashed a chair in his presence to emphasize his rage. Likewise, he defied Franklin Roosevelt over and over again. But he would go home after these battles to sing tender love songs to his daughter Anne, who suffered from Down syndrome. The tiny glimpses we have of this part of his life, obtained from the accidental observations of others, tear at the heart. His concern for Anne was entirely private and not at all feigned. After any long absence from home his first act was to rush up to her room. She died, aged twenty, in his arms. At her funeral, he comforted his wife Yvonne with the words, ‘Maintenant, elle est comme les autres’ (‘Now, she is like the others’), which must be one of the most moving things said in the whole twentieth century.”

Peter Hitchens, “A Certain Idea of France”


Now, she is like the others.


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The Mount of Olives overlooks Jerusalem, and on Palm Sunday Jesus comes down the Mount of Olives in a triumphant procession as he enters the city. The excitement around Jesus has been slowly coming to a boil, but each time the lid is about to blow off, Jesus calms the crowds, or quickly withdraws, or tells the people not to say anything. Palm Sunday, however, is the moment when Jesus goes public. He encourages the shouts of Hosanna and the waving of the palm branches; his procession is a deliberately provocative and political act. And, just a few days later, he’ll be crucified.

So, why does he do it?

I think the answer is that it’s finally time for him to engage the fight. Jesus was born to die. Up to this moment, he has been biding his time. Now that the time has come, he’s ready.

At some point, the difficult thing can’t be avoided–it must be engaged.

Today’s Scripture:

Matthew 21:1-11


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Our understanding of appetites is entirely wrong. Here’s what we think:

  • I have an appetite or desire for something;
  • I satisfy that appetite or desire;
  • That appetite or desire goes away.

Or to put it another way, we think:

  • I have an itch;
  • I scratch the itch;
  • No more itch.

Anyone who’s ever had poison ivy knows that that is completely backwards!

Here’s the truth about appetites and desires: the more you feed them, the more they grow. We’ve all experienced this. Take working out, for example: if you haven’t been working out, you don’t want to start working out. But, if you will yourself through the initial inertia, what happens? The more you work out, the more you want to keep working out. Healthy eating is the same way: once you will yourself to start and make it through the first few days, it becomes something you want to do.

Now, apply this to the disciplines of faith, like reading the Bible: the more you read the Bible, the more you want to read the Bible. You don’t bring a desire to it so much as you get the desire from it.

Good appetites grow when fed, but so do bad appetites. How does lust work?

  • Lust whispers, “Feed me, and I’ll stop bothering you–I promise.”
  • For a time, Lust keeps its promise and is quiet. But it’s only for a time….
  • After a while, Lust whispers again, though this time more insistently, “Feed me.”
  • And the cycle continues and accelerates.

This cycle is true for anger and addiction and every other destructive appetite we have. The more we feed it, the stronger does the appetite grow until it becomes almost impossible not to satisfy.

Appetites grow when fed. There are healthy appetites and there are destructive appetites. The key, then, is to feed the healthy appetites and starve the destructive ones. For most of us, the destructive appetites never go totally away, but they do become much weaker over time, and instead of an insistent, sibilant whisper on your shoulder, that appetite, which previously had seemed irresistible in your life, becomes an occasionally recurring thought that you can slap dead as you do a horsefly.

Appetites grow when fed. There are healthy appetites and there are destructive appetites. The key, then, is to feed the healthy appetites and starve the destructive ones. For most of us, the destructive appetites never go totally away, but they do become much weaker over time, and instead of an insistent, sibilant whisper on your shoulder, that appetite, which previously had seemed irresistible in your life, becomes an occasionally recurring thought that you can slap dead as you do a horsefly.

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I love the directness of Jesus’s question to the two blind men in Jericho:

“‘What do you want me to do for you?'”

Matthew 20:32

To their credit, they are bold in their request:

“’Lord,’ they answered, ‘we want our sight.’”

Matthew 20:33

And they receive it.

If Jesus asked you that same question today, what would you say?

Today’s Scripture:

Matthew 20:29-34


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Introduction–Jesus is not Santa Claus

Haven’t you ever wondered why, since Jesus was such a nice guy, meek and mild; since Jesus is basically Santa Claus in sandals and a bath robe; since Jesus never wanted to hurt anyone’s feeling–haven’t you ever wondered why Jesus was killed? Jesus wasn’t killed by accident; Jesus was killed because the things he did and said caused people to hate him. Matthew 19-20 is a good example of the sort of things Jesus said that got him killed, because these 2 chapters contain some difficult, explosive teachings from Jesus. In 2019 at Munger, we’re reading through the Gospels over the course of the year, with short readings assigned each weekday. So, each weekday I’ve been trying to write a brief commentary to go along with that day’s Gospel reading. I’m a few days behind, so I’m going to post my comments on Matthew 19-20 in 3 separate posts, one after the other; to understand Matthew 19-20, we need to look at all of Jesus’s teachings together, so be sure to check out each of the 3 posts. Part 1 is about Jesus, Marriage, and Divorce; Part 2 is about whether Jesus would ever turn someone away [the rich young ruler]; this is Part 3: about a truly explosive, troubling parable [the laborers in the vineyard].

Unfair Labor Practices

I remember the first time I really heard the parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard. I was in seminary, and it was the first time I understood the explosive nature of the teaching of Jesus. This parable does not make you feel good, and the more you think about it, the more disturbing it seems. It just seems fundamentally unfair that the people who have labored all day in the hot sun get paid the same as those who only put in an hour of work at the close of the day.

Maybe that’s the point: there is something about the kingdom of heaven that just doesn’t fit with how we think things should be. And, considering what a mess we’ve made of things, maybe that’s very good news.

Scripture Passage:

Matthew 20:1-16


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Introduction–Jesus is not Santa Claus

Haven’t you ever wondered why, since Jesus was such a nice guy, meek and mild; since Jesus is basically Santa Claus in sandals and a bath robe; since Jesus never wanted to hurt anyone’s feeling–haven’t you ever wondered why Jesus was killed? Jesus wasn’t killed by accident; Jesus was killed because the things he did and said caused people to hate him. Matthew 19-20 is a good example of the sort of things Jesus said that got him killed, because these 2 chapters contain some difficult, explosive teachings from Jesus. In 2019 at Munger, we’re reading through the Gospels over the course of the year, with short readings assigned each weekday. So, each weekday I’ve been trying to write a brief commentary to go along with that day’s Gospel reading. I’m a few days behind, so I’m going to post my comments on Matthew 19-20 in 3 separate posts, one after the other; to understand Matthew 19-20, we need to look at all of Jesus’s teachings together, so be sure to check out each of the 3 posts. Part 1 is about Jesus, Marriage, and Divorce; this is Part 2: about whether Jesus would ever turn someone away [the rich young ruler]; Part 3 is about a truly explosive, troubling parable [the laborers in the vineyard].

Would Jesus Ever Turn Someone Away?

I don’t think we ever see Jesus turn someone away. But, what we do see are people who refuse what he has to offer. The story of the rich young ruler is a good example of this: he asks Jesus how to have eternal life, and Jesus answers him honestly. Jesus tells him that his possessions will make it very hard for him to receive the kingdom. The man doesn’t want to hear that, and walks away sad.

Jesus calls every person to follow him, but we come on his terms, not our own. There are many people in the Gospels and in our time who aren’t willing to accept the terms Jesus gives. Wealth is obviously a major stumbling block for us, because when we are wealthy it’s much harder for us to trust Jesus first. But, wealth is not the only stumbling block in a person’s life.

So, here’s the question: what is the thing that’s keeping you from following Jesus today?

Scripture Passage:

Matthew 19:13-30


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Introduction–Jesus is not Santa Claus

Haven’t you ever wondered why, since Jesus was such a nice guy, meek and mild; since Jesus is basically Santa Claus in sandals and a bath robe; since Jesus never wanted to hurt anyone’s feeling–haven’t you ever wondered why Jesus was killed? Jesus wasn’t killed by accident; Jesus was killed because the things he did and said caused people to hate him. Matthew 19-20 is a good example of the sort of things Jesus said that got him killed, because these 2 chapters contain some difficult, explosive teachings from Jesus. In 2019 at Munger, we’re reading through the Gospels over the course of the year, with short readings assigned each weekday. So, each weekday I’ve been trying to write a brief commentary to go along with that day’s Gospel reading. I’m a few days behind, so I’m going to post my comments on Matthew 19-20 in 3 separate posts, one after the other; to understand Matthew 19-20, we need to look at all of Jesus’s teachings together, so be sure to check out each of the 3 posts. This is Part 1: about Jesus, Marriage, and Divorce; Part 2 is about whether Jesus would ever turn someone away [the rich young ruler]; Part 3 is about a truly explosive, troubling parable [the laborers in the vineyard].

Jesus, Marriage, & Divorce

Matthew 19 is a hard passage. It is hard to understand, and even harder to live by. In Matthew 19, Jesus speaks to the topic of marriage and divorce. In this post, I am not going to offer a comprehensive theology of marriage and divorce, and there are lots of questions I’m not going to try to answer; what I will try to do is explain what I think Jesus is saying. Don’t shoot the messenger! So, let’s walk through this passage, verse by verse:

19 When Jesus had finished saying these things, he left Galilee and went into the region of Judea to the other side of the Jordan.Large crowds followed him, and he healed them there.
Some Pharisees came to him to test him. They asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?”

Matthew 19:1-3


Jesus has now begun his journey to Jerusalem. He’s left the Galilee in the north, and has come south. Unsurprisingly, he has drawn a crowd. And, equally unsurprisingly, the Pharisees–who hate Jesus–have come to try to trip him up. Some things haven’t changed; even today, talking about marriage can get you crucified!

The question about divorce is not an earnest, truth-seeking question, because the Pharisees who ask it are trying to set a trap for Jesus. Why is this question so controversial? In the time of Jesus, there were two rabbinical perspectives on divorce: one perspective (from Rabbi Hillel) said that men could divorce their wives for any reason, and the other perspective (from Rabbi Shammai) said that divorce should be reserved for cases of adultery. In both cases, it was understood that only a husband could seek a divorce, and not a wife. Unsurprisingly, the Hillel perspective was the popular one in the time of Jesus.

As he always does, Jesus uses scripture to frame his answer. In fact, he goes back to the very beginning of the Bible itself: Genesis 1-2. (Specifically Genesis 1:27 and Genesis 2:24.)

“Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

Matthew 19:4-6


Note that Jesus doesn’t actually answer their question directly, but instead talks about the purpose of marriage, as designed by God. I think there are 4 interesting implications to his answer:

  1. Our identities as male or female are not an accident, but part of God’s purpose for our lives.
  2. Marriage makes new families. The husband comes from one family, the wife comes from another, but when they get married, a brand-new family is created through them.
  3. The marriage union is meant to be total: in the biblical language, “one flesh.” Marriage is a complete union: emotional, of course, but also, in some mysterious way, bodily as well. The physical result of that bodily union, obviously, is a child. A child is the “one flesh” that results when a husband and a wife come together through sexual intercourse. A child is one, though it comes from two: a mother and a father. Even at the molecular level, this is true: the child has one DNA sequence, but that sequence has been made from the DNA of two parents. There are billions of us on this planet, and every single one of us–without exception, and whether we know them personally or not–has a biological mother and a biological father. The fact that each of us is the fruit of our parents’ union is really astounding, but because it is commonplace, we overlook it.
  4. The marriage union is meant to be lifelong.


The Pharisees reply with an obvious point:

“Why then,” they asked, “did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?”

Matthew 19:7


In other words, they say: “Jesus, that sounds really nice, but if marriage was meant to be life-long, why is divorce sanctioned in the Old Testament?”

Jesus replied, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.”

Matthew 19:8-9

Note that the Pharisees say that Moses “commanded” divorce, whereas Jesus corrects them by pointing out that Moses did not command divorce, but “permitted” it. Why? Because the presence of sin requires it, i.e., “because your hearts were hard.” Because all people are sinful, divorce is necessary. Jesus implies that sexual immorality breaks the marriage covenant or somehow makes marriage impossible. In that case, then, divorce is a way of acknowledging that the marriage covenant has already been abrogated.

It is important to point out that since it is only men who were able to divorce their wives in the time of Jesus (and not vice versa), then the practical effect of Jesus’s comments is that they protect women, who, without clear divorce laws, could be cast aside for any and every reason. Jesus’s words sound harsh, but they are actually helpful to women whose husbands wanted to divorce them for any and every reason.

The disciples are shocked at the implications:

“The disciples said to him, ‘If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry.'”

Matthew 19:10

In response, Jesus says that they are correct: this is a difficult teaching:

11 Jesus replied, “Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given. 12 For there are eunuchs who were born that way, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others—and there are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it.”

Matthew 19:11-12

A “eunuch” is a man who has been castrated so that he is unable to reproduce sexually. Eunuchs were present in antiquity from the Middle East to China and they were often important members of a royal household; because they were obviously unable to found their own dynasties, they were often entrusted with important matters of state.

Note what Jesus is saying:

  1. Some people are, from birth, either not able or not willing to procreate: “eunuchs who were born that way.”
  2. Some people will not procreate because of what other people have done to them. It is unclear to me if “eunuch” is in this instance only to be understood literally–that is, people whose genitals have been cut off or altered so that they cannot reproduce–or if it is also metaphor, referring to something else.
  3. People who freely choose not to marry and reproduce for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Here, “eunuch” is obviously a metaphor. And, Jesus himself is in this 3rd category, since he never married.

This entire passage is extremely counter-cultural.

First, this teaching of Jesus flies in the face of our divorce culture. Since Governor Ronald Reagan signed the nation’s first no-fault divorce law into effect in California in 1969, we have come to accept (not only in law, but in our understanding) that marriage is something that either party can end for any reason whatsoever, and once divorce papers are filed, then the marriage is over. Jesus says that, in effect, marriage is more durable than that, and that regardless of what the papers say, marriage can’t be ended as easily as that. This is a radical teaching.

I am not trying to give a comprehensive Christian understanding of divorce in this post, but I also know that if you’ve read this far, you likely have many questions about grounds for divorce. Remember that this is just one scriptural passage in which Jesus is replying to a specific question put to him about a particular Jewish controversy. So, drawing from the rest of the Bible, here is one answer to the following question.

What behaviors break the marriage covenant and are grounds for divorce?

  • Adultery (Matthew 19:9);
  • Abuse (Exodus 21:10-11);
  • Abandonment (1 Corinthians 7:15).

The words of Jesus on divorce will seem radical to our culture, but his words on sex will seem INSANE. Our culture believes that a fulfilling and happy life must include sex. Think about our advertising–it’s not that our advertisers use sex to sell things–though they do–it’s that they also imply that a life without sex is a life not worth living. Jesus flatly contradicts this implication. In fact, he suggests that some people will choose not to marry and have sex and make these choices out of service to the kingdom of heaven.

One important conclusion we can draw from this passage is that Jesus saw both marriage and singleness as legitimate callings for his disciples. In different times in church history, we have favored one at the expense of the other. Nowadays, we clearly prioritize marriage over singleness, but over the last 2,000 years, there have times when the church has stigmatized marriage and over-praised singleness.

As for other conclusions, I will let you think on these issues yourself. This is just one passage in all of Matthew’s Gospel, which is but one book in the entire Bible–on marriage and divorce, we need to take the whole counsel of scripture. But, what do you think–is Jesus right? Is marriage meant to be lifelong, or can it be ended when either spouse wants to end it? And, is it possible to have a fulfilled life without sex?

Scripture Passage:

Matthew 19:1-12


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