I am presently reading R.T. France’s Commentary on Matthew and as usual, I mined it for quotes I thought might be edifying to share here, and that I am keeping in my research archives. This is the second post of a series:
The Failure of Israel
John the Baptist called Israel to repentance in the light of coming judgment. His new type of baptism symbolized what he explicitly proclaims, that this judgment threatened the ‘children of Abraham’ themselves, whose deed had not matched up to their privileged status. And Matthew takes care to show Jesus’ ministry as in direct succession to that of John, as the bringer of ‘Holy Spirit and fire,’ the one who is to implement the judgment.
So, we hear repeatedly Jesus’ condemnation of ‘this generation’ for its failure to recognize God’s messengers and to respond to his call, culminating in the clear warning that now the rebellion of Israel has gone too far, and that the time for judgment has come, which leads on in its turn to the prediction of the destruction of the temple, ‘this generation.’ No wonder Jesus was seen as a second Jeremiah!
Of course Israel had experienced judgment (including destruction of the temple) before, as in the time of Jeremiah. But there is a note of finality this time which particularly pronounced in Matthew’s account. The section where this come to the fore is chapters 21–23, where Matthew has brought together a variety of sayings and incidents which together add up to a clear repudiation of the official leadership of Israel. Jesus’ demonstration in the temple and his symbolic cursing of the fig tree (Matthew emphasizes the immediacy of the effect), the challenge to Jesus’ authority and his deliberate endorsement of John the Baptist’s ministry of warning, the sequence of three polemical parables, which add up to a scathing indictment of the nation’s failure to produce ‘fruit’ and the threat of replacement by ‘another nation,’ the series of theological and other debates in which Jesus progressively worsts his opponents, after which they remain silent throughout chapter 23, while he ruthlessly exposes their ‘hypocrisy’ and expresses God’s repudiation of their empty worship, and warns that the long-delayed judgment must now fall—all this amounts to a powerful climax to the confrontation which has built up throughout the Gospel.
Jesus’ strictures are focused on the leaders of the nation, and particularly on its religious leaders (‘scribes and Pharisees’). But the parables of 21:28–22:14 point to more than a change of leadership, with 21:43 speaking explicitly of a new ‘nation’; and the threatened judgment on Jerusalem will affect more than just the leaders. The terrible cry of ‘all the people’ in 27:24–25 makes it clear that Jesus is rejected by the nation as a whole, not just by its leaders, and the point is underline by the use here not of ochloi (‘crowds’) but laos, the term particularly used for Israel in its privileged status has been forfeited; God will find elsewhere ‘a nation which produced the fruit’(21:43).
This perspective is summed up in the saying of Jesus which Matthew has recorded in the context of a Gentile whose faith is greater than any found in Israel: ‘Many will come from east and west and sit at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness’ (8:11–12). In speaking not only of the rejection of the ‘sons of the kingdom,’ but also of their replacement by others, this saying captures the balance of Matthew’s approach to the subject. For the loss of Israel’s privilege is not so much an end as a new beginning, opening the way for a true people of God to be constituted in which Jew and Gentile alike may be members, not now on the basis of their nationality, but of their response to Jesus.