The Gospel of Matthew Part 4: A Kingdom of Justice, A Brood of Vipers, and Turning Weakness into Power

As I reflected on in my last post, the writer of Matthew’s Gospel is intently interested in matters of the “Kingdom”. In Herod and Jesus we find a picture of two competing Kingdoms with two different types of Kings. with Matthew playing with these perceptions of power and weakness. The power that we find in Herod’s Kingdom is revealed to be driven by fear, while the weakness we find in Jesus (and John the Baptist, whom Mathew uses to speak to the nature of Jesus’ establishing Kingdom in weakness) is revealed as power.

It is from this repositioning of power that Matthew narrows in on the Temple and the religious leaders (Sadducees and Pharisees), criticizing the way in which their power (as religious leaders) has come at the expense of those who are deemed weak and lowly. This would include the author’s own story as someone who found himself on the margins and oppressed by the religious leaders of his day. As the Kingdom of Jesus is being established in their midst, it begins in Jerusalem, and the concern of the author becomes no more clear than in John’s initial description of the Jewish religious leaders in Jerusalem as a “brood of vipers”.

Brood of Vipers: Fields, Barns, Fruit and Fire
This language, brood of vipers, arrives in the tradition and imagery of the Garden narrative, where a “creature” becomes the personification of evil (death, sin, satan, the evil one). The viper was considered a dangerous creature, and attached to the religious leaders, stands resistant to the ways of the Kingdom that is being established. They are reactionary, and strike in fear, injecting their venom in order to protect themselves.

Now, this is definitely strong language, but there are a couple key, important points to note with about the nature of this viper imagery:
1. Brood is a collective term. It indicates an institutionalized problem. By no means though should we be considering the whole of these religious leaders as bad. They tend to get a bad rep because of the way they were singled out, but for the most part these were well meaning people who thought they were doing the right thing and on the side of God’s law. As becomes clear in Matthew, it is often fear, especially of those who found themselves caught between Jesus and the Roman rule (upsetting the balance meant that the freedoms that they did have could be taken away), that can be most destructive.

2. Second, Matthew is using the imagery of the viper to evoke a bigger picture. “Who told you to flee from the wrath that is to come” is a question that the author (through John) has positioned within the image of a farmers field at harvest. Once the wheat has been stored in the barn, they then set the fields on fire, causing whatever was in those fields to flee. The picture of all these snakes fleeing the fields would have been recognizable to his audience.

Likewise, this picture of the fields, the fire, and the barn is echoed in further imagery of the fruit and the trees that we find working its way (like a thread) through Matthew’s Gospel, beginning with John’s word in 3:9-10. “Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

All of this imagery has to do with Jesus’ Kingdom first being established in Jerusalem, and the judgement of Jerusalem. The mention of Abraham brings us back to the genealogy, and the picture of the ax is one that is directed at Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple, with Matthew’s genealogical line re-configuring the picture of who belongs and who doesn’t belong as the covenant people. Who warned you to flee is used in a satirical fashion by John to indicate these leaders coming from Jerusalem, the very place that is being deconstructed (set on fire). Clearly this is not why they are there, but this is why John says, “don’t presume” your position in the Kingdom, for even now the fruitless trees (the religious leaders) are being cut down and thrown into the fire. Rather, “repent, for the kingdom is at hand”, the same words Jesus uses following John’s imprisonment (4:17; 4:2). Repent is a a turning towards, a looking in a different direction than one is currently. It evokes a repositioning. What is interesting about the way these words are used for the religious leaders is that they are being asked to turn and look in the direction of the Kingdom that is being established by Jesus, which is in Jerusalem, the direction they have in-fact come from.

A Kingdom Built, a Kingdom Divided
To further unpack the nature of this Viper language, turning to Chapter 12 and 13 can be helpful. In Chapter 12, we find this gradual progression, beginning with the “work” of the disciples (gathering wheat from the field on the Sabbath 12:1-8)) and moving to the work of Jesus (healing on the Sabbath 12:9-14). This leads to the Pharisees condemnation (12:2) and their conspiring on how to destroy him (12:14). This then also leads to Matthew setting up Jesus in light of Isaiah’s prophecy, which declares God’s chosen servant as the one who will “proclaim justice to the Gentiles”, and this servant will not resist or lift a hand until he “brings justice to victory”. In his (the servants name) the the Gentiles will hope (12:15-21).

If this is how God’s servant (Jesus) is going to bring about the Kingdom, against their resistance and not by the power of Herod’s kingdom but by the power found in his willing weakness, the question that then follows is “how will this kingdom stand (12:26).” Here we find a picture of these contrasting Kingdoms once again, with the religious leaders calling Jesus the devil (the brood of vipers calling Jesus the viper), and Jesus being declared as the chosen servant of God. Here, knowing their thoughts, Jesus uses these contrasting images (of the devil and the chosen servant) to a paint a picture of a Kingdom divided against itself and a Kingdom undivided. “Every kingdom divided against itself is laid to waste (12:25)” Jesus says, evoking once again the imagery of the fruit and the trees, the fire and the field. “Satan cannot cast out Satan”, because that would represent a conundrum, a contradiction, a division of reasoning and motivation. This brings the focus back on them labeling Jesus “Satan”. Jesus now turns it back on the religious leaders. “If I cast out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your sons (presumably their followers) cast them out (12:27)?” Let them be “your” judges about (their) Kingdom, Jesus says. “But”, Jesus pushes further, if it is “by the Spirit of God that “I” cast out demons, then you will know that the Kingdom of God has come “upon” you. Therefore, “whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me “scatters”, once again forming a distinction between the Kingdoms (the Son of Man and the Spirit).

Here, then, is the picture of the vipers fleeing the fire. “You brood of vipers” Jesus conjures up again in 12:34, either make the tree good and its fruit good or make the tree bad and its fruit bad, for “the tree”, Jesus posits, is known by its fruits. The positioning of this picture within this good and evil dichotomy is one that Jesus sets as a demonstration of “the heart” which is revealed by their words (with their words justifying them or condemning them on the coming day “of judgment”). The sign of this judgment is the Cross (the sign of Jonah 38:42), then picturing the rising up of the gentiles that God’s servant came to bring justice to as the judgement of the religious leaders (Israel/Jews). As he goes on to say in 12:49, the world is Jesus’ family.

According to Jesus they will turn (that ironic image of repent) back to Jerusalem only to find a house (a temple) being reoccupied by “unclean spirits” and once again making their dwelling that of evil (the viper as the image of evil). Which leads us to Chapter 13 and the parable of the sower (13:1-9) and the weeds (13:24-30), two parables that will set us up to encounter the death of John and the movement towards the Cross and Jesus’ death. After establishing the purpose of the parables as to give the secrets (the mystery) of the Kingdom to some (the disciples) so that the others (Jerusalem, the religious leaders) may not turn (13:10-17), Jesus explains the parable of the sower like this:
– Those who hear but don’t understand are snatched up by the evil one
– Those who hear and respond with joy but don’t have a good foundation fall away
– those who hear but the desires of the world (power, cares and riches) are choked so that it can’t bear fruit
– Those who hear and understand are those who bear fruit

And then explains the parable of the weeds like this:
– The good seed is sowed by Jesus
– The world is the field
– The good seed is the sons of the kingdom
– The weeds are the sons of the evil one
– The sower of the bad seeds is the devil
– The reapers are the angels
– The harvest is the close of the age.

In the context of the sower and the weeds, “The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth”, while for those who hear and understand, “then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.” Therefore, Matthew says, “Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.”

These two parables are then blanketed by three smaller parables intended to explain what the Kingdom Jesus is building will be like:
1. A treasure that one finds hidden in the field (the mystery of the parables revealed) and selling all in order to buy up
2. Searching for and finding a fine pearl and selling all in order to buy
3. Like a net catching up fish of every kind, and sorting those fish into good and bad containers.

All of these parables are positioned once again, as we move in 13:51, into this picture of competing Kingdoms and the focus on the religious leaders and their tradition. The idea of new and old treasures implies that Jesus is establishing a new kingdom among the old, with the final “Kingdom of heaven is like” image pointing this in a definitive fashion towards Jerusalem, the temple, and the religious leaders/tradition. A scribe trained up for the kingdom of heaven (Jesus’ disciples) will be like the master of a house (the temple, which Jesus earlier imagined being emptied and sorted 12:45) and brings out his treasure (Jesus as the new temple) what is new and what is old (the Gentiles and the Jews, the lowly and the rich/elite). As Jesus describes in 13:31-33, the Kingdom will be like a mustard seed and leaven, which although seemingly small and insignificant, will spread into the whole world. And yet, in another great play of irony, “a prophet is not without honor except in his hometown (Jerusalem) and in his own household (the temple and the Jewish tradition).”

Using this “brood of vipers” language. Matthew recognizes that Jesus arises from the prophetic tradition that has both defined and rejected the author. What these pictures of the two competing Kingdoms brings to light is that while the Kingdoms of the world come at the expense of justice and at the expense of the oppressed, the marginalized and the week, God’s Kingdom is being built in power, but power that comes through weakness. As they awaited the return of God’s presence to the temple, this tradition finds itself caught between these two competing visions of the Kingdom, that of Jesus and that of Rome, that of their tradition and that of Jesus. It is for this reason that we continually find Jesus “teaching in their synagogue proclaiming the Gospel of the Kingdom”, and providing parables that they don’t understand, and giving images that distinguish between the Kingdom of men and the Kingdom of God being established in Jerusalem and in the temple.

This is going to be the Way of Jesus, is towards the Cross, and in the seeming weakness of the Cross will come power, power “for” the sake of the weak, the marginalized, the oppressed. This, as we will see later in chapter 21, is what will come to the forefront as we approach the Cross. At last entering Jerusalem, cleansing the temple (calling back to this picture of it being emptied and reordered), and once again conjuring up that picture of that fig tree and the lack of fruit as a matter of “justice” coming to the lowly, this definitive picture of Jesus restoring Jerusalem and the temple “in faith”. The same faith, as he says, the disciples (the lowly) have in them, to meet out justice and injustice and “move mountains for the sake of the Kingdom come, a Kingdom in which the tax collectors and the prostitutes will enter first (21:31).

This is a Kingdom that is like a grand wedding feast (22:1-14) where those who were invited (the Jews, the religious leaders) “were not ready” and “were not worthy”, and thus Jesus was sent (and sent his disciples) to go and invite others, as many as they could find both good and bad, only to be sorted according to many being called and few chosen. What is shocking about this is the chosen part, as this distinction between “good” and “bad” does not come by way of the Jewish religious leaders (according to the Law) but by way of the Cross for the lowly, the marginalized, the sick, the oppressed. What defines the good are those in bondage who find liberation in the Kingdom of God. A kingdom built on the greatest commandment, Love God and love others as yourself, a love undivided, interconnected, and wholly imagined in the Kingdom that Jesus is establishing on the Cross.

A few final words on this whole picture of the competing Kingdoms. First, when we hear of the end of the age in Matthew, what lies ahead, right in front of us is the Cross. This is the arrival of the new age. This is the judgment. And yet, what the Cross is ultimately a judgement of is the Kingdom that is being established. It is defining, over and against the Kingdom of the world, or in a way redefining for the religious leaders who stood in the long tradition of their people who failed to hear, a Kingdom for the least, a Kingdom that gives power in weakness, a Kingdom that gives love where there is hate, a Kingdom the gives justice (freedom) to the injustice. A Kingdom that is making what is wrong right. This is where we need to locate the hard words in Matthew. And as the Cross establishes this in light of Jesus, God’s called servant to bring justice to the gentiles, this Kingdom is then looking to reach back into the life of Israel and the Jews, deconstructing the temple and rebuilding it, and recasting it in Matthew’s Genealogical interest. In a sense, as I said in part 1, he is reimagining the story of the Pentateuch in the light of Jesus and the Cross, God’s full revealing of His Kingdom work, the same work He has been up to all along.

With this in mind, I am inclined to see all of these words as hopeful. Certainly if we were to read them as the oppressed would, through the eyes of someone like Matthew, these words arrive as hopeful words. Striking words in their repositioning of power in weakness (and weakness in power), but hopeful because of what the Kingdom is said to be doing and building in their midst. But I also feel like there is a thread of hope that finds its way through these words of judgment for Israel and the Jews. The heart of Jesus for Israel is clear. He weeps for them. And the trajectory is also clear- the Cross will condemn them in its repositioning of power in the Kingdom come. And yet all of this language, which is apocalyptic language (revealing language of what the Cross is doing in the temple, in Jerusalem, in the Jewish/Israelite story), becomes actualized in the Cross, and further perpetuated in the eventual (full destruction) of the temple that will happen soon after this. When set in the larger picture of God’s story, and certainly in the words of the Apostle Paul (see Romans), what we find in these words is a judgement, but than also something forming out of that, which is where I think we can find a picture of God’s restorative work “in” Israel, in the Jewish world and tradition. As Paul says, were they a stumbling block for no reason? No. They were a stumbling block so that this Kingdom could be established for the Gentiles. Does that mean that they have lost hope for their place as God’s covenant people? No. In this way, Paul says, all Israel will be saved. So don’t think all of this judgment (the fire, the deconstructing), just as they rejected the prophets of old, will be the last word. God is at work, and He is still at work repositioning power within His Kingdom, bringing justice and liberation to the world. Most of all, as becomes clear in Matthew’s Gospel, the greater truth is that on the Cross Christ defeated the Powers of Sin and Death that hold this world bondage, that given way for sin to oppress and ignore the widows and the orphans.

The imagination of this Kingdom is a reality, Matthew says, both one that has arrived and one that is still coming. It is for that reason that we can have hope.

Published by davetcourt

I am a 40 something Canadian with a passion for theology, film, reading writing and travel.

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