The Olivet Discourse: The Burden of Matthew's Song

Throughout this series I will be focusing primarily on Matthew’s account, looking to Mark 13 and Luke 21 more as secondary supplements to our main discussion. My reasons for this are, first, because Matthew’s account is slightly longer than Mark’s, while covering most of the same territory, and, second, because Matthew’s account is generally thought to have a much clearer focus on the “end times” than Luke’s, a distinction which I believe strikes at the heart of much misunderstanding, both about the Olivet Discourse specifically and about prophetic and apocalyptic literature in general. But since Matthew’s account has long been viewed as the strong tower in which anyone looking for the “end times” might hide, I think it forms the most appropriate staging ground for my argument.

If we’re going to be sensitive to the way Matthew tells his own story, however, we’ll have to go back a bit and see how he builds up to the passage in question. Part of the reason why the church has had so much difficulty reading Matthew 24 as a prediction of the destruction of Jerusalem is because it has regularly bracketed that chapter out from the context in which Matthew places it, on the heels of Jesus' most dramatic confrontation with the de facto leadership of the day, the hostile faceoff which paves the way to his death. Taken in context, Jesus appears to be speaking of the vindication of his claims over the generation that rejected his offer of peace as a sort of last statement before the crucifixion. Of course, despite the historical and contextual strength of this reading, the fact remains that for the majority of the church the fall of Jerusalem has had no theological significance. This is confirmed by the lack of attention given to those myriad passages throughout the gospels where that theme stares us in the face, not least the passages which we will survey here. But if we understand the Olivet Discourse to be speaking ultimately of Jesus’ vindication after his suffering, then the theological importance of 70AD becomes glaringly obvious: the destruction of Jerusalem is the most undeniably vivid evidence that Jesus was who he said he was and that his prophetic proclamation was true. It thus becomes one of the most powerful apologetics for the veracity of the Christian claim.

But enough with introductions. Let's look at the evidence for ourselves. Two prominent themes of Matthew’s account come to a climax in chapter 24. The first is the story of the coming of the kingdom: the return of YHWH to his temple, the vindication of the elect, the judgment of their oppressors, and the launching of God’s new age. The second is the story of how Israel missed their day of visitation: how they missed the coming of the kingdom right in their midst, how they rejected their Messiah, the one through whom all of their eschatological hopes find fulfillment, and how in consequence their house is being left desolate. We can trace both of these themes all the way back to the Sermon on the Mount in chapters 5-8, or to the preaching of John the Baptist in chapter 3, but for the scope of this series we’ll start with Jesus’ fateful arrival in Jerusalem in chapter 21.

In Matthew 21:1-17 we see Jesus entering Jerusalem in what we commonly refer to as the “Triumphal Entry”. A more historically relevant term for that event would be parousia, because this is Jesus the King entering his kingdom in exulted procession. Multitudes awaiting the coming of the kingdom follow him into the city, hailing him with choruses from Psalm 118 as the one who would fulfill their hopes of national restoration. Upon entering the city, however, Jesus does exactly the opposite of what the crowds were expecting. According to Ezekiel 43-44, the Davidic Messiah would return to the temple with the glory of God upon Israel’s restoration, but instead of restoring them and destroying the Romans, upon entering the temple Jesus rushes through and in a furious yet strategically symbolic action overturns all of moneychanger’s tables inside. The fact that this episode was intended as a symbolic enactment of coming judgment is confirmed by the mutually interpretive “fig tree” event which occurs next to it in all three Synoptic accounts.

At this point Matthew reports that the chief priests and scribes were indignant. What Jesus did was an insult of blasphemous proportions, and the fact that he went on to demonstrate his authority by healing the sick inside the temple was infuriating. Something had to be done about this revolutionary, because he was profaning the heart and soul of Israel’s national identity, the Temple of God. Needless to say, Matthew’s tense retelling of the leadership of Israel’s blindness and refusal to acknowledge Jesus’ kingdom agenda, which has been a building theme throughout his narrative, reaches a definite climax with the triumphal entry—and so he goes on to report, in a series of thinly veiled parables, what all together comprises Jesus’ last call for repentance. Let’s look at each in turn:

In the parable of the two sons (21:28-32) Jesus is strikingly comparing the leadership of Israel with the pagans outside; he rebukes those leaders for not responding while claiming that the Gentiles, the tax collectors and sinners, are miraculously entering in to the kingdom of God which he is bringing. As offensive as this is, Jesus is redefining what it means to be Israel, the true people of God, and he’s pointedly telling the most observant of Abraham’s posterity that they are not making the cut. As he said earlier in Matthew’s account, there are Gentiles who will sit with Abraham in the kingdom, while many presently within Israel, the sons of the kingdom, will be cast into outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth (8:11-12).

Next, in the parable of the wicked vinedressers (21:33-46) the vinedressers again clearly represent the self-proclaimed leaders to whom Jesus was speaking (cf. v. 45: “they perceived that he was speaking of them”). In the parable a landowner leased his vineyard to these vinedressers, and at vintage time (and note that “vintage time” here does not refer to the second coming) he sent his servants to receive the fruit of the vineyard. But the vinedressers “beat,” “killed,” and “stoned” the landowners servants. The landowner sent more, but they beat, killed and stoned those servants as well. So, at last, the landowner sent his own son to them; but the vinedressers cast him out of the vineyard and killed him the same as the rest of the servants. At this point Jesus asks the rhetorical question: “When the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those vinedressers?” The chief priest and elders answer, confessing with their own lips the justice of their fate and the righteousness of God in continuing his purpose with a different people: “He will destroy those wicked men miserably, and lease his vineyard to other vinedressers who will render to him the fruits in their seasons.” Jesus then confirms their answer: “Therefore I say to you, the kingdom of God will be taken from you and given to a nation bearing the fruits of it.”

Last and most dramatically before his all-out rebuke in chapter 23, in the parable of the wedding feast (22:1-14) Jesus candidly compares the current leadership of Israel to those who were invited to a wedding and yet refused, making light of it and (just like the wicked vinedressers) killing the servants sent to gather them. As the result of their refusal, the king in the parable is furious, and, as Jesus tells it, he “sent out his armies, destroyed those murderers, and burned up their city.” The king then proceeds to invite people from all over, any and all who were willing to come, so that “the wedding hall was filled with guests.” These “many” obviously represent the Gentiles, just like the first son did in the parable of the two sons. The mysterious man who tries to attend the feast without the proper attire represents those who expect automatic entrance into the kingdom without meeting the standards of the kingdom. Throughout his gospel Matthew portrays the Scribes, Pharisees and Sadducees as having exactly this attitude.

In each of these three parables Jesus’ message and its implications for those hearing it was clear. Judgment was coming upon that generation because of their rejection of Jesus, God’s last messenger. The form this judgment would take, it appears, is the desolation of Jerusalem by a foreign army (note, especially, 22:7). Like Jeremiah to whom he was compared (16:14), Jesus is prophesying a great national crisis as the result of Israel’s blindness: the destruction of Jerusalem itself. This is why, after he had finished, the Pharisees “went and plotted how they might entangle him.” They knew exactly what he was saying.

Matthew goes on to tell of three attempts from Jesus’ opponents—one from the Pharisees, one from the Sadducees, and one from the Scribes—to “entangle” Jesus in his words so that they might have an accusation against him in court. This was the last straw. This false teacher simply had to be stopped. Now he has not only blasphemed the Temple of God, but he has also claimed that we, the true people of God, and even Jerusalem itself, would be “destroyed” and “burned up” for not accepting his message. After those three tried-and-failed attempts to catch Jesus in his words (22:15-40), Jesus responds in a clear and open rebuke against those men and their establishment (23:1-39). No more parables. No more riddles. This was unmistakable. Jesus is diametrically opposed to the very leaders of the nation that the Messiah was supposed to lead in triumph over the Romans. The Messiah was supposed to slay that monstrous empire, throw its body in the fire and hand the kingdom over to Israel; but Jesus is talking instead about the destruction of Israel!

We should take special note of the repetition of the word “woe” in chapter 23. Within the scope of Matthew’s gospel, these “woes” at the start of Jesus’ last discourse make for a tragic bookend with the “blessings” at the start of the first discourse (5:3-12). In order to capture the full weight of this portrait, try reading Matthew 5-8 and 23-25 against the covenantal backdrop of Deuteronomy 28. Just as the Sermon on the Mount was an invitation, at the start of Jesus’ career, for Israel to take up their true calling, as the salt of the earth, the city on a hill, and the beatitudes expressed the blessings which would befall God’s people at the dawn of the new age, so the extended discourse of chapters 23-25 is the grievous response, at the end of Jesus’ career, to Israel’s stubborn refusal to accept that invitation. It all comes to climax in 23:34-39:

"Therefore, behold, I am sending you prophets and wise men and scribes; some of them you will kill and crucify, and some of them you will scourge in your synagogues, and persecute from city to city, so that upon you may fall the guilt of all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah, the son of Berechiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. Truly I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation. Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, the way a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were unwilling. Behold, your house is being left to you desolate! For I say to you, from now on you will not see me until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!’"

Much that was implicit in the parables becomes explicit here. Jesus and his followers are the last in a long line of servants sent by YHWH to call Israel to repentance. But as before, so again: Israel scorns the message and kills the messengers. Therefore, upon “this generation” would fall the final and decisive judgment, “the guilt of all the righteous blood shed on the earth”. Jesus longed to shield and protect the nation from the coming trial, like a mother hen shields her chicks from a barnyard fire. But alas, Israel was unwilling. Instead of YHWH coming to dwell within Israel, Israel’s house (a clear allusion to the temple itself) is now left “desolate”—bare, empty, unoccupied and awaiting destruction. When the rain descends and the wind blows, then will that house’s poor foundation be revealed, and great will be its fall.

From the unexpected ruckus in the temple, to the closing remarks of Jesus’ tirade—all of this must have been terribly confusing to the disciples, for they, like everyone else, evidently carried hopes of national restoration that this prophet from Nazareth was dashing to the ground. And for some of them at least those hopes would have centered on the temple, for that building was the heart and soul of the nation—it was the place where God’s glory would return, where the Messiah would reign, and where all the nations would come to hear the law. But according to Jesus, “not one stone shall be left here upon another, that shall not be thrown down.”

In order for us to understand both the disciples’ bewilderment and Jesus’ lengthy response, all of this context must be understood within the framework of the first-century expectations to which the disciples were subject. So then, with all of this in mind, I would understand their questioning like so: “We thought you were returning to Jerusalem just now to begin your messianic reign. We thought you were going to deliver Israel. But now you’re talking about the destruction of Israel!? Tell us, when will this happen? And what about the ‘end of the age’ when you will deliver us from our oppressors?” In other words, the disciples were holding Daniel 7, Ezekiel 43 and other OT prophecies in their heads and trying to fit what Jesus is saying into their naïvely optimistic and nationalistic eschatology.

And so, as he so often does when his followers’ misinformed or misapplied perspectives come to light, Jesus’ response to the disciples in chapters 24-25 effectively takes their question as opportunity for a soapbox presentation of what the “end of the age” means for the rebellious. In much the same way that Amos and Zephaniah reacted to the one-sided eschatology of their day with the heavily ironic pronouncements of judgment on Israel through the surrounding nations, so Jesus is reacting to the same worldview prevalent in his day. What will the Messiah’s “coming” the “end of the age” look like when Israel isn’t in covenant with God? Exactly the same as the “Day of the Lord” looked for Zephaniah: “That day is a day of wrath, a day of trouble and distress, a day of devastation and desolation, a day of darkness and gloominess, a day of clouds and thick darkness a day of trumpet and alarm… Because they have sinned against the Lord; their blood shall be poured out like dust, and their flesh like refuse” (Zeph. 1:15-17).

In this deeply subversive and yet deeply Jewish way, Matthew is thus able to bring the two themes of Israel’s obstinacy and the coming of the kingdom together in a rush at the close of his gospel, reflecting the convergence and climax of those same themes in Jesus’ final discourse before the cross. The elect will indeed be vindicated, their oppressors will be judged, and the kingdom will come, but even as that kingdom breaks in, as the landowner returns and the wedding begins, God’s chosen servants find themselves planted on the wrong side of the story, building their own kingdom with the weapons of the oppressors clenched tightly in their fists. Israel is bent on following a path of destruction--and if they sow destruction while the master is away, what can they possibly expect to reap when he returns? That, I think, is the burden of Matthew’s song in the chapters leading up to Jesus’ last discourse, and it is that same song (and not another) which reaches its sustained climax in the Olivet Discourse itself.