THE LAST PUBLIC PREACHING OF JESUS
“Jesus had come to Jerusalem to offer His life as a ransom for the sins of mankind. Men could receive the gift of salvation He promised, of the eternal life which He came to give them, if they would believe in Him, accept Him as the Messias, as, in fact, the very Son of God.
Some men had come to believe in Jesus. The twelve Apostles and a small band of intimate disciples gave themselves wholeheartedly to Jesus. Perhaps some large number of the people, impressed by the miracles of Jesus, were at least interested enough to await some further sign of the power and intentions of Jesus. But the leaders of the people, the Pharisees and the Sadducees, were opposed to Him. So determined was their opposition that they had resolved to put Him to death. Since the people generally were looking for a political Messias, the death of Jesus would cause them to forsake Him completely.
THE JEWISH PEOPLE WERE LOOKING FOR A POLITICAL MESSIAH
Jesus knew this. But His love for His own people induced Him to make one last effort to gain their belief. On the Monday after His triumphal entry into Jerusalem Jesus left Bethany and went again to the Holy City. On the way there Jesus performed a miracle whose strangeness makes us realise that He must have intended it to have a symbolic meaning.
A VERY STRANGE MIRACLE
As the little band approached Jerusalem, they passed near a fig tree. It was early in the spring and the tree might well have begun to show new leaves. But, as St Mark notices, it was too early for the tree to have figs. Jesus went to the tree as if He would find figs upon it. Finding none on it, He said to it, ‘May no fruit ever come from thee henceforward forever’ (Matthew 21:19). Now, when the Apostles passed by the same place the next morning, they saw that the fig tree had died.
With the exception of this one instance, all the miracles of Jesus were productive of good. All His other miracles were signs of love and mercy. There must, then, be a deeper meaning to this miracle than at first sight appears. The general context of what is taking place in this decisive week in the life of Jesus will help us to fathom the intent of this mysterious action of Jesus.
JESUS KNOWS THAT JERUSALEM WILL REJECT HIM
Jesus is on His way to Jerusalem, the City of God. Its people have been prepared for centuries to expect the Messias, to receive Him, and in Him to bring forth the blessing, the salvation of all the nations of the world. But Jesus knows that Jerusalem will reject Him; its people will refuse to accept Him, and consequently they will bear no fruit for the salvation of the world. Because they will reject Him, the salvation of the world, they will be rejected by God, and they will wither away like the fig tree. The miracle of the fig tree is, therefore, a sign to the Apostles of the punishment of Jerusalem for its rejection of the Messias.
‘MY HOUSE SHALL BE CALLED A HOUSE OF PRAYER FOR ALL NATIONS’
After the rejection of the fig tree Jesus continued on His way to Jerusalem. According to the Gospel of St Mark, when Jesus entered the Temple precincts, he expelled the money-changers from the Temple, saying, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations’ (Mark 11:17). The Gospel of St John seems to indicate that this incident took place on the occasion of an earlier visit of Jesus to the Temple. It is, of course, possible that Jesus may have acted this way on two separate occasions.
JESUS ENCOURAGED THE APOSTLES IN THEIR FAITH
The rest of the day was spent by Jesus in teaching the people and in working miracles for those in need. The priests and the Scribes were anxious to bring about His death, but the interest and the approval of the people were too strong. They had to wait for a more propitious moment to trap Him.
In the evening Jesus returned again to Bethany. The following morning, Tuesday, Jesus went again to Jerusalem. On the way the Apostles noticed the withered fig tree. When they wondered at its withering, Jesus told them that even greater miracles could be performed by themselves if only they would have a strong, unwavering faith in God. He said this to encourage them in their faith for He knew that His approaching death would be a great trial for them.
JESUS CHRIST’S AUTHORITY
The enemies of Jesus were becoming increasingly more anxious about the daily teaching of Jesus in the Temple. On this day they made a serious attempt to discredit Him.
Why He was teaching the people, His enemies came and asked Him by what authority He taught as He did. Instead of answering directly, Jesus, in His turn, asked them this question: ‘Whence was the baptism of John? from heaven, or from men?’ (Matthew 21:25). The question placed them in an embarrassing position. The people were convinced that John the Baptist had been a true prophet, in the mold of Elias and Isaias. If the enemies of Jesus were to answer (as they thought) that the baptism of John was only from men, they would lose the support of the people. On the other hand, if they said they thought it was from God, while they would not antagonise the people, they would entrap themselves. For Jesus could then ask them why they had not accepted the baptism of John, and above all, why they did not accept Jesus Himself, whom the Baptist had hailed as the Messias.
Since they had hardened their hearts against Jesus, they could find no escape from this dilemma, except to say, ‘We do not know.’ Since they had really refused to answer His question, Jesus, in turn, said to them, ‘Neither do I tell you by what authority I do these things’ (Matthew 21:27).
JESUS MAKES THE POINT MORE CLEARLY
While they were thus on the defensive Jesus pressed His advantage more directly. ‘A man,’ He said, ‘had two sons; and he came to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work today in my vineyard” (Matthew 21:28). The son replied that he would not go. But later he repented and went and worked in his father’s vineyard. The father gave the same command to his other son. This one said that he would work in the vineyard. But he did not keep his word.
Jesus then asked the priests and the elders of the people which of the two sons had done the father’s will. They were forced to reply, ‘The first.’ Jesus pointed out that while sinners – publicans and harlots – had disobeyed God by their sins, they had believed in John the Baptist and had repented of their sins and returned obediently to God their Father. The priests and elders, on the other hand, while professing obedience to God, had rejected John the Baptist and so had not done penance.
THEY HAD NOT DONE PENANCE
Jesus was not concerned with the acceptance or rejection of John the Baptist by the priests and elders of the people. John had already done his work to prepare the people for the coming of the kingdom which Jesus was to establish. He had already pointed to Jesus as the Messias. It was now the time for the elders of the people to accept Jesus as the Messias or to reject Him, and thus by their example help to save or ruin their own people.
WILL THEY BE SAVED OR RUINED?
The necessity of this decision and its consequences were made clear in the parable of the wicked vine-dressers.
THE PARABLE OF THE WICKED VINE-DRESSERS
The owner of a vineyard, Jesus said, left it in the care of vine-dressers. When the harvest was due, he sent his servants to collect his share of it. But the vine-dressers refused to acknowledge his claim. Instead they treated his servants shamefully, beating some and even killing others. Finally the owner sent his own son, thinking, ‘They will respect my son’ (Matthew 21:37). But they seized the son and killed him also. What, Jesus asked, will the owner of the vineyard do to those vine-dressers? They answered Him, ‘He will utterly destroy those evil men, and will let out the vineyard to other vine-dressers, who will render to him the fruits in their seasons’ (Matthew 21:41).
‘THE OWNER OF THE VINEYARD’ IS GOD
The owner of the vineyard is God. The vine-dressers are the Jews, God’s Chosen People. The servants of the owner are the prophets whom God sent to direct His people. But, over the centuries, the people have rejected the prophets, God’s servants. Now at last God has sent His own Son. But the people will kill the Son of God as they have killed the prophets.
It would seem from St Matthew’s Gospel that the elders of the people did not identify themselves as the wicked vine-dressers of the parable, nor Jesus as the son of the owner. Jesus therefore, to point the lesson, introduced another metaphor by quoting from the Scriptures: ‘Did you never read in the Scriptures, ‘The stone which the builders rejected, has become the corner stone; by the Lord this has been done, and it is wonderful in our eyes?’?’ (Matthew 21:42).
BECAUSE THEY REJECT JESUS THEY WILL LOSE THE KINGDOM
Jesus Himself is the stone, which the people will reject, but God will make Him the cornerstone of the Kingdom of God. Because they reject Jesus they will lose the kingdom. Jesus makes this clear by using both the figure of the vineyard and its fruits and the figure of the cornerstone. ‘Therefore I say to you, that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and will be given to a people yielding its fruits. And he who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; but upon whomever it falls, it will grind him to powder’ (Matthew 21:43-44).
JESUS DIDN’T COME AS A POLITICAL MESSIAH; HIS KINGDOM IS NOT OF THIS WORLD
Unable to refute the claim of Jesus to be in a unique way the Son of God, and yet unwilling to accept Him as God’s Son, His enemies then tried to bring about His downfall by making Him appear to be in conflict with the ruling Roman authorities. They sent agents to trap Him. Posing as sincere Jews, anxious to follow the law of God exactly, they asked Jesus, ‘Is it lawful to give tribute to Caesar or not?’ (Matthew 22:17).
The question was chosen with great guile. To have answered simply either ‘Yes’ or ‘No,’ would have been disastrous to the cause of Jesus. The answer, ‘No,’ would have been in accord with the sympathies of the people (though not with the sympathies of the Pharisees and Herodians who had sent these spies to ensnare Jesus – which is why Jesus called them ‘hypocrites’). But if Jesus had said ‘No,’ He would have appeared to the Romans as a revolutionary inciting the people to rebellion. Moreover, and this was even more opposed to the intention of Jesus Himself, He would have appeared to His own people as a political Messias, anxious to precipitate a revolt and establish a political Jewish kingdom.
A VERY CUNNING QUESTION
On the other hand, if Jesus had given in answer a simple ‘Yes,’ then He would have forfeited the sympathies of His countrymen by seeming to favour the Roman domination over the Jews. To a people whose Messianic hopes were almost entirely political, this would have meant that Jesus was disclaiming any right to the title of Messias.
Jesus did not answer in words at once. ‘Show me the coin of the tribute,’ He asked. When they had brought to Him a silver penny, He asked them, ‘Whose are this image and this inscription?’ (Matthew 22:20). ‘Caesar’s,’ they replied. Jesus then said, ‘Render, therefore, to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s’ (Matthew 22:21). The people marvelled at His answer.
THE PEOPLE MARVELLED AT HIS ANSWER
In replying to the question Jesus said ‘Yes,’ but in such a way that both the rights of God and the consciences of the people were protected. In effect Jesus said that it is lawful to obey an existing government (even when the government is unpopular) when that government is levying taxes to ensure the public order and peace. It is even possible that Jesus, by asking for the coin of the tribute, a silver penny, a coin minted only by the Romans and not by the Jews, reminded His countrymen that by using this coin they recognised in fact the loss of their own independence and the legitimacy of the Roman government in fact. Thus, in paying the tax they would be only obeying a lawful authority. But by adding, ‘render to God the things that are God’s,’ Jesus safeguarded the rights of God and the consciences of men.
Moreover, the reply of Jesus maintained intact His own claims. By refusing to counsel rebellion against Rome, Jesus showed once again that He had no desire to become a political Messias and no intention of allowing His own people to cast Him in that role. By insisting on the rights of God He showed that His kingdom was of the spiritual order. Thus, in a few simple gestures and a few simple words Jesus both escaped the snare laid for Him by His enemies and reaffirmed His own Messianic claim.
PHARISEES, SADDUCEES AND THE RESURRECTION OF THE DEAD
On this same day some of the Sadducees came to question Jesus on the resurrection of the dead. The Pharisees believed in the resurrection of the dead, but the Sadducees did not. No doubt the point had often been debated between the two parties. They recalled to Jesus the old Levirate Law of Moses. According to this law, if a married man died before he had begotten a son, then it was the duty of his brother to marry the widow and beget by her a son who would be considered the son of her first husband. In this way the family of the first brother would be continued in history. Now suppose, they said to Jesus, a woman, in accordance with this law, married seven brothers in turn, begetting a son by none of them. When they all rise from death, whose wife shall she be?
THEY DID NOT UNDERSTAND THE SUPERNATURAL CHARACTER OF THE RESURRECTION
Jesus told them that they were wrong in denying the resurrection of the dead. They were wrong because they had not sufficient faith in the power of God; they were wrong because they were ignorant of their own Scriptures, and they were wrong because their view of the resurrection was too worldly, they did not understand the spiritual and supernatural character of the resurrection.
‘You err because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God. For at the resurrection they will neither marry nor be given in marriage, but are as angels of God in heaven. But, as to the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was spoken to you by God, saying, ‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not the God of the dead, but of the living’ (Matthew 22:29-32).
‘THE GREATEST COMMANDMENT IS LOVE’
This setback to the Sadducees led one of the Pharisees to ask Jesus again which was the greatest commandment of the Law. Jesus replied, as He had already done previously, that the commandment of love was the greatest commandment in the Law. But then He seized the opportunity to question the Pharisees on the identity of the Messias.
‘Whose son is he?’ He asked them. They said to Him, ‘David’s.’ He then asked them, ‘How then does David in the Spirit call him Lord, saying, ‘The Lord said to my Lord: Sit thou at my right hand, till I make thy enemies the footstool of thy feet’? If David, therefore, calls him ‘Lord,’ how is he his son?’ (Matthew 22:42-45).
MEN SHOULD NOT SEEK TITLES FOR TITLES’ SAKE, BUT ONLY STRICTLY IN CONNECTION WITH GOD, THE ULTIMATE FATHER, AND CHRIST, THE ULTIMATE MASTER
Jesus was trying to make them realise that the Christ, the Messias, even though He be a son of David, was yet something more, a Being whom David would call Lord, a Lord Who would sit at the right hand of God. He was using the Sacred Scriptures of the Jews to confirm His own claim to be both Messias and Son of God. But the Pharisees refused to admit this and so they were unable to answer Him.
The silence of the Pharisees induced Jesus to warn the people against the Scribes and the Pharisees. When the Scribes and Pharisees teach you the Law of Moses, He told them, do what they tell you. But do not follow the example of their actions, for they do not observe what they preach to others. Their own good works they do only to be esteemed in the eyes of men, for they love to receive from men the titles of Master and Father. There is only one Father, God in heaven, and only one Master, the Christ. Men should not seek these titles for their own sakes, but should acknowledge that the perfection which leads to these titles is the gift of God Who alone is truly Master and Father.
A STRONG WARNING AGAINST THE SCRIBES AND PHARISEES
After this warning to the people Jesus castigated the Scribes and Pharisees for their hypocrisy. They were willing to make great sacrifices to convert one man to their religious beliefs, but they destroyed their own efforts by making their converts as bad as themselves. They evaded the harsh law they preached and confused the people by their theological subtleties. They professed great admiration for the prophets of the past and boasted that they would not have killed them as their forefathers had done. But Jesus Himself would send His Apostles to them and they would resist them even unto blood, as their forefathers had resisted the prophets.
JESUS TRIED TO PREVENT THEM FROM FALLING UNDER THE CONDEMNATION OF DIVINE JUSTICE
Now this strong warning to the people against the Scribes and the Pharisees and this terrible denunciation of the Scribes and Pharisees were not due to any personal pique on the part of Jesus. The hour of decision for the Chosen People was at hand. They had to accept Jesus or reject Him as their Messias, as the very Son of God.
THE HOUR OF DECISION FOR THE CHOSEN PEOPLE WAS AT HAND
What their history might have been had they accepted Him we do not know. How glorious it might have been, how peacefully triumphant might have been the growth of the Kingdom of God from Jerusalem, from the Chosen People to the other nations of the world, we cannot tell. Misled by their elders, by the Scribes, Pharisees and Sadducees, they were to reject Jesus the Christ. Jesus, knowing that the elders of the people will mislead them, in denouncing the Pharisees made one last effort to draw the people to Himself and prevent them from falling under the condemnation of divine justice.
THEY HAD TO ACCEPT JESUS AS THE SAVIOUR TO BE SAVED, TO DO WHAT HE TOLD THEM, BUT THEY REJECTED HIM AS THE MESSIAH
In sorrow Jesus addresses Jerusalem itself, the symbol of Judaism, the ancient capital of Israel, the centre of the worship of the one true God,
‘Jerusalem, Jerusalem! thou who killest the prophets, and stonest those who are sent to thee! How often would I have gathered thy children together, as a hen gathers her young under her wings, but thou wouldst not! Behold, your house is left to you desolate. For I say to you, you shall not see me henceforth until you shall say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” (Matthew 23:37-39).
WITH THESE WORDS JESUS ENDS HIS PUBLIC PREACHING
Knowing that Jerusalem will reject Him, Jesus reminds her that she has always rejected the prophets. Now she is about to reject Him, even though His desire has always been to save her and her children. Because she will reject Him, she will be left desolate. Divine judgement is already passed upon her. But the heart of Jesus is not filled with despair for Jerusalem. Now, at this fateful moment, she will reject Him. But, at some undetermined time in the future, she will accept Him and cry out, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’
With these sorrowful words (only slightly lightened by a small word of hope) Jesus ends His public preaching. From this time on, His teaching is reserved for His faithful followers.”
– Martin J. Healy S.T.D., 1959