In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus gave his final public teachings in chapters 21 through 23, shortly after arriving in Jerusalem just ahead of the Passover celebration (specifically, Matthew 21:28 – 23:36). Excluding the denunciation of the scribes and Pharisees in chapter 23 (which is a powerful condemnation but with no interaction), Matthew structured the rest of Jesus’ teachings as three parables of judgment followed by four interactions, three of which were challenges to Jesus’ identity and the last one initiated by him to challenge his accusers right back. These seven pericopes represent a perfect final public engagement before turning his time solely to his disciples and all are a direct challenge to the leaders in Jerusalem relative to Jesus’ authority.
Three Parables of Judgment
Two of these parables are unique to Matthew, the first and the third. The other is also shared in Mark and Luke. The common theme in all three is the judgment of God on those who reject God’s messengers and Son, and that the blessings of the Lord will be extended to others who will embrace truth better than hypocritical people who claim to know and follow God but who in fact don’t do his will at all.
The parable of the two sons – Matthew 21:28-32
A father asks his two sons to work in his vineyard. The first son says, ‘I won’t go’ but then repents and goes. The second says, ‘Sure, I’ll go’ but doesn’t. When asked, the elders replied that the first was the most obedient. Jesus applied the parable to them, clearly saying they were the second son while the first was the publicans and harlots that disobeyed the Law at first, but then heard John, believed him, and repented. The reference to John was surely due to the previous question about authority. The reference to working in the vineyard is a common metaphor for serving Israel (from Isaiah 5, among other things, which leads to the next parable). The message is summed up nicely in the JST addition to verse 32, which shifts the point away from John and directly to Jesus and those who needed to repent and recognize him for who he was.
For John came unto you in the way of righteousness and bore record of me, and ye believed him not: but the publicans and the harlots believed him: and ye, afterward, when ye had seen me, repented not, that ye might believe him; for he that believed not John concerning me, cannot believe me, except he first repent; and except ye repent, the preaching of John shall condemn you in the day of judgment.
The parable of the wicked tenants – Matthew 21:33-46 (Mark 12:1-12; Luke 20:9-19)
Jesus’ second parable drew on imagery from Isaiah 5, the vineyard of Israel. He recounted that man built an excellent vineyard, complete with quality grape vines, a wall to protect it, a winepress to process the grapes on site, and a tower to watch for enemies or other problems. We would say, he spared no expense. He left some tenants in charge and went on a long trip. When it was harvest time, he sent servants to collect his share, but the tenants beat, stoned, and killed them. A second group of servants received the same fate. So he sent his son, thinking they would respect him, but the tenants killed him as well. Jesus asked the Jewish leaders what should happen to these wicked tenants? They answer that the vineyard owner should destroy them for their crimes. Jesus quoted from Psalm 188:22-23 (a psalm that gets referenced a lot in his last few days) about the stone which the builders rejected becoming the chief cornerstone. Combining the parable and the scripture, Jesus told them that the kingdom of God (the vineyard) would be taken from them, identifying them with the wicked tenants, and given to another people, and that the stone would break and crush them.
The last two verses are greatly expanded in the JST, both expanding on the angry reaction of the Jewish leaders and offering an explanation from Jesus to his disciples (Matthew 21:45-46 JST):
And when the chief priests and Pharisees had heard his parables, they perceived that he spake of them. And they said among themselves, Shall this man think that he alone can spoil this great kingdom? And they were angry with him.
But when they sought to lay hands on him, they feared the multitude, because that they learned that the multitude took him for a prophet. And now his disciples came to him, and Jesus said unto them, Marvel ye at the words or the parable which I spake unto them? Verily, I say unto you, I am the stone, and those wicked ones reject me. I am the head of the corner. These Jews shall fall upon me and shall be broken, and the kingdom of God shall be taken from them and shall be given to a nation bringing forth the fruits thereof (meaning the Gentiles). Wherefore, on whomsoever this stone shall fall, it shall grind him to powder. And when the Lord therefore of the vineyard cometh, he will destroy those miserable, wicked men, and will let again his vineyard unto other husbandmen, even in the last days, which shall render him the fruits in their seasons. And then understood they the parable which he spake unto them, that the Gentiles should be destroyed also, when the Lord should descend out of heaven to reign in his vineyard, which is the earth and the inhabitants thereof.
The parable of the wedding feast – Matthew 22:1-14
The third parable relates the story of a certain which was giving a wedding for his son. He has sent invitations but when the servants went to fetch the invitees, they ignored him, being too busy with their daily affairs to bother. Some even killed the servants. In response, the king sent an army and destroyed them and their city. But he still had a wedding to host, so he sent the servants into the streets and countryside, and brought anyone they found. When the king appeared, there was one man who was not wearing a wedding garment. Questioning him why, the man had no answer, so was bound and cast into outer darkness. The concluding statement is, “For many are called, but few are chosen.”
Jewish tradition held that the Messiah would offer a great feast to which all the righteous would be invited. The interpretation is clear. God is the king, Jesus the son, Israel the bride. The invited guests are the Jewish leaders, the city destroyed is Jerusalem (perhaps alluding to both the Babylonian destruction as well as the one coming under the Romans), and the guests called in from the highway are sinners and Gentiles, to whom the gospel would go under Jesus and the apostles.
But what of the man dressed in the wrong garment? It was important to wear the correct clothing when appearing before a king. Because the people were called in without time to prepare, by common practice the king himself would have supplied the clothing — probably white robes. The man was not wearing it because he had determined that his own clothing was ‘good enough,’ a direct insult to the king. He wanted to be part of the great feast, but on his own terms, lacking humility and gratitude. John would echo this same thought years later when he wrote that the wedding garment would be “fine linen, clean and white: for the fine linen is the righteousness of saints. . . . Blessed are they which are called unto the marriage supper of the Lamb” (Revelation 19:8-9). It could also be an allusion to Zephaniah 1:7-8 where those wearing the wrong clothing are thrown out.
The JST concludes the parable in 22:14 this way: “For many are called, but few chosen; wherefore all do not have on the wedding garment.” If a person does not accept the invitation to do things the Lord’s way, he is cast out.
Four Interactions About Authority
Having condemned the leaders of the nation with three parables, it was now their turn to challenge Jesus. They had already asked by what authority he spoke and acted, and he had rebuffed their challenge by forcing them to make a determination on John the Baptist’s authority before he would tell them his. Fearing the crowds, they declined to rule on John, and so Jesus declined to answer their challenge (Matthew 21:23-27). The first three of these interactions portray various people still coming back to that question, using specific examples to both try to trap him and to get him to reveal something about himself. The last is Jesus’ response to them, and his final public words.
First: A question about taxes or tribute to Caesar – Matthew 22:15-22 (Mark 12:13-17; Luke 20:20-26)
Frustrated by their inability to entrap Jesus, the Pharisees, strict legalists of the Law (v. 15), joined forces with the Herodians, the pragmatics who likely supported Rome (v. 16). Normally these two would have little or nothing in common, but here they united against Jesus. They sent some of their own disciples—”spies,” Luke calls them—to flatter Jesus and try to get him to say something that could be used against him.
They asked Jesus if it was lawful to give tribute to Caesar. An answer either way would get Jesus in trouble with someone. Should he affirm the tax, the Pharisees could raise that issue with the people who hated the tax. Should he say not to pay it, the Herodians could charge him with sedition against Rome. It was the perfect question for these unlikely allies—or so they thought.
It is estimated that most Jews paid about 49% of their income to taxes: 32% to the Romans; 12% to Jewish taxes; and 5% forced on them by corrupt officials. This was clearly a ‘hot’ question. The specific tax mentioned here is the kēnsos or “poll tax,” an annual census-based property tax that was required of all men.
Jesus’ reply to their question was to ask whose “image and superscription” were on a coin (v. 20). Tiberius Caesar’s profile was found on the denarius, the most common coin of the day and the one that Jesus had them examine. The Latin inscription read: “Tiberius Caesar, son of the divine Augustus.” The “image” on the coin was the Greek word eikōn, the same used to describe how man is created in the “image” of God in the Greek (LXX) version of Genesis.
Then Jesus stated, “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s” (v. 21). This was a perfect answer that took away all ammunition from either party. James Talmage and others noted the lesson: “As unto Caesar should be rendered the coins upon which his effigy appeared, so unto God should be given the souls that bear his image. Render unto the world the stamped pieces that are made legally current by the insignia of worldly powers, and give unto God and His service, yourselves—the divine mintage of His eternal realm” (Jesus the Christ, 547).
Second: A question about resurrection – Matthew 22:23-33 (Mark 12:18-27; Luke 20:27-39)
Next came the Sadducees, who did not believe in a resurrection because they could find no basis for it in the Torah alone (they did not accept any other books as scripture), asking Jesus what will happen in the resurrection (which they did not believe in!). They cited the law in Deuteronomy 25:5-10 which outlines how a brother should support his brother’s widow, then gave an extreme example of applying this law (vv. 25-27). This scripture is often cited as a demonstration that marriage is an earthly covenant only, ‘till death do us part.’ But this confrontation demonstrates that was not Jesus’ intent.
He started by saying that the Sadducees simply didn’t understand the scriptures (most of which they rejected so naturally they didn’t understand them), nor God’s power. Then he replied, “For in the resurrection they neither marry, nor are given in marriage” (v. 30). They key phrase is the pronoun. “They,” meant the fictitious people in the Sadducees’ made-up story and not all of mankind; “they” would not accept the true priesthood authority Jesus brought to the earth, so “they” would not be able to enjoy marital relations after death. This is best explained with D&C 132:15-19. Note also that the Sadducees denied the existence of angels, so as a bonus Jesus’ answer also refuted that belief.
Having dealt with their direct question, Jesus took on their disbelief in the resurrection with some great rabbinic-style logic. He reminded them that God called himself the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Those men were dead, but since God uses that name, they must still be somehow alive, and the resurrection must be a valid (though future) event, because God is the God of the living (see Exodus 3:6, 16). It was a Sadducee double-refutation.
Three: A question about commandments – Matthew 22:34-40 (Mark 12:28-34)
Frustrated by their inability to trip Jesus up, and seeing the Sadducees failure, the Pharisees brought out a heavy hitter, one of their best scribes (“lawyer” in KJV language, v. 35). This man knew all 613 laws in the Mosiac law, no doubt, by heart—365 prohibitions to match the days of the year, and 248 mandates to match the number of bones in the body, as Jewish sages later noted. This lawyer had participated in endless debates about their application to daily life. Now he challenged Jesus to pick one of them as the greatest (v. 36).
There was no hesitation in Jesus’ answer: The greatest commandment was to love God, from Deuteronomy 6:5. Then he gave a second ‘bonus’ commandment: love your neighbor (Leviticus 19:18; v. 39). His summary is, “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (v. 40). Paul taught this same concept in 1 Corinthians, where he concluded, “And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity” (1 Corinthians 13:13). The word Jesus and Paul used is the same in Greek: agapē, or generous love for others. God’s love for us is agapē: “For God so loved (agapē) the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3:16). Mormon, in a sermon recorded by his son, Moroni, added: “Wherefore, my beloved brethren, if ye have not charity, ye are nothing, for charity never faileth. Wherefore, cleave unto charity, which is the greatest of all, for all things must fail—But charity is the pure love of Christ, and it endureth forever; and whoso is found possessed of it at the last day, it shall be well with him” (Moroni 7:46-47).
From pure love flows all happiness and blessings, and from the opposite of love—selfishness, greed, etc.—flows all misery and sin. Jesus was right—truly love God and others, and everything flows from there.
In Mark’s version of this event, the scribe is apparently touched and humbled by Jesus’ response. Disarmed by the Spirit, he replied that Jesus’ words were true, and that love is indeed greater than sacrifice. Jesus, who saw the sincerity in the man’s reply, encouraged him: “Thou are not far from the kingdom of God” (Mark 12:34). It is not recorded what happened to this man.
Four: A question about David’s son – Matthew 22:41-46 (Mark 12:35-37; Luke 20:40-44)
Having nicely handled everything they threw at him, Jesus now went on the offensive and marched up to a group of Pharisees with a question of his own. He could not leave people thinking that he was merely a good orator but was boldly going to declare his authority—the answer to the question that began the day. Said he, ‘What do you think about the Messiah—whose son is he?’ (v. 42). There could really only be one answer from a Pharisee—“the Son of David.” Samaritans would have answered, ‘the Son of Joseph’ or ‘the Son of Ephraim.’ But among the tribe of Judah, David was the first and greatest king, and the Messiah was to follow in his footsteps and be from his line.
Jesus then quoted Psalm 110:1, one of the most frequently quoted OT scriptures in the New Testament (v. 44). The Hebrew says this: ‘Jehovah declared to my master/lord, remain at my right hand.’ David thus called the Messiah ‘lord,’ something he would not do to a lesser ruler (v. 45). So by this paradox, Jesus showed that being the Messiah/son of David meant being greater than David, even sitting on the right hand of God. Jesus’ authority is thus from God himself, shown by the Messianic declaration that he would take the honored position of son and heir.
The text notes that “no man was able to answer him a word (v. 46). Jesus won the battle of words and wits and doctrine in this four interactions. But though he had silenced his opponents, he was not yet ready to be silent himself.
Denunciation of scribes and Pharisees – Matthew 23:1-36 (Mark 12:38-40; Luke 20:45-47)
Most of chapter 23 is a powerful denunciation of the leaders of the Jews as hypocrites, who seek the best seats in the synagogue or at a feast, put heavy burdens on others, make the symbols of their religion large and obvious, and love to hear their praises sang. He issued eight woes against them (vv. 13-29), outlining several examples of their pretending to be righteous leaders, and concluded with a condemnation that is much strengthened in the JST:
Verily I say unto you, All these things shall come upon this generation. You bear testimony against your fathers, when you yourselves are partakers of the same wickedness. Behold, your fathers did it through ignorance but you do not; wherefore their sins shall be upon your heads.
The last verse is a strong condemnation of the Jewish leaders, who chastised their own ancestors for being wicked, but they themselves were no better. Jesus declared that their fathers did it unknowingly but they did not, referring to their being able to see him right before them, while the fathers did not have that privilege.
Lament over Jerusalem – Matthew 23:37-39
Jesus final public comment is a sad lament, where you can almost feel him moaning. The JST adds that as he began this lament, he “began to weep over Jerusalem.” Jerusalem, he said, killed the prophets and stoned those sent by God. He longed to gather them as a hen pulls her small chicks under her wings, but they would not. The metaphor is marvelous. When danger is near, the mother hen clucks and calls for her brood to come to her. The chicks are not old enough nor experienced enough to recognize the danger, but they trust her, so they come running. She lifts up her wings and pulls them all in to safety, then settles down and surrounds them with her soft down so they are hidden and protected. Israel was like the chicks that ignore the mother’s call and thus are completely susceptible to danger and attack from Satan. This same metaphor is used in 3 Nephi 10:4-6; D&C 10:65: 29:2; and 43:24.
After declaring their “house” desolate–either the house of Israel or the temple–Jesus told the crowd who had been listening to him (v. 39):
For I say unto you, Ye shall not see me henceforth, till ye shall say, Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord.
Which gets significantly expanded in the JST:
For I say unto you, that you shall not see me henceforth, and know that I am he of who it is written by the prophets, until you shall say, Blessed is he who cometh in the name of the Lord, in the clouds of heaven, and all the holy angels with him. Then understood his disciples that he should come again on the earth, after that he was glorified and crowned on the right hand of God.
Other than his words on the cross, these were the final public statements of Jesus, as recorded in the gospel of Matthew. He taught with parables and metaphors, and directly with bold and controversial statements. He declared truth, confronted sin, and denounced those who pretended to live the law without sin but were actually full manipulating it to their personal advantage.
Are we the scribes, Pharisees, Herodians, or others who attempted to trick or accuse him, or are we among the disciples where heard and remembered what he taught, even if they could not yet live it perfectly? The difference between the two seems to be primarily one of humility. That may be the most important lesson to us about these final public statements: “Be thou humble.”