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Matthew 21:23-32 - The Religious Authorities Test Jesus
21:23When he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” 24Jesus said to them, “I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. 25Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” And they argued with one another, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ 26But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.” 27So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things. 28“What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ 29He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. 30The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. 31Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. 32For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.

Background to the text. Matthew’s Gospel is written with the tension between Jesus and the power structures of his day as the subtext of every story. When we pick up the text today, Jesus’ Galilean ministry is at a low point. Those within the Jewish establishment are resistant to his teaching. It is too radical. They cannot hear it and they cannot receive him. In today’s passage the authorities are mad as hops. Just the day before Jesus had ridden into Jerusalem on a donkey as the people shouted Hosanna and waved branches. He had gone directly to the Temple and proceeded to drive out the vendors with a whip and turn over the tables of the people who changed money for people to buy the things needed for sacrifice. In other words, he disrupted everything and called the most respected people in the community a bunch of robbers. Meanwhile the poor, the blind and the lame got exactly what he was doing and began to praise him. He then walks out and heads to home base in Bethany for the night. The next day he heads back to the temple, cursing a barren fig tree on his way. Naturally the authorities are enraged and have come up with a trick question to catch him and discredit him. That is where we pick up the story today.

What is at stake in the chief priests and elders question? They are trying to trap Jesus into saying something blasphemous (totally irreverent toward God) so that he can be punished and they can be rid of him. This is not a sincere question. They are out to get him. Jesus understands this immediately and knows that there is no answer to the question that will not get him discredited, at best. So he answers the question with a question of his own that traps them. This kind of back and forth signaled a traditional rabbinic debate. This was not the kind of argument one
wanted to get into with Jesus. This incident sets up Jesus’ unflinching denunciation of the religious elite as hypocrites in Chapter 23. Be mindful that Jesus says nothing here that is outside the mainstream of accepted Jewish theology. He simply catches them in their own spiritual blindness.

Word Study
Vs. 23 – entered the temple courts – Jesus is entering the temple for the last time. After this encounter the die is cast for crucifixion.
Chief priest and the elders – these are the major players in Jesus’ death. The ‘elders of the people’ is a general category for the most influential people in the temple hierarchy. These were the decision makers.
Authority - they are expecting Jesus to list a particular teacher or rabbi whose authority he claims as a disciple or teacher. The Greek word means ‘power’. Jesus’ authority or power is a fundamental issue in Matthew.
These things – refers to the disruption of temple affairs the day before Vs. 24 – signals the beginning of a rabbinical debate. His counter question unmasks the insincerity of their question. They hesitate to answer in the most calculated way because if they said John’s ministry came from God they would have to explain why they rejected him. If they said his work was not authentic prophecy they would have the people to deal with.
Vs. 27 – we don’t know – They choose to plead ignorance rather than speak their conviction and risk the wrath of the people. Jesus then refuses to answer their question since they refused to answer his.
Vs. 28 – 30 -this parable only appears in Matthew. In the ancient manuscripts there are lots of different versions of the story. The bottom line in each, however, is the same. What you do means more than what you say.
What do you think – by starting the parable this way, Jesus is refusing to let their strategic silence stand. They must give an answer.
Vs. 31 – here Jesus goes into full on attack mode. He basically says to them that the tax collectors and prostitutes, the lowest on their totem poles, have a better grip on the ways of God than they do. This is a theme we see throughout the Gospel. Those on the fringes of society have a better understanding of what Jesus is saying than do those who are lost in their own traditions and the need to protect their power structures.

Questions for Personal Reflection
1. Have you ever found yourself saying one thing and doing another? In what circumstances are you most likely to do this? To please another? To avoid conflict? To make yourself look good?
2. “I don’t know” can be a legitimate religious response to many things. Here, however, the leaders plead ignorance because they don’t want to face the consequences of what they really believe. Have you ever found yourself in similar situations? What would have made it easier for you to actually take a stand?
3. Why do you think Jesus did what he did in the temple? What would be hardest for you to reevaluate about your faith if called upon by Jesus to do so?