Biblical Commentary
(Bible study)

Matthew 21:23-32



Matthew 21. THE CONTEXT

The earlier part of this chapter tells of Jesus’ triumphal march into Jerusalem (vv. 1-11) and his cleansing of the temple (vv. 12-13). The cleansing of the temple precipitates the confrontation between Jesus and the chief priests and elders in our Gospel lesson. Presumably, these include members of the Sanhedrin, including Caiaphas, whom this Gospel identifies as high priest (26:3). It is their authority that Jesus defied when he overturned the tables of the money-changers, because money-changers would require the approval of religious authorities to pursue their business in the temple.

The idea of money-changers and sellers of animals surely started innocently enough. Torah law prescribes that temple offerings be free of blemish (Exodus 12:5; 21:9). Bringing an animal from afar would be impractical because the animal might be injured along the road and thus rendered unsuitable for sacrifice. Therefore people coming from afar need a place to exchange money and to purchase a suitable offering. Having those services available at the temple meets a genuine human need. But those services evolved into profitable concessions and then into substantial businesses. The temple became less a place for prophets and more a place for profits. Some religious leaders surely had reservations about the hustle and bustle in the temple, but it seemed necessary.

Jesus didn’t try to engage the money-changers in debate—nor did he ask approval before acting. He just walked into the temple and began spilling money on the floor, saying, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer,’ but you have made it a den of robbers” (21:13).


23When he had come into the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority do you do these things? Who gave you this authority?”

24Jesus answered them, “I also will ask you one question, which if you tell me, I likewise will tell you by what authority I do these things. 25The baptism of John, where was it from? From heaven or from men?”

They reasoned with themselves, saying, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will ask us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ 26But if we say, ‘From men,’ we fear the multitude, for all hold John as a prophet.” 27They answered Jesus, and said, “We don’t know.”

He also said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.”

“When he had come into the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching” (v. 23a). We will see these two groups linked again when they seek to have Jesus killed (26:3, 47; 27:1, 3, 12, 20).

By what authority do you do these things? Who gave you this authority?” (v. 23b). “These things” refers to the cleansing of the temple—and possibly Jesus’ failure to disclaim the title, “son of David” (21:9, 15).

The chief priests and elders are responsible for the religious life of Israel and the operation of the temple. Their authority comes from God, so it is entirely appropriate for them to question Jesus’ authority to disrupt the temple routine. Who gave this authority to Jesus? To whom is he accountable?

There were established procedures for transmitting authority from one generation to the next. In most cases, a candidate would be examined for worthiness. A priest or rabbi would then lay hands on the candidate, preferably in a public ceremony. This not only served to transmit Godly authority, but also protected people against interlopers and false prophets. The church still recognizes the validity of such procedures, and practices the laying on of hands to this day.

The Sanhedrin, of which the chief priests and elders were members, was the highest authority in Israel. By what authority does Jesus challenge their administration of the temple? How can his authority exceed theirs? From whence does his authority come? The question of authority is important through Matthew’s Gospel:

• Jesus taught as one having authority (7:29).

• A Roman centurion, a man under the authority of the emperor and having authority over many people, recognized the power behind Jesus’ authority, saying “Just say the word, and my servant will be healed” (8:8).

• Jesus’ authority to forgive sins was validated by his authority to heal paralysis. The crowds were in awe of his authority (9:8).

• Jesus conferred authority on his disciples over unclean spirits (10:1).

• Jesus gave his disciples authority to bind and loose (16:19; 18:18).

• This Gospel will close with Jesus’ words, “All authority has been given to me in heaven and on earth” (28:18).

By asking Jesus the source of his authority, the chief priests and scribes are giving Jesus enough rope to hang himself. If he claims that his authority comes from God, they can “drill down” to expose the weak foundations of such a claim. If he says that he is the messiah, they can cite him for blasphemy. We can be sure that they feel certain of the ground on which they stand and the weakness of any case that Jesus might present.

But Jesus responds to their question with another question, “The baptism of John, where was it from? From heaven or from men?” (v. 25a). Countering a question with another question is a standard rabbinical technique of argumentation.

Jesus’ question implies that his authority is from the same source as John’s.

Responding with a question might seem evasive, but Jesus makes this daring promise: “I also will ask you one question, which if you tell me, I likewise will tell you by what authority I do these things” (v. 24). Instead of ducking their question, he steps onto the high wire, daring them to follow.

They reasoned with themselves, saying, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will ask us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ But if we say, ‘From men,’ we fear the multitude, for all hold John as a prophet'” (vv. 25b-26). Jesus’ question places the chief priests and elders in a dilemma. If they say that John’s baptism was from heaven, they are faced with John’s witness to Jesus (3:3, 11-14) and their own failure to respond to John’s preaching. If, on the other hand, they say that John’s baptism was not from heaven, they fear that the crowd, which believes in John, will turn on them.

“The multitude” has seen Jesus in action. They have seen him heal people with intractable illnesses. They have heard his teachings, and have recognized them as authentic. Now they have become Jesus’ protectors. As individuals they would be powerless, but together they are a force that the authorities must take into account.

They answered Jesus, and said, ‘We don’t know'” (v. 27a). It is a weak answer from those responsible for the nation’s religious life—a response prompted by politically-sensitive, poll-taking expediency. It is their responsibility to know who is and is not a false prophet. It is their responsibility to protect the people from false prophets. By refusing to answer, they compromise their own authority.

“Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things” (v. 27b). When the chief priests and elders refuse to answer Jesus’ question, he refuses to answer theirs, thus rejecting their authority to examine him. Jesus follows his refusal with three (or four, depending on how you count 22:1-14) parables:

• The Parable of the Two Sons (21:28-32), which follows as part of this Gospel lesson.

• The Parable of the Tenants (21:33-43)

• The Parable(s) of the Wedding Banquet (22:1-10) and the Wedding Garments (22:11-14). This is sometimes counted as two parables, because verses 1-10 and verses 11-14 each make their own point.

Each of these is a judgment parable, and teaches us the importance of obedience to salvation, a key Matthean emphasis. They also pronounce judgment on the religious leaders for their self-serving attitudes–and their faithlessness.


28“But what do you think? A man had two sons, and he came to the first, and said, ‘Son, go work today in my vineyard.’ 29He answered, ‘I will not,’ but afterward he changed his mind, and went. 30He came to the second, and said the same thing. He answered, ‘I go, sir (Greek: kyrie—Lord or sir),‘ but he didn’t go. 31Which of the two did the will of his father?”

They said to him, “The first.”

Jesus said to them, “Most certainly I tell you that the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering into the Kingdom of God before you. 32For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you didn’t believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him. When you saw it, you didn’t even repent afterward, that you might believe him.”

Jesus asks a second question, “But what do you think?” (v. 28a). The religious leaders dodged the question about John’s authority, but they cannot dodge this story, the point of which is obvious.

“But what do you think? A man had two sons” (v. 28a). This parable, found only in Matthew, outlines two responses to God’s call. The first son says, “I will not” (v. 29a), but changes his mind and does what is needed. The second son says, “I go, sir” (v. 30), but does not go. Both sons are guilty of violating the commandment, “Honor your father and your mother” (Exodus 20:12). Which son sinned most grievously?

Verses 31-32 make it clear that the tax collectors and prostitutes are the first son (ultimately obedient), and the chief priests and elders are the second son (ultimately disobedient). When John the Baptist called people to repent, tax collectors and prostitutes repented and were baptized. It was easy for them to repent, because their sins were obvious, even to them. The religious leaders, however, were loath to admit their need for repentance, and rejected John’s call. They also reject Jesus.

In verse 30, the second son says, “I go, sir,” (Greek: kyrie—Lord or sir) but does not go. We are reminded of Jesus’ words earlier in this Gospel, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ (Greek: kyrie, kyrie) will enter into the Kingdom of Heaven; but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (7:21).

Obedience is a problem for God’s people in every time and place. The ancient temptations of sex, power, and money work as well today as they did two thousand years ago. They suck us in before we realize what is happening. Once they get their hooks in us, any attempt to dislodge them is guaranteed to be painful.

When we set out to serve God, we can count on the tempter to mass his troops to divert us from our Godly task. Which distraction would work for you? Would it be a flirtatious woman—or an invitation to have a drink with a friend—or a reminder that the NFL game of the week will start shortly—or a workplace chore that comes suddenly to mind—or an unexpected inspiration. The list goes on and on.

The church is as subject to temptation as the individual. Perhaps we can appeal to more people if we soften our theology—if we call people to fellowship instead of repentance—if we rely on upbeat music to entertain worshipers. It is all too easy to lose track of Jesus’ call to go, teach, and baptize when we start to worry about paying the bills and keeping the church doors open.

“Which of the two did the will of his father” (v. 31). The priests and elders answer, “The first.” That is only partially correct, of course. The father’s will was that his son would say “Yes!” and do “Yes!” Neither son did that. But the first son, who initially said, “No!” eventually changed his mind and did what the father had called him to do. He was therefore more obedient than the second son, who initially said “Yes!” but then failed to follow through. Hesitant faithfulness trumps unfaithfulness.

When the priests and elders say, “The first,” they condemn themselves, because they are like the second son in the parable, who said “Yes!” but failed to follow through. Their disobedience was rooted, in part, on good intentions. They had become so intent on analyzing God’s laws that they had made a snarl of it. But their disobedience was rooted, in larger measure, in the spiritual pride that made it impossible for them to recognize that they too were sinners—that they too needed to repent—that they had much in common with the sinners whom they despised.

We might think of Jesus’ parable as a picture that reveals different understandings depending on where we stand in proximity to it.

• When we stand very close, in Jesus’ shoes, the first son is the tax collectors and prostitutes and the second son is the Jewish religious leadership.

• When we pull back several decades to Matthew’s perspective, the first son has become the Gentile or the church and the second son has become the Jew or Israel.

• When we pull back even further, to our day, we see that the first son, the faithful son, has still yet another face—a recovering alcoholic, a small band of worshipers in a storefront, a church that reaches out to the needy in its community, a pastor who calls parishioners to true repentance, a church member who decides to tithe, a young person who decides to remain abstinent until marriage—all who, however reluctantly or painfully, obey Christ. The second son is the person in the pew who refuses Christ entry to the deepest recesses of his or her heart—the Christian who refuses to obey Christ in the sensitive areas of sex, money, and power—a preacher whose sermon is designed to please people rather than God—a church that ignores issues of justice and mercy—a Sunday school that neglects to teach children the great Biblical stories—in other words, all who appear to be faithful but, down deep, are not.

This parable tells us that belief will be accompanied by changes in lifestyle. That spiritual principle is as axiomatic as physical principles such as the law of gravity. To ignore the force of gravity would put our physical lives at risk. To ignore the connection between belief and faithful discipleship would be to put our spiritual lives at risk.

It isn’t that we will be saved by faithful discipleship rather than faith itself. Instead, Jesus is exposing the truth that faith that does not result in behavioral change is not true faith. The person who says “Yes!” but does “No!” puts him/herself at peril.

“Most certainly I tell you” (v. 31c) signals the importance of that which follows. “The tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering into the Kingdom of God before you” (v. 31d). Tax collectors and prostitutes are code words for sinners—those outside the pale of respectable religion. They would be at the opposite end of the spectrum—religiously and in every other way—from the chief priests and the elders.

But Jesus opens the door widely to tax collectors and prostitutes. The Good News is not that God will ignore sinners’ sinful ways, but that they, knowing their sins, are candidates for repentance and salvation. The religious elite, thinking that they are holy, finds it nearly impossible to face the reality of their own sin.

But Jesus doesn’t slam the door on the religious leaders, whose hearts have not been in the right place and whose lives have failed to demonstrate true obedience. The words, “before you,” hold out the possibility that these self-righteous sinners might be permitted to enter the heavenly gates too—that their penalty might be only that they will enter last instead of first. Jesus doesn’t promise that here, but neither does he speak of hell fire and the gnashing of teeth as he does elsewhere.

“For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you didn’t believe him” (v. 32a). “In the way of righteousness” is a Semitic expression similar to “paths of righteousness” (see also Psalm 23:3, KJV).

John had called people to repent, to confess, and to be baptized—and the multitudes had responded gladly (3:1-6). He had harsh words for Pharisees and Sadducees who came for baptism, calling them the“offspring of vipers” (3:7)—but he nevertheless held the door open, telling these elites to “bring forth fruit worthy of repentance” (3:8)—and not to put their trust in the fact that they had Abraham as their father (3:9). He knew that their pride would make it difficult for them to acknowledge their need for forgiveness, but he left the door open a crack in the event that any of them would choose to enter it.

“When you saw it, you didn’t even repent afterward, that you might believe him” (v. 32b). When these religious elites heard John’s call to repentance, they failed to repent. They very well might have felt their hearts stir under his dynamic preaching, but they could not bring themselves to acknowledge that they, too, needed repentance.

Neither son was obedient. Each was disobedient in his own way. We would do well not to emulate either son, but rather to be obedient in both word and deed!

SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.


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Copyright 2009, 2014, Richard Niell Donovan