Matching speech with action in Matthew 21

As we continue to read through Matthew’s gospel in ordinary time in the lectionary, for Trinity 16 in Year A we vault over the entry into Jerusalem and land in the middle of Jesus’ controversies with the leaders in the city in Matt 21.23–32. Some of the events here, in particular the ‘triumphal’ entry itself, have been read during the Easter season, and the result is that as we read this passage, we have slightly lost the context for the actions that it relates to.

The synoptic gospels all follow the same broad pattern, though also have some important differences:

a. the entry into Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives

b. the cleansing of the temple

c. the cursing of the fig tree

d. the question about authority

e. Jesus’ parables condemning the Jerusalem leaders.

Luke 19.39–44 includes Jesus’ prediction of the destruction of the city in place of the cursing of the fig tree, and the fig tree episode is structured around the cleansing in Mark whereas it follows the cleansing in Matthew, so we have to work a little harder to understand it as a symbolic reference to the temple. There are other minor differences in emphasis between the three—but the biggest difference is that Matthew gives us three parables of Jesus against the leaders, including unique Matthean material in the parable of the two sons.

Our passage begins with ‘Jesus enter[ing] the temple’, but to make sense of this, the reader needs to know something about the organisation of the temple precincts, which the synoptics either assume, or assume doesn’t matter. Many English versions help us by translating this as ‘temple courts’, indicating the outer area of the Temple Mount which had large open spaces, and was surrounded by peristyle colonnades. (Interestingly, only the Fourth Gospel makes this detail explicit, in mentioning the ‘colonnade of Solomon’ in John 10.23. The word for colonnade is stoa, from which the Stoic movement took its name, since it was in the cool shade of the colonnades surrounding the marketplace of Greek cities that they sat and debated.)

Mark 11.27 has Jesus merely ‘walking’ in the temple, but both Matthew and Luke are clear how he is spending his time: ‘teaching’, and in Luke 20.1 ‘preaching the gospel’ (euangelizomai); there is a sense that Jesus is here doing what he has done from the beginning in proclaiming the kingdom of God. The question that comes to him from his opponents does not, though, relate to his teaching, but to the ‘things’ he is ‘doing’. Matthew alone specifies that, alongside his teaching and the symbolic action of overturning the tables, he has been ‘healing the blind and the lame’ (Matt 21.15), establishing continuity not only with his earlier ministry, but the ministry of the apostles which will continue after his ascension. The opposition to Jesus will be continued in opposition to the ongoing ministry by his followers.

In Mark and Luke, the opponents consist of three groups: the high priests (representing the authority of the temple); the scribes (representing the authority of the scriptures and their traditional interpretation); and the elders (representing the authority of the influential amongst the people). Matthew 27.41 does mention all three mocking Jesus on the cross, but elsewhere omits ‘the scribes’, as here. I wonder whether this is because Matthew has a more positive view of the authority of the OT in Jesus’ teaching, and is keener to emphasis continuity between old and new covenants. When mentioning ‘the elders’, Matthew is clear that they are ‘elders of the people’, and he attributes responsibility for Jesus’ death to ‘all the people’ in Matt 27.25—though we need to bear in mind that these are the southerners based in Jerusalem and Judea, and not the northern pilgrims who have travelled to the city for the festival.

There is an old joke that runs:

Q: Why does a Jew always answer a question with another question?

A: Why shouldn’t a Jew answer a question with another question?

Jesus’ response follows this rabbinical pattern of debating by dialogue, rather than offering an outright challenge in a definitive reply—but of course his return question contains a greater challenge than any outright answer would have done.

Two things are striking in Jesus’ return question. The first is that he is closely identifying his own authority with that of John the Baptist; whatever authority John’s ministry had, then his ministry has the same. Matthew has consistently emphasised this close relationship, even recording John’s and Jesus’ teaching with the same words in Matt 3.2 and 4.17. Jesus has compared their ministries in Matt 11.16–19; outsiders have identified them in Matt 14.1–2 and Matt 16.13–14; and Jesus has linked both their roles and their fate in Matt 17.11–13.

Secondly, it is striking that he asks about John’s baptism, rather than his ministry more broadly or his teaching and call to repentance. It was John’s baptism which would have been most offensive and challenging to the authorities, suggesting a distinct renewal movement with an identifiable membership, and implying the creation of a new community—even redefining the boundary markers of the true Israel of God. If Jesus’ ministry is in continuity with that of John, then we see once more the theme of a new Israel defined in relation to obedience to Jesus, the new word from God, rather than around Torah alone. The claim is made obliquely here, as the tension and conflict build across this passion week, but it becomes explicit in the final conflict with these same opponents at the trial of Jesus in Matt 26.63–64.

The options of ‘from heaven or from people’ (ἐξ οὐρανοῦ ἢ ἐξ ἀνθρώπων) includes the usual periphrastic reference to God without mentioning God’s name. The fact that this is identical in Mark and Luke perhaps suggests that Matthew is right in recording this as Jesus’ usual practice; we might more naturally simply say ‘Was it from God or from people?’.

As has happened before, the opponents must turn to one another in order to decide their answer. Mark offers us a characteristic anakolouthon (compare Mark 2.10) in which their own speech breaks off, and the narrative offers us an explanation ‘If we say of human origin…’ but Luke and Matthew smooth this out so that the explanation comes from them rather than the narrator. Since they decide not to offer an answer to Jesus’ awkward question, Jesus can avoid offering an explicit answer to theirs—but the implicit answer is clear enough.

No one who heard Jesus’ response could fail to understand the implicit claim to continuity between his ministry and that of John, and therefore to a divine authority for it. The popular opinion that Jesus, too, was a prophet (v 46) was a natural deduction from this exchange (R T France, NICNT, p 799).

Even at this late stage in Jesus’ ministry, there is room for decision and response to the claims that Jesus’ action has made.

In Matthew, Jesus’ teaching then follows on directly from the previous exchange, so that some ETs even include it within the same paragraph. Mark and Luke signal a change of focus by announcing a parable (Mark 12.1, Luke 20.9), and Luke explicitly suggests a change of orientation to the wider crowd rather than merely the opponents. This is not actually a significant contrast, since in the context it is clear that the crowds can hear the public exchange between Jesus and the leaders. In Matthew this is the first of three parables, following his description of Jesus’ three symbolic actions earlier in this chapter, and leading into three hostile questions and their response in Matthew 22.15–40.

It is also worth noting that, whilst the story of the man and his two sons is clearly parabolic, and has all the characteristics of Jesus’ parables, it is not announced as such, and only referred to retrospectively in Matt 21.33.

As with many of Jesus’ parables, the scene depicted is a common one from daily life. Many households in the first century would have a small plot of land, and would commonly have vines growing there. The male members of the household would commonly work the land, whilst the women were engaged in domestic tasks in the home. And any parent would be familiar with the scenario of one child who says the right thing, but then fails to act, and another who does the right thing despite initial reluctance. So far, so mundane.

(There is some disagreement in important manuscripts on the order of the sons and the response of Jesus’ opponents: most have the first son refusing then changing his mind and the second agreeing but not acting, and the opponents identifying the first as obedient; some have the order reversed, and the opponents thus identifying the second; a very few have the sons in the first order, but the opponents identifying the second, which portrays them in a bad light but does not make much sense of the story or Jesus’ teaching that flows out of it.)

But it is impossible to hear mention of a vineyard without thinking of its importance in the biblical narrative as a symbol of Israel as God’s precious planting and possession, most explicitly in Isaiah 5, whose details are picked up in the parable that follows. Jesus’ implication—that the leaders are more like the second son than the first—in effect accuses them of failing to respond to God’s call on them to work in his vineyard, tending God’s people and leading them in obedience.

Jesus’ declaration in verse 31 opens with his emphatic formula ‘Amen, I say to you…’ introducing a serious proclamation or teaching. ‘Tax collectors’ and ‘prostitutes’ represent the underclass of Jewish society, both male and female, in the form that would have been most offensive to Jesus’ opponents. Tax collectors collaborate with the Roman authorities, and share in the oppression and subjugation of the people by a foreign power; prostitutes offend the call to purity for the people within a patriarchal society. Previously, this underclass has been described as ‘tax collectors and sinners’ (Matt 9.10, 11, 11.19) but as the conflict between Jesus and his opponents reaches its climax, these people are described in the most challenging terms.

We have here one of the few (possibly five) occurrences in Matthew of ‘the kingdom of God’ rather than the more usual ‘kingdom of [the] heaven[s]’. There is no obvious explanation for the variation, though it is perhaps suggested by the context of the relationship between the father and his sons in the parable, so that the ‘kingdom’ is more clearly about personal relationship.

The reversal of order in those we expect to enter the kingdom mirrors the reversal of life and response in ‘repentance’ which has been illustrated by the first son’s change of mind (though the exact verb is different). It is interesting, though, that in this instance Jesus does not describe the leaders as prevented from entering the kingdom (in contrast eg to Matt 8.12), so much as entering second. They are marginalised rather than excluded.

Just as John’s teaching focussed on action rather than mere words, so Jesus agrees that it is obedience and not mere notional assent that matters. John’s message was one of ‘righteousness’—a term that occurs seven times in Matthew, and which points to obedient action in response to the call of God to live a changed and holy life. The ‘sinners’ of various kinds have the doors to the kingdom thrown open to them, not simply because God is ‘inclusive’ but because these people have shown a genuine change of direction in response to the call and challenge of God’s grace in Jesus.

It seems to me that there are three levels at which we can read this episode. The first is the mundane. Answering questions with questions is a canny way of debating, and can be much more fruitful in engaging with others, diffusing the abruptness of conflict, and moving a discussion on. The contrast of the fickleness of each of the two sons, in different directions, invites a wry smile as we reflect on the realities of human relationships.

The second is in the context of Jesus’ own ministry. These incidents take place at a particular point of Jesus’ life, as the conflict with the powers that be comes to a head, and we can sense the inevitability of the cross looming, and Jesus all the while staying fixed and faithful in his teaching and ministry. These exchanges reveal the challenge of what Jesus was taking on, and where it would lead him.

And yet, at a third level, we can see these power dynamics at play in contemporary life. Those in positions of power in institutions will find themselves pushed into a corner to defend their own concerns, and the kingdom of God comes to challenge all such vested interests. Yet we all see in ourselves the kind of fickleness evident in the two sons, and each of us needs to ask where our words and actions do not match with one another. Have we responded to the teaching of both John and Jesus to live in the ‘way of righteousness’, so that our actions, as well as our words, reflect the justice and holiness of God?

(The illustration at the top of the article is an etching by George Pencz in 1534, from Wroclaw, then part of Germany but now in Poland, in the stores of New York’s Metropolitan Museum.)

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