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 includes 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 translations 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 provides this explicit detail, 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.) Matthew has a distinct perspective on the temple, describing it in Matt 21.12 uniquely as ‘the temple of God’, and the specific mention of God will recur later in this passage.