With Matthew chapter 21, we come to the beginning of the end of Jesus’ ministry. Chapter 21 (Mark 11, John 12) opens with Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey (Zech 9:9) , which is reminiscent of King David returning to Jerusalem via Mount Olive (2 Sam 15:30), and then securing a donkey (2 Sam 16:1-2) to enter the city. Our passage this Sunday has Jesus debating the authorities in the Temple area after his entry into Jerusalem. To find this Sunday’s passage in the Lectionary, click here for the Catholic, and here for the RCL version.
Jesus may have entered Jerusalem on the ancient Sabbath: a Friday or Saturday. Sunday is also a possibility, but that requires a very compressed time line for the events of the Holy Week and the Passion of Jesus. Whether he arrived in Jerusalem on a Friday, Saturday or Sunday, Mark 11:11 tells us that Jesus arrived at the Temple late, only to find no one there. Jesus then returns to the Temple the next day (11:15).
Matthew tells us that Jesus spent hours, if not days, preaching in the public areas of the Temple during the week of the Passover. Jesus also debates with authorities that Matthew variously refers to as chief priests, elders and scribes. For the sake of consistency, I will use the term “Temple authorities” or “elders of the Temple” to describe those with whom Jesus debated. I am going to do this not to single out any particular group, but to emphasize locale: Jesus preached in the Temple just before his arrest, and argues with the authorities within those precincts. This preaching in the courts of the Temple is recounted in Matthew chapters 21 through 25. Both Catholic and Protestant scholars (Schnackenburg and R.T. France) recognize Matthew 21-25 as a thematic unit.
By What Authority?
In chapters 21 to 25, the story in the Gospel of Matthew reaches a crescendo or high point. The confrontation between Jesus and the authorities in the Temple is analogous to the ‘gunfight at the OK Corral’ in Wild West themed movies. In the fourth Gospel, John treats the raising of Lazarus as the center of contention. In Matthew, the drama is moved to the Temple itself, where Jesus addresses the crowd during the Holy Week and verbally spars with the elders.
These accounts don’t contradict. Rather, John chose to emphasize the miracle of the raising of Lazarus, and the concern this caused among the Temple leaders (John 11:47-57; 12:9-11), while Matthew chose to emphasize Jesus’ preaching in the Temple, just a few days after Lazarus was raised.
In Matthew 21:23, the Temple elders ask Jesus, by what authority do you do these things? Jesus responds by asking them a very direct question about John the Baptist, whom Herod had put to death. Jesus asks, was John the Baptist baptized by God? A seemingly innocent question, but the implication of the question is very awkward for the elders. What Jesus really wants is a public testimonial from the Temple authorities: was John the Baptist a prophet or not?
Had the Temple authorities answered in the affirmative, they would have conceded John the Baptist’s prophecy that Jesus fulfills the prophecy of Isaiah and the coming of the Lord (Mat 3:1-17), and, they would have publicly challenged the wisdom of Herod. Had the Temple authorities denied that the baptism of John the Baptist had come from God (and hence the validity of prophecy), they would have publicly, and in the courtyard of the Temple, aligned themselves with Herod: a man who many in Judah regarded as a pretender to the throne, and the one who brought about the death of a prophet.
To summarize, when the Temple authorities ask By what authority do you do these things, Jesus responds with the almost identical question: Whose authority do you invoke when you speak of the prophet, John the Baptist: God’s or Herod’s?
And Obedient to Whom?
The lectionary reading for this Sunday finishes with verses 28-32, which is an allegory about obedience. Jesus, in the Temple courtyard, further challenges the priests and elders with this story:
“What is your opinion? A man had two sons. He came to the first and said,
‘Son, go out and work in the vineyard today.’
He said in reply, ‘I will not,’
but afterwards changed his mind and went.
The man came to the other son and gave the same order.
He said in reply, ‘Yes, sir, ‘but did not go.
Which of the two did his father’s will?”
Is Jesus being random here? No. The elders challenged the authority of Jesus, and now Jesus turns the tables, and responds by rhetorically questioning the obedience of the elders. With this allegory in verses 28-30, Jesus asks the elders of the Temple to answer the following: is the obedient person the one who pretends to do what he is told, or is the obedient person the one who may appear stubborn or unorthodox in his methods, but does what he is told anyway?
We can well imagine that Jesus is, in circumspect fashion, asking whether the Temple elders are like the son who agreed to work in the vineyard and then refused to go. At the same time, one gets the impression that Jesus is asking the elders, do you suggest that I am disobedient to Father becuase I neither speak nor act as you do?
The Obedient Son
Jesus appears to ask fairly innocuous questions of the Temple authorities. The first is about the baptism of John the Baptist, and the second is about two allegorical figures: the one son who does what he is asked, and the other son who does not do what the Father asks. Jesus’ allegory about the obedience of the two sons becomes prophecy (Mt 27:21-24), when Pilate asks the crowd to choose between two sons, one named Bar-abbas (son of the father) and the other purported to be the Son of God. And, ironically, the crowd chooses the son who is not obedient to the Father.
Both questions posed by Jesus challenge the Temple authorities to make a profession – to whom do you owe your loyalty and obedience? The first question asks them to take stand on the question as to whether John the Baptist was a legitimate prophet. The second question challenges the Temple elders to explain whether obedience is about keeping up appearances, or actually doing what the Lord demands – to “labor in the vineyard,” to borrow the phraseology in Mt 20:1-16.
A final thought. Just because we can see that Jesus appears to direct his rhetoric towards the Temple elders, the rest of us are not off the hook. The temple leaders become, for us at least, allegorical figures for anyone in the contemporary faith community who professes Christian discipleship but does not practice it. According to Jesus, obedience to the Lord has less to do with going along with the status quo, and more to do with discerning and doing the will of God.