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Bible Commentaries
Matthew 21

Orchard's Catholic Commentary on Holy ScriptureOrchard's Catholic Commentary

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Verses 1-46

XXI 1-11 Triumphal Entry Into Jerusalem; Sunday (Mark 11:1-11; Luke 19:29-40; John 12:12-19)—1. From Jericho Jesus had gone to Bethany, on the eastern slope of Olivet nearly 2 m. from Jerusalem. There, on the Saturday, he had been anointed by Mary; cf.John 12:1-8; Matthew 26:6-13, § 719b. It is now Sunday, John 12:1, John 12:12. Bethphage lay higher up the eastern flank of Olivet nearer Jerusalem and between Bethany and the summit, a summit which from its 2,500 ft looks downwards and westwards, across the Kedron valley, upon the temple 200 ft below. The old steep road from Jericho to Jerusalem passed to the right of Bethany and through Bethphage.

2. Bethphage is the village that the disciples have almost reached (1 : e??,i.e. towards); it lies ’straight ahead’ (DV ’over against you’). Just inside the village, our Lord assures them, they will find an ass and her foal tethered.

3. If any watchful bystander object, they are to say that ’the Master’ (? ??????) needs them ’but will straightway send them back’ (WV; where see note) when he has finished with them.

4-5. Mt (and John 12:15) is struck by the literal fulfilment of the prophecy of Zacharias, 9:9. In view of the sombre prospect of the Passion, Mt introduces the citation not with the ’shout for joy’ of Zacharias, 9:9a, but with the sober words in which Isaias announces the Saviour in 62:11. The promise to ’the daughter of Sion’ ( Jerusalem) is fulfilled. The substance of the prophecy is the humble advent of the triumphant King, but our Lord chooses to fulfil it to the letter and so to declare his Messianic character. The Hebrew prophecy (here translated from the Heb., not incorporated from LXX) displays the parallelism (synonymous here) inherent to Heb. poetic form. We should therefore read: ’upon an ass, yea [not ’and’] upon a colt’. That this is the meaning of Mt is evident: a translator of the Hebrew would not so misread the poetic device nor would an intelligent writer intend the absurdity of a rider using two mounts apparently at the same time. The ’ass’ of 5 is therefore equivalent to the ’colt’, as the prophetic context demands, and not to the she-ass of 2. This last is the beast of burden (WV; DV ’of her that is used to the yoke’) of 5.

6-7. The colt was not yet broken in, Mark 11:2, note; its dam is brought only to steady it. Nevertheless it seems from the text as it stands that the two disciples, 1, made their cloaks into saddles for both beasts (7: ’upon them’). This is odd but possibly it was done to leave our Lord the choice of mount. On the other hand, many competent commentators (e.g. *J. Weiss, *Klostermann, Lagrange, Joüon) prefer to read the singular ’upon it’ (the colt) with some not unimportant MSS and versions. 8. The news of our Lord’s approach has spread to the capital where he was expected, John 11:55 f., for the Paschal feast. The excited crowd collecting at Bethphage is thus reinforced by another from Jerusalem, John 12:12, which escorts Jesus down the western slope of Olivet, across the Kedron and up the opposite slope to the temple. Some paved his path with their cloaks in sign of reverence, 4 Kg 9:13, others with branches broken from the olives in the fields. Those who came from Jerusalem waved palm-branches, John 12:13, which, as they set out, they ad torn from the trees in the warm Kedron valley. 9. At the feast of Tabernacles it was customary for the people to carry branches in procession and to wave them as they sang ’Hosanna Yahweh!’ (cf. Edersheim 2, 159) and the branch itself was called ’the hosanna’, SB 1, 845-50. The crowd now, waving branches, associates the action with the word ’Hosanna!’ an abbreviated form (hôša’-na) of the biblical hôšî ah-nna’, Ps 117( 118) 25, lit.: ’Oh save!’ or ’Oh be propitious to . . .!’ Their cry is: ’God save the Messias!’ and (26 of the same psalm with a slight change): ’Blessed be he that cometh in the name of the Lord!’ —i.e. with the Lord’s glory in view. In the final cry ’Hosanna in the highest’ the ’hosanna’ is a mere shout of joy, the phrase being equivalent to ’Glory (to God) on high!’; cf.Luke 19:38.10-11. (Mt only). The capital is in a turmoil: the triumphal approach has been seen and heard. There are visitors from abroad who know nothing of the new prophet. Probably they have heard his Messianic rank acclaimed and they ask only his identity.

12-13 Cleansing the Temple; Monday (Mark 11:15-17; Luke 19:45-46; cf.John 2:13-17)—If the episode is the same as that described by Jn, it is probably Jn who gives it its actual chronological setting, viz. at the beginning of our Lord’s public life. Mt who (like Mk, Lk) mentions only this one journey to Jerusalem would be bound to insert the incident here if he was to narrate it at all. And indeed the priests, though custodians of the temple, do not here (15; though see 21:23) refer to the incident which perhaps suggests that it did not take place at this time. For this opinion cf. among Catholic authors: Calmès, Buzy, Lagrange; cf. also Braun, RB 38 ( 1929) 178-200, followed by Dubarle, RB 48 ( 1939) 21-44. On the other hand, in view of the notable differences between Jn’s account and that of the Synoptics, it is possible that our Lord took this action twice—the need for it would certainly recur (thus, amongst Catholic commentators, Durand, Prat, Pirot).

12. At festal times temporary booths were erected in the great outer court of the temple where tradesmen turned pilgrim piety to profit. The materials for sacrifice, animal and bloodless, were sold in noisy market with the usual oriental haggling. Some sold oxen and sheep, John 2:14, others doves, the sacrifice of the poor; cf.Leviticus 12:8. Since Tyrian coinage only was accepted for temple-offerings, Roman and Greek coins were exchanged at a fee by the money-changers who set up their tables in the court. Jesus drove out the animals and their anxious owners. He was content to up-turn the tables of the money-changers and the chairs of the dove-sellers. It is to these, it seems, he speaks.

13. All three Synoptics remember the striking words: the joyful prophecy of Isaias, 56:7, joined to the subsequent lament of Jeremias, 7:11. The Jews themselves had profaned the temple by making of it an unseemly and dishonest market.

14-17 The Official Protest (Mt only)—The chief priests and the scribes though of different schools of thought (Sadducee and Pharisee repectively; cf. 2:7-10 note) are at one. They are irritated by the miracles but particularly by the shouts of the children. Echoing the cry of their elders, 9, doubtless without understanding, they hail Jesus as the Messias and he suffers it. In answer to the objectors he clearly approves it. He sends the scribes back to their Bible, Psalms 8:3, leaving them to complete the quotation in their minds (’that thou mayest destroy adversaries’). The Heb. text of the psalm declares that the tiniest children acknowledge the Creator’s glory; those who do not are the Creator’s adversaries. The implication is sharply pointed by the present circumstances and recalls our Lord’s appeal for simplicity, 18:3,

14. LXX (quoted by Mt) renders sulistantially the same sense as HT, but more clearlyunderlines our Lord’s approval of the children’s cry: ’Out of the mouths of babes . . . thou hast brought forth perfect praise’ (WV).

17. On this note Jesus leaves them. He spends the night at Bethany (1, note) where his friends Martha and Mary and Lazarus lived.

18-22 The Fig-tree and Its Lesson; Monday-Tuesday (Mark 11:12-14, Mark 11:20-24)—It is characteristic of Mt that he presents the miracle and the lesson to be derived from it without breaking up the episode as Mk does in 11:15-18. In view of this telescoping process there is no need to stress the ’immediately’ of 19, though the word may in fact be intended literally.

18-19. On the Monday morning our Lord left Bethany for the city. The fig-tree stood, perhaps, on the slopes of Olivet; it was in leaf, as it would be at the Paschal season (beginning of April). Our Lord had evidently not broken his fast and he approached the tree. He knew, as well as the evangelists knew, that ’it was not the season for figs’ (Mark 11:13)—the figs are not ripe till June (for details cf. Lagrange, Mk, 293; HDB 2, 6). He laid a curse on the tree. There is no impatience in the words since he expected no fruit and it would be a curious sentimentality that could read cruelty there— especially as the insentient tree becomes a signpost for man. The tree withers. The unusual severity of our Lord’s tone, the strange rebuke addressed to a mere tree—a tree, moreover, obedient to the Creator’s law— betray the fact that his action is entirely symbolic. It resembles the extraordinary symbolic actions of the prophets, e.g.Isaiah 20:1-6, Jeremiah 13:1-11. But our Lord did not explain it. The action, so far as we know, stood isolated. It was only on the following day (Tuesday; Mark 11:19 f.) that our Lord chose to draw from the incident a further, personal lesson for the disciples, 21 f. The meaning of the symbol, therefore, can be decided only from its foregoing and subsequent historical context. Israel has welcomed its Messias, on the previous day, with wild enthusiasm. In a day or two it will reject him. Judaism is condemned by Jesus for its deceptive, fruitless show (cf. 21:43)—a show that should normally have proclaimed its spiritual summer, Cant 2:12 f. When, in the course of the week, the Apostles heard our Lord’s rejection of Israel and his condemnation of the vine-dressers who refused his fruit to the Master, they would come to understand, Prat 2, 206.

20-22. Meanwhile the present lesson for the disciples, struck by the display of power rather than by the symbolism, is strong faith to carry them through this difficult week and beyond. Nor is this lesson entirely independent of the symbolism since our Lord has implicitly demonstrated his power over his enemies (cf. 26:53) by causing this figure of hostile Israel to wither. Underlying the exhortation to faith is this invitation to believe in the power of their master when, in the Passion, he is to appear most powerless. Nevertheless, the explicit invitation is to faith in their own power through prayer, or rather an invitation to pray with lively faith. This will move all obstacles—and what obstacles lie ahead for the disciples! With his eyes on Olivet (’this mountain’) Jesus uses the common rabbinic hyperbole for accomplishing the impossible: ’rooting-up mountains’; cf. Edersheim 2, 376, note.

23-27 Our Lord’s Authority officially challenged; Tuesday (Mark 11:27-33; Mark 20:1-8)—23. The priests particularly are concerned at our Lord’s unauthorize temple-teaching, possibly also (if his cleansing of the temple was recent) at his assumption of authority over the sacred precincts by expelling the buyers and sellers. With representatives of the other sections of the Sanhedrin (including scribes; cf. Mk) they ask if he acts on his own initiative or at least (and they deem this impossible) to name his accreditor.

24-25. After the manner of rabbinic discussion Jesus answers question with question, not disrespectful to the established authority but pointed enough for those who wield that authority dishonestly. The question concerns the mission of the Baptist. He sums up this mission in the world ’baptism’—significantly, because this baptism was a rite preparatory for Jesus’ own work, 3:11 f. Whence did the ’authority’ of the Baptist derive? They had once asked that question themselves, John 1:25, but since that day to the day of John’s martyrdom it had become increasingly plain to those of good faith that John was a man of God and his work ’of heaven’, heavenly.

26. The objectors, over-anxious to save their face, miss the implication of the question—namely, that if John’s mission was supernaturally accredited so also was that of the one he announced (John 1:29-37; John 3:25-30; John 5:33 ff.). They assume instead that Jesus will attack them for never having countenanced John, 3:7-10, § 682g-h. On the other hand, the public esteeem in which the Baptist was held (e.g.Acts 19:3; Jos., Ant.18, 5, 2) kept them from denying to John the status of prophet.

27. The weak reply, surely damaging in the ears of those present, reveals that they are guided only by motives of policy. To such dishonest witnesses our Lord need make no answer; let honest bystanders judge between them! Nevertheless, he pursues the theme of the Baptist in the parable that follows.

28-32 Parable of the Two Sons (Mt only)—28-30. The significant point of the parable is the contrast between a farmer’s two sons: one, beginning with flat refusal, ends with obedience; the other, in appearance at least readily submissive, is in effect recalcitrant. 31. There can be no doubt which did the will of the father (t??+? pat???: the application of the parable begins to peep through at this place). Swiftly upon the inevitable answer comes the devastating application. The publicans (9:9, note) who had listened to the Baptist, Luke 3:12, and the women of evil life who had come to the saviour, Luke 7:36 ff.; John 4:4 ff.; 8:2 ff., are going into the Kingdom even now. There is as yet no sign (and this is a warning) that our Lord’s interlocutors are on their way.

32. It was John’s preaching that tested the ’I will not’ of the sinners and the ’I go’ of professional just men. John had come ’in the way of justice’ (?? ?d?+? d??s????), i.e. respecting the traditional Law. He spoke, too, the old prophetic language of penance. Despite this, the learned in the Law did not listen. The repentance of public sinners should have shamed them ’but even when you saw that, you would not relent and believe him’ (KNT).

33-46 Parable of the Wicked Husbandmen (Mark 12:1-12; Luke 20:9-19)—From the lighter warning of 31 to a prophecy of ruin, 43, which concludes a parable that contains many allegorical details. 33. To those familiar with Isaiah 5:7 the image inevitably suggests Israel, vineyard of God. The stone well, the hollowed rock whence the juice of the pressed grapes passed through stone channels to a deeper rock-basin, the stone watchtower, all are present in Isaiah 5:1-2. These details appear in the parable, not with any allegorical significance but with the purpose of establishing the identity of the vineyard by literary reminiscence of Isaias. The listeners are now in a position to see the meaning of what follows. In his absence the owner, clearly God, commits the vineyard to farmers accountable to himself. These farmers are the centre of the story.

34-36. It would appear from 43 that the vineyard, through the negligence of the husbandmen, had yielded nothing. In any case, to thwart the Master they maltreat or murder his servants who ask for the produce—the fate of the prophets, 23:30-31, § 714h. But the Master has superhuman patience. He sends even more servants but to no better effect.

37. The climax of gentleness is to send his son to persuade them. They will surely respect him. The event is to turn this hope to irony. 38. The sight of the son only stimulates their hate. If he is removed, their possession will be for ever undisturbed. His existence threatened their possession just as our Lord’s threatened the position of the Jewish leaders, John 11:47-53.

39. In Mk (probably nearer the original words here) the son is first murdered and then cast out. In Mt and Lk the subsequent detail, Hebrews 13:12 ff., has perhaps influenced the order of words. In either case, the Son is cast out of the vineyard that was his own; cf.John 1:11.40-41. It is already obvious what the Master will do when the time of reckoning comes, but in Mt our Lord invites his hearers to pronounce, implicitly, their own sentence. God will choose other, more honest, workmen who will promptly render the produce. Ai for the wicked husbandmen, they shall meet an end proportioned to their wickedness.

42. Our Lord’s quotation is taken, like the ’Hosanna’ cry of 9, from Ps 117 ( 118) 22 f. In the psalm the saying, probably a proverb, seems originally to refer to Israel rejected like a useless stone by the nations as they founded their pagan polities. But in God’s surprising plan and in God’s building, Israel is the conspicuous angle-stone crowning and uniting the two high walls. The unexpected issue of 41 is, therefore, not without precedent in God’s providence. That is why, 43, our Lord has no hesitation in pronouncing his startling prophecy. The kingdom is to pass from the Jewish leaders and apparently from the Jewish people as a race. It will go to others who, as God’s new planting, will produce the fruit for which their leaders will faithfully render timely account; cf. 41. 44. The allegory of the stone, interrupted by the parenthetical 43, is resumed or rather given a new direction. Note, however, that 44 may be a gloss from Luke 20:18. The setting of the allegory has invited the hearers to see the cast-out Son, 39, in the rejected stone, Acts 4:11. But the ’stone’ is no longer considered as part of a building, it is considered in two prophetic connexions differing from this and differing from each other. In the first, Isaiah 8:14, the ’stone’ is ’one against which one might strike one’s foot . . . a symbol of trouble’ (cf. Kissane, The Book of Isaiah, 103); this ’stone’ is God himself who becomes a severe judge for those disloyal to him. In the second, Daniel 2:34-45, the ’stone’ is God’s future, lasting kingdom, symbolized and summed-up in ’one like a Son of Man ’—a boulder rolling down to the destruction of earthly kingdoms. Our Lord, therefore, warns the opponents of God and his Kingdom with three intimidating texts, 41, 44, which he applies to himself and to his work. 45-46. The words were too pointed to be mistaken. His enemies knew that it was at them that the last parable was directed. The preceding one had been explicitly applied to them by our Lord himself, 31 f.

Bibliographical Information
Orchard, Bernard, "Commentary on Matthew 21". Orchard's Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/boc/matthew-21.html. 1951.
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