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Bible Commentaries
Matthew 21

Layman's Bible CommentaryLayman's Bible Commentary

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Controversies with the Chief Priests, Scribes, and Pharisees


The leaders of Israel are offended by the popularity of Jesus, but because of this very popularity they do not immediately attack him openly. They try rather to make him say some words which will serve as a pretext for a condemnation. Hence, they set snares for him. But the wisdom of God confounds that of men, and Jesus reveals himself as more skillful than they. Sensing their game, he avails himself of then own weapons and with one blow unmasks them.

Verses 1-11

The Triumphal Entry (21:1-22)

The Entry Into Jerusalem

(Matthew 21:1-11; Mark 11:1-10; Luke 19:29-44; John 12:12-19)

All the Gospels see a Messianic act in Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, the fulfillment of the prophecy of Zechariah (Zechariah 9:9). This is why they attach a certain importance to the colt. It is with deliberate purpose that Jesus borrows this mount, and everything about the entry is directed and prepared by God.

But the Gospel by John notes that the disciples understood the meaning of all this only much later (John 12:16). For to mount an ass was in itself nothing either very royal or very glorious. On the contrary it was a sign of humility. The distinctive character of the King announced by Zechariah is that of being "humble" and of bringing "peace" (Zechariah 9:9-10). Nevertheless, by this act Jesus affirms his royalty.

Matthew amplifies the story of Mark a little. Influenced no doubt by the text of Zechariah ("riding on an ass, on a colt the foal of an ass"), he mentions both a colt and a she-ass. He describes the people coming in crowds to meet Jesus, although Mark only mentions the group of disciples who come with Jesus from Galilee. A too noisy manifestation would certainly have provoked an intervention by the Roman authorities, who feared these popular movements as preludes to insurrection. The Gospels record that the host of the faithful sing their faith and then: joy. They recognize in Jesus the Son of David. They likely sang Psalms 118, which belongs to the cycle of Psalms of the great feasts (the Hallel), for one verse of this Psalm is cited: "Blessed be he who comes in the name of the Lord!" (Matthew 21:9; see Psalms 118:26). The term "Hosanna" signifies "Save now" or "Come to our help!" It may, however, be understood as a form of benediction. The earth and the heavens sing the glory of the One who comes.

To the inhabitants of Jerusalem who are astonished by this triumphant arrival, and ask, "Who is this?" the disciples reply: "This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth of Galilee." The Messianic secret is not disclosed. The disciples are associated in an act whose significance they do not yet fully grasp.

In the ancient tradition of the Church, Matthew 21:1-11 is read the first Sunday in Advent. It prefigures the glorious coming of the Lord at the last day, when he will enter upon his reign. It echoes Psalms 24:7-10, which celebrated the entrance of the Holy Ark into the city of Jerusalem. This same passage from Matthew is also read on Palm Sunday. It reminds us on each occasion that the King of glory is come into the city to be crucified. His disciples acclaim him, but he knows to what he is going. The Gospel by Luke shows him casting a long look on this city which, in rejecting him, is going to judge itself and to sign its own doom (Luke 19:41-44).

Verses 12-17

The Merchants Driven, from the Temple

(Matthew 21:12-17; Mark 11:15-18; Luke 19:45-48; John 2:13-17)

The violence of this scene often shocks gentle spirits. According to John, Jesus took a whip! How can this be reconciled with what is told us elsewhere of his gentleness, and with his own words concerning the love of enemies? Let us be thankful that the Gospels have preserved this story for us. Gentleness does not exclude firmness, and love sometimes demands the most unyielding severity. Jesus is not defending himself, he is defending the honor of God. He shudders at seeing God’s name and Temple profaned. May God give us to know the righteous wrath which that day animated the Savior, each time the worship of the living God turns into hypocrisy and falsehood! The Temple had become the place of commercial business. Here were the poor, those who could only offer a sacrifice of pigeons, exploited by the merchants and the money-changers. Thus the Law of Leviticus (Leviticus 1:14; Leviticus 5:5-7; Leviticus 12:8; compare Luke 2:24; with Leviticus 14:22 compare Matthew 8:4) became an occasion of plundering the neighbor. Beyond the merchants, the judgment of Jesus strikes at the priests who tolerate these things. For this they will not spare him (see Mark 11:18).

The scene which follows, and which has been preserved only by Matthew, assumes a wholly different character. Some cripples and beggars approach Jesus and he heals them. And then some children take up once more in chorus the cry of the crowds (Matthew 21:9): "Hosanna to the Son of David!" (vs. 15). This Messianic title provokes the indignation of the priests. Jesus replies to them by citing Psalms 8. This is to say clearly that in the Person of Jesus, God himself is present and active. The truth goes out from the mouths of children.

Jesus withdraws to Bethany. According to the Fourth Gospel, that is where Martha and Mary and their brother Lazarus dwelt (John 11:1-2; John 12:1-2). It is in this beloved home that Jesus will pass his last nights (see Mark 11:11).

Verses 18-22

The Barren Fig Tree (21:18-22; Mark 11:12-14; Mark 11:19-25)

This story is difficult to understand if one does not grasp its symbolic meaning. The tree which had a healthy look was in reality sterile and condemned. Perhaps it is necessary to relate these accounts in Matthew and Mark to the parable in Luke 13:6-9. It is clear that in that parable the fig tree refers to the house of Israel, as is true also in the parable of the Tenants of the Vineyard in Matthew 21:33-41. The cursing of the fig tree is an enacted parable. The tree which does not bear fruit will be uprooted. The long patience of God reaches its limit.

The miracle is the occasion of a conversation on prayer. Jesus stresses anew the fact that he who asks in faith, without doubting, receives what he asks for (see Matthew 14:31; Matthew 17:20). True faith lays hold on the object of prayer as having already received it. Nothing is impossible to the Creator of the heavens and the earth. He is the one who has made the mountains and the sea, who gives life to the trees or takes it away from them. The "mountain" (see the same image in Matthew 17:20) is a figure of things which are impossible for men but possible for God. We sometimes say of our cares that they weigh like "a mountain" on our shoulders. For faith there is no burden so heavy that God cannot lift it. It is of this very concrete and realistic faith that this passage speaks.

Verses 23-32

Of the Authority of Jesus and That of John

(Matthew 21:23-32; Mark 11:27-33; Luke 20:1-8)

Jesus knows the anger which he is on the verge of stirring up, but he comes nonetheless to teach openly in the Temple. Hence the question: "By what authority are you doing these things ...?"

True authority is not proved by arguments; it is recognized, it authenticates itself. For those who have eyes to see or ears to hear, the authority of Jesus manifests itself in his words and his works. We have seen this all through his ministry.

Therefore, Jesus replies to the question by another question: What was the authority of John the Baptist? Indeed, if these men had taken John’s baptism of repentance seriously, if they had believed his message, they would have known who Jesus is. The chief priests side-step the question, thus revealing their bad faith. The parable of the Two Sons with its conclusion (vss. 28-32) is closely connected with that which precedes it. It is preserved only by Matthew. Jesus places their own condemnation in the mouths of his accusers "(vss. 30-31); for they are like the son who said, "Yes," but did not obey. John the Baptist had preached the righteousness of God. The tax collectors and harlots had believed his message and repented. They will go into the Kingdom of God before the leaders of Israel. Once again the accent is placed on doing the will of God. What we profess to believe has no value if it is not translated into obedience. This warning is addressed to "religious" people in every age.

Verses 33-46

The Parable of the Tenants

(Matthew 21:33-46; Mark 12:1-12; Luke 20:9-19)

This parable calls up the whole drama of Israel, that elect and rebellious people now placed before a final decision. Its meaning is clear for every Jew well versed in the Scriptures, for the image of the vine is used in the Old Testament to designate Israel, and everyone knew from memory the "song of the vineyard" of Isaiah 5:1-7.

But the parable as told by Jesus contained a new point the sending of the son, introduced by this moving word: "They will respect my son." Without doubt, a human owner would hesitate to risk the life of his son by sending him alone to face some rebels who have just killed his servants! Matthew accentuates the paradox of the situation by saying that finally a group of servants went (vs. 36; compare Luke 20:10-12 where the three servants go one by one; also Mark 12:2-6). This improbable aspect of the story is certainly deliberately designed; for what is more unlikely to the human reason than the sacrifice of the Son of God?

This parable strongly underlines the responsibility of the leaders of Israel. A final appeal has been addressed to them, and they are about to reject it. According to Matthew, which runs counter to Mark and Luke at this point, Jesus poses the judgment of the owner on his tenants under the form of a question (vss. 40-41). Thus the hearers themselves pronounce the verdict the master of the vineyard will put to death the guilty vinedressers and lease out his vineyard to others.

Jesus states his thought more precisely by means of another image taken from Scripture: that of the stone rejected by the builders which becomes the cornerstone (could the reference be perhaps to the "keystone"?) of the new work built by the Lord himself (vs. 42; see Psalms 118:22-23). Verse 44 (which is not found in certain manuscripts) is connected directly to verse 42; the stone will break those who run against it, but it will crush those on whom it falls (see Isaiah 8:14-15). Doubtless in this image of the stone there should be seen an allusion to the old Temple which God is going to destroy and the new Temple which is not made by the hand of man. The Apostles take up this image again on several occasions (Acts 4:11; Romans 9:33; 1 Peter 2:4-8).

Verse 43 states precisely that the Kingdom will be taken away from the unfaithful tenants and given to "a nation producing the fruits of it" In reality, this does not refer to a "nation" in the geographical and ethnic sense, but to that "holy nation," the new people, the "race" born from above of which the Apostle Peter speaks (1 Peter 2:9-10).

The chief priests understood very well the meaning of these two parables. But, the record tells us, they did not dare to arrest Jesus yet because of the people who sided with him. It was necessary to intrigue behind the scenes and to prepare or bribe public opinion.

When we read these severe judgments of Jesus on the Old Israel, we must not forget that such judgments are directed likewise against the New Israel to the degree to which it ceases to "bear fruit" and betrays its mission. That is what Paul develops with great force in his parable of the Olive Tree (Romans 11:17-24): "So do not become proud, but stand in awe." What has happened to one part of Israel could happen to you in your turn; useless branches will be cut off (see also John 15:1-7).

Bibliographical Information
"Commentary on Matthew 21". "Layman's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/lbc/matthew-21.html.
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