Matthew Week 8

The Confrontation in Jerusalem: Matthew 21:1–23:39

By David Nienhuis

Seattle Pacific University Professor of New Testament Studies

Read this week’s Scripture: Matthew 21:1–23:39


Week 8
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With this week’s reading, we approach the climax of Matthew’s gospel story. Jesus’ Galilean ministry has come to an end, and his journey to Jerusalem is now complete. He has already told his disciples what awaits him in the capital city (16:21; 17:22–23; 20:17–19); now the story is about to climax in the final encounter between Israel and its Messiah. Today’s chapters can be divided into three major sections: Jesus’ confrontational entry into Jerusalem (21:1–22), his dispute with the religious authorities (21:23–22:46), and his extended denunciation of their practices (23:1–39).

The Entry Into Jerusalem: 21:1–22

In case there was any doubt, the scene introducing Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem reminds us that everything is unfolding exactly according to plan: Jesus already knows a donkey and her colt are waiting for his arrival so that he might fulfill prophecy (21:3–4). The arrival itself would have been a familiar scene in Jesus’ day, as it echoes past “triumphal entries” of military leaders [see Author’s Note 1].

In these scenes a leader either celebrates or prepares for the conquering of enemies by entering a city to great acclaim and immediately performing some sort of religious ritual. Jesus is doing the same, and the crowd rightly recognizes him as a messianic hopeful entering Jerusalem to confront God’s enemies. Their cry, “Hosanna!,” literally means “save now!,” and it is here directed to “the Son of David … the one who comes in the name of the LORD” (Psalm 118:25–26).

Matthew’s reference to Old Testament prophecy, however, offers an important commentary. The majority of it comes from Zechariah 9:9, which describes the Messiah entering Jerusalem humbly on a donkey [see Author’s Note 2]. But Zechariah’s prophecy opens with “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion!”

While this is precisely what the Jerusalemites are doing in this scene, they are rejoicing for the wrong reasons: they expect Jesus to be a military leader, not one who has come humbly to serve and give his life as a ransom for many (20:28). Thus, Matthew trades Zechariah’s first line for Isaiah 62:11, “Tell the daughter of Zion, ‘See, your salvation comes ….’” Matthew wants us to pick up on a deep irony: the people are rightly celebrating Jesus as Messiah, but Jesus is here to tell them what being the King of God’s Kingdom actually involves.

Acting according to popular expectation, Jesus immediately enters the temple (21:12–17). How are we to make sense of his dramatic disruption of temple activities? Mark’s version makes it plain that Jesus stops the buying and selling because it is taking place in the portion of the temple allotted for non-Jews to worship God (Mark 11:15–19), but Matthew simply suggests that the Lord has come into his temple to confront the “robbers” who live there.

The latter half of the Scripture quoted in 21:13 comes from the famous “temple sermon” from the book of Jeremiah (Jeremiah 7:8–11). Rather than function as a place of prayer, the temple has come to function as a “den” for the religious leaders who “rob” God (on this theme see also Malachi 3:1–9).

Jesus stops the temple’s “normal” function and sets about healing the blind and the lame (in this we might recall Jesus’ earlier references to Hosea 6:6, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice,” 9:13; 12:7). Jews of Jesus’ day would know that blind and lame people were not allowed into the temple (Leviticus 21:18), so their entering it now for healing would have been a powerful sign that God’s Kingdom was indeed at hand. The chief priests and the scribes see these “wonders” and hear what children are saying, but, instead of recognizing the significance of the scene, they become indignant and suggest Jesus bring things to a halt. Once again, Jesus defends children (compare 19:13–15), reminding the religious authorities of the psalmist’s claim that God would speak through babes and infants to silence his enemies (Psalm 8:1–2).

The final scene closes this first section with the strange story of the fig tree (21:18–22). The unfruitful fig tree was a well-known symbol for unfaithful Israel (Isaiah 5:1–7; Jeremiah 8:13; Hosea 9:10–16; Micah 7:1). Much like the Jerusalem temple, the tree looks alive, but it produces no fruit. So Jesus curses the tree in a prophetic action foretelling what will soon come to Jerusalem and its lively temple (see 24:1–2). When the disciples are surprised by the tree’s sudden demise, Jesus takes the opportunity to remind them once again of the power held by those who trust fully in God (compare 7:7–11; 17:20).

Debating the Religious Authorities — Parables: 21:23–22:14

This next section depicts Jesus in verbal dispute with the religious authorities. The temple leadership wants to know who Jesus thinks he is (21:23). Jesus’ counter-question strikes at the heart of their hypocrisy: was John the Baptist’s ministry of divine origin or human? They cannot answer without incriminating themselves; they rejected John, so they cannot answer “divine,” but they also cannot answer “human,” because the crowds recognized John as a true prophet. Trapped in their two-facedness, they cop out (21:27).

Their inability to answer such a basic question leads Jesus to tell three parables against them. The first, the Parable of the Two Sons (21:28–32), hits them right where John did, condemning their inability to “bear fruit worthy of repentance” (3:8). The first son is called to go work in the vineyard, and, though he verbally refuses to do so at first, he later feels remorse and obeys.

The second son gets the same call and performs the right verbal response (21:30) but then doesn’t obey, and expresses no remorse for his failure to do so. There is no question about who is being described here: the religious authorities “talk the talk” but do not “walk the walk” of obedience to God; they may have the right creed, but their deeds do not follow suit.

The second parable (21:33–44) presses Jesus’ condemnation to its fullest extent. He uses a familiar story from Isaiah 5:1–7 allegorically, describing Israel’s religious leadership as unfaithful, rebellious tenants of God’s vineyard who reject and kill God’s messengers in an effort to keep “the inheritance” for themselves. They want to be lords, not servants. “Therefore,” Jesus says, “the Kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produce the fruits of the Kingdom” (21:43).

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Just so we’re clear, the division Jesus draws here is communal, not ethnic: the ones losing the Kingdom are not “the Jews” but the Jewish leadership he is addressing. Likewise, the “people” who will receive it are not “non-Jews” but those who are able to produce fruit for the Kingdom, the community called “church” (compare 1 Peter 2:4–10). In contrast to the Jewish leaders who reject Jesus, these are the ones who recognize that Jesus, “the stone the builders rejected,” is in fact “the cornerstone” of the new house God is building (21:42, quoting Psalm 118:22–23, the second reference to that psalm (21:9)).

The final parable describes their failure to respond to the invitation to God’s “wedding banquet” to be held when the Son’s Kingdom has come in its fullness (8:11; 9:15; 25:1–13; compare Revelation 19:7–9). As before, the servants delivering the invitation are either rejected, ignored, or mistreated. As before, God’s wrath is poured out on the initial invitees, who turned out to be “unworthy” to attend the feast (22:8; recall 3:7–10; 10:37–38).

A second invitation goes out to everyone, “both the evil and the good; and the wedding hall was filled with guests” (22:10). Why invite the good and the evil? Two of the parables from Chapter 13 described the emerging Kingdom of God as a field made up of both wheat and weeds (13:24–30, 36–43), and a net that caught both good and bad fish (13:47–50). In each, God was described as separating the good from the bad at the final judgment. So also here: the invitation to God’s banquet table goes out to all people without discrimination. No one is excluded; all are welcome at God’s table.

But that does not mean that nothing is required of the attendees. Indeed, one of the guests in the parable isn’t wearing the appropriate clothes, so he’s bound and thrown out into the darkness (21:11–13). Since converting to Christianity was frequently described as “putting on” a particular clothing (e.g., Galatians 3:27; Ephesians 4:22–24), and Revelation repeatedly uses clothing as a symbol for obedience to Christ (3:4–5; 6:25), this guest is a person who has responded to Jesus’ call but has not “put on” his way of obedience. As in the first parable, it is not enough to say, “I will go work in the field”— one must actually go and do the work God has commanded.

Thus the final warning — “many are called, but few are chosen” (22:14) — echoes much of what has come before in this gospel: believers must bear fruit worthy of repentance by actually following the narrow way of Jesus. While the parable condemns the Jewish leadership for failing to respond to God’s invitation, it also stands as a warning against those of us who think that responding to Jesus doesn’t require us to actually “put on” Jesus’ way of life.

Debating With the Religious Authorities — Questions: 22:15–46

At this point, the religious leaders go on the offensive, attempting to trap Jesus in his speaking (22:15). They come to him with false flattery (22:16) but seek to place him in a no-win situation: if he says they should pay the tax, he will confirm the charge that he is a friend of tax collectors (11:19) and draw the ire of those who consider tax-paying an unrighteous collaboration with Gentile oppressors; but if he says they shouldn’t pay the tax, he will set himself up for the charge of promoting treason against Rome.

Jesus’ brilliant answer transcends their trap: “Give to the emperor what belongs to the emperor, and give to God what belongs to God.” Jesus is not saying, “divide your life up, giving part to the government and part to God,” though many have interpreted his words in that way. No, his answer recalls the earlier teaching about God and money being two different masters with two different agendas (6:24).

Jesus says, in effect, “If Caesar is so concerned about money that he puts his image on it, then it must belong to him — so of course you should give it to him! But God’s image has been put on you, so you belong to God — so dump your money off with Caesar and give all of yourself over to God.” Jesus’ answer avoids both sedition and nationalism, providing his followers with a means of seeking the Kingdom of God without having to overthrow or serve the kingdoms of this world in the process.

The Sadducees who come next (22:23–33) were rivals of the Pharisees who limited authority to the Torah (the first five books of the Old Testament) and therefore did not believe in a resurrection of the dead, since it isn’t explicitly taught there. Jesus’ answer to their question reveals his superior teaching by exposing not only their limited view of God’s power but also their inadequate understanding of their own scripture. God did not say to Moses, “I was,” but “”I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” (Exodus 3:6), implying they were not dead at the time but somehow still alive.

Hearing that their opponents had been silenced, the Pharisees re-group for another assault (22:34–40). An expert in the law asks which commandment is the greatest, a tricky question that will require Jesus to elevate one aspect of the law over against another. His answer summarizes much of what has been taught in this gospel, especially in the sermon on discipleship: by pairing Deuteronomy 6:5 with Leviticus 19:18, Jesus insists that love of God and love of neighbor are two sides of the same coin. Ultimately, religion and ethics cannot be divided, for, as John says, “those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen cannot love God whom they have not seen” (1 John 4:20).

The dispute ends with Jesus’ turning the tables to interrogate them (22:41–46). The question “whose son is the Christ?” is obviously answered, “the son of David” (e.g., 2 Samuel 7:12; Isaiah 11:1; Jeremiah 23:5–6). Jesus then exploits an ambiguous passage from Psalm 110 to complicate their easy answer. In context, the psalmist is referring to the King of Israel as one who rules with the power of God; hence, “the Lord (i.e., God) said to my Lord (i.e., the King) ….”

How can the king, who is the son of David, be called “Lord” by David, who is presumably his father? How can David’s son (beneath him) be at the same time David’s Lord (above him)? Though the Pharisees are stumped, readers of the Gospel of Matthew should not be, for Jesus insists that David was inspired to confess what Matthew has been saying all along: Jesus alone is simultaneously Son of David (1:1) and Son of God (1:21–23; 3:17; 16:16; 17:5), both King and Lord, the human who is also God with us.

The Denunciation of the Religious Authorities: 23:1–39

Having triumphed over the religious authorities in debate, Jesus now launches into a tirade against them. As usual, the chapter divides into three sections. The first, 23:1–12, is directed to the crowds and his disciples; in it Jesus defends the source of the scribes and Pharisees’ teaching (i.e., the Scripture) but warns believers against following their habits, for they do not practice what they preach (literally, “for they say but do not do,” 23.3). Their concern is focused more on critiquing others than on helping them (23:4), and, when they do act, it is to impress others instead of God (23:5–7). Authority in the church is to be exhibited differently: leaders aren’t to be given exalted titles (23:8–10) but to practice radical, self-giving service (23:11–12).

From here the invective turns full-force against the scribes and Pharisees, with seven “woes” pronounced against them (23:13–33) in imitation of faithful Old Testament prophets who likewise piled up “woes” against Israel for its unfaithfulness [see Author’s Note 3]. Jesus’ first two woes describe the leaders’ effect on their disciples (23:13–15), who are held back from entering God’s Kingdom because of their instruction.

The third and fourth woes attack their teaching (23:16–24): they focus on the trees and miss the forest, hair-splitting minor points of devotion (like tithing methods) so much that they end up obscuring major points (like practicing mercy and pursuing justice). The fifth and sixth condemn their focus on external things (23:25–28), presenting a pure face to the public that covers over the darkness lurking in their hearts. The seventh returns to the earlier theme of rejecting God’s messengers (23:29–33): they have persecuted God’s representatives only to venerate them as saints once they’re safely dead.

The chapter continues with the prediction that this persecution will continue (23:34–36) and ends with a sad lament over Jerusalem (23:37–39), which finds Jesus saying mournfully, “your house is left to you desolate.” Emptied of God’s presence and power, the temple will soon be destroyed.

Conclusion: It Ain’t About Them

This whole section provides an unrelentingly negative view of Israel’s leaders in Jesus’ day. Does it provide a balanced and “objective” depiction of the historical Pharisees? Not likely. Again, the Matthew’s gospel reflects the historical situation of a group of believers struggling to maintain its identity against a far more dominant form of Jewish religion. Jesus’ denunciation is designed to both support that community’s faith and provide them with an example of religiousness they are not to emulate.

Ultimately, for modern readers, this teaching is not “about” the Pharisees. It’s about us. It’s about the sort of hypocritical piety and two-faced devotion that is always present in religious communities, where some become so enthralled by a partial, cognitive grasp of divine truth that they fail to allow it to sink into their hearts to change their lives. Instead, they distort the truth by turning it outward as a badge of privilege, a shield against criticism, a crutch for vice, or a weapon for enforcing uniformity and destroying those who are different.

Indeed, every single critique in this chapter is easily applied to Christians throughout history and in our own day. Read the chapter again and apply Jesus’ words to yourself and your community of worship. Jesus insists we are not to be addressed according to exalted titles, but many of us insist on being called “Reverend,” “Doctor,” “Professor,” or “Father.” Jesus insists we are not to split hairs over minor matters, but Protestant Christians continue to break fellowship with one another, starting new churches in order to protect minor theological points or to press “cultural” interests that emerge from a worldly mindset.

Jesus insists we are to afford space in our churches for the unpopular “prophetic” voice of critique, but many of our communities set up so many gates to control access (e.g., ethnicity, political commitments, gender stereotypes, standards of dress) that such “different” voices are shown the door before they’re allowed to speak a single word of challenge.

“Where two or three are gathered in my name,” Jesus said, “I will be there in the midst of them.” Around what “name” is my church gathered? The church that gathers in Jesus’ name will glorify that name by exhibiting his character and actions; it will become Jesus’ living, physical body for all the world to see, preaching the good news, practicing mercy, pursuing justice, healing the sick, comforting the broken, and striving to manifest the Kingdom of God for the reconciliation of the world.

Questions for Further Reflection:

  1. What can learn about the Parable in Matthew 22:1-13 about the balance between welcome and expectation in our churches? Once welcomed, how can we be clear about what is expected while still extending grace?
  2. “Give to the emperor what belongs to the emperor, and give to God what belongs to God.” How have you understood that passage in the past? Given what you’ve read in Matthew’s gospel thus far, how should Christians relate to the nation in which they reside? As citizens of the Kingdom of God, how ought we to conceive of our citizenship in a particular earthly nation?
  3. This week’s teaching about the hypocrisy of the Pharisees is not “about” the Pharisees. It’s about us. “Where two or three are gathered in my name,” Jesus said, “I will be there in the midst of them.” In light of our tendency toward hypocrisy, around what “name” is my church gathered?

Author’s Notes

Author’s Note 1

You can read about some of these in 1 and 2 Maccabees (especially 1 Maccabees 5:45–54 and 13:43–53) and also in the writings of Josephus, the most famous Jewish historian of the day.


Author’s Note 2

Royal figures are often shown riding on donkeys in the Old Testament (2 Samuel 18:9; 1 Kings 1:32–40). Is Jesus literally riding on both donkeys, as Matthew seems to imply?


Author’s Note 3

See especially Isaiah 5:8–22, as 5:1–7 was just referred to in the parable of the wicked tenants.


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