Brian P. Stoffregen Exegetical Notes at

Matthew 21.23-32
Proper 21 - Year A

Other texts: 

Ezekiel 18-1-4, 25-32

Psalm 25-1-8

Philippians 2-1-13

Matthew 21-23-32 at TextWeek


Jesus enters Jerusalem as the humble king. The crowds are shouting "Hosanna to the Son of David!" (21:9). At the same time, the city asks, "Who is this?" (21:10). The crowds answer, "This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee" (21:11).

Then Jesus enters the temple and drives out the sellers and buyers and overturns the tables. Apparently, while Jesus is in the temple, the blind and lame come and are healed. These miracles along with the children crying, "Hosanna to the Son of David," cause the chief priests and scribes to become angry. (21:15). (Are there people today who might get a bit angry if there were miracles that disrupted the liturgy or children making too much noise in their praise of God in church?)

Jesus leaves the temple for Bethany and returns to the city and curses the fig tree.


Then comes our text. Jesus returns to the temple -- where, when he left the day before, the chief priests and scribes were angry at him. Given the deeds of the previous day, it seems only natural that the chief priests and the elders would ask about his credentials.

Boring (Matthew, New Interpreters Commentary) suggests this outline for this section on Jesus' Authority:

Jesus' authority challenged (21:23)

    A Jesus' question (21:24-27)

         B Three parables
         1 The Two Sons (21:28-32)
          2 The Lord's Vineyard (21:33-46)
          3 The Great Supper (22:1-14)

        B' Three controversy stories
            1 Taxes to the Emperor (22:15-22)
            2 The Resurrection (22:23-33)
            3 The Great Commandment (22:34-40)

    A' Jesus' question (22:41-46)

We will be looking at all of these texts except one over the next few weeks. All are assigned a Sunday in the Revised Common Lectionary except the controversy about the Resurrection (22:23-33).

Jesus' response to the challenge to his authority indicates two possibilities: authority can come from heaven or from humans.

Long (Matthew) says the following about the two forms of authority:

First, there is human authority. No matter how sophisticatedly it is packaged, human authority is a matter of raw power. If you have enough people behind you or guns with you, you have it, and what you say goes, period. Divine authority, on the other hand, has to do with truth, the truth of God, the truth about who God made us to be. In the short run, human authority can appear to overwhelm divine authority -- even to crucify it -- but, ultimately, God's truth prevails. [p. 241]

Jesus responds to their question by asking a question.

They "discussed" or "dialogued" (dialogizomai) how they might answer Jesus. This discussion indicates that their authority came from humans. They don't seem to pray to ask for God's guidance. They are concerned about what Jesus or the crowds would say or do to them. With either answer, they would "lose face" (or lose "authority") before people.

Daniel Patte (The Gospel According to Matthew) makes this observation:

Even though the chief priests and the elders correctly view authority as something given to someone and not as an intrinsic part of someone's being, for them once it has been received this authority characterizes that person. For them, Jesus has an authority, and with it he does certain things. By contrast, Jesus does not speak of John's authority but rather of the authority of his baptism: "The baptism of John, whence was it"? (21:25a). In other words, authority, for Jesus, is attached to an act, to what a person does, rather than to the person. The person does not have authority; what a person does, such as the baptism performed by John, is authoritative. [p. 294]

What Jesus has done in the preceding paragraphs was to ride into Jerusalem as a humble, conquering king. He has rejected the temple activities of buying and selling with his own activity of healing -- restoring people to wholeness.

Some time ago I received a phone call from a lady whom I don't know. She had been active in a church, (but I don't know which one). Her husband hadn't been involved in church. He lost his right arm in an accident at work. While in the hospital, he had a life-changing experience with God, who had given him the choice of going or staying. He decided to stay. His life has been changed. Prior to his experience, his wife had said to him -- and she didn't know where it came from: "When you see my mother (who had died), don't go with her." With hindsight, the wife is certain that such words could have only come from God. Her life and her understanding of God has changed. The difficulty that she is having, and why she called me (as well as some other clergy), is that people from her church -- even close friends -- can't buy her husband's experience with God. "God wouldn't do something like that for someone who didn't believe in Jesus," seems to be the essence of their message to her. "It must have been the devil speaking to him." "Going with that person must have meant going to hell."

Could it be that this families' experiences with God, as well as the religious leaders' experiences with Jesus in the temple; can threaten our comfortable understanding of God and God's ways with people in the world?

A similar thing happened with the spread of the "charismatic movement" among mainline congregations. Many wouldn't believe that the true God would act like that. I'm certain that if Jesus had said that his authority came from God, they wouldn't have believed him, just as there are people who can't believe that my caller's experiences had come from God. "My faith is made up. Don't confuse me with the Bible," is a phrase I have frequently used.

I'm wondering if it is God who comes and does things that threaten and shatter our understandings of God; and that it is the demonic who wants us to maintain the status quo about God -- which will normally be too narrow an understanding of the God whose ways are far beyond our own. I'm also reminded of the book of Acts where it took some mighty miracles of the Holy Spirit to move the Jewish believers in Jerusalem out beyond their own area and beyond their own people.

Carter (Matthew and the Margins) comments on the response in v. 27:

So they answered Jesus, "We do not know." They choose a path of non-commitment, which, ironically, betrays their commitment. To not answer displays not genuine ignorance (their debate in 21:25 shows they know the options) but deliberate resistance. In refusing to say that John's ministry comes from God, they reject the claim that John and Jesus have God-given authority. To refuse this recognition is to reveal their own illegitimacy. Like the Pharisees and their tradition (15:1-9), they are not God's planting (1513-14). They are of human origin. Jesus has now exposed and discredited the whole religious leadership. Judgment on them and their temple is inevitable. [p. 424]

How often is a congregation's inactivity or non-commitment a betrayal of their misplaced commitments? This leads to the next parable.


Matthew, I think, more than the other gospels, has an emphasis on deeds (or fruit-bearing). Long (Matthew) points out this emphasis:

This parable is, in its own way, a narrative depiction of Jesus' earlier statement in the Sermon on the Mount: "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my father in heaven" (Matt. 7:21). [p. 243]

The short parable, as presented in the Bible, emphasizes that deeds are more important than words. On one level, this short parable addresses the church/synagogue tension present in Matthew's community. The synagogue were the people who had said "Yes" to God, but who had failed to go and work. They were not doing God's will. The church, especially with "sinful" Jesus and Gentile converts, were those who originally had said "No" to God, but who had changed their minds and did what God had asked.

However, related to this is the warning that even the church, who are now the "Yes" people, the people who have said "Yes" to the Messiah, could become those who say the right words, but fail to act on them. It is a parable and warning for the people in our congregation's today.

There are some cultures, and some variant readings of this parable, where the answer to Jesus' question would be "the second" -- the son who said he would go, but didn't. Saying "no" to one's father in some traditions is a worse offense than not doing what the father ask. "What kind of father would raise a son who would speak that way to him?" Rather than picking which variant reading is more right (or less wrong) than the other, I've usually preached that both sons needed changing.

Scott (Hear Then the Parable) suggests the same thing -- both sons are wrong. Scott frames it in the sense of honor -- a son who publicly says "no" to his father is shaming his father.

When the parable hearer is asked to choose between the two sons, a dilemma arises. Both sons have insulted the father, one by saying no, the other by saying yes but doing nothing. But one comes to the family's aid by going into the vineyard and upholding family solidarity, while the other maintains the family's good name by appearing on the surface to be a good son. Would the father choose to be publicly honored and privately shamed, or publicly shamed and privately honored? In the first century C.E. that is not much of a choice. The real question is with which one he would be more angry. But in being forced to choose, he must choose between the apparent and the real, between one who appears to be inside the family and one who appears to be outside. [p. 84]

This parable is about doing the will of God (v. 31). The question, "What is God's will for my life?" is one that Christians often ask. However, answering that question with "obeying God and working in the fields" too easily leads to a works righteousness, which we try to avoid.

For me, the key to this parable is the word metamelomai. Although the NRSV translates it "to change one's mind," (vv. 29, 32) that is not the most literal understanding of this word. Usually the idea of "changing one's mind" or "repenting" is conveyed by the Greek word metanoeo.

The prefix meta = "change" begins both words.

The verb noeo is related to activities of the mind (nous)

The verb melo has the sense "to care for," so we might translate metamelomai as "changing what one cares about" or "to change what one is most concerned about."

Verse 29 can be translated:

He answering said, "I am not willing," [present tense in Gk]
but later having a change of heart, he went.

We might say of the religious leaders of v. 32, "They would not change their hearts" -- or to use an OT phrase: "Their hearts were hard."

Jensen (Preaching Matthew's Gospel) suggests this theme from v. 32: "Seeing is not yet believing! Seeing is to lead to repentance."

What "seeing" should have brought about a change in their lives that lead to believing?

The first answer is seeing the life of John who "came in the way of righteousness," which implies more than just hearing what he said, but also observing what he did. Were his actions authoritative? Did his actions evoke repentance and faith?

The second answer is seeing the change in the lives of tax collectors and prostitutes. I'm not always sure that we believe that God can "turn around" the lives of such obvious sinners. We tend to approach such dramatic conversions with a lot of skepticism. Might that also imply that we are likely to close ourselves off from the transforming power of God? We are content with our relatively comfortable lives and we don't want God coming and messing that up by calling us to new and different concerns (besides self) to care about. Could it also be that we don't want God messing up our church, by having such "sinners" coming into our comfortable fellowship?

I also wonder how many congregations, if they did have a former prostitute or thief or traitor (an assumption about the ancient tax collectors) as active members, would have them talk about the transformation that God had effected in their lives? Would they be willing to reveal their sinful past? Would they still be accepted by others if such pasts were known? We need to keep in mind that such testimonies are not really about "me and my sinfulness," but about the powerful grace and love of God that can change people. I'm certain that there are many people in every congregation who have had powerful, life-changing, experiences with God. Should we have them share them? Would we believe them?

There seems to be the attitude among Jesus' opponents and among many today, "Conversion and all that new religious stuff is all right for them, but I don't need it."

The primary point of this parable is about having a change in heart, not just about saying or doing the right things. The following stories might illustrate this point.

Once there were two couples. Couple A were married in a large, beautiful church ceremony. They pledge life-long faithfulness and love to each other in the moving words of their vows. However, their life together has been one of abuse -- both physical and verbal. They both have been unfaithful to each other.

Couple B live together. They had no public ceremony. They signed no marriage license. They spoke no vows in the presence of witnesses. However, their life together is a loving and affirming relationship. They have remained faithful to each other.

Which couple would you say is doing the will of God?

Both need change of hearts -- couple A in the way they act towards each other and couple B in their attitudes about the importance of the words in a public ceremony.

Another analogy might be with those who attend church and say all the right words, but whose lives fall somewhat short of John's "way of righteousness" and others who live exemplary lives; but who want nothing to do with "organized religion" and the public expression of their faith. Both need "a change of heart".

Another analogy comes from Isaiah 55:2:

Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,
and your labor for that which does not satisfy?
Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good,
and delight yourselves in rich food.

I've met many people who have to have their fishing/skiing boats, their snow machines, their four-wheelers, their RVs, their recreation time, etc. I recently had a member who had never been too regular in worship state that her confirmation age daughter has softball practice at 10:00 on Sunday morning. Should softball practice be a higher care or priority than attending worship services? What can we do or say to such people so that they might have a "change in what they care about" -- that is, a change in what is truly important in their lives? Many, like the religious leaders in the first part of our text, are unwilling to make a decision about who is the authority in their lives, but by not deciding, they have decided.

Brian Stoffregen
Faith Lutheran Church, 2215 S 8th Ave., Yuma, AZ 85364