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MATTHEW - Chapter 21

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Matthew 21

Supplemental Commentary:

I.  PUBLIC MINISTRY OF JESUS   3-25 (continued)

6.  Last Ministry at Jerusalem  21-25

21, 1-11:  Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem.  Parallels in Mark 11, 1-11a; Luke 19, 29-44; John 12, 12-19.  The only Evangelist who gives us definite information about the time when this occurred is John.  According to the Fourth Gospel the Passover in that year fell on a Saturday (cf. 18, 28; 19, 14.31); "six days before the Passover," when Christ was anointed at Bethany (cf. 12, 1), would seem to be the preceding Sunday; hence "the next day" after the anointing, when Jesus entered Jerusalem in triumph (cf. 12, 12), would apparently be Monday.  However, some scholars, arguing from the Synoptics' account of the Last Supper, conclude that the Friday on which Our Lord died was the Passover itself and that the anointing at Bethany "six days before the Passover" occurred on the preceding Saturday; the triumphal entry into Jerusalem on "the next day" would then have taken place on Sunday.  The Church in her liturgy favors this second opinion.

1.  From the Synoptic Gospels alone we might think that our Lord made the whole journey from Jericho to Jerusalem (about twelve miles of steep ascent) on the same day.  But from John 12, 1.12 we know that He stayed at Bethany for at least one day before entering the Holy City.  Bethphage is generally considered the name of a village that lay somewhere between Bethany and the Mount of Olives, although its exact site cannot be determined.  But according to Luke, the only one besides Matthew who speaks of it, Christ apparently reaches Bethphage before He comes to Bethany.  Bethphage means "the house of green figs," i.e., the grove of fig-trees.  In the Talmud it is the name of the whole region immediately around Jerusalem.  Perhaps the Gospels also use this word as the name of a region in which Bethany was situated.  The Mount of Olives is the ridge of high hills immediately to the east of Jerusalem, separated from the city by the deep valley of the Cedron.  It received its name from the "Olivet" (Luke), i.e., the olive grove, that grew on its lower slopes.    2-4.  Jesus intentionally makes arrangements in order to fulfill the Messianic prophecy of Zach. 9, 9.  Although His followers still have a wrong idea of the Messias as a temporal prince, He now permits them to acclaim Him publicly as the Messias.  His purpose was partly to reward their fidelity with this brief moment of joy and triumph and to strengthen their faith against the approaching hour of darkness, and partly to force the issue with His adversaries and thus bring about His sacrificial death according to the will of His Father.    5.  This prophecy of Zach. 9, 9 is acknowledged by all as directly Messianic.  It is also cited in John 12, 15.  Both Evangelists give a somewhat free translation.  In Matthew the first words are assimilated to Isa. 62, 11.

6.  Mark and Luke tell us in detail that everything happened just as Jesus had foretold.    7.  Matthew alone mentions both animals.  In the prophecy of Zacharias the ass is the same animal as the colt, synonyms being used for the sake of Hebrew parallelism.  It is unfair to St. Matthew to say that he did not understand this.  He simply narrates the fact that the colt on which Jesus rode was accompanied by its mother.  The cloaks laid on the animals and spread out upon the road were the customary signs of a festive procession.    8.  These branches were no doubt from the olive trees of the grove through which they were passing.  John (12, 13) alone mentions "the branches of palms" that they carried in their hands as symbols of triumph.    9.  The crowds that went before him, as distinct from the crowd that accompanied Him from Bethany (7; John 12, 9) and followed him, were Galilean pilgrims who came out of Jerusalem to meet Him (cf. John 12, 12 f); it is unfair to accuse them of fickleness, for the crowds that demanded His death on Good Friday were natives of Jerusalem who had always been opposed to Him (cf. Acts 13, 27 f).  The words Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! are from Ps. 117, 26.  Perhaps these people meant them in the sense that "Christ comes in the name of the Lord," i.e., as God's Anointed.  But in the original Psalm they mean, "Blessed in the name of the Lord is he who comes," i.e., the Lord's name is invoked in a blessing upon him who enters the temple.  Hosanna occurs in the preceding verse in this Psalm in its original sense of "Do save!"  But here it is used as a mere cry of cheering.  Each of the four Evangelists records different exclamations of the people.    10 f.  The excitement within Jerusalem which this triumphant entry of Jesus caused, is mentioned only in Matthew.  But cf. Mark 11, 11a.

21, 12-17:  Cleansing of the Temple.  Parallels in Mark 11, 15-19 and Luke 19, 45-48.  John 2, 13-17 records a similar but distinct event.  See Commentary there.  It was this final attack on the lucrative business of the High Priest's party in the temple that, human speaking, sealed the fate of Jesus.  It was not so much His earlier adversaries, the Pharisees, as it was these new enemies, the party of the High Priest, who brought about the death of Christ.  Charges of hostility to the temple played an important part in His trial (cf. 26, 61; 27, 40).  There can be no doubt therefore that this last "cleansing of the temple" took place but a few days before the Crucifixion.  Mark is explicit in stating that on the day of the triumphal entry into Jerusalem Jesus merely "looked round upon all things" in the temple, and that it was only on the next day that He drove the scandalous traffic from the temple (cf. Mark 11, 11 f.15).  Matthew and Luke, who place this event on the same day as the triumphal entry, must therefore be considered as combining both visits to the temple into one narrative.    13.  This quotation from Isa. 56, 7 is cited in full in the Second Gospel.  A den of thieves: cf. Jer. 7, 11.    14-16.  This account of the miracles in the temple and of the hosannas of the children is peculiar to Matthew.  These events probably took place on the second day in the temple, for on the first day Christ spent very little time there (cf. Mark 11, 11b).    14.  The blind and the lame used to gather at the gates of the temple to beg alms of the worshippers (cf. Acts 3, 2).    15.  The chief priests and the Scribes are here probably not a formal delegation of the Sanhedrin as in 23.  The were indignant at the acclamations of the children because the Son of David was a Messianic title.    16.  By citing these words of Ps. 8, 3 Jesus shows that He accepts with approval the children's praise.  Humble and simple souls recognize Him as the Christ, while the worldly-wise do not (cf. 11, 25; 1 Cor. 1, 26-29).    17.  Each night except His last during Holy Week Jesus stayed at Bethany (cf. Mark 11, 11.19; Luke 21, 37), probably in the house of Lazarus or of Simon, the leper (cf. 26, 6).  Bethany was about one and a half miles from Jerusalem, on the southeast side of the Mount of Olives.

21, 18-22:  Jesus Curses a Fig Tree.  Parallel in Mark 11, 12-14.20-24.  Matthew again compresses two events into one.  Mark gives us the exact order of events: on the morning after the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, i.e., on the same day as the cleansing of the temple, Jesus cursed the fruitless tree; on the following morning the disciples noticed that the tree was completely withered, and Jesus then gave them an instruction on the power of prayer that is accompanied by unwavering faith.  Matthew's statement that immediately the fig tree withered up as soon as Jesus cursed it, must therefore be understood to mean that the curse was immediately effective and the tree died at once, but that the withering of its leaves was not noticeable until the next day.  Unless we see a deeper meaning in this deed of Christ we can hardly understand why He acted as He did or why the Evangelists should have thought it worth while recording.  Nor is it reasonable to suppose that Christ cursed the fruitless tree solely for the purpose of teaching the disciples about the power of prayer with unwavering faith.  The latter lesson was taught merely because the disciples were more interested in knowing how Christ had worked the miracle rather than in knowing why He had acted as He did.  Our Lord's action on this occasion is probably to be considered as purely symbolic like the frequent symbolic actions of the prophets (cf. 1 Kgs. 11, 7; 3 Kgs. 11, 29-32; 22, 11; Isa. 20, 2 ff; Jer. 13, 1 ff; 27, 2 ff; Ezech. 4; 5; Acts 21, 11; etc.).

The meaning of Christ's action is clear from His parable of The Barren Fig Tree (Luke 13, 6-9).  Whether Jesus actually was physically hungry or not is immaterial (in Palestine people ordinarily did not eat in the morning); He told the disciple that he felt hungry (if He had not said so, they would not have known of His hunger), to signify His ardent desire to see the good fruits of religion.  The fig tree standing alone (in Greek 19 means, "And seeing a single fig tree by the wayside") signifies Israel whom God had planted and separated from the Gentiles.  The appearance of leaves but no fruit symbolizes Israel's pretense to a righteousness which it should have possessed but did not.  Near Jerusalem a fruit tree should be bearing unripe figs at the beginning of April.  The small green figs appear before the leaves at the beginning of March and are fully ripe by the beginning of June.  Mark's statement that "it was not the season for figs" refers to the fully ripened figs.  Symbolically this signifies that Christ had the right to expect of Israel at least the imperfect justice of the Old Law even though it was not yet time for the full perfection of the New Law.  Israel was cursed and died spiritually at the time of Christ's crucifixion, although for a while it still bore the appearance of spiritual life before it withered completely at the destruction of Jerusalem.    21 f.  Cf. 17, 19; Luke 17, 6; Jas. 1, 6.

21, 23-27:  The Authority of Jesus.  Parallels in Mark 11, 27-33 and Luke 20, 1-8.    23.  The chief priests and elders of the people: the other two Evangelists also mention the Scribes; this was therefore an official delegation from the Sanhedrin.  They were not primarily concerned about Christ's right to teach.  These men were mostly Sadducees and up to the present had largely ignored His teaching.  But by attempting to correct the abuses in the temple He had now come in direct conflict with them.  To do these things therefore means "to drive the worldly business from the temple."  Jesus would have no authority to do so unless He were the Messias.  But it would be of no avail for Him to tell them this outright, for He had already given them more than sufficient proof of this truth and they would not accept it.    24 f.  Our Lord's question should not be considered merely as an irrelevant conundrum proposed simply for the sake of embarrassing His adversaries.  The question about John's authority has a very intimate relation to the question of His own authority.  John "was sent from God, . . . to bear witness concerning the light, that all might believe through him" (John 1, 6 f).  The Baptist had pointed out Jesus as the Messias (cf. John 1, 29-34; 3, 25-30), and Jesus had often appealed to this testimony (cf. especially John 5, 31-35).    27.  By feigning ignorance about John's authority these men admit failure in their official duty, for according to the Talmud one of the chief functions of the Sanhedrin was to judge and condemn false prophets.  For our Lord's refusal to enlighten them any further, cf. 13, 12.  Note that after the first "Cleansing of the Temple" Christ's authority was likewise questioned (cf. John 2, 18).

21, 28-32:  Parable of the Two Sons.  Only in Matthew.  This parable, as well as the following one, was spoken to the same men who had questioned His authority (cf. 31 f.45).    29-31.  Almost all of the critical editions of the Greek text follow Codex Vaticanus and a few other manuscripts in reading for the first son, "But he answered and said, 'I go, sir'; but he did not go"; and for the second son, "But he answered and said, 'I will not'; but afterwards he regretted it and went."  In this case the answer is of course that "the latter" son did the father's will.  This order is more in keeping with Christ's other parables (cf. the older and the younger son in Luke 15, 11 ff) and more in conformity with Christ's answer in 32.  Otherwise the inversion in the Vulgate is unimportant.  On obedience in deed rather than in mere word, cf. 7, 21; Luke 6, 46.    31.  The publicans and harlots are entering the kingdom of God before you: i.e., they have a better chance of being saved than you have (cf. Luke 18, 14), for, although they at first say, "I will not" to God's commands, later on they repent and do God's will.    32.  In the way of justice: i.e., preaching justice (cf. Luke 3, 10-14) and leading a just life (cf. 11, 18), so that all should have acknowledged that his authority was from God (cf. 25).  The publicans and the harlots believed him: cf. Luke 3, 12 f.  Seeing it: i.e., the repentance of the publicans; even this moral miracle did not move the chief priests to repentance---a clear sign of their own reprobation.  Cf. Luke 7, 29 f.

21, 33-46:  Parable of the Vine-dressers.  Parallels in Mark 12, 1-12 and Luke 20, 9-19.  As a story this parable is perfectly clear.    33.  A hedge: more exactly according to the Greek, "a fence, a wall" of stones.  The present very common use of cactus hedges in Palestine began only after the discovery of America, whence the cactus plant was introduced into the Old World.  The purpose of the fence about the vineyard was to protect it from marauders and wild animals.  A wine vat for the juice of the pressed grapes: this is the literal meaning of the word in Mark, but in Matthew the word is more exactly "a wine press," i.e., the upper receptacle in which the grapes were crushed under foot (cf. Isa. 16, 10; 63, 2 f; Jer. 48, 33; Joel 3, 13).  The tower in the center of the vineyard gave the watchman who guarded the vines against birds, animals and robbers, an elevated and sheltered observation post (cf. Job 27, 18; Cant. 1, 5; Isa. 1, 8).  These vine-dressers were "share-croppers"; cf. Luke: "That they might give him part of the fruit of the vineyard."    34-36.  According to Matthew the servants who are sent to collect the owner's share of the crop come in groups, according to Mark and Luke they come individually at various times.    37.  His son: in the other two Gospels, "His beloved son," i.e., his only son (see Commentary on 17, 5); he was the only messenger that the householder had left (cf. Mark).    38.  It would be beside the point to look for the legal grounds upon which the vine-dressers hoped to gain possession of the vineyard, for the parable aims to show that they acted not only unjustly but insanely.    39.  Luke agrees with Matthew in having the son first cast out of the vineyard and then killed; according to Mark the son is first killed inside the vineyard and then his corpse is cast out; the latter would be the more natural order in the story itself, while the former is more in keeping with the application of the parable.    40 f.  In Mark and Luke Christ Himself answers the question.  However, Matthew seems more exact here; for it was Christ's custom to make His adversaries add the final word to a parable before they are aware of the full implication of their own admission (cf. 31; Luke 10, 36).  In this case the delegates of the Sanhedrin probably answered the question in a general way and when Christ made clear the full meaning of the parable they exclaimed, "God forbid!" (cf. Luke).

The application of the parable is clear and certain.  In it Christ proposed several important truths.    33.  The householder is God.  His vineyard is Israel.  The same figure is used in Isa. 5, 1 f, from which passage Christ borrowed the description of God's care for the vineyard.  This description need not be understood symbolically in all its details, although the hedge was probably intended to signify the moral and physical safeguards that God employed in order to keep His chosen people separated from the Gentiles (cf. "the intervening wall of the enclosure" between the Jews and the Gentiles which Christ broke down, Eph. 2, 14---the same word in Greek in both passages).  The vine-dressers are the rulers and the people of Israel who were to bring forth spiritual fruit in due season.  That the householder went abroad signifies that after the bestowal of the Law on Mount Sinai God did not ordinarily intervene directly except through the assistance of His grace but let Israel work out its own salvation.    34.  His servants sent to the vine-dressers to receive his fruits were the prophets whom God sent at various times either singly or in groups.    35.  All of the prophets were more or less rejected by the people, several of them were physically maltreated and a few of them, as Zacharias the son of Joiada and John the Baptist, were put to death.  Cf. 23, 35-37.    37 f.  The son and heir of the householder is Jesus.  He clearly differentiates Himself from all the previous prophets: they were but the servants, literally the "slaves," of God; He is God's "only Son."  This is the first instance in the Synoptic Gospels where Jesus publicly proclaims that He is not only the Messias but the Son of God in a unique sense.  God's special love for Israel is shown by sending as His last messenger His own Son in the hope that they would respect at least Him.    39.  That they cast him out of the vineyard and killed him signifies that Christ would be rejected by the Jews and handed over to the Gentiles to be crucified (cf. 20, 18 f); others see in this a prediction that Jesus would "suffer outside the gate" of Jerusalem (Heb. 13, 12), but this is rendered somewhat doubtful by the variant form in Mark.    40 f.  The punishment of Israel is two-fold: their spiritual inheritance will be taken from them and given to the Gentiles (cf. 43), and they themselves will be destroyed---a prophecy of the destruction of Jerusalem, the authenticity of which is admitted even by the critics.

42.  The quotation is from Ps. 117, 22, cited also in Acts 4, 11 and 1 Pet. 2, 7; for a similar prophecy of Christ as the corner stone cf. Isa. 28, 16; 1 Pet. 2, 6; and as a stone of stumbling, cf. Isa. 8, 14; 1 Pet. 2, 8; both passages are combined in Rom. 9, 33.  The corner stone: literally "the head of the angle," a Hebrew expression which may also mean "the keystone" of an arch; in any case it refers to Christ as the bond between two rows of stones which are the Old and the New Covenants; cf. Eph. 2, 20.    44.  This saying of Christ is not in Mark and is of doubtful authenticity in Matthew, but it is certainly original in Luke.  There is an allusion to the prophecy of Isa. 8, 14 f and probably also to Dan. 2, 34 f.45.  The "crucified Christ is a stumbling-block to the Jews" (1 Cor. 1, 23).    45 f.  The rulers of the Jews were now determined to do away with Jesus because they understood that He proclaimed Himself the true owner of God's vineyard and that He threatened to depose them and appoint new rulers of His people.

Confraternity Bible:

Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem  1 And when they drew near to Jerusalem, and came to Bethpage, on the Mount of Olives, then Jesus sent two disciples, 2 saying to them, "Go into the village opposite you, and immediately you will find an ass tied, and a colt with her; loose them and bring them to me.  3 And if anyone say anything to you, you shall say that the Lord has need of them, and immediately he will send them."  4 Now this was done that what was spoken through the prophet might be fulfilled,
5* "Tell the daughter of Sion: Behold, thy king comes to thee,

Meek and seated upon an ass, and upon a colt, the foal of a beast of burden."
6 So the disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them.  7 And they brought the ass and the colt, laid their cloaks on them, and made him sit thereon.  8 And most of the crowd spread their cloaks upon the road, while others were cutting branches from the trees, and strewing them on the road.  9* And the crowds that went before him, and those that followed, kept crying out, saying,
"Hosanna to the Son of David! 

Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! 

Hosanna in the highest!" 
10 And when he entered Jerusalem, all the city was thrown into commotion, saying, "Who is this?"  11 But the crowds kept saying, "This is Jesus the prophet from Nazareth of Galilee."

Cleansing of the Temple  12 And Jesus entered the temple of God, and cast out all those who were selling and buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the  money-changers and the seats of those who sold the doves.  13* And he said to them, "It is written,
'My house shall be called a house of prayer';
 but you have made it a den of thieves." 

14 And the blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he healed them.  15 But the chief priests and the Scribes, seeing the wonderful deeds that he did, and the children crying out in the temple, and saying, "Hosanna to the Son of David," were indignant, 16* and said to him, "Dost thou hear what these are saying?"  And Jesus said to them, "Yes; have you never read,
'Out of the mouth of infants and sucklings thou hast perfected praise'?" 
17 And leaving them, he went out of the city to Bethany and he stayed there.

Jesus Curses a Fig Tree  18* Now in the morning, on his way back to the city, he felt hungry.  19 And seeing a fig tree by the wayside, he came up to it, and found nothing on it but leaves; and he said to it, "May no fruit ever come from thee henceforward forever!"  And immediately the fig tree withered up.

20 And upon seeing this the disciples marvelled, saying, "How did it come to wither up immediately?"  21 But Jesus answered and said to them, "Amen I say to you, if you have faith and do not waver, not only will you do what I have done to the fig tree, but even if you shall say to this mountain, 'Arise, and hurl thyself into the sea,' it shall be done.  22 And all things whatever you ask for in prayer, believing, you shall receive."

The Authority of Jesus  23 And when he had come into the temple, the chief priests and elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, "By what authority dost thou do these things?  And who gave thee this authority?"  24 Jesus answered and said to them, "I also will ask you one question, and if you answer me this, I in turn will tell you by what authority I do these things.  25 Whence was the baptism of John? from heaven, or from men?"  But they began to argue among themselves, saying, 26 "If we say, 'From heaven,' he will say to us, 'Why then did you not believe him?'  But if we say, 'From men,' we fear the people, for all regard John as a prophet."  27 And they answered Jesus and said, "We do not know."  Then he in turn said to them, "Neither do I tell you by what authority I do these things.

Parable of the Two Sons  28 "But what do you think?  A man had two sons; and he came to the first and said, 'Son, go and work today in my vineyard.'  29 But he answered and said, 'I will not'; but afterwards he regretted it and went.  30 And he came to the other and spoke in the same manner.  And this one answered, 'I go, sir'; but he did not go.  31 Which of the two did the father's will?"  They said, "The first."  Jesus said to them, "Amen I say to you, the publicans and harlots are entering the kingdom of God before you.  32 For John came to you in the way of justice, and you did not believe him.  But the publicans and the harlots believed him; whereas you, seeing it, did not even repent afterwards, that you might believe him.

Parable of the Vine-dressers  33 "Hear another parable.  There was a man, a  householder, who planted a vineyard, and put a hedge about it, and dug a wine vat in it, and built a tower; then he let it out to vine-dressers, and went abroad.  34 But when the fruit season drew near, he sent his servants to the vine-dressers to receive his fruits.  35 And the vine-dressers seized his servants, and beat one, killed another, and stoned another.  36 Again he sent another party of servants more numerous than the first; and they did the same to these.  37* Finally he sent his son to them, saying, 'They will respect my son.'

38 "But the vine-dressers, on seeing the son, said among themselves, 'This is the heir; come, let us kill him, and we shall have his inheritance.'  39 So they seized him, cast him out of the vineyard, and killed him.  40 When, therefore, the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those vine-dressers?"  41 They said to him, "He will utterly destroy those evil men, and will let out the vineyard to other vine-dressers, who will render to him the fruits in their season."

42* Jesus said to them, "Did you never read in the Scriptures,
'The stone which the builders rejected, has become the corner stone;

By the Lord this has been done, and it is wonderful in our eyes'?  
43 Therefore I say to you, that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and will be given to a people yielding its fruits.  44 And he who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; but upon whomever it falls, it will grind him to powder."

45 And when the chief priests and Pharisees had heard his parables, they knew that he was speaking about them.  46 And though they sought to lay hands on him, they feared the people, because they regarded him as a prophet.


5: Isa. 62, 11; Zach. 9, 9.

9: Ps. 117, 26.  Son of David: the title is clearly messianic; for the first time our Lord permits a public manifestation in honor of Himself as the Messias.  Hosanna: addressed to God, means "Save us, we pray."  The word, however, seems to have been used as a joyous exclamation of welcome.

13: Isa. 56, 7; Jer. 7, 11.

16: Ps. 8, 3.

18: The incident of the fig tree seems to be a parable in action.  The tree was cursed because, despite fine external appearances, it bore no fruit.  Cf. Luke 13, 6-9 on the sterile fig tree.

37: The son of the householder represents the Son of God who will be put to death outside of Jerusalem.

42: Ps. 117, 22; Isa. 28, 16.