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Jesus refutes the criticism of the chief priests and teachers of the law
Matthew chapter 21, verses 14-17
The blind and the lame came to him at the temple, and he healed them. But when the chief priests and the teachers of the law saw the wonderful things he did and the children shouting in the temple area, “Hosanna to the Son of David,” they were indignant. “Do you hear what these children are saying?” they asked him. “Yes,” replied Jesus, “have you never read, “‘From the lips of children and infants you have ordained praise’?” And he left them and went out of the city to Bethany, where he spent the night.
It is easy to read over verse 14 too quickly. Jesus’ miracles of healing start to seem almost routine because there were so many of them. But there was nothing routine about it for the people who were healed. They and their families were touched by the powerful love of the Savior in a way that they would not soon forget. All of these miracles were signs by which the Jews were to recognize the Messiah when he came. The prophet Isaiah had foretold, “Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy” (Isaiah chapter 35, verses 5 and 6).
The children in the temple area who were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David,” were very likely young boys about 12 years old who had come to Jerusalem for their first observance of the Passover. The day before, on Palm Sunday, they had been out in the streets of Jerusalem when Jesus made his triumphant entry into the city. Now they saw Jesus again, and they echoed the words the crowds had shouted the day before, “Hosanna to the Son of David.”
We cannot say for sure whether the children realized what they were saying, but it is clear that the chief priests and the teachers of the law did. That is why they were so upset. All the commotion connected with the commercialism in the temple did not bother them at all, but the uninhibited shouts of the children were intolerable to them because they did not agree with what the children were saying.
Jesus refuted their criticism in this way: You reject me, and therefore you refuse to sing my praises. By so doing, you also take away glory from my heavenly Father. If you reject me, you reject him also. But God will be praised. You cannot prevent it simply by refusing to do it yourselves. For if you refuse to do so, little children will sing the praises of God. Remember what it says in Psalm 8, verses 1 and 2: “O LORD, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory above the heavens. From the lips of children and infants you have ordained praise because of your enemies, to silence the foe and the avenger.”
Another miracle: Jesus curses the fig tree
Matthew chapter 21, verses 18-22
Early in the morning, as he was on his way back to the city, he was hungry. Seeing a fig tree by the road, he went up to it but found nothing on it except leaves. Then he said to it, “May you never bear fruit again!” Immediately the tree withered. When the disciples saw this, they were amazed. “How did the fig tree wither so quickly?” they asked. Jesus replied, “I tell you the truth, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only can you do what was done to the fig tree, but also you can say to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and it will be done. If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.”
Jesus spent the night in the village of Bethany. When it says that he headed back into Jerusalem “early in the morning,” the implication seems to be that he did not have any breakfast. So he was hungry, but there were no figs on the tree. Although it was early in the season for figs, some commentators claim that there is a particular kind of fig tree that bears fruit before its leaves appear in the springtime.
It is easy to get the impression from Matthew that the fig tree withered in a minute, while the disciples were standing there watching. But it is clear from Mark’s account that Jesus cursed the fig tree on Monday morning, and the disciples noticed that it had withered when they came by on Tuesday morning.
It may be significant that Jesus cursed the fig tree on Monday morning and then went into Jerusalem and cleansed the temple. Both the use of force and the utterance of a curse seem to be uncharacteristic of Jesus. But both incidents are urgent invitations to repentance. Jesus knows that his crucifixion is only a few days away and many of the people who are in Jerusalem for the Passover are blind to the seriousness of their sin. So he emphasizes his call to repentance by providing a couple of stunning visual aids.
It would be a mistake to see the cursing of the fig tree as Jesus losing his temper when he found no food to satisfy his hunger. This miracle was intended to call to mind the preaching of John the Baptist: “Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. . . . The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire” (Luke chapter 3, verses 8 and 9).
This stern summons to repentance is complemented by Jesus’ instruction on the power of prayer. “If you believe,” Jesus tells us, “you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.” Without faith, it is impossible to pray at all, and doubt is debilitating in the believer’s life of prayer (see James chapter 1, verses 5-8). If we pray only as a last resort, after everything else we can think of has failed, just in case it might help without actually believing that it will, we are not praying as Christ taught us to pray. The reason we pray with all boldness and confidence is that we know to whom we are praying. Our dear Lord has invited us to pray and promised that he will listen, so we can be sure that he knows what is best for us and that he has the power to give it to us.
This is not the only place where Jesus appears to give believers a blank check. He also says, “I will do whatever you ask in my name” (John chapter 14, verse 13). And his beloved apostle John says, “This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. And if we know that he hears us—whatever we ask—we know that we have what we asked of him” (1st John chapter 5, verses 14 and 15). So does that mean all you have to do is ask him, and you are guaranteed to win the lottery?
To pray in Jesus’ name means, first of all, to believe that, by his sinless life and his substitutionary death, he has paid the debt of your sins and delivered you from death and the power of the devil. He is the only Savior you will ever have or need. So to pray in his name means to base your requests not upon your own worthiness but upon the worthiness that he has imparted to you. And, of course, this will make a difference when you decide what to pray for. People who fear, love, and trust in God above all things are people who pray, “Thy will be done.” And when they ask for earthly blessings, like their Savior, they pray, “Nevertheless, not my will but Thine be done.”
Jesus defends his authority
Matthew chapter 21, verses 23-27
Jesus entered the temple courts, and, while he was teaching, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him. “By what authority are you doing these things?” they asked. “And who gave you this authority?” Jesus replied, “I will also ask you one question. If you answer me, I will tell you by what authority I am doing these things. John’s baptism—where did it come from? Was it from heaven, or from men?” They discussed it among themselves and said, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will ask, ‘Then why didn’t you believe him?’ But if we say, ‘From men’—we are afraid of the people, for they all hold that John was a prophet.” So they answered Jesus, “We don’t know.” Then he said, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.
Tuesday of Holy Week was a long day of preaching and teaching and confronting the leaders of the Jews. When they demanded to know by what authority Jesus was doing “these things,” they were evidently referring to the cleansing of the temple, which had happened the day before. Jesus had a great sense of timing. Since there were many pilgrims in town for the Passover, this would normally have been a busy and profitable week for the money changers and the merchants. When Jesus disrupted business at the temple, that must have been something like shutting down a shopping mall at the beginning of the third week of December. If the chief priests were counting on getting their cut of the profits, it is no wonder they were so upset.
The question of authority was the same one they had earlier put to John the Baptist (see John chapter 1, verses 19-27). The chief priests and elders of the people regarded themselves as the authorities. The point of their question to John and the point of their question to Jesus was the same: We did not authorize you to do what you are doing, so just who do you think you are anyway? John responded to their accusatory question by subordinating himself to Jesus: “I baptize with water, . . . but among you stands one you do not know. He is the one who comes after me, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie” (John chapter 1, verses 26 and 27). So it was utterly appropriate that when they asked Jesus by what authority he was doing these things, he responded with a question about the authority of John’s baptism.
By asking the Jewish leaders his counterquestion, Jesus is not just engaging in a “power play” to ward off his enemies. If they had answered his question, they would have had their answer to who he is and what he had come to do. Jesus’ question really is a call to repentance, an eleventh-hour invitation to believe in him as Savior. This final call to repentance and faith is at the heart of the parable Jesus now tells.
The parable of the two sons
Matthew chapter 21, verses 28-32
“What do you think? There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work today in the vineyard.’ “‘I will not,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went. “Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but he did not go. “Which of the two did what his father wanted?” “The first,” they answered. Jesus said to them, “I tell you the truth, the tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him.
Matthew is the only one to record this parable for us. Because it contains a call to repentance, it is a logical follow-up to the previous discussion. It also seems to form a unit with the two parables that follow: the parable of the two sons centers on the ministry of John the Baptist; the parable of the tenants centers on the mission of Jesus; and the parable of the wedding banquet centers on the mission of the church.
The two sons seem to be two groups in Israel. The first son corresponds to the penitent tax collectors and prostitutes, and the second son is representative of the Pharisees, chief priests, elders, and teachers of the law who refused to heed the preaching of John the Baptist. The contrast between them is twofold: what they say and what they do.
Notice that it is the father who went to his sons and not the other way around. God always takes the initiative in his relationship with us. What we say and what we do is always a response to what God has said and done. There is a note of urgency in the father’s words: “Son, go and work today. . . .” It is an echo of the psalmist’s warning, “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts . . .” (Psalm 95, verses 7 and 8 and the inspired commentary in Hebrews chapter 3, verse 7 through chapter 4, verse 11).
The first son’s reply is abrupt and disrespectful, “I don’t want to!” But then, he changed his mind and went to work in the vineyard. It is significant that the Greek word for “repent” literally means “to change your mind.” When John the Baptist preached, the tax collectors and prostitutes repented.
The second son is much more respectful than his brother. “Yes, sir! Right away, sir!” But his inactivity spoke louder than his enthusiastic words. It is significant that the Greek word for “sir” is the same word that is also translated “Lord.” We are reminded of Jesus’ words in his Sermon on the Mount: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (chapter 7, verse 21).
Jesus’ question is: “Which of the two did what his father wanted?” The answer involves obedience or “doing,” but it is not a doing that is divorced from faith. Jesus commends the tax collectors and the prostitutes for believing the preaching of John the Baptist, and Jesus condemns his adversaries because they did not repent and believe. The distinction between repentance and believing is simply that repentance stresses turning away from sin and believing stresses turning toward God. Both are acts of faith. As Martin Luther says, faith is “a living, busy, active, mighty thing.”
Doing the will of our heavenly Father is first of all believing in him. Meticulous attention to all the details of the law was not what Jesus was looking for—the Pharisees had taken such obedience to excess. Their failure was their refusal to believe the Word of God spoken by his authorized messengers, John and Jesus. And so the parable of the two sons warns all of us who are serious about spiritual things to beware, lest our energies be exerted almost entirely in striving after doctrinal correctness and we regard the life of obedience as of little consequence.
The parable of the tenants
Matthew chapter 21, verses 33-46
“Listen to another parable: There was a landowner who planted a vineyard. He put a wall around it, dug a winepress in it and built a watchtower. Then he rented the vineyard to some farmers and went away on a journey. When the harvest time approached, he sent his servants to the tenants to collect his fruit. “The tenants seized his servants; they beat one, killed another, and stoned a third. Then he sent other servants to them, more than the first time, and the tenants treated them the same way. Last of all, he sent his son to them. ‘They will respect my son,’ he said. “But when the tenants saw the son, they said to each other, ‘This is the heir. Come, let’s kill him and take his inheritance.’ So they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him. “Therefore, when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” “He will bring those wretches to a wretched end,” they replied, “and he will rent the vineyard to other tenants, who will give him his share of the crop at harvest time.” Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the Scriptures: “‘The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone; the Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes’? “Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit. He who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces, but he on whom it falls will be crushed.” When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard Jesus’ parables, they knew he was talking about them. They looked for a way to arrest him, but they were afraid of the crowd because the people held that he was a prophet.
In Isaiah chapter 5, verses 1-7 the people of Israel are pictured as a vineyard that fails to produce fruit despite the strenuous efforts of the vineyard keeper. Using Isaiah’s parable as a point of departure, Jesus describes a vineyard that does produce grapes, but the tenants refuse to give the owner his share of the crop. Whereas Isaiah aimed his preaching at the Jews in general, Jesus speaks to the leaders of the people. He wants them to know that he knows they are plotting to put him to death. He warns them that they will be punished for their crime.
The landowner is clearly God the Father. When it says he “put a wall around” his vineyard, we are reminded of how the people of Israel lived in the land of Goshen, separate from the Egyptians. When they took possession of the Promised Land, the Lord ordered them to exterminate all of the Canaanites so there would be no temptation to mingle with them. Although those orders were never completely carried out, the ceremonial law kept Israel separate from their neighbors by restricting their diet and regulating their worship. God wanted to set them apart from all other people so it would be obvious to all that he had kept his promises to Abraham (see Genesis chapter 22, verses 17 and 18).
In addition to putting a wall around his vineyard, the landowner also built a watchtower in it. The rabbis specified that it was to be a raised wooden platform, 15 feet high and 6 feet square. It would be necessary to post guards, especially when the grapes ripened. The image of the watchman is reminiscent of the call of Ezekiel, “Son of man, I have made you a watchman for the house of Israel” (Ezekiel chapter 3, verse 17).
The tenants are the leaders of the Jews, and the servants who were sent to collect the landowner’s share of the crop are the Old Testament prophets. Jesus says, “They beat one, killed another, and stoned a third.” Similarly Stephen later accused the leaders of the Jews, “You stiff-necked people, with uncircumcised hearts and ears! You are just like your fathers: You always resist the Holy Spirit! Was there ever a prophet your fathers did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed and murdered him” (Acts chapter 7, verses 51 and 52).
The landowner’s son is obviously Jesus. In Luke’s version of this parable, the owner of the vineyard calls him “my son, whom I love” (Luke chapter 20, verse 13), an echo of the Father’s voice at Jesus’ baptism in Matthew chapter 3, verse 17 and on the Mount of Transfiguration in Matthew chapter 17, verse 5.
Jesus says they threw the son out of the vineyard before they killed him. We remember how the crucifixion took place outside the walls of Jerusalem (see Hebrews chapter 13, verse 11 and 12). Since Jesus was telling this parable on Tuesday of Holy Week, he was describing what was going to happen only three days later.
There is something unreal about the story Jesus tells in this parable. How likely is it that a man whose servants have been mistreated and killed by his tenants will then send his beloved son to try to collect his share of the harvest? But this unreal story illustrates the incredible patience of God. It is truly mind-boggling that God would send his Son into the world after he had seen how his people treated the prophets.
To our ears it also sounds unreal that the tenants who murdered the son should expect to take possession of his inheritance—especially while his father, the vineyard owner, is still alive. But selfish ambition and greed all too often and all too easily cause us to forget God’s presence. So the hymnwriter teaches us to pray, “Quench our fevered thirst for pleasure; stem our selfish greed for gain” (Christian Worship Hymn 492, stanza 2).
When the vineyard is rented out to other tenants, Jesus is anticipating the entrance of the Gentiles into the church. When the Jewish synagogues rejected the preaching of the apostle Paul, he turned to the Gentiles. And within one generation, the Gentiles outnumbered the Jews in the Christian church.
This turn of events had been prophesied already a thousand years before, “The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone; the Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes” (Psalm 118, verses 22 and 23). In the process of constructing a building, the stonemason would select one stone and reject another. Not only did the Lord determine to make use of the stone the builders had rejected, he made it the capstone, the keystone of an arch, the most important stone in the whole building.
Jesus warns the chief priests and the Pharisees, “He who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces, but he on whom it falls will be crushed.” As they plot and scheme to put Jesus to death, he warns them that they will only destroy themselves. When a large stone falls on a man, the stone does not get hurt. God’s judgment on them will be swift and terrible and final and inescapable. And Scripture says, “They knew he was talking about them.”
The parable of the wedding banquet
Matthew chapter 22, verses 1-14
Jesus spoke to them again in parables, saying: “The kingdom of heaven is like a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his servants to those who had been invited to the banquet to tell them to come, but they refused to come. “Then he sent some more servants and said, ‘Tell those who have been invited that I have prepared my dinner: My oxen and fattened cattle have been butchered, and everything is ready. Come to the wedding banquet.’ “But they paid no attention and went off—one to his field, another to his business. The rest seized his servants, mistreated them and killed them. The king was enraged. He sent his army and destroyed those murderers and burned their city. “Then he said to his servants, ‘The wedding banquet is ready, but those I invited did not deserve to come. Go to the street corners and invite to the banquet anyone you find.’ So the servants went out into the streets and gathered all the people they could find, both good and bad, and the wedding hall was filled with guests. “But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing wedding clothes. ‘Friend,’ he asked, ‘how did you get in here without wedding clothes?’ The man was speechless. “Then the king told the attendants, ‘Tie him hand and foot, and throw him outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ “For many are invited, but few are chosen.”
Although the son was killed in the previous parable, here he is alive again. As Jesus tells these parables on Tuesday of Holy Week, he is saying that Good Friday will most certainly be followed by Easter Sunday. That point may have gone right over their heads at the time, but after Jesus’ resurrection, when his disciples had the benefit of hindsight, they were able to see things they had missed before. And that is one good reason why we should read the Scriptures over and over again. Nobody gets it all the first time.
Not only is the son alive again, he is getting married. John was given a glimpse of this wedding, which he records in Revelation chapter 19, verses 7-9 and chapter 21, verse 2. Christ is the bridegroom (see Matthew chapter 9, verse 15), and the church is his bride. Husbands and wives will no longer be married to each other in heaven, as Jesus says in chapter 22, verse 30, because we will all be married to Christ. God intends our marriages to be a preparation for and a foretaste of the wedding feast in heaven.
The people who are invited first are the Jews. When they refuse the king’s invitation, the Gentiles are invited. In this parable Jesus warns both Jews and Gentiles that judgment will surely fall upon all who show contempt for God’s gracious invitation. The Jews show their contempt in two ways: some “paid no attention” to the messengers and went about their business while others actively mistreated the servants and killed them. The Gentile shows his contempt by failing to wear the wedding clothes the king has provided. The former are killed and their city is burned (a reference to the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in A.D. 70), while the latter is thrown out into the darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, an expression Jesus often uses for the eternal suffering of hell (see chapter 8, verse 12; chapter 13, verses 42 and 50; chapter 24, verse 51; and chapter 25, verse 30).
It is significant that the king invites us to a wedding rather than a funeral. It is the same invitation Jesus issues in a subsequent parable, “Come and share your master’s happiness!” (chapter 25, verses 21 and 23). And the bountiful table the king has prepared is the same feast Jesus referred to earlier: “I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven” (chapter 8, verse 11). A foretaste of this feast is offered to us in the Sacrament of the Altar.
All of the people who are invited to the king’s banquet are unworthy of his invitation. When the original invitees refused to come, the king said to his servants, “Those I invited did not deserve to come.” So he sent his servants out into the streets to invite anyone they could find. This is the evangelistic mission of Christ’s church, which began already on Good Friday as the penitent thief and the Roman centurion were moved to confess their faith in Jesus (see Luke chapter 23, verses 40-43 and Matthew chapter 27, verse 54). Every sinner who receives this invitation in penitent faith must confess together with Martin Luther, “I believe that I cannot by my own thinking or choosing believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to him. But the Holy Spirit has called me by the gospel.”
The man who was not wearing wedding clothes calls to mind the traditional prayer of preparation for Holy Communion, “Strip off from us the spotted garments of our flesh, and of our own righteousness, and adorn us with the garments of the righteousness that Thou hast purchased with Thy blood.” (Notice how this imagery seems to be drawn from Revelation chapter 7, verse 13 and 14.) Thus the hymnwriter teaches us to sing, “Jesus, your blood and righteousness my beauty are, my glorious dress” (Christian Worship Hymn 376, stanza 1) These righteous robes are given to us in Holy Baptism, as Paul explains, “All of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ” (Galatians chapter 3, verse 27).
Jesus tells the Pharisees to pay taxes to Caesar
Matthew chapter 22, verses 15-22
Then the Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap him in his words. They sent their disciples to him along with the Herodians. “Teacher,” they said, “we know you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren’t swayed by men, because you pay no attention to who they are. Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, “You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me? Show me the coin used for paying the tax.” They brought him a denarius, and he asked them, “Whose portrait is this? And whose inscription?” “Caesar’s,” they replied. Then he said to them, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” When they heard this, they were amazed. So they left him and went away.
There is an old saying that politics makes strange bedfellows. Here the Pharisees and the Herodians display a common hatred for Jesus that overshadows their sharp disagreements with each other. The Pharisees were ardent nationalists who opposed Roman rule and despised the Herodians for their cooperation with the Roman government. So now, if Jesus tells people not to pay taxes to Rome, the Herodians will report him to Pontius Pilate and have him executed for treason. And if Jesus tells people to pay taxes to Caesar, the Pharisees will spread the word that Jesus is unpatriotic.
So how does Jesus escape this trap? He doesn’t. He steps right into it. He is not fooled by their flattery. He tells the Pharisees to pay taxes to Caesar. And because Jesus knows “their evil intent,” he is not surprised when his words are twisted around only three days later. On Tuesday he tells the Pharisees to pay taxes to Caesar, and on Friday they haul him before Pilate and say, “We have found this man subverting our nation. He opposes payment of taxes to Caesar and claims to be Christ, a king” (Luke chapter 23, verse 2).
When Jesus distinguished between what we owe to the government and what we owe to God, he was in disagreement with the inscription that appeared in Latin on the Roman denarius, “Tiberius Caesar Augustus, son of the divine Augustus.” Jesus’ words provided the basis for the first generation of Christians’ refusal to offer a pinch of incense in worship of the emperor. As their refusal often led to martyrdom, Jesus’ answer to the Pharisees and the Herodians led to his own crucifixion.