Matthew 21 begins with three important symbolic actions by Jesus. To describe these events as symbolic does not mean they did not actually happen. Rather, the importance of these actions for Matthew (and for us) lies in what they symbolize rather than in the simple fact that they happened. The first event was the Triumphal Entry, recorded in Matthew 21:1-11. The symbolism of the entry itself proclaimed Christ as the coming Messianic King. That the entry was made on a donkey scripturally confirmed Jesus’ kingship, but symbolized the peaceful and spiritual kingdom he came to establish.
The second symbolic event was the cleansing of the temple which is narrated in Matthew 21:12-17. In dramatic fashion this event symbolized the coming end of temple worship in a way that neither Jesus’ followers nor his opponents could have imagined. The shift of worship from being based on sacrifice to being based on prayer would take place after the temple was destroyed for Jews as well as for Christians.
Cursing the Fig Tree - Matthew 21:18-22
The third symbolic action of Jesus is the cursing of the fig tree, which is described in verses 18-22. The symbolism of this action is not aimed at revealing the nature of Christ or even the future shape of worship. Rather, it is a pointed symbol of God’s coming judgment on the Jew's leaders who were opposing Jesus. The cursing of the fig tree is different from the first two symbolic actions in that it was a "private" matter known only to the disciples rather than a public event seen and experienced by large numbers of people.
Some have raised objections against the cursing of the fig tree by suggesting that it was unthinkable that Jesus would be that self-centered and irritable. They also point out that even if early believers composed the story it was inappropriate for Matthew to portray Jesus in such a fashion. The parallel passage in Mark 11:13 points out that it was not yet time to expect figs on the tree. What Jesus found was leaves only. For that type of tree, the leaves normally set on after the early fruit-buds had appeared. Later the full and mature fruit would appear. The fact that there were leaves on the fig tree indicated that the fruit-buds should have been on the tree also. These fruit-buds were edible, but the issue was not Jesus’ hunger.
The first temptation story (Matthew 4:1-4) made it clear that Jesus’ hunger did not determine his decisions. The issue was the contrast between reality (no fruit-buds) and expectation (leaves indicating that fruit-buds should have been there). The severity of the judgment shows how important the issue was. In the context of the cleansing of the temple and Passion Week, it seems clear that the barrenness of the fig tree symbolized the spiritual barrenness of the Jewish leaders. It was not just that these leaders had not produced mature spiritual fruit; there was no evidence of the beginning of spiritual fruit in their lives. Their plot against Jesus that will unfold in the following chapters illustrates that truth. The self-serving and self-seeking patterns of these Jewish leaders would seal their doom.
The "curse" was amazingly brief and totally devoid of the kinds of language modern Christians associate with cursing. Jesus simply announced that the fig tree would never bear fruit again. Since its purpose and function was to bear fruit, the announcement that this would never happen ended its reason to exist. Just as Jesus’ effective prophetic word brought grace and good news to the first hearers of the beatitudes, so this curse was effective and prophetic.
Immediately the fig tree withered and began to die. Matthew records in verse 20 that the disciples were amazed that the fig tree began to wither at once. Scholars often note that this amazement belongs to the historical event of the cursing of the fig tree rather than to the symbolic meaning of the event. It is true that "nothing happened" to the Jewish leaders at that moment. However, by the time Matthew’s gospel was written the temple was apparently in ruins and the Sadducees and priests were gone from the scene of Judaism. The disciples’ words of amazement at how quickly the curse killed the fig tree were also words that applied to the demise of the Jewish leaders by the time this gospel was written.
The "lesson" that is drawn from the fig tree is the importance of having faith and not doubting. The point is not that a certain kind of "super" faith would enable followers of Jesus magically to curse their enemies into oblivion (see Words of Faith and Commanding).
The point is two fold. First, if we have faith and do not doubt we need never be in the position of the fig tree and the Jewish leaders of giving expectations without producing the reality. A faithful believer will at least have the early "fruit-buds" in the spiritual life.
Second, if we are languishing under sinful leadership like that of the Jewish priests there is still hope. Trusting, undoubting prayer will yield results as dramatic and as "impossible" as a mountain being thrown into the sea. God is able to bring the appropriate judgment on spiritually barren leaders. We do not need to stoop to gossip, rebellion, or human power plays. We need to resort to faithful prayer and God will solve the problem in ways beyond all that we could ask or think. Whether God’s solution will involve removing such leaders or changing both their heart and their results or changing our perceptions is not important. What is important is that God can solve the problem if we will prayer trustingly.
John the Baptist’s Authority - Matthew 21:23-27
From the three symbolic actions, Matthew turns to describe a series of conflicts between Jesus and these very Jewish leaders in question. These conflict stories are found in Matthew 21:23-23:39.
The first such conflict involves the question of Jesus’ authority. The opponents are the chief priests and elders of the people. Verse 23 states that the question of Jesus’ authority was posed to him while he was teaching. However, it is not Jesus’ authority to teach that is at question. The flow of thought in Matthew makes it clear that it was the triumphal entry, the cleansing of the temple, and the cursing of the fig tree to which the Jewish leaders objected. Their question was essentially, "What right do you have to come into our temple and pronounce God’s judgment against us?" On the grounds of a superficial courtesy, Jesus should not have embarrassed them in that way in their territory. However, Jesus was not operating at the level of superficial courtesy. The most courteous thing one person can say to another is to point out problems that have eternal consequences.
The chief priest clearly did not expect Jesus to have a reply to the authority question but he did. He responded with the question to them of whether John the Baptist was sent from God or simply the voice of another human point of view. Some scholars have objected that Jesus was evading the question and playing coy with the chief priests by refusing to answer their question. The fact that the priests felt caught on the horns of a dilemma was their problem. Jesus’ question was very much to the point. The source of John the Baptist’s ministry and the source of Jesus’ authority was the same. If John the Baptist’s ministry came from God, so did the authority of Jesus and the question then becomes why the priests refused to acknowledge that authority over them. If John the Baptist was simply a passing human phenomenon then so was Jesus’ authority and the priests need not concern themselves with his pronouncements.
Later followers of Jesus (including some in our time) have celebrated his ability to outwit his opponents by trick questions and have tried to emulate him. However, Jesus’ response to the priests was not a trick nor manipulative. It was incredibly insightful in that it forced the priests to examine their own attitude and response to him while they thought about the question regarding John the Baptist. We would do well to learn to re-frame questions so they offer the questioner an opportunity to deal with Jesus and his claims for themselves.
A Parable of Two Sons - Matthew 21:28-32
The following parable continues Jesus’ response to the chief priests and elders over the issue of John the Baptist. The parable contrasts two sons who were both told by their father to go work in the vineyard. The first son refused, but later changed his mind and obeyed. The second son promised obedience but never followed through on it. Jesus then asked his questions which of the two sons had done the Father’s will. They obviously and corrected answered that the first son who ended up obeying more closely followed the father’s will.
John the Baptist had come preaching the kingdom of God - calling for people to go and work in the vineyard. The tax-collectors and prostitutes whose lives up to that point had been expressions of a loud "NO" to God accepted the message and were converted. The Jewish leaders, like the second son, were full of spiritual promises, but had failed to follow through on obedience to God. The authority of John the Baptist (and of Jesus) was established by the positive response of repentance from sinners rather than by the continued disobedience of the religious leaders.
Verse 32 raises the question of authority in a most profound way. The chief priests and the elders had seen the tax collectors and prostitutes believe but they refused to changes their minds and believe themselves. The only real acknowledgment of authority is to submit to that authority willingly. Regardless of how these Jewish leaders might have answered Jesus’ question in verse 25 John the Baptist had no real authority with them because they refused to repent and obey his preaching. In the same way Jesus had no authority over them - not because of who he was or was not, but because of their own disobedience. The same will be true for us.
A Parable of a Vineyard - Matthew 21:33-46
Without waiting for a reply from the Jewish leaders, Jesus moved directly into another parable. It also involved a vineyard, but is a more extended story type parable. There is considerable discussion among scholars about whether this parable was (and is) actually an allegory. An allegory is type of parable but is often distinguished from a parable proper. Both a parable proper and an allegory usually appear in the form of a story. The main distinction has to do with the function of the details of the story. In a story parable, the details are present so the story will make sense as a story. The "meaning" of a story parable is usually one main point created by the story as a whole. For example, in the parable (proper) of the Good Samaritan the man who was beaten and left for dead does not represent Adam or the human race. The inn does not represent the church. The man and the inn are simply parts of the story. The "meaning" of the parable is one main point - how you love a neighbor as yourself. In contrast, many, if not most, of the details of an allegory represent something related to the meaning. Allegories are really stories told in code. This parable of a vineyard really appears to be an allegory rather than simply a parable proper.
Isaiah 5 contains a song about a vineyard in which the prophet symbolized Israel as a vineyard (see commentary on Isaiah 5:1-7). It appears that Jesus was doing the same thing in this allegory. So, the parable is not really a story about a vineyard, but an allegory about Israel represented by the vineyard. The landowner represents God. The tenants to whom he leased the vineyard represent the leaders of Israel and then the leaders of Judaism. The desire of the landowner to receive part of the harvest appears to refer to Isaiah 5 where righteousness is the fruit God wanted from his vineyard Israel. The various slaves that the landowner (God) sent to the tenants (leaders of Israel) represent the prophets. The shameful treatment of the slaves represents the various ways in which Israel rejected the messages of the prophets.
Obviously, the sending of the landowner’s son represents the sending of Christ as God’s son. The killing of that son was an allegorical prophecy of Christ’s own death that would come within the week at the hands of the Jewish leaders. All that remains for the allegory is to answer what the landowner (God) will do after his son is killed. In a daring and brilliant move, Jesus asked the chief priests and elders what the landowner would do. They answer that question in unmistakable terms in verse 41. The evil tenants will be put to a miserable death and the vineyard will be given over to new tenants. Though these words were on their own lips it is beyond question that they were allegorically saying that God would bring terrible judgment on themselves as the Jewish leaders who would bring about Jesus’ death. Whether the "new tenants" represent the Gentiles or not can be debated. However, this parable-allegory declares the message of the cursed fig tree using different language and a different medium.
In verse 42 Jesus shifted to another figure of speech that became popular in the early church. It is sometimes called the "stone" image. Quoting Psalm 118:22-23 Jesus spoke of a stone rejected by the builders that God made the cornerstone. Again, the imagery is obvious to us in retrospect. The stone was Jesus, rejected by the builders who were the Jewish leaders. God’s making him the cornerstone points to the way Christ will be exalted and will replace the leadership of old Judaism.
Verse 43 moves from the figures of speech to state plainly that God was already taking away the kingdom from those chief priests and elders and giving it to others who would produce the kind of spiritual fruit God desired. When they could no longer pretend ignorance of Jesus’ point, his audience’s rage came through and they began seeking a way to arrest (and kill) Jesus.
A Wedding Feast Parable - Matthew 22:1-14
The series of parables continues in Matthew 22:1-14 with the parable of a wedding feast. Like the preceding parable the question of whether this story was designed as an allegory by Jesus is the subject of considerable debate. The question of whether Matthew has combined two originally separate parables is also debated. A parable similar to verses 1-10 appears in Luke 14:15-24 and in the gnostic Gospel of Thomas (see The Gospel of Thomas, 64). The exact point of verses 11-14 in relation to verses 1-10 is not completely clear. However, as often happens if we will listen carefully, the story’s message will be clear.
The parable begins by comparing the kingdom of God to a wedding feast given by a king for his son. The king sent slaves to the people who had been invited to announce to them that the wedding feast was about to begin. This was a common custom in the biblical world, since there were no clocks and time was often a matter of personal interpretation.
This parable is quite unusual because a shocking statement comes early in the story. The invited guests are not willing to come (v. 3). In the ancient world, this would have been unthinkable. In that world, the king was the most honored person in his country. Anyone would have understood that the king was conferring honor upon the invited guests by inviting them to the wedding feast of his son. To refuse to respond to that invitation would have brought shame and dishonor to the invited guests. In the story, the king seems almost confused by their refusal. It is as if he thought they misunderstood the message of the first servants so he sent out more servants to clarify the message. "The feast is ready now; please come."
Verse 5 heightens the shock when it states that the invited guests "made light" of the message. Their "excuses" of concerns with farms and businesses would have been incomprehensible to Jesus’ first audience. These confusing details are clear clues that this story too is an allegory. The invited guests must represent the Jewish leaders. The king is God. The announcement that the wedding feast for his son was ready corresponds to the preaching of Jesus, the disciples and the early church about the arrival of the kingdom of God. Jewish leaders should have jumped to accept God’s invitation, but their interests were economic rather than spiritual. Willful rejection of Jesus, not ignorance, characterized them.
The allegory continues with the promise that the king will destroy those unworthy guests. Further, they will be replaced in the banquet hall with other guests - ragtag street people. The "city" of the Jewish leaders will be destroyed. This seems to be a clear reference to the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. Like the two preceding parables, God’s judgment would be visited on those Jewish leaders.
The parable takes another strange turn at verse 11. This section of the parable has no parallel in the similar story found in Luke and in the Gospel of Thomas. The king strolls through the banquet hall to observe the new guests and in the process, he discovered a man without a wedding garment. It is not clear at this point how Jesus’ first listeners would have understood this detail except that they would have been horrified. To attend a wedding feast without the proper wedding attire was unthinkable in ancient Palestine. That much is clear. What is unclear is whether the wedding garment was simply a regular garment specially washed and bleached for the wedding banquet or if it was a special garment supplied by the king. Scholars debate that question.
However, it is not necessary to solve that problem to understand Jesus’ point. In either case, a wedding garment was available but this guest had not taken advantage of that availability. The question is whether he acted in ignorance or intentionally. His (non) response to the question of the king makes it clear that his lack of a wedding garment was the result of his own choice, not lack of knowledge or availability. Patte (p. 304) makes the interesting observation that two motivations were possible for people who came to the wedding feast. Many (perhaps most) guests came to honor the king and his newly wed son. It is also possible that some guests came only to eat - they had no regard for the honor or feelings of the king and his son. Such arrogance explains the man without the wedding garment. He thought he would see if he could get the "goodies" of the wedding feast without honoring the king by wearing the required wedding garment.
There are several possible applications to verses 11-14. These verses may have been directed to the Jewish leaders by way of warning. It will not be possible to "sneak" into the kingdom of God to collect its benefits without honoring the God who is king. More specifically, entry into the kingdom will require honor to the king’s son who represents Jesus in this parable. It is also possible that verses 11-14 are a warning to Gentile believers who are the beneficiaries of the extended invitation of verse 9. Though we have been invited late to the wedding feast, there will be no crashing of God’s party by Gentiles. We too must honor the king by obediently clothing ourselves in the garment of purity.
Paying Taxes to Caesar - Matthew 22:15-22
Following the parable of the wedding feast, another challenge was presented to Jesus. This time the opponents are described as the Pharisees and the "Herodians." The Herodians are only mentioned here and in the parallel passage in Mark 12:13. There is no evidence of their existence other than these two biblical passages. Most scholars identify them as supporters of the Herod family and thus collaborators with Rome. They would have favored paying tax to Caesar. The Pharisees presumably would have opposed such a payment. Thus, Jesus was being "set up" in such a way that he would anger somebody regardless of his answer. The exact meaning of his answer can be debated. Some believe rendering to Caesar that which is Caesar’s authorizes Christians to pay taxes and support secular governments. Others believe that Jesus’ reply was designed to remind us that nothing belongs ultimately to Caesar, but everything belongs ultimately to God.
Study Questions for Reflection and Discussion
These readings and study questions are in preparation for next week's lesson.
As you study each day ask the Lord to help you understand the Scriptures and to apply its meaning to your own heart and life.
First Day: Read the notes on Matthew 21:18-22:22. Look up the Scripture references given.
1. Identify one or two new insights that seemed important to you. Why are they important?
2. Is there a spiritual truth in this section that is especially significant for you? Write it down and explain why it is important for you.
3. Write a brief prayer asking God to help you live a life of obedience and faith to Christ. Ask him to help you avoid the kind of spiritual blindness and arrogance that characterized the Jewish leaders of Jesus’ time.
Second Day: Read Matthew 22:23-46. Now focus on Matthew 22:23-33.
1. In what way was the question of the Sadducees an effort to trap Jesus? Or how do we know that their question was insincere?
2, What does Jesus’ response in verse 30 tells about the kind of life we will have in heaven? Does his comment undermine any popular conceptions of heaven? If so what misconceptions are undermined?
3. Where have most of your ideas of heaven come from? To what degree are they the result of your study of Scripture and to what degree are they the result of things you have heard other people say?
Third Day: Read Matthew 22:23-46. Focus in on Matthew 22:34-46.
1. The first commandment that Jesus identified as the greatest is quotation from Deuteronomy 6:5. Read Deuteronomy 6:4-9. List the key ideas in that passage and how they clarify the meaning of loving God.
2. The command that Jesus identified as the second commandment is a quotation from Leviticus 19:18. Read Leviticus 19:1-18. What are the key ideas associated with loving one’s neighbor according to these verses?
3. In your own words explain the logic of Jesus’ argument in verses 42-45. What do you think Jesus meant by the word "Lord" in these verses? What do you think David meant in Psalm 110:1 when he used the word "Lord?"
Fourth Day: Read Matthew 23:1-39. Focus your attention on Matthew 23:1-15.
1. What does Jesus say about the teaching of the Pharisees? Does his comment about what the Pharisees taught surprise you? Why? Or why not?
2. What criticism of the Pharisees appear in these focus verses? What are the areas in which Jesus criticized the Pharisees for which he might also criticize us today in the church? What should we do about these areas?
3. Write a brief prayer asking to Lord to show areas in which there may be hypocrisy like that practiced by the Pharisees. Ask him to help you purge such hypocrisy out of your life. Ask him to help you live a life that is pleasing to him.
Fifth Day: Read Matthew 23:1-39. Now focus in on Matthew 23:16-28.
1. Compare verses 16-22 with Matthew 5:33-37. What is the basic problem with the kind swearing to which Jesus was referring? What can we do as believers to keep that kind of problem from creeping into our lives?
2. Does Jesus condemn tithing in verses 23-24? What is his attitude toward tithing? Where does he place it as a priority? What does his teaching say to us today about our giving to the church?
3. What do you think is the point of verses 25-28? What figure of speech might Jesus use today to make the same point to us in our culture?
Sixth Day: Read Matthew 23:1-39. Now focus on Matthew 23:29-39.
1. After re-reading verses 29-36 what do you think are some of the ways in which we dishonor the spiritual leaders of the past? What can we do to improve that aspect of our Christian lives?
2. What do verses 37-38 tell us about the love of Christ for the Jewish people? What does that tell us about his love for us?
3. What do you think is the meaning of verse 39? What do verses 37-39 teach us about the way we should live our Christian lives? Ask the Lord to help you live that way.