Attempts to explain the conflict between Jesus and the religious rulers of His day have become so well known that the modern church has learned several cliché answers. Some claim that the religious rulers were more wicked than the sinners who believed in Christ, and thus Christ condemned them. A similar claim is that Christ taught that the spiritual sins of the religious rulers, particularly pride, were really more serious than the physical sins of the tax collectors and prostitutes. Another attempt at explaining Jesus’ anger at the religious rulers is His disappointment at their false Messianic expectations, that He would not be their national earthly Christ. This false expectation led the religious rulers to such disappointment that they ended up crucifying Christ at the climax of their frustration. A final claim is that the religious rulers were legalistic.
An Examination of Setting and Characters
Matthew 21 begins with Jesus entering into Jerusalem triumphantly and with the crowds shouting praise to Jesus, essentially receiving Jesus as their king. Jesus immediately headed towards the temple and “drove out all who were buying and selling” in the temple. Perhaps Jesus’ primary motive in cleansing the temple was that it had been turned into a den of robbers, or in other words the commercializing of religion where the inspectors would reject any animals not purchased from their concessions, and they were not cheap. This would help explain why Matthew recorded no hint of doubt or lack of enthusiasm for Jesus from the crowd. After all, no one likes extortion. Yet if profiteering were the issue, then why did Jesus drive out the buyers? Rather than driving out a corrupt money-making franchise, Jesus also drove out the entire system altogether. In its place, after causing this commotion, Jesus then set up camp in the middle of the temple and immediately began to heal the blind and the lame, smack in the center of all the attention. Jesus replaced the sacrificial system with Himself. As Jesus miraculously healed the sick, the children sang praise to Jesus again.
In response to “the wonderful things” everyone saw Jesus do, Jesus was only resisted by a select group of individuals, “the chief priests and the teachers of the law.” When these religious leaders showed concern that the children were praising Jesus with words normally reserved for God, they confidently confronted Jesus, certain that Jesus would at least rebuke such apparent blasphemy. Instead, to their shock and horror, Jesus confirmed to them the properness of that praise.
Arriving at the temple for the second time, Jesus encountered the religious leaders, who, after having a day to think over the events of the previous day, confronted Jesus. They had come up with a question with which they had some legitimate ground to ask; they were after all the authorities, appointed by God, to which Israel’s spiritual well-being had been entrusted.
Jesus Himself recognized their authority, “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must obey them and do everything they tell you” (Matthew 23:2–3). Their question was likewise centered on authority “By what authority are you doing these things” and “Who gave you this authority” (vs. 23)? These are critical questions that set the stage for the long discourse of Matthew 21:24–24:2. It is in this setting that Jesus then begins to teach with two parables, the parable of the hypocritical/ obedient sons and the parable of the wicked tenants.
It should be noticed that the crowd in view in Matthew 21 was not the same hostile crowd who later gathered to crucify Jesus. John 12 validated this view in explaining many in this crowd were those who had seen Jesus raise Lazarus from the dead. This crowd was fully supportive of Jesus. They had also traveled to Jerusalem and had to inform the residents in Jerusalem about Jesus. The residents in Jerusalem were surprised at the very large crowds who knew all about Jesus while they knew little, “When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred and asked, “Who is this?” (Matthew 21:10). The crowds answered with great familiarity concerning Jesus.
The later crowd who crucified Jesus was clearly specified as being hand-picked, “sent from the chief priests and the elders of the people” (26:47).
Matthew went out of his way to explain how afraid the religious leaders were of the pro-Jesus crowds. Matthew wrote the religious leaders “looked for a way to arrest him, but they were afraid of the crowd” (Matthew 21:46), “they plotted to arrest Jesus in some sly way and kill him. ‘But not during the Feast,’ they said, ‘or there may be a riot among the people’” (Matthew 26:4–5).
An Examination of Theological Context
The religious leaders from Jerusalem were familiar with Jesus at least to some degree. This may be demonstrated by religious rulers from Jerusalem who interacted with Jesus at several points in his ministry (Matthew 15:1, Mark 7:1, and Luke 5:17). One Pharisee of some prominence is of particular interest, Nicodemus. Nicodemus was not only a Pharisee but also “a member of the Jewish ruling council” (John 3:1).
Nicodemus’ report to Jesus in John 3 was most likely the direct thoughts of the Jerusalem religious leaders. That report stated in no uncertain terms that “Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him” (John 3:2). The miracles that Jesus performed had long ago confirmed his authority to the religious leaders of Jerusalem. At bare minimum, the Jerusalem religious leaders had sufficient knowledge about Christ to recognize His God-given authority. Even if this previous knowledge were not known, the religious leaders were present on the previous day to see these miracles with their own eyes.
While the miracles were obvious displays of supernatural power, equally as validating was the form and content of Jesus’ teachings.
“Authority” is a word of some repetition in the Synoptics—occurring 11 times in Matthew, 12 in Luke, and 10 in Mark—and in almost every instance having direct connection in describing the authority of Jesus. The most pertinent is the manner in which Jesus taught, “the crowds were amazed at his teaching, because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law” (Matthew 7:28–29).
At the end of the day, the Christfollowing crowds were not shaken by the religious leader’s question, even though they were probably calculated to promote suspicion in the crowd by complaining of Jesus’ cleansing the temple and implying Jesus had gone too far. Their remarks were simply politics, a superficial power play, much as their earlier attitudes towards Jesus’ supernatural abilities “It is only by Beelzebub, the prince of demons, that this fellow drives out demons” (Matthew 12:24). As their jealous power play continued into the next chapter, they now acknowledge His authority as a point for their argument, “We know you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth” (Matthew 22:16).
Hence it would almost have been ridiculous for Jesus to have answered (any) of the loaded questions of the religious rulers after all they had seen, heard, and experienced. Jesus even said that He would not answer, since the religious rulers would not answer Jesus’ question concerning John’s authority. Yet Jesus did answer the religious rulers’ question. In fact the parable of Matthew 21 “stressed the authority of the son.” “Last of all, he (the landowner) sent his son to them. ‘They will respect my son,’ he said” (Matthew 21:37).
There could be no clearer connection between this landowner and God the Father. The immediate context alone demanded it. The religious rulers understood the parable was against them. Jesus went on to say that the religious rulers were “the descendants of those who murdered the prophets” (Matthew 23:31). They will “kill and crucify” the “prophets and wise men and teachers” (Matthew 23:34). A third time Jesus emphasized this connection, “you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you” (Matthew 23:37).
Throughout the Old Testament God clearly fulfilled the role of either the landowner or the original planter of the vine. Christ was the son sent by the landowner, and thus with the authority of the landowner. It was this authority, inherent in the son, which gave the landowner and father confidence to say “They will respect my son” (Matthew 21:37) even though they had beaten and killed the other servants. Jesus’ clear answer to their challenge was that He was the only Son of God sent on authority of God Himself to replace the sacrificial system.
A Religious Leader’s Heart Exposed
Jesus as the fulfillment of the Law and Prophets would officially inaugurate a new covenant and changes for the people of God. The religious rulers met this change with conservative reluctance. However, after such a degree of authoritative signs and teachings had been given, any further hesitance by the religious rulers was no longer an understandable nostalgia, but had progressed from stubbornness all the way into blind rage. They could see His works agreeing with His words, and they could behold His miracles. They could hear the prophet pointing to Him. They could see the children attesting Him in a manner beyond their age (21:15-16). But all this did not persuade them. Instead, ‘they were indignant.’
This desperate attitude to cling to the past is reflected when Jesus explained the insanity of the tenants within the parable. They believed that they would receive the landowner’s inheritance if they could just murder his son: “When the tenants saw the son, they said to each other, ‘This is the heir. Come, let’s kill him and take his inheritance’” (Matt 21:38). Only the craziest expectations would have had such hopes, and although Jesus was able to expose the religious leaders themselves through their own pronouncement of self-condemnation—“ He will bring those wretches to a wretched end” (Matthew 21:41). They were unable to pry themselves from their sins as well as their inherited traditions.
The Unrepentant and the Heirs
Despite all their potential flaws, the religious leaders’ refusal to repent was not due—against the majority of modern church pop culture opinion—to any greater qualitative sin in their life. It was not that (possible) extortion in the Temple, or anything else the religious rulers may have been up to, was so much worse a sin than extortion by taxation or extortion by prostitution. Nowhere was any sin of the religious rulers singled out as clearly as those repeatedly called “tax collectors and prostitutes.” Simply that the religious rulers crucified Christ cannot be appealed to here, for they had not done so yet, even if they had wrongly insulted Him and although their hearts were plotting more evil.
In fact, in spite of their flaws, I would suspect that it would have been far easier to point to all of the religious rulers’ righteousness and obedience than to track down and condemn what subtle sins they did possess. If the religious rulers were not from all appearances righteous, then why did they constantly irritate Jesus for dining with sinners such as tax collectors, prostitutes, and the ceremonially unclean? Rather, they had no patience or tolerance for such blatant sinners. The religious rulers’ behavior was justified and defended with a good conscience, with memorized proof texts from Scripture, and with systematic theology of the Old Covenant. They were the conservative orthodox.
The words of Christ ring true, “If you were blind, you would not be guilty of sin; but now that you claim you can see, your guilt remains” (John 9:41). What Christ wanted from the religious rulers was to admit their sin and failure to live up to the law. This line of reasoning is why Jesus was able to say to them in the very same discourse: “You say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our forefathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets” (Matthew 23:30-31). It was the religious rulers’ claim to obedience and righteousness that condemned them, not their sins. They “put their faith in the law and despised repentance from sin.”
Because of their refusal to repent, all the religious rulers could do was add to their sin. Christ would soon “rent the vineyard to other tenants, who will give him his share of the crop at harvest time” (Matthew 21:41), or in other words, “I am sending you prophets and wise men and teachers” (Matthew 23:34) implying the disciples. The religious rulers would respond even yet again in such a way that “some of them you will kill and crucify; others you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town. And so upon you will come all the righteous blood that has been shed on earth” (Matthew 23:34-35).
Again, in no way can the issue at stake in inheriting the Kingdom of God be obedience to the law. Jesus did recognize the due authority of the religious rulers. They truly were experts in the law, “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must obey them and do everything they tell you” (Matthew 23:2-3). True, they did not “practice what they preach” (vs. 3). Yet who can bear such “heavy loads” (vs. 4)?
Has there ever been one who can practice what the religious rulers preached? Only one person, and that person became a curse and was killed outside of the vineyard in the place of the penitent. Those penitent are the ones Jesus praised earlier in Matthew, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (5:3). There was one last commandment that the religious rulers should have preached alongside all the rest of their teaching: the desperate need for perpetual repentance and trust in the righteousness of Christ in place of one’s own righteousness.
This was why Christ cleared out the Temple, to make way for a new and final sacrifice, one that would finally atone for all the sins of God’s penitent people. This was why Christ spoke of “whoever falls on this stone will be broken; but on whomever it falls, it will grind him to powder” (Matthew 21:44 NKJV). Therein lay the contrast between the religious leaders and the crowd of sinners, between the unrepentant and the penitent.
In the end analysis, what kind of people were the religious rulers of the day? They were ordinary people, they were trying to be faithful to their office, but they were not innocent. Their flaws were exposed by Jesus, just as Jesus will expose the flaws of others.
The parable of the wicked tenants in Matthew 21:33-46 explained Jesus’ authority, exposed the sin in the hearts of the religious rulers, reminded them of God’s love, and contrasted the penitent heirs of the Kingdom of God against its unrepentant enemies. Surely this is a story the church needs to teach and hear continually through the ages.
Mr. Bryan Miller is a student at Westminster Seminary in California.