Commentary. Jesus had left Jerusalem for a brief stay in Bethany. He has now returned to the Temple area where, when he left the day before, the chief priests and scribes were angry with him (cleansing of the Temple, vv.12-17.) Given the deeds of the previous day, it seems only natural that the chief priests and the elders would ask about his credentials and question his authority.
Jesus’ authority challenged (21:23) Boring (Matthew, New Interpreters Commentary) suggests this outline for this section on Jesus’ Authority. Note that is forms a cascade that begins and ends with a question by Jesus.
A Jesus’ response: a question (21:24-27)
B Three parables
The Two Sons (21:28-32)
The Lord’s Vineyard (21:33-46)
The Great Supper (22:1-14)
B’ Three controversy stories
Taxes to the Emperor (22:15-22)
The Resurrection (22:23-33)
The Great Commandment (22:34-40)
A’ Jesus’ question (22:41-46)
Jesus’ response to the challenge to his authority indicates two possibilities: authority can come from heaven or from humans (vv.23-25) – this will frame all that follows. Long (Matthew) says the following about the two forms of authority:
First, there is human authority. No matter how sophisticatedly it is packaged, human authority is a matter of raw power. If you have enough people behind you or guns with you, you have it, and what you say goes, period. Divine authority, on the other hand, has to do with truth, the truth of God, the truth about who God made us to be. In the short run, human authority can appear to overwhelm divine authority – even to crucify it – but, ultimately, God’s truth prevails. [p. 241]
Jesus responds to their question by asking a question. The Jerusalem leaders “discussed” or “dialogued” (dialogizomai) how they might answer Jesus. This discussion indicates that their authority came from humans.. They are concerned about what Jesus or the crowds would say or do to them. There is no indication that they prayed, asking for God’s guidance There is little concern with seeking the fullness of truth, but rather, the principle concern is if they would “lose face” (or lose “authority”) before the people.
Daniel Patte (The Gospel According to Matthew) makes this observation:
Even though the chief priests and the elders correctly view authority as something given to someone and not as an intrinsic part of someone’s being, for them once it has been received this authority characterizes that person. For them, Jesus has an authority, and with it he does certain things. By contrast, Jesus does not speak of John’s authority but rather of the authority of his baptism: “The baptism of John, whence was it”? (21:25a). In other words, authority, for Jesus, is attached to an act, to what a person does, rather than to the person. The person does not have authority; what a person does, such as the baptism performed by John, is authoritative. [p. 294]
Carter (Matthew and the Margins) comments on the response in v. 27:
So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” They choose a path of non-commitment, which, ironically, betrays their commitment. To not answer displays not genuine ignorance (their debate in 21:25 shows they know the options) but deliberate resistance. In refusing to say that John’s ministry comes from God, they reject the claim that John and Jesus have God-given authority. To refuse this recognition is to reveal their own illegitimacy. Like the Pharisees and their tradition (15:1-9), they are not God’s planting (15:13-14). They are of human origin. Jesus has now exposed and discredited the whole religious leadership. Judgment on them and their temple is inevitable. [p. 424]
All this leads to the parable that forms our Sunday gospel.