Monday, September 25, 2017

Wording Authority

Below is a rough translation and some preliminary comments regarding Matthew 21:23-32, the Revised Common Lectionary gospel text for the 17th Sunday after Pentecost. Your comments are welcomed.  

The pericope for this week obviously has two distinct but related parts. There is the interrogation of Jesus regarding his authority in vv.23-27, which Jesus deftly answers by not answering. Then, there is the parable of two children, in vv. 28-30, followed by a question and a conclusion in 31-32. The conclusion in v. 32 circles back to the matter of vv. 23-27.

23 Καὶ ἐλθόντος αὐτοῦ εἰς τὸ ἱερὸν προσῆλθον αὐτῷ διδάσκοντι οἱ ἀρχιερεῖς 
καὶ οἱ πρεσβύτεροι τοῦ λαοῦ λέγοντες, Ἐν ποίᾳ ἐξουσίᾳ ταῦτα ποιεῖς; καὶ 
τίς σοι ἔδωκεν τὴν ἐξουσίαν ταύτην; 
And he having come into the temple the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him while he is teaching saying, “By what authority do you do these things? And who gave to you this authority?”
ἐλθόντος: AAPart gsm, ἔρχομαι, 1) to come
προσῆλθον: AAI 3p, προσέρχομαι, 1) to come to, approach 
διδάσκοντι: PAPart dsm, διδάσκω, 1) to teach 
λέγοντες: PAPart npm, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak 
ποιεῖς: PAI 2s, ποιέω, 1) to make  
ἔδωκεν: AAI 3s, δίδωμι, 1) to give 
1. While it is awkward to say, “And he having come into the temple …” but I want to be sure to note that the participle refers to Jesus. Jesus came into the temple; the elders, etc., came to him.
2. I think Gene Smillie says it well: “One of the preliminary tasks of exegeting this passage is to identify the antecedents of "these things" (ταϋτα) mentioned in verse 23.” ("Jesus' Response to the Question of His Authority in Matthew 21," Bibliotheca Sacra, 2005.) One could stay within the 21st chapter of Matthew and find reasons aplenty for this challenging question: The entry into Jerusalem, with all of the accompanying claims of royalty (1-11), Jesus turning over tables and driving out buyers and sellers in the temple (12-17), and Jesus cursing a fig tree that promptly withers (18-22).
3. This challenge is found in Mark and Luke, as well as Matthew. In Mark, Jesus is just “walking around” when he is challenged. In Matthew and Luke, Jesus is teaching. Smillie argues that because Matthew uses the dative case in the participle διδάσκοντι (‘while he is teaching,’ or ‘in his teaching’) that it is his teaching itself that is the matter of “these things.”

24 ἀποκριθεὶς δὲ ὁ Ἰησοῦς εἶπεν αὐτοῖς, Ἐρωτήσω ὑμᾶς κἀγὼ λόγον ἕνα, ὃν 
ἐὰν εἴπητέ μοι κἀγὼ ὑμῖν ἐρῶ ἐν ποίᾳ ἐξουσίᾳ ταῦτα ποιῶ
Yet having answered Jesus said to them, “I also will ask you also one word which if you should tell me I will also tell you in whose authority I do these things.
ἀποκριθεὶς: APPart nsm, ἀποκρίνομαι, 1) to give an answer to a question proposed, to answer 
εἶπεν: AAI 3s, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak  
Ἐρωτήσω: FAI 1s, ἐρωτάω, 1) to question 2) to ask 
εἴπητέ: AASubj 2p, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak  
ἐρῶ: FAI 1s, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak  
ποιῶ: PAI 1s, ποιέω, 1) to make  
1. In this rough translation I am mostly leaving the word λέγω as either ‘say’ or ‘tell,’ with appropriate attention to tense. In a smoother translation, to ‘say’ in response to a question would be ‘answer’ or ‘respond.’
2. I love the versatility of the word “word” (λόγον).  In this case, to ask one ‘word’ can turn λόγον into “ask you one question.”
3. Speaking of λόγον, the noun λόγος (“word”) and the verb λέγω (“to say, speak”) are very common in the NT, but this pericope strikes me as having a very high concentration of those related terms. Sometimes the aorist or future tenses of λέγω look quite different from the root, so I’ve highlighted them just to show how often they appear. 

25 τὸ βάπτισμα τὸ Ἰωάννου πόθεν ἦν; ἐξ οὐρανοῦ ἢ ἐξ ἀνθρώπων; οἱ δὲ διελογίζοντο ἐν ἑαυτοῖς λέγοντες, Ἐὰν εἴπωμεν, Ἐξ οὐρανοῦ, ἐρεῖ ἡμῖν, Διὰ τί 
οὖν οὐκ ἐπιστεύσατε αὐτῷ; 
The baptism of John was from where? Out of heaven or out of humans?” Yet they dialogued among themselves saying, “If we say, ‘Out of heaven,’ he will say, ‘Why did you not believe him?’
ἦν: IAI 3s, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present
διελογίζοντο: IMI 3p, διαλογίζομαι, 1) to bring together different reasons, to reckon up the  reasons, to reason, revolve in one's mind, deliberate 
λέγοντες: PAPart npm, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak  
εἴπωμεν: AASubj 1p, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak  
ἐρεῖ: FAI 3s, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak  
ἐπιστεύσατε: AAI 2p, πιστεύω, 1) to think to be true, to be persuaded of,
1. A refined translation would make διαλογίζομαι into ‘reasoned’ or ‘discussed.’ I am using the transliteration ‘dialogued.’ The root of δια\λογ\ίζομαι makes it one of the “word” words. They were ‘wording among themselves.’

26 ἐὰν δὲ εἴπωμεν, Ἐξ ἀνθρώπων, φοβούμεθα τὸν ὄχλον, πάντες γὰρ ὡς 
προφήτην ἔχουσιν τὸν Ἰωάννην. 
Yet if we say, ‘Out of humans,’ we fear the crowd, for all hold John as a prophet.”
εἴπωμεν: AASubj 1p, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak  
φοβούμεθα: PMI 1p, φοβέω, 1) to strike with fear, scare, frighten
ἔχουσιν: PAI 3p, ἔχω, 1) to have, i.e. to hold 
1. I cannot tell if the elitism (“we know the masses are asses”) or the cowardice (“but we can’t say it aloud”) is more maddening in this rationalization.

27 καὶ ἀποκριθέντες τῷ Ἰησοῦ εἶπαν, Οὐκ οἴδαμενἔφη αὐτοῖς καὶ αὐτός, 
Οὐδὲ ἐγὼ λέγω ὑμῖν ἐν ποίᾳ ἐξουσίᾳ ταῦτα ποιῶ
And having answered Jesus they said, “We have not known.” He also was saying to them, “Nor do I say to you in what authority I do these things.
ἀποκριθέντες: APPart npm, ἀποκρίνομαι, 1) to give an answer to a question proposed, to answer
εἶπαν: AAI 3p, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak  
οἴδαμεν: PerfAI 1p, εἴδω, 1) to know.
ἔφη: IAI 3s, φημί, 1) to make known one's thoughts, to declare 
λέγω: PAI 1s, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak  
ποιῶ: PAI 1s, ποιέω, 1) to make  
1. This must be one of the greatest smackdowns in the history of dialog. The chief priests and elders are trapped by their own entrapment.
2. I know that the phrase “We have not known” seems to ruin the punch line, but in this rough translation I wanted to show that it is in the perfect tense. Most translations, thank goodness, refine it into “We do not know.” Of course, this phrase is a lie. They did not discuss among themselves their genuine answer to the question, but only the costs and benefits of either answer – neither of which they are willing to face.

28 Τί δὲ ὑμῖν δοκεῖ; ἄνθρωπος εἶχεν τέκνα δύο. καὶ προσελθὼν τῷ πρώτῳ εἶπεν, Τέκνον, ὕπαγε σήμερον ἐργάζου ἐν τῷ ἀμπελῶνι. 
“Yet what does it seem to you: A man had two children. And having come to the first he said, ‘Child, go work in the vineyard today.’
δοκεῖ: PAI 3s, δοκέω, 1) to be of opinion, think, suppose
εἶχεν: IAI 3s, ἔχω, 1) to have, i.e. to hold 
προσελθὼν: AAPart nsm, προσέρχομαι, 1) to come to, approach 
εἶπεν: AAI 3s, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak  
ὕπαγε: PAImpv 2s, ὑπάγω, 1) to lead under, bring under 
ἐργάζου: PMImpv 2s, ἐργάζομαι, 1) to work, labour, do work
1. The verb δοκέω, per the definitions above, seems to go to the matter of opinion or appearance more than indicative fact. I wonder if this verb choice is a response to the chief priests’ and elders’ reticence to answer the previous question, claiming “we have not known.”

29 ὁ δὲ ἀποκριθεὶς εἶπεν, Οὐ θέλω, ὕστερον δὲ μεταμεληθεὶς ἀπῆλθεν
But having answered he said, ‘I will not,’ yet later having changed his mind he went.
ἀποκριθεὶς: APPart nsm, ἀποκρίνομαι, 1) to give an answer to a question proposed, to answer 
εἶπεν: AAI 3s, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak
θέλω:  PAI 1s, θέλω, 1) to will, have in mind, intend
μεταμεληθεὶς: AAPart nsm, μεταμέλομαι 1) repent to rue, regret; 2) to have dissatisfaction with one's self for what one has done, to change or alter one's purpose, (see v.32  and extended definition below)
ἀπῆλθεν: AAI 3s, ἀπέρχομαι, 1) to go away, depart
1. I’m a little hesitant to translate Οὐ θέλω as “I will not.” It is a fine translation, but the implication might seem to be that it is shorthand for “I will not [work],” making the word “will” simply the future tense of “work.” In fact, θέλω is the verb here, pointing to intention, as in “to will,” not the future tense. That is important, given that this son’s intention changes.
2. There are two terms in the NT that can be translated “change one’s mind” or even something stronger, like “repent”: μεταμέλομαι (here and in v.32; also in Mt.27:3 regarding Judas’ regret for betraying Jesus) and the much more popularly used μετανοέω (customarily translated as ‘repent’). Some lexicons argue that the difference between the two verbs is significant; some argue that it is insignificant. As someone reliant on lexicons and not a lexicographer myself, I can offer no opinion. Nor does it seem terribly important for this pericope. What is important is the fact that the first son has a change of mind here, but that the chief priests and elders do not in v.32.
3. One reason not to translate μεταμέλομαι as “repent” here is because we customarily believe that to repent is to go to someone (a person or God) and to confess a change of heart. That assumption may be unwarranted, and particularly this son’s change of heart/mind seems strictly internal, and not a matter that he brings to his father.

30 προσελθὼν δὲ τῷ ἑτέρῳ εἶπεν ὡσαύτως. ὁ δὲ ἀποκριθεὶς εἶπεν, Ἐγώ, κύριε: καὶ οὐκ ἀπῆλθεν
Yet having come to the other he said likewise. Yet having answered he said, I, Lord.’ And he did not go.
προσελθὼν: AAPart nsm, προσέρχομαι, 1) to come to, approach 
εἶπεν: AAI 3s, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak
ἀποκριθεὶς: APPart nsm, ἀποκρίνομαι, 1) to give an answer to a question proposed, to answer 
εἶπεν: AAI 3s, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak
ἀπῆλθεν: AAI 3s, ἀπέρχομαι, 1) to go away, depart
1. I’m afraid it is true that this second son said, “I, Lord.” It reminds me of how Moses, when called out of the fiery bush answered, “Behold I.” The implication, of course, is that this is an affirmative response to the command to go work.

31 τίς ἐκ τῶν δύο ἐποίησεν τὸ θέλημα τοῦ πατρός; λέγουσιν, Ὁ πρῶτος. λέγει 
αὐτοῖς ὁ Ἰησοῦς, Ἀμὴν λέγω ὑμῖν ὅτι οἱ τελῶναι καὶ αἱ πόρναι προάγουσιν ὑμᾶς εἰς τὴν βασιλείαν τοῦ θεοῦ.
“Which out of the two did the will of the father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus says to them, “Truly I say to you that the tax collectors and prostitutes go before you into the reign of God.
ἐποίησεν: AAI 3s, ποιέω, 1) to make
λέγουσιν: PAI 3p, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak
λέγει: PAI 3s, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak
λέγω: PAI 1s, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak
προάγουσιν: PAI 3p, προάγω, 1) to lead forward, lead forth 
1. The word for the “will” (θέλημα) of the father is the nominal form of the first son’s response “I will [not]” (θέλω).
2. I think there is some intended tension between the “truly I say” (Ἀμὴν λέγω) here and “I do not say” (Οὐδὲ ἐγὼ λέγω) in v. 27.
3. I like how προάγω can be translated ‘to lead,’ so that the tax collectors and prostitutes lead the chief priests and elders into the reign of God. It seems connected to how the infants and nursing babies show the chief priests and scribes how to offer praise (21:14-16).

32 ἦλθεν γὰρ Ἰωάννης πρὸς ὑμᾶς ἐν ὁδῷ δικαιοσύνης, καὶ οὐκ ἐπιστεύσατε αὐτῷ: οἱ δὲ τελῶναι καὶ αἱπόρναι ἐπίστευσαν αὐτῷ: ὑμεῖς δὲ ἰδόντες οὐδὲ 
μετεμελήθητε ὕστερον τοῦ πιστεῦσαι αὐτῷ.
For John came to you in a way of righteousness, and you did not believe in him; Yet the tax collectors and prostitutes believed in him; Yet you having seen, did not later change your mind to believe in him.  
ἦλθεν: AAI 3s, ἔρχομαι, 1) to come 
ἐπιστεύσατε: AAI 2p, πιστεύω, 1) to think to be true, to be persuaded of,
ἐπίστευσαν: AAI 3p, πιστεύω, 1) to think to be true, to be persuaded of,
ἰδόντες: AAPart npm, ὁράω, 1) to see with the eyes
μετεμελήθητε: API 2p, μεταμέλομαι 1) repent to rue, regret; 2) to have dissatisfaction with one's self for what one has done, to change or alter one's purpose, (see v.29 and extended definition below)
πιστεῦσαι: AAInf, πιστεύω, 1) to think to be true, to be persuaded of
1. “John came to you in the way of righteousness.” What a beautiful affirmation of John’s preaching. The gospels offer a glimpse of how John’s ministry was perceived by the early church, usually offering great praise tempered with John’s subordination to Jesus. This is one of the few times when John’s ministry is simply affirmed without that secondary subordination. Perhaps one could argue that the subordination of John’s ministry to Jesus’ ministry is presumed given the opening question of this pericope. I see it more as indicative of the strong relationship between John’s and Jesus’ ministry when Jesus relates the question of his authority to a question and parable about John’s authority.  
2. I’m noticing that most translations are gliding over the dative case of “believe in him” and are making “him” a direct object of “believe” as if it were in the accusative case – i.e. “believe him.” I don’t know if that’s indicative of anything, but it is curious. Since the “in” would only be implied by the use of the dative case, maybe translations are keeping “believe in” for those times when a preposition is actually given, such as the well-know John 3:16, “whoever believes in him” (ὁ πιστεύων εἰς αὐτὸν ). I suspect it also simply feels more appropriate to reserve “believe in him” for Jesus and to use “believe him” for John, taking the emphasis away from John’s person to this message.  
3. It’s an interpretive question of what the object is for “having seen.” Does it means “having seen John” or “having seen tax collectors and prostitutes believing in John”? One or the other should have led the chief priests and elders to change their minds, in the same way that the first son of the parable changed his mind.

The parable of the two sons is very handy as a moral tale. I will confess to having used it with my two oldest sons when one of them was quick to say ‘yes’ but slow to follow through and the other would often answer reluctantly but his conscience would get the best of him and he would do what I asked. There is both something cautionary and something hopeful about a person’s initial reaction not necessarily being their final answer. I suspect that, once upon a time, this is the form in which this parable existed and was interpreted.

However, as it is given, Matthew’s Jesus is not just using the parable as a nice moral tale that parents can employ one day to make their kids feel guilty for not taking out the trash. Within the context, the parable is about John’s authority and how one ultimately responds to it, in response to a question about Jesus’ authority. Even if the chief priests and elders might have have been skeptical of John at first, their continued rejection of John’s authority was their downfall. In that sense, the tax collectors and harlots lead them into the reign of God.

As I will indicate in v. 24, n. 3 above, I am struck with how often the nominal or verbal form of λόγος (“word”) and the λέγω (“to say, speak”) appear, not only in vv.23-27, but also in the ‘saying v. doing’ tension of the parable. I cannot quite agree with those who feel that the parable and the conclusion that relates the parable to the question of authority seem unrelated (or who feel that the relationship is strained to say the least.) I do find it quite plausible that the parable itself might have existed independently before being employed by Jesus in this particular way. But, if we see look at the emphasis on λόγος and λέγω in the conversation between Jesus and the chief priests and elders, then a parable about the tension between ‘saying’ and ‘doing’ seems very appropriate. To me, one of the interpretive challenges this week is to keep these two halves together.

I also feel that I should say more about the phrase “tax collectors and prostitutes,” but I am running out of steam at the moment. Your comments on this phrase would be welcomed.


  1. The ego, kyrie in v30 intrigues me. I think that the usually supplied verb (go) is misleading somehow. Bit like adding the predicate to ego eimi in The Garden narrative. Not sure what the point might be, but something like I am one who addresses you as 'Lord' (but the audience remembers Matthew's: Not everyone who calls me Lord...). or, even, 'Father [God], you and I are in a relation of I-Lord'??

    As for tax-collectors and prostitutes (money and sex - hey, after all!). Maybe that both had sold out; both had prostituted themselves? Curious that nothing is said about them repenting or even needing to. They 'only' believe. The chief priests and elders do not repent or believe. Again, thanks for your work and thoughts.

  2. Technically, 'I, Lord' could be a question! What, me, Lord? Then it would read 'and he did not go' rather than 'but he did not go'

  3. I wonder if the connection between the parable and the controversy about authority is the question of intention. It's totally fair to question Jesus' authority if you genuinely want to know and are seeking to see if God is behind what Jesus (and John) are doing. But the question doesn't seem to be about genuine intention. That's borne out by reply of the temple leadership to the question about John. It wasn't about genuinely wanting to know. It was about maintaining their power. And so the parable becomes about the intention of the heart and the follow through. Turning towards God is always the right thing to do regardless of what you've said before. Pretending to follow God but going your own way is never the right thing to do.

    None of this is to say that your statement about the question of authority as the link isn't the case. This is just where my head has been.

  4. Tax collectors and prostitutes - tax collectors are functionally collaborators with the Roman occupation. Prostitution is often used in the Hebrew Bible as allying with other nations/gods. The two can be seen as betrayers of Jewish identity who 'came home' in response to John's preaching?

    Also - metamelomai seems to have the root of 'care' vs. 'mind' in metanoia. New care might be the penetration of conscience in the face of initial rebellion vs. the total new perspective of a new mind? Sort of fits our kids...

  5. On comment #2 for verse 27 - could the use of the perfect tense suggest a response like, 'We haven't figured that one out'?


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