An Overview of Matthew 21: 23 – 32
(From: The Gospel Story, by Ronald Cox.)
Following the resurrection of Lazarus, about two weeks earlier the Jewish leaders had decided that Jesus must die. It would seem that they did not contemplate assassination but arrest and legal condemnation by the supreme council, the Sanhedrin. But Jesus had disappeared, and they did not know where he was until he appeared again at Bethany, the Saturday before Palm Sunday. A new problem now confronted them: all day long, and probably well into the night, he was surrounded by a worshipful crowd. So they spent much time in the council chamber of the temple, planning and discussing how to arrest him. Outside, in the porches of the Gentiles’ Court, Jesus continued his mission of healing and instructing, while they plotted evil within.
An imposing delegation comes out from the council chamber: ‘chief priests’ (Sadducees, the rulers of the temple worship), ‘scribes’ (Pharisees, the teachers in the synagogues, the spiritual rulers of the people), and ‘elders’ (the lay aristocracy, members of families of influence and power in Israel). These three classes represented the governing body of the Jews, the Sanhedrin. They are not seeking information from Jesus; he has already told them his authority came from God. Their objective is to discredit him with the crowd, to let them see that his activities do not have the sanction of the rulers of Israel.
When our Lord replied with another question, he was following an accepted rabbinical method of discussion. He mentioned John the Baptist because these same leaders had asked John that very question. If they had acknowledged John, then they would have accepted Jesus. The short parable is concerned with the relations of sinners (‘the first’) and the leaders (‘the other’) with John, that strict observer of the law (‘ following all due observance’). In theory the Pharisees should have welcomed John; after all, the law was their profession.