Whatever one thought of Jesus, the mood of the Jews in Jerusalem after the cleansing of the temple had to be expectant. On the one hand, those who shouted their Hosannas to Jesus as their Messiah would have hoped that liberation from Gentile domination was right around the corner. Jesus’ opponents, on the other hand, would have had a different, darker expectation. The Antonia Fortress always loomed over the outer court of the Jerusalem temple; the Roman garrison was always watching for trouble. Could the commotion of Jesus driving out the merchants and money-changers possibly have escaped their notice?
Not likely. And no one wanted to be “noticed” by Rome. If this disturbance of the peace was found to be more than a minor annoyance, the empire could come down on Jerusalem, hard. The Jewish leadership would lose their place, and the Jewish nation would lose what little freedom it had.
It’s not surprising, then, that when Jesus returned to the temple the following day, the chief priests and elders demanded an explanation: “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” (Matt 21:23, NRSV). It was less a question, of course, than an accusation.
Jesus, as he often did, answered their question with a question of his own: “Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” (Matt 21:25). They knew they’d be in trouble whichever way they chose, so they feigned ignorance: “We don’t know.” They didn’t answer Jesus’ question, so he refused to answer theirs.
Thus began a very public debate, apparently carried out in full view of the Passover pilgrims who crowded the temple courts. In Matthew’s account, Jesus enters the temple at 21:23, and doesn’t leave until the end of chapter 23. In between, Jesus engages in one debate after another. Here’s a summary. Notice how many rhetorical opponents Jesus sweeps away:
- After refusing to answer the question about authority, Jesus tells the chief priests and elders three parables. Each parable, directly or indirectly, accuses them of missing the kingdom in their unbelief, disobedience, and treachery. They want to arrest him, but are afraid of how the crowds will react.
- Some Pharisees therefore partner with the Herodians (they were not normally allies!) to try to trip Jesus up with a controversial question about paying taxes to Caesar. Knowing their hypocrisy, Jesus deftly avoids their verbal trap. Amazed, they simply walk away.
- The Sadducees try to succeed where the Pharisees fail, telling an implausible tale about a widow who endures Levirate marriage with each of seven brothers before dying in childless futility. Again, Jesus sidesteps their rhetorical trap, and this time, Matthew tells us that it’s the crowd that is amazed.
- The Pharisees try again, asking a question about the greatest commandment. Jesus gives a satisfactory answer, perhaps one they would actually have admired (in Mark, the question is an honest one, and Jesus’ answer is appreciated). No traction for controversy there.
- Then Jesus goes on the offensive. This time, he asks the Pharisees a question that they can’t answer. Matthew reports the result: “No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions” (22:46).
At this point, Jesus could have dropped the mic and walked away, triumphant.
But he wasn’t done yet. He turned to his disciples and the rest of the crowd and scathingly denounced the hypocrisy of the scribes and Pharisees.
Apparently, he didn’t wait for them to leave first. Turning back to his opponents, he cried out, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!” (Matt 23:13). He pronounces woe upon them. He calls them blind and foolish. He accuses them of being full of filth and lawlessness. He calls them the “brood of vipers,” condemned to hell.
Have a nice day.
Though Matthew doesn’t say, I imagine the fist-pumping elation of the disciples at Jesus’ rhetorical performance.
And, of course, I imagine the seething resentment of the chief priest and elders, of the scribes and Pharisees, of the Sadducees and Herodians. They had been publicly shamed, humiliated. Add that to the belief that Jesus, although certainly not the Messiah the ignorant masses thought him to be, was just enough of a subversive to be a danger to the Jewish nation. Something had to be done before this loose cannon from the Galilean backwater triggered an armed response from Rome.
No wonder they wanted him dead.