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Catena Aurea Commentary on Matthew 21:23-32

Catena Aurea - Gospel of Matthew 21

23. And when he was come into the temple, the Chief Priests and the elders of the people came unto him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority721 doest thou these things? and who gave thee this authority?”

24. And Jesus answered and said unto them, “I also will ask you one thing, which if ye tell me, I in like wise will tell you by what authority I do these things.

25. The baptism of John, whence was it? from heaven, or of men?” And they reasoned with themselves, saying, If we shall say, From heaven; he will say unto us, Why did ye not then believe him?

26. But if we shall say, Of men; we fear the people; for all hold John as a prophet.

27. And they answered Jesus, and said, “We cannot tell.” And he said unto them, “Neither tell I you by what authority I do these things.”


Pseudo-Chrys.: The Priests were tormented with jealousy, because they had seen Christ entering the Temple in great glory. And not being able to master the fire of jealousy which burnt in their breasts, they break forth in speech.

Chrys.: Forasmuch as they could not detract from His miracles, they bring matter of blame from His forbidding to sell in the Temple. As though they had said, Hast Thou assumed the seat of authority? Hast Thou been anointed Priest, that Thou exertest this power?

Pseudo-Chrys.: By that they add, “Or who gave thee this authority?” they shew that there be many persons who give power to men, whether corporal or spiritual! as though they had said, Thou art not come of a priestly family; the Senate has not conferred on Thee this power, neither has Caesar granted it. But had they believed that all power is from God, they would never have asked, “Who gave thee this authority?” For every man judges of others by himself. The fornicator thinks that none are chaste; the chaste does not readily suspect any of fornication; he who is not a Priest of God, thinks no man’s Priesthood to be of God.

Jerome: Or in these words they urge the same cavil as above, when they said, “He casteth out722 demons through Beelzebub the Prince of the demons.” [Matt 12:24] For when they say, “By what authority doest thou thee things?” they doubt concerning the power of God, and would have it understood that the things He does are of the Devil. But when they add, “Who gave thee this authority?” they most clearly deny the Son of God, whom they suppose to work miracles, not by His own, but by others’ strength.

The Lord could have confuted the calumny of His tempters by a simple answer, but He put a question to them of such skilful contrivance, that they must be condemned either by their silence or their knowledge; “Jesus answered and said unto them, I also will ask you one question.”

Pseudo-Chrys.: Not that they should answer it, and thereupon hear of Christ the answer to their question, but that being puzzled they should ask Him no farther; according to that precept He had given above, “Give not that which is holy to the dogs.” [Matt 7:6] For even if He had told them, it would have profited nothing, because the darkened will cannot perceive the things that are of the light. For him that enquires we ought to instruct, but him that tempts, to overthrow by a stroke of reasoning, but not to publish to him the power of the mystery.

The Lord thus sets before them in His question a dilemma; and that they might not escape Him, says, “Which if ye tell me, I in like wise will tell you by what authority I do these things.” His question is this; “The baptism of John whence was it? from heaven, or of men?”

Aug., in Joan. Tr., v. 4: John received his authority to baptize from Him, whom he afterwards baptized; and that baptism which was committed to him is here called the baptism of John. He alone received such a gift; no righteous man before or after him was entrusted with a baptism to be called from himself. For John came to baptize in the water of repentance, to prepare the way for the Lord, not to give inward cleansing, which mere man cannot do.

Jerome: What the Priests revolved in their malice is shewn when he adds, “But they reasoned with themselves.” For had they replied that it was from heaven, the question was inevitable, Why then were ye not baptized by John? But should they reply that it was an invention of human device, and had in it nothing divine, they feared a tumult among the people. For all the assembled multitudes had received John’s baptism,723 and held him accordingly for a Prophet.

This godless party therefore make answer, and by a seeming humility of speech confessing that they know not, turned to hide their insidious designs. And they answered Jesus, and said, “We know not.” In saying that they knew not, they lied; and it might have followed upon their answering thus, that the Lord also should say, I know not; but truth cannot lie, and therefore it follows, “And he said unto them, Neither tell I you by what authority I do these things.”

This shews that they knew, but would not answer, and that He also knew, but would not answer, because they would not speak what they knew.

Origen: But some one will say in opposition to this, that it was absurd to ask by what authority Jesus did these things. For that it could not be that He would answer, that He did these by the Devil’s authority; and He would not tell them as it truly was, that He did them by His own power. If it should be said, that the rulers put this question to Him in order to deter Him from His proceedings; as when we say to one who is dealing with what is ours in a way which we do not like, we say to him, Who bade thee do this? meaning to deter him from what he is so doing; — if it is to be taken so, what means Christ’s answer, Do you tell Me this, and I will tell you by what authority I do these things.

Perhaps therefore, the place should be understood as follows. There are in the general two opposite powers, one on the side of God, the other on the side of the Devil; but of particular powers there are many; for it was not one and the same power that wrought in all the Prophets to enable them to do miracles, but one in these, another in those; and, it may be, for lesser things a lesser power, for greater things a greater power. The Chief Priests had seen Jesus working many miracles, whereupon they desired to know the special degree and properties of that power which wrought in Him. For others who have wrought miracles wrought them at first in one power, and afterwards when more advanced in another and greater power; but the Saviour wrought all in one power, that which He received of the Father. But because they were not worthy to hear such mysteries, therefore He gives them no answer, but on the contrary put a question to them.

Raban.: There are two reasons why the knowledge of truth724 should be kept back from those who ask; either when he who asks is unfit to receive, or from his hatred or contempt of the truth is unworthy to have that which he asks opened to him.


28. “But what think ye? A certain man had two sons; and he came to the first, and said, Son, go work to day in my vineyard.

29. He answered and said, I will not: but afterward he repented, and went.

30. And he came to the second, and said likewise. And he answered and said, I go, sir: and went not.

31. Whether of them twain did the will of his father?” They say unto him, “The first.” Jesus saith unto them, “Verily I say unto you, That the Publicans and the harlots go into the kingdom of God before you.

32. For John came unto you in the way of righteousness, and ye believed him not: but the Publicans and the harlots believed him: and ye, when ye had seen it, repented not afterward, that ye might believe him.”


Jerome: Thus much prefaced, the Lord brings forward a parable, to convict them of their irreligion, and shew them that the kingdom of God should be transferred to the Gentiles.

Pseudo-Chrys.: Those who are to be judged in this cause, He applies to as judges, that condemning themselves they might be shewn to be unworthy to be acquitted by any other. It is high confidence of the justness of a cause, that will entrust it to the decision of an adversary. But He veils the allusion to them in a parable, that they might not perceive that they were passing sentence upon themselves; “A certain man had two sons.” Who is he but God, who created all men, who being by nature Lord of all, yet would rather be loved as a father, than feared as a Lord. The elder son was the Gentile people, the younger the Jews, since from the time of Noah there had been Gentiles. And he came to the725 first, and said, Son, go work to day in my vineyard. To day,” i.e. during this age. He spoke with him, not face to face as man, but to his heart as God, instilling understanding through the senses. To work in the vineyard is to do righteousness; for to cultivate the whole thereof, I know not that any one man is sufficient.

Jerome: He speaks to the Gentile people first, through their knowledge of the law of nature; “Go and work in my vineyard;” i.e. “What you would not have done to you, that do not you to others.” [Tobit 4:16] He answers haughtily, “I will not.”

Pseudo-Chrys.: For the Gentiles from the beginning leaving God and his righteousness, and going over to idols and sins, seem to make answer in their thoughts, We will not do the righteousness of God.

Jerome: But when, at the coming of the Saviour, the Gentile people, having done penitence, laboured in God’s vineyard, and atoned by their labour for the obstinacy of their refusal, this is what is said, “But afterward he repented, and went.” The second son is the Jewish people who made answer to Moses, “All that the Lord hath said unto us we will do.” [Ex 24:3]

Pseudo-Chrys.: But afterwards turning their backs, they lied unto God, according to that in the Psalms, “The sons of the strangers have lied unto me.” [Ps 18:44] This is what is said, “But he went not.” The Lord accordingly asks “which of them twain did the will of his father? They say unto him, The first.” See how they have first sentence upon themselves, saying, that the elder son, that is, the Gentile people, did the will of his father. For it is better not to promise righteousness before God, and to do it, than to promise, and to fail.

Origen: Whence we may gather, that in this parable the Lord spoke to such as promise little or nothing, but in their works shine forth; and against those who promise great things but do none of these things that they have promised.

Jerome: It should be known that in the correct copies it is read not “The last,” but The first,” that they might be condemned by their own sentence. But should we prefer to read, as some have it, “The last,” the explanation is obvious, to say that the Jews understood the truth, but dissembled, and would not say what they thought; just as though they knew that the baptism of John was from heaven, they would not say so.

Pseudo-Chrys.: The Lord abundantly confirms their decision,726 whence it follows, “Jesus said unto them, Verily I say unto yon, that the publicans and harlots shall go before you in the kingdom of God;” as much as to say, Not only the Gentiles are before you, but even the publicans and the harlots.

Raban.: Yet the kingdom of God may be understood of the Gentiles, or of the present Church, in which the Gentiles go before the Jews, because they were more ready to believe.

Origen: Notwithstanding, the Jews are not shut out that they should never enter into the kingdom of God; but, “when the fulness of the Gentiles shall have entered in, then all Israel shall be saved.”

Pseudo-Chrys.: I suppose that the “publicans” here are to represent all sinful men, and “the harlots” all sinful women; because avarice is found the most prevailing vice among men, and fornication among women. For a woman’s life is passed in idleness and seclusion, which are great temptations to that sin, while a man, constantly occupied in various active duties, falls readily into the snare of covetousness, and not so commonly into fornication, as the anxieties of manly cares preclude thoughts of pleasure, which engage rather the young and idle.

Then follows the reason of what He had said, “For John came unto you in the way of righteousness, and ye believed Him not.”

Raban.: John came preaching the way of righteousness, because he pointed to Christ, who is the fulfilling of the Law.

Pseudo-Chrys.: Or, because his venerable conversation smote the hearts of sinners, as it follows, “But the Publicans and harlots believed on him.” Mark how the good life of the preacher gives its force to his preaching, so as to subdue unsubdued hearts. “And ye, when ye had seen it, repented not afterward, that ye might believe him;” as much as to say, They have done that which is more by believing on Him, ye have not even repented, which is less.

But in this exposition which we have set forth according to the mind of many interpreters, there seems to me something inconsistent. For if by the two sons are to be understood the Jews and Gentiles, as soon as the Priests had answered that it was the first son that did his father’s will, then Christ should have concluded His parable with these words, Verily I say unto you, that the Gentiles shall go into the kingdom of God before you. But He says, “The Publicans and harlots,” a class rather of Jews727 than of Gentiles. Unless this is to be taken as was said above; So much rather the Gentile people please God than you, that even the Publicans and harlots are more acceptable to Him than you.

Jerome: Whence others think that the parable does not relate to Gentiles and Jews, but simply to the righteous and to sinners. These by their evil deeds had rejected God’s service, but after received from John the baptism of repentance; while the Pharisees who made a shew of righteousness, and boasted that they did the law of God, despising John’s baptism, did not follow his precepts.

Pseudo-Chrys.: This He brings in because the Priests had asked not in order to learn, but to tempt Him. But of the common folk many had believed; and for that reason He brings forward the parable of the two sons, shewing them therein that the common sort, who from the first professed secular lives, were better than the Priests who from the first professed the service of God, inasmuch as the people at length turned repentant to God, but the Priests impenitent, never left off to sin against God. And the elder son represents the people; because the people is not for the sake of the Priests, but the Priests are for the sake of the people.

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