|Matthew Henry's Concise Commentary|
21:23-27 As our Lord now openly appeared as the Messiah, the chief priests and scribes were much offended, especially because he exposed and removed the abuses they encouraged. Our Lord asked what they thought of John's ministry and baptism. Many are more afraid of the shame of lying than of the sin, and therefore scruple not to speak what they know to be false, as to their own thoughts, affections, and intentions, or their remembering and forgetting. Our Lord refused to answer their inquiry. It is best to shun needless disputes with wicked opposers.
Verse 27. - We cannot tell; οὐκ οἴδαμεν: we know not; Vulgate, nescimus. The Authorized Version seems, at first sight, to be intended to give a false emphasis to "tell" in Christ's answer; but our translators often render the verb οἴδα in this way (see John 3:8; John 8:14; John 16:18; 2 Corinthians 12:2). The questioners could find no way out of the dilemma in which Christ's unerring wisdom had placed them. Their evasive answer was a confession of defeat, and that in the presence of the gaping crowd who stood around listening to the conversation. They had every opportunity of judging the character of John's mission and that of Christ; it was their duty to form an opinion and to pronounce a verdict on such claims; and yet they, the leaders and teachers of Israel, for fear of compromising themselves, evade the obligation, refuse to solve or even to entertain the question, and, like a modern agnostic, content themselves with a profession of ignorance. Many people, to avoid looking a disagreeable truth in the face, respond to all appeals with the stereotyped phrase, "We cannot tell." F.M. appositely quotes the comment of Donatus on Terent., 'Eunuch.,' 5:4, 31, "Perturbatur Parmeno; nec negare potuit, nec consentire volebat; sed quasi defensionis loco dixit, Nescio." And he said unto them; ἔφη αὐτοῖς καὶ αὐτός: he also said unto them. The Lord answers the thought which had dictated their words to him. Neither tell I you, etc. With such double-minded men, who could give no clear decision concerning the mission of such a one as John the Baptist, it would be mere waste of words to argue further. They would not accept his testimony, and recognizing their malice and perversity, he declined to instruct them further. "Christ shows," says Jerome, "that they knew and were unwilling to answer; and that he knew, but held his peace, because they refused to utter what they well knew."
Gill's Exposition of the Entire Bible
And they answered Jesus and said, we cannot tell,.... They saw the dilemma they were brought into; they chose rather therefore to speak against their own consciences, and tell a wilful lie, and incur the reproach of ignorance: who, at other times, took upon them to judge of a prophet, whether he was a true or a false one, and by what authority he acted, whether of God, or man: but now being reduced to this wretched condition, contrary to their office and character, declare they did not know, and could not tell from whence John had his commission, and who gave him his authority:
and he said unto them, neither tell I you by what authority I do these things: since, according to the proposal of Christ, and the agreement he entered into with them, they did not give him a direct answer to his question, he looked upon himself under no obligation to inform them, what was his authority, and from whence he had it; though by the question he put to them he tacitly suggests, that he had his authority not from man, but from God; and by this his answer signifies, that since John preached and baptized without their authority and approbation, so might he; nor was he dependent on them, or accountable to them.
Jamieson-Fausset-Brown Bible Commentary
27. And they answered Jesus, and said, We cannot tell—Evidently their difficulty was, how to answer, so as neither to shake their determination to reject the claims of Christ nor damage their reputation with the people. For the truth itself they cared nothing whatever.
Neither tell I you by what authority I do these things—What composure and dignity of wisdom does our Lord here display, as He turns their question upon themselves, and, while revealing His knowledge of their hypocrisy, closes their mouths! Taking advantage of the surprise, silence, and awe produced by this reply, our Lord followed it up immediately by the two following parables.
Parable of the Two Sons (Mt 21:28-32).
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