Matthew 21:27
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.
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(27) We cannot tell.—The confession of impotence to which the priests and scribes were thus brought was, as has been said, a virtual abdication. Before such a tribunal the Prophet whom they called in question might well refuse to plead. There was, indeed, no need to answer. For those who were not wilfully blind and deaf, the words that He had spoken, the works which He had done, the sinless life which He had led, were proofs of an authority from God.

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.We cannot tell - This was a direct falsehood. They could have told; and the answer should have been, "We will not tell." There was no reason but that why they did not tell. The reason, probably, why they would not acknowledge that John was a prophet, was that, if they did, they saw he could easily show them by "what authority" he did those things; that is, by his authority as Messiah. John came as his forerunner, pointed him out to the people, baptized him, and bore his public and solemn testimony to the fact that he was the Messiah, Matthew 3:13-15; John 1:29-34. If they acknowledged one, they must the other. In this way our Saviour was about to lead these crafty men to answer their own question, to their own confusion, about his authority. They saw this; and, having given them a "sufficient" answer, there was no need of stating anything further. 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).

Ver. 24-27. We have the same without any considerable alteration Mark 11:27-33. Luke also records the same history, Luke 20:1-8, with no considerable difference, only he thus prefaceth to it: And it came to pass, that on one of those days, as he taught the people in the temple, and preached the gospel, the chief priests and the scribes came upon him with the elders: which makes it plain, that their question principally related to our Saviour’s preaching. It should seem, they had a law prohibiting any to preach in the temple without authority from the chief priests and elders. If any one think this was not an apposite answer to the question propounded to him,

1. They ought to consider, that our Saviour did truly judge they deserved no answer, for his works had testified of him that he acted by a Divine power; he should not need tell them so, in so many words.

2. In very deed there was a direct answer couched in this question of our Saviour. I pray, saith he, by what authority did John preach and baptize? They could not say, By a human authority, for they knew he was not licensed by their masters: it must follow that he acted by virtue of an extraordinary Divine mission.

So do I, saith our Saviour, and have given you a greater proof of it than ever John Baptist did. But our Lord well knew that the Pharisees had a greater reverence for John the Baptist than for him, and that many of the people had a great opinion of John, indeed greater than of him; our Saviour coming eating and drinking, as he expresses it, that is, being of a more free and sociable conversation, which did not so please the Pharisaical morose, and supercilious humour: he therefore chooseth to teach them by a question, in which, as soon as they could resolve themselves, they might know by what authority he did what he did. Besides, by the baptism of John, mentioned in our Saviour’s question, is not to be understood only his administration of baptism, but his doctrine, and indeed the whole of his ministry; for as his baptism is called the baptism of repentance, so the Pharisees here argue, that if they should say, From heaven, he would say, Why then did ye not believe him? Which must be understood of his doctrine. A great part of John’s doctrine was, that the Messiah was come, that Christ was he; John 1:29, he pointed to him and said, Behold the Lamb of God which taketh away the sin of the world; which had they believed, they would never have come to him with so silly a question. The Pharisees therefore rightly judged how they would be ensnared, if they said John’s baptism and doctrine was from God, for then a Divine faith was due to his words, and they must have owned Christ to be the Messiah. But why did not they say, Of men? The text saith, they feared the people. Those who will not fear God, shall have something to fear sordidly and slavishly. The people all owning John as a prophet, a man that had an extraordinary mission from God, and commission to reveal the mind and will of God, would have cried shame upon them had they disparaged him, as one that spake of his own head. They say,

We cannot tell. Herein they lied. Our Saviour replies,

Neither do I tell you, & c. Not, I cannot tell you, but I do not tell you: I will tell you no more than what John hath long since told you, and what, if you will, you and all men may know by my miracles.

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.

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.
Matthew 21:27. οὐδὲ ἐγὼ, etc.: Jesus was not afraid to answer their question, but He felt it was not worth while giving an answer to opportunists.

Matthew 21:27. Οὐκ οἴδαμεν, we do not know) A forced confession of most disgraceful ignorance.[928]—ΟὐΔῈ, Κ.Τ.Λ., neither, etc.) A repulse rare and just, by which itself Jesus proves His divine authority.[929]—ὙΜῖΝ, to you) you unbelievers, who do not ask for the sake of learning. He gave them a clue by which to ascertain that authority; see ch. Matthew 22:43. He had often told them before.

[928] In which, however, the proud at times prefer seeking a refuge, rather than yield themselves up to the truth. The Wicked is caught in (his own) snare.—V. g.

[929] It would not have been becoming that more should be given to one who hath not.—V. g.

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." Matthew 21:27
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