In the United States, there was a dispute about the tariffs that should be applied to imported tomatoes. It was all about money and competition in the marketplace, of course. The tariffs on fruit were lower than on vegetables, and someone thought the tomato merchant was paying a lower tariff than he should.
The fruit side of the dispute said that tomatoes meet the botanical criteria for being fruits. They read the definition of fruit from the dictionary to show that tomatoes, just like peaches, pears, grapes, plums, and apples, are fruits.
The vegetable side argued that botany and the dictionary are irrelevant, because the issue is how we sell and use them. They also read from the dictionary. Cucumbers, squash, and bell peppers also fit the dictionary definition of fruit, yet in the marketplace and in the kitchen, they are all considered vegetables and there is no controversy about them.
You have noticed that no one puts tomatoes in fruit salad.
The judge ruled that the dictionary’s definition of the word “tomato” is not legally binding on the court or relevant to the case. What is relevant is how tomatoes are used within the scope of the present lawsuit. People call tomatoes vegetables, buy them as vegetables, and use them as vegetables—and the defendant was selling them as vegetables and only called them fruits at tax time. So far as the court is concerned, tomatoes are vegetables and the tariff for vegetables applies. The dispute went all the way up to the Supreme Court, which upheld it.
Now you know how a tomato can call itself a vegetable in the United States. It even has a court decision to back it up. And what does this have with Jesus? Read on.
Jesus in the Grocery Store
Imagine that the Pharisees encounter Jesus in the grocery store just as He is taking a bottle of juice off the shelf. The main ingredient in the juice comes from tomatoes. They decide to trick him into discrediting Himself by asking Him a question that only has two answers, both of them bad answers.
They ask him, “Is that a bottle of fruit juice or vegetable juice?”
Jesus says, “That depends on your answer to my question. If you answer my question, I’ll answer yours. Is a tomato a fruit or a vegetable?”
All Pharisees are rabbis, just like all Jesuits are priests. They are supposed to be experts and teachers in such matters. They huddle. If they say that tomatoes are vegetables, they are conforming to common use but they are technically wrong. That would discredit them as experts. However, if they say that tomatoes are fruits, they’d lose credibility with the people, and they wouldn’t be able to function as teachers. They were afraid of losing the respect of the people. So they broke their huddle and told Jesus, “We don’t know.”
Then Jesus says, “The main ingredient in this bottle is tomato juice. If you can't tell me whether a tomato is a fruit or a vegetable, then I can’t answer your question about whether this is fruit juice or tomato juice.”
Jesus to Pharisees: Checkmate.
Jesus in the Temple
The imaginary situation in the grocery store is very much like the situation in the Temple in Matthew 21:23-32. The Pharisees came up to Jesus, not while He was putting juice in His shopping cart, but while he was teaching. For them, some of his teachings were over the top, and they wanted to put a stop to it. They didn’t ask him if it was fruit juice or vegetable juice, they asked him where He got His authority to teach what He did.
They figured there were only two possible answers. If He said, “I got it from God,” they could get Him for blasphemy. If He said, “I’m just making this stuff up,” they could discredit Him as a phony. Either way, they would shut Him down.
Jesus said He would answer their question if they answered His question. Why did the Pharisees agree to this? Why didn’t they just say, “Shut up and answer our question”? Jesus wasn’t proposing a contest like “I’ll answer your question about geography if you answer my question about music.” Jesus’ answer about His authority depends on their answer about John the Baptist, because John the Baptist introduced Him to the public, John endorsed His ministry, John proclaimed Him to be the Lamb of God, and John even supplied Him with a starter set of disciples, so to speak.
It’s parallel to the imaginary situation in which they ask Him if He is holding a bottle of fruit juice or vegetable juice. It all depends on whether a tomato is a fruit or a vegetable.
Jesus asked them if John’s ministry was of divine or human origin.
The Pharisees huddle. If they say that John’s ministry had a divine origin, then Jesus’ claims about Himself might just be correct, which is not the outcome they want. If they say that John’s ministry is of human origin, then they can accuse Jesus of just making stuff up; however, they will discredit themselves in the eyes of their students, who believe that the divine origin of John’s ministry is obvious. They don’t want that outcome either.
So they break their huddle and tell Jesus that they don’t know the answer to His question.
If the Pharisees don’t know the validity of John the Baptist’s ministry, then they can’t know the validity of Jesus’ ministry.
Jesus to Pharisees: Checkmate.