Tag Archives: pronoun referents

Who Is Lording Over Whom? (Matthew 20:25)

Today while studying Greek I encountered an exegetical puzzle. Who is lording over whom in this verse?

“25 But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. 26 It shall not be so among you.” –Matthew 20:25-26 (ESV)

Here is a more specific question: To whom does the final “them” in verse 25 refer?

  1. To “the Gentiles” (like the other “them” in the sentence)?
  2. Or to “the rulers of the Gentiles”?

(Another detail as you ponder: the “their” at the beginning of the second clause translates οἱ, a plural article that could just as rightly be translated “the.”)

Until today, I have always assumed (1) is the correct answer. That is how the ESV and a host of other English translations read most naturally to my ears. In other words, the translations I scanned seem to generally present the two clauses of of verse 25 as parallel to each other:

(a) “the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them”
(b) “their great ones exercise authority over them”

By this understanding, both “them”s refer to “the Gentiles.” They are the ones being lorded over in both clauses.

Some translations suggest that either the nouns (rulers/great ones) or verbs (lord it over/exercise authority over) of one or the other phrases may be stronger, but the phrases are still usually presented as parallel.

But today I read another translation that suggests something I had never even considered before:

“But Jesus said, ‘You know that the rulers of the Gentiles are lording it over them, and the great ones are lording it over them [i.e., over the rulers].”

That is how Rodney J. Decker translates the verse in his Reading Koine Greek textbook. (Decker, now deceased, was no slouch with Greek.) The bracketed explanation is his, not mine.

According to this interpretation, not only are the Gentiles lorded over, but even their rulers are lorded over by those greater than them.

Now that I have read Decker’s interpretation, I see that the there is no grammatical reason why ESV could not also be read the same way (although the “their” rather than “the” at the beginning of the second clause, though a legitimate translation option, distracts from Decker’s interpretation).

I don’t know whether Decker is right.

If Decker is correct, then Jesus was not only prohibiting individual persons from forcibly ruling over others in his kingdom, but he was also condemning a hierarchy of such rulers. And both have been a problem in the church, right?

To test Decker’s interpretation, I’d want to do several things I don’t have time now to do:

  • Compare this passage more closely with its parallels in Mark and Luke.
  • Investigate whether the word usage of “great ones” suggests a higher position than “rulers.”
  • Investigate whether “exercise authority over” suggests a higher position than “lord it over.” (These do come from two different words, despite Decker’s identical translation.)
  • Learn more about how pronoun references tend to work in Greek.

Either way, the essential message of Jesus is clear: If you are my disciples, don’t lord it over others! That’s not how my kingdom works!

What do you think? Which way have you read this verse? Do you find Decker’s interpretation convincing? Why or why not? Share your insights in the comments below.


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