16th Sunday after Trinity Matthew 21: 23-32
When he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, ‘By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?’ Jesus said to them, ‘I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?’ And they argued with one another, ‘If we say, “From heaven”, he will say to us, “Why then did you not believe him?” But if we say, “Of human origin”, we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.’ So they answered Jesus, ‘We do not know.’ And he said to them, ‘Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.
‘What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, “Son, go and work in the vineyard today.” He answered, “I will not”; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, “I go, sir”; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?’ They said, ‘The first.’ Jesus said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, the tax-collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax-collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.
May these written words lead us to the living word Jesus Christ Amen.
To understand the questions from the religious leaders and the question Jesus puts to them in reply we need to understand the context.
This account comes after Jesus has made his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, riding in on a donkey and being hailed by the crowds as the Son of David, the fulfilment of their hopes and dreams, coming in the name of the Lord to usher in the new world order.
Then immediately after that, according to Matthew, Jesus went into the Temple and overturned the tables of the traders, then he continued his healing ministry.
Is it any wonder then, in the light of all this that we read the opening words of our passage today in verse 23: “When he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, ‘By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?’”
Jesus was clearly a threat to the religious and social leaders of the day. He was exhibiting miraculous powers, the crowds were absolutely enthralled by him.
Their questioning comes out of the security they felt in their own authority. The Chief Priests were in a spiritual lineage that went all the way back to Moses. The Scribes were the most learned theologians in Jewish society. The Elders had years of experience and had the unquestioning respect of the people. Now their security was being threatened by this young man and they challenged him.
Jesus has absolutely no intention in engaging in a debate about his authority, he knew they just wanted to prove that their authority was greater than his. Instead, he asks them a question that will cause them to struggle as they have to reflect on the true nature of authority itself, verse 24: “Jesus said to them, ‘I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?’”
This was a tough question for the religious leaders to answer, because no matter what they said, the answer was bound to upset someone. If they agreed that John the Baptist’s ministry came from God, then Jesus would say, “So why didn’t you listen to him and follow him?” But if they said that his ministry was not from God, then the crowds would have turned on them because they loved John the Baptist. There was no way they could win the argument against a question like that so the best answer they could come up with was: “We don’t know”. That didn’t say much for their spiritual authority – being speechless and defenceless in the face of a very simple question from Jesus showed them up for who they truly were. They didn’t give an answer because they didn’t want to lose their power and reputation in front of the people.
This is of course a challenge for all those who hold positions of authority in society today. People in political and spiritual leadership are sometimes called to make decisions that will have an impact on those they represent or minister amongst. Are they/we prepared to stand up for what is true and right in the eyes of God and set out in the Gospel of Jesus Christ? Or will they/we seek to deny the truth in order to protect the power and status they have, or think they have, in the eyes of society? Leadership in any sphere demands courage to do what is right, often at the expense of personal gain and popularity, and it is important that we pray for our leaders.
Back to the text – The religious leader’s authority came with a title, with respect, with wealth and prestige, with the ability to make decisions that the people would unquestioningly obey and with the weight of history on their side. Now they had come up against Jesus who was showing them authority from a completely different order altogether. His God-given authority was worked out in his life of service and welcome to sinners, prostitutes, outcasts and little children. (With the benefit of hindsight we know it culminated in his rejection, torture and a criminal’s death on the cross.) The religious leaders had never seen anything like this before and had no idea how to respond to him.
Jesus tells them another parable about two sons. Remember that the vineyard is an image of the church and the father an image of God. The first son refused to work in the vineyards saying ‘I will not.’ There seems little respect for the father, but later he changes his mind and goes. The second answered the father with respect and said, ‘I go, sir’, but he didn’t. Neither son is perfect, neither son is truly willing to go. If we had to choose which of the two did the will of the father? It has to be the son who eventually did what the father asked. Jesus takes this a stage further by telling them ‘tax collectors and prostitutes will enter the Kingdom of God ahead of you. Note Jesus did not say instead of you! In other words if we profess something, we should show we believe it by the way we life. Words without deeds are worth very little.
The key is in the phrase ‘changed his mind’ or better translated as ‘he changed what he cared about and went” At the heart of this passage are simple questions: What do we care about? Is our primary concern going to be for the honour of God our Father who asks us to go out and work for him in the vineyard of his Kingdom? Many of us may have said an initial No, or are still hesitant, but as we have seen in the message of this parable, if we respond to the call of the Father and change our concern from us to him, then we will be acceptable to him, regardless of what we have done in the past.
God has always given us freewill to choose which kind of son/daughter we will be. May God give us the will to say yes and mean it.