Listen to the audio of today’s Reflection:
The Authority of Jesus Questioned
23 Jesus entered the temple courts, and, while he was teaching, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him. “By what authority are you doing these things?” they asked. “And who gave you this authority?”
24 Jesus replied, “I will also ask you one question. If you answer me, I will tell you by what authority I am doing these things. 25 John’s baptism—where did it come from? Was it from heaven, or of human origin?”
They discussed it among themselves and said, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will ask, ‘Then why didn’t you believe him?’ 26 But if we say, ‘Of human origin’—we are afraid of the people, for they all hold that John was a prophet.”
27 So they answered Jesus, “We don’t know.”
Then he said, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.
The Parable of the Two Sons
28 “What do you think? There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work today in the vineyard.’
29 “‘I will not,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went.
30 “Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but he did not go.
31 “Which of the two did what his father wanted?”
“The first,” they answered.
Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. 32 For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him.
You night remember from yesterday’s Reflection that our gospel readings are now coming from Matthew’s account of the last week of Jesus’ earthly life and ministry. You might also remember that we said that last week was marked by increasingly bitter conflict with the religious leadership of the Jewish people – sometimes described as the chief priests and scribes and elders.
In yesterday’s reading from Matthew, Jesus disrupted the temple by driving out the corrupt merchants who were allies and supporters of the leadership. He also performed what is sometimes called an “enacted parable,” cursing a fig tree and causing it to wither. That would have been perceived as comparing the religious leadership to an un-fruitful tree and to foretelling that God was about to cause the establishment they led to wither away.
Now in today’s reading, the leaders of the temple demand to know on what authority Jesus is “doing these things.” Presumably, by “these things” they mean preaching and teaching and healing in the temple and driving out the merchants. But Jesus responds to their question as he does on a number of occasions – by asking a question of his own. He asks the Jewish leaders on what authority John the Baptist had spoken – was it God’s authority or human authority? But when the leadership refuses to answer his question, Jesus refuses to answer their question, as well.
(And by the way, it always strikes me as interesting that the religious leaders discuss Jesus’ question from a non-religious perspective – all they talk about is the public relations ramifications of the alternative answers they might give.)
Which brings us to the second part of today’s reading – the Parable of the Two Sons. Still apparently talking to the religious leaders, Jesus tells them a parable: A man asks his two sons to help in the vineyard. One says no, but then relents and comes to work after all. The other says he will help, but then doesn’t show up. So, Jesus asks, which one did the father’s will? The answer is obvious: the one who actually showed up to work.
Then Jesus reveals that he’s using this parable to draw a contrast between the Jewish religious leaders and the sinners and outcasts who have been flocking to his ministry. The religious bigshots, Jesus says, are like sons who have promised to do the father’s will, but then failed to show up. The sinners and outcasts are like sons who have said ‘no’ to God’s call to a life of faithfulness to his kingdom, but then have changed their minds and come seeking God after all.
The ‘work in the vineyard’ in the parable is meant to represent what Jesus calls “the way of righteousness” revealed to the world by John the Baptist. And you might remember that the gospels say John came preaching “a baptism of repentance.” In other words, Jesus seems to be saying, what God is really looking for from us is penitent hearts – hearts that recognize we are sinful people and that invite God to transform us in his image.
The religious leaders thought they were righteous because they obeyed the rules and ordinances of the Old Testament. But over the years, they had somehow lost their way. Now their focus was on serving their own interests – on getting money and power and influence – instead of on serving God’s interests. On the other hand, the sinners and outcasts gathering around Jesus saw their own sinfulness, and found their hearts broken by what they saw. So they were open to the work of the Spirit that could make them more useful to the kingdom of God.
I find this to be a really challenging parable. I think it’s one that ought to challenge all preachers and other leaders of the faith – elders, deacons, church workers, etc. But I also think it’s one that’s meant to challenge everybody who has ever identified themselves as followers of Jesus. Because all of us who consider ourselves followers of Jesus have said ‘yes’ to him at some point in our lives. Maybe when we were ordained to a role in the church, or when we were confirmed, or just when we decided to follow Jesus.
And this parable kind of reminds us that saying ‘yes’ isn’t the important part. It’s living ‘yes’ that matters. It’s being the kind of people who understand that we’re saved only by the grace of God, and who live and practice our faith with joy and thankfulness for that grace. And who share the joy of that new life with others, so they can encounter Jesus through us and start joyfully and thankfully living as his followers, too.
Let’s pray. Lord, we pray that you will help us to remember that we have agreed to join you at work in your vineyard. And even though we have sometimes dragged our feet about that work, let your Spirit energize us to show up to join your harvest. Make us productive servants of your kingdom. Amen.
(The other readings for today are psalms 64 and 89:1-4; Numbers 22:21-38; and Romans 7:1-12.)