Listen to the audio of today’s Reflection:

Matthew 21:23-32

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.

Over the past couple of weeks, our Reflections have been based on passages from Paul’s Letter to the Romans, interspersed with readings from Matthew’s account of the final week of Jesus’ earthly life and ministry. That final week was marked by an increasingly bitter conflict with the religious leadership of the Jewish people.

You might remember that in yesterday’s reading, Jesus infuriated the leadership by driving out the corrupt merchants who were selling sacrificial animals in the temple and changing money for the temple tax. He also performed the puzzling act of cursing a fig tree that was bearing no fruit, and causing it to wither in what we said was an “enacted parable.” Jewish people who watched what Jesus did, or who read about it in the early years of the church, would have understood this act as comparing the religious leadership to an un-fruitful tree and foretelling that God would cause the religious establishment they led to wither away. (All of which, by the way, happened within forty years of Jesus’ ascension to heaven.)

In the reading we’re looking at today, some of the leaders of that establishment demand that Jesus tell them by what authority he is “doing these things.” But Jesus responds to their question as he does on a number of other occasions – by asking a question of his own. He asks the Jewish leaders by 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 theirs, as well.

I’m always struck by the fact that the religious leaders discuss their response to Jesus’ question without any apparent theological consideration. I mean, at all. All they talk about is the political ramifications of the various answers they might give.

The second part of today’s reading might seem unrelated to the first. But when you look close, it’s a different way of talking about the same conflict. A man asks his two sons to help in the vineyard. One says no, but then shows up to work after all. The other agrees to help, but then doesn’t. So, Jesus asks, which one did the father’s will? The answer is obvious: the one who actually showed up to do the work.

Then Jesus reveals that he’s using this parable to contrast the Jewish religious leaders with the sinners and outcasts who have been flocking to his ministry. The religious leaders, Jesus says, are like sons who promise to do the father’s will but then don’t show up. The sinners and outcasts are like sons who have said ‘no’ to a life of religious faithfulness, but then changed their minds and came looking for God after all.

Jesus says the parable is meant to represent what he calls “the way of righteousness” revealed by John the Baptist. You might remember that 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 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 they had somehow lost their way, and now their focus was on serving their own interests instead of God’s. They loved money and power and influence more than serving God. 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’s meant to challenge all of us who think of ourselves as followers of Jesus. Because all of us – or most of us, at least – have said ‘yes’ to him at some point in our lives.

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. If we’re faithful in that, others 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.