Matthew 21:23–32 (NRSV)
The Authority of Jesus Questioned
(Mk 11:27–33; Lk 20:1–8)
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?” 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. 25 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?’ 26 But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.” 27 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.
The Parable of the Two Sons
28 “What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ 29 He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. 30 The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. 31 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. 32 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.
Have you ever been in a confrontation that you knew was a trap no matter what you said? Working in retail there is usually at least one customer a day that will corner either me or a coworker, they will specifically ask for an item that is not on the shelf, when we tell them it is out they immediately fly off making demands that have no basis, and ask to speak with a supervisor when we are unable to meet the demand. I honestly must say this happens less now that I have changed companies but it is a phenomenon of retail none the less. No matter what you say, you will face the wrath of the annoyed customer who came only to purchase that one item and now they are never going to shop at that store again and it is all your fault. The funny thing is that they are usually there the next day.
Today we find Jesus in just such a trap. If we were to read the verses between last week and this we would find that Jesus made his way to Jerusalem. When he came to the temple he became angry. He threw people selling goods out and began to upend tables at which money changers were conducting business. I imagine he then began to scream as he quoted scripture as to what made him so angry. Take a moment to imagine that scene. Jesus basically HULKed out on the enterprising temple/business complex. The temple of the first century was a finely tuned marketplace. They had everything that you could possibly imagine making your worship experience memorable and effective. Everything that you would need was right there, no longer did you have to go out and find an animal among your flocks, or go to a neighbor to negotiate a trade. You no longer had to make the effort of feeding and transporting an animal from your home to the temple because you could conveniently purchase all you needed right there on the spot. Imagine how easy that could be. Imagine how corrupt that could become. Imagine the deals that could potentially be made between the priest and the businessmen offering a percentage of the profits if they happen to refer a customer to their stall. Imagine how many animals would be found unacceptable if the animal was not purchased from a recommended agent. Imagine just how corrupt this system could become. It is not really that difficult to imagine, because it happens in every business. A school needs a new scoreboard for their football field and suddenly the only beverage you can purchase on the school grounds are from a certain company. We call it sponsorship today, nothing innately wrong with that except for the fact that they have a brokered monopoly within a closed market. If your school has Pepsi for a sponsor you will not be purchasing a Coke from the concession stand at the end of the half while you watch the time click down on the newly purchased scoreboard with the bright Pepsi logo.
Imagine the potential corruption that could occur at the temple with vendors within its court walls. A poor family brings a lamb from home, one of their own. It is a beautiful animal, they come to the priest and it is found to be unworthy. They are then forced to go to a vendor, and somehow figure out how to make a trade. Their prize lamb the best of their flock is grossly undervalued and they purchase a replacement at a significant markup. They leave the temple felling cheated. And then there are those that put no effort in the finding and sacrificing their own herd for God they simply keep their best for profit and purchase one on site without the hassle. Can you imagine why Jesus would be a bit irritated? People come to the temple to worship God and they are exploited. This is not even including the fact that the temple would only accept monetary contributions in authorized forms which was not the currency of the empire so everyone that wanted to do business in the temple would have to convert their money before any business could be conducted. I have had to make money conversions a few times. In Odessa, Ukraine we could convert our money at an exchange rate of 5 to 1, but when we traveled to Yalta in Crimea the rate was 2 to 1. Why the drastic change you know the basic laws of economics Yalta had more tourists wanting to make purchases so they the service fee of the exchange was greater. I did not buy much from Yalta.
After Jesus became the Incredible Hulk in the temple, he then began to teach and heal those that were coming to worship. All the while the religious leaders were watching him and contemplating what they could do to restore what they had built. That night Jesus left town and we meet him the next day in today’s passage.
The religious leaders were still upset from the day previous, likely because they lost a great deal of money. They approach this troublesome teacher with a question. “By whose authority are you doing these things and who gave you this authority?” It is a legitimate question when you look at things from a cultural and social point of view. Jesus had just disrupted the accepted norms of temple worship the day before, he had prevented the people from participating in the accepted practices of the era and in some cases prevented them access to God’s grace, at least from their perspective. Now he is sitting again early in the day teaching again while the various vendors are hesitant to do business with him sitting there. Are they going to be harassed again? As a former security manager, I would have been duty bound to escort him off the premises and if he refused involve law enforcement. But the teachers of the day had other problems, they knew that what he said was not exactly wrong, it just was not accepted.
By whose authority do you do these things? Jesus turns the question back on them saying in essence, “I will tell you if you answer one question of mine. Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” Think about this for a moment. We could get into the theological implications of the sacrament of baptism, but that is not what Jesus is asking. John was basically telling the people of Israel the they were not worthy to even call themselves Israel. The implication of the baptism that John promoted was telling them all that they were not worthy to even place a foot in the land of promise let alone worship in the temple. They from the greatest religious leader to the most common and lowly peasant needed to repent and be washed clean because they were all unclean in the eyes of God. John had caused a great deal of trouble for the teachers, because again his teachings were not wrong they just were not convenient.
The leaders withdrew and talked amongst themselves concluding that they did not know. The trap that they had set for Jesus was then turned from him and placed in front of them. They had to say they did not know because to say anything different would admit that they willingly opposed God, and in that admission, they were unworthy of occupying their position.
There are times where admitting that we do not know is the actual answer we should give. We are not able to fully know everything. Scripture specifically deems that we will never know the exact time the second coming of Christ will be, though so often people try to predict it. We are also unable to fully comprehend the fullness of God. This is why after two thousand years we still have theology classes taught in universities, and that at times a new idea emerges from those universities that causes great upheaval in the churches. Why after centuries are churches still arguing over theological issues? Why after so many centuries are we still forming new denominations? It is because people cannot admit to themselves that at times we may not know.
All of us from in some way have both divine and human influences in our spirituality. I shudder to even admit that but it is true. At times my culture is very much a part of how I interpret scripture. The more I study the more I recognize this and change my views, but it is difficult. It is difficult to say I have been wrong, it is difficult to say I do not know certain things, because we should have answers.
Jesus could tell that at that moment the religious leaders were open to some teaching. They recognized that at times they had to admit they did not know so it left them vulnerable. In this vulnerability Jesus provides the truth that we seek. He provided it in a parable. A man had two sons and he told the first to go and work in the vineyard. The son told him, “No Way.” But later he changed his mind and went to work. The father also went to the second and asked him to work as well, and this son replied, “I go, sir”. He said he would go but he did not. Jesus then asked them which of these sons did the will of his father?
In the context of the larger story, this is a powerful parable because it speaks to so many of us on a very personal level, just as it spoke to the religious leaders two thousand years ago. Jesus asked them which of the sons did the will of the father, and they quickly responded by saying that the first. Jesus by telling this parable is pointing out the hypocritical nature of mankind within a religious system. We can say many things, we can even participate in religious acts and be far from God. And then there can be rebellious people among us that have participated in lifestyles far from holy, that repent and become children of Light.
This is the very activity that the early Friends protested when they started our religious society. They looked at the church and saw an exceptional performance but when the pious left the steeple houses, they acted as if they were possessed by a devil and not Christ. They saw priests politicking for a nicer church as if it were an inheritance and not a ministry. They saw people confessing to beliefs yet living contrary to their confessions in their daily life. The church in their eyes were like the second son on the parable, saying all the right things to please the father, yet not walking anywhere close to the vineyard.
Fox and the other early Friends decided that if that was the church it was not something they wanted to be involved in. They wanted to follow Christ, they wanted to know Christ and to hear the voice of the divine and listen not only with their souls but their actions. So, they left the church, and they met together in silence. They waited with a holy expectancy knowing that Christ was the ever-present teacher and would direct us if we only listen. They in their waiting became passionate in their faith, so passionate that they found that they could not swear allegiance to any kingdom other than the kingdom of the Lamb, and any kingdom that acted contrary to the will of God they raised a protest to correct an injustice. They became involved in prison reform. Why prison reform? Because many of their number found themselves in prison for not swearing oaths of allegiance, and they refused to pay tithes to priest that did not promote Christlike lives.
They got involved not only with their words but their actions. They took this message of wholistic faith out to their towns, into their regions, into the nation at large and to the world. Living their faith out in every aspect of their lives. Their lifestyle caused such a disruption to the nation that England finally stopped persecuting them because their faithfulness in the workplace as well as in the meetinghouses was threatening the very economy. Meaning Quakers were becoming too successful. These early Friends listened to the call, and though they might have been hesitant they did the will of the Father anyway.
But what about now? What about the state of the Church today? Jesus listened to the religious leaders’ answer that day in the temple, and he 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.” The religious leaders saw that the message that John preached caused change in people. Those that listened to John repented and turned to God in a new way. They began thinking about their actions and how they might be exploiting a situation. He told the tax collectors to only take what was needed and to refrain from extortion. He told the Soldiers not to be brutal in their applications of justice. And the people listened, but the religious leaders rejected not only John but those that followed him. And now they question Jesus.
From where and who does his authority come? If he is from heaven then we should listen because his lifestyle is the lifestyle God demands. If he comes from human origin then his teachings can be questioned but there is a multitude of people out there that claim him to be king. Maybe we like the leaders just don’t know what to think. Maybe we like the religious leaders of the ancient temple prefer the massive complex that can generate revenue at the expense of faith. From where is His authority? For us to be sitting here today we affirm that we believe that Jesus’ authority is from Heaven.
As we enter this time of Holy expectancy like our spiritual ancestors did centuries ago, let us consider how that authority should be lived out in our own lives. Are we willing to stand up and hulk out for injustices surrounding us or are we willing to turn a blind eye to preserve the status quo? Are we willing to encourage and help those of questionable reputation to find faith or will we only encourage those like us? Are we willing to follow Christ in action, or only confess in word?