Matthew 21:23-32

The Authority of Jesus Questioned

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[a] 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.

As a parent, I sometimes don’t like it when my kids question some things that I’m sharing…and, when I was a teenager, I remember questioning almost everything that my dad would tell!   It sometimes threatens my sense of place, of being, even the identity that I’ve built up.

Nowadays, when I argue with my kids, especially my son, if he doesn’t think I’m right, what does he do?  He Googles it!  Always trying to test his dad!!!  But, I continue to learn a lot from my kids…they are on their own paths now, and I trust what we’ve put into them over the years…and, quite honestly, they are now teaching us many things.  

That’s kind of what’s happening in this morning’s gospel passage…but not quite.  The religious leaders are trying to catch Jesus in a “gotcha” moment to make themselves look better.

These leaders have set up a status quo, they’ve built up a system of power that benefits them and they want to keep it, and their authority and credibility is being threatened by Jesus’ popularity.  So, they ask this question about who’s authority he does the things he’s doing.

He responds with a question, which is brilliant!  It’s also a rabbinic tradition of responding to a question with a question.  Jesus is great at this.  He’s not trying to win an argument, he’s trying to help these religious folks see something different, to dig deeper.  Which is what questions often do.

However, they know they are caught, and instead of taking the moment for genuine growth, they don’t want to change.  They are comfortable with the status quo, but, they do answer honestly.  “We don’t know”.  Of course, they did know that they did not want to answer honestly.  So, Jesus leaves them with this response, if you don’t know, then I won’t tell you who’s authority I do these things…in effect he’s saying, if you aren’t willing to do the work, to engage, to grow and to change, why are we in this conversation.  You aren’t ready.

I do think that Jesus did not cut them off…and he was obviously teaching and meeting with folks every day.  

The second story is coupled with this one to show that change, or conversion, is something that God values…and that action is more important than words.

The story of the two sons, one says yes to the task, but doesn’t do it, the other says no, but has a change of mind and does it.  

Now, I know that we all know which one we think did the right thing…and I know, as a parent, that I value deeply when my kids do what is asked, even if they say no at first…of course, Id rather them say yes and do it!  

Jesus again asks the religious leaders, who did the will of the father, of course the son who changed his mind after saying no and did the task.  

He affirms their answer, but then he goes on to give them some things to chew on…telling them that in God’s view, those who say no to faith, maybe even because they see the injustices of the current religious and political system, folks that are on the margins, like prostitutes and tax collectors, folks who have not followed the rules of society well, but were now coming to faith and seeing themselves and others differently and living in right relationships, were the ones that were jumping the line and entering the Kingdom of God before the religious leaders!

You see the parallel, the religious leaders are the son that says yes to God, but then don’t follow through, the prostitutes and tax collectors, really anyone on the margins that have been left out of the benefits of the system in place, are the son that says no at first, but then have a change of heart, or, as the Greek word in this passage, “metanoia”, is translated as, repentance, and they follow God and do what God asks.  

And, it’s interesting to note, as we did in this past week’s Bible study, after Jesus’ death and resurrection, there were Pharisees and Sadducees who were among the disciples…they had changes of heart and mind and became Jesus followers…their “no”, turned into a radical “yes” and they backed it up, which I’m sure caused them much loss in terms of their standing at the time.

When we hear this story today, may we be the folks that take seriously the call of being followers of Jesus…we may say yes, or no, but may we not be afraid to ask questions and to go deep into our lives and not be afraid of change…change can bring growth in our faith and move us towards actions that will not only be good for others, but will help us see things differently and be able to embrace others and situations, even the ones that we find ourselves in now, as Jesus did…and wants to do through us!  

And, we may be asking, what exactly is God asking of us?  Glad you asked!  It’s simple, Micah 6:8 says this:  

God has shown you, O mortal, what is good.

    And what does the Lord require of you?

To act justly and to love mercy

    and to walk humbly with your God.

Jesus embodied that requirement.  As Jesus followers, we live in grace, but our actions matter, especially now, in this season of our lives together.  When Jesus was asked in other conversation, what does it mean to follow God’s commands, his response in a nutshell:  Love God, Love Others, Nothing else matters.

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