The Authority of Jesus and Parable of the Two Sons
Matthew 21: 23-32
17th Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 21)
By The Rev. Dr. Deonna D. Neal
27 September 2020
St John’s Episcopal Church, Montgomery AL
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in Thy sight, O Lord our strength and our Redeemer. Amen.
We have two quite memorable sections of the Gospel reading this morning. In the first half of our text we have a cadre of religious officials, representing the council of the Sanhedrin, descending on Jesus in a fury, outraged that he is teaching in the Temple. In this scene, the religious officials demand Jesus give an account of himself and explain by what authority he claims to have the right to teach there. In the second half of the text Jesus tells the religious officials a parable of two sons who are asked by their father to go labor in the vineyard. At first glance it might seem as if these two halves of the text are unrelated. But, actually the two sections of the text are very much related to one another.
So, a little background first. This is the first time that the officials from the religious council have publicly confronted Jesus. It was probably about time, too, since just prior to this event was the famous scene of Jesus cleansing the Temple. Jesus was blatantly treading on their territory and they had had just about enough of it. But, instead of confronting Jesus privately, they decided that they would stage a public spectacle. They wanted to humiliate Jesus publicly and arrest him in front of everyone. So they went as a group, en mass, to confront Jesus while he was teaching hundreds of people, including pilgrims, who were visiting Jerusalem in anticipation of the High Holy days.
The religious officials confront Jesus and ask him two questions: 1) By what authority are you doing these things? and 2) Who gave you this authority? The first question is basically asking Jesus what kind of authority he is exercising? Divine authority or human authority? The second question they are asking Jesus is, who conferred this authority on you, since the only legitimate Temple teachers were Jews who were either priests or Levites, who had undergone the laying on of hands.
But, Jesus does not answer their question. Why not? He chooses not to answer because if he had done so at that moment, that is, if he said, “I teach by Divine authority, and it was conferred upon me directly by God my Father, so I don’t need your authorization,” the religious officials would have had grounds to arrest Jesus on criminal charges. And, such an arrest would have accelerated Jesus’ path to execution. But Jesus knew that it wasn’t time for him to die yet, so he very shrewdly asks the religious officials a counter-question in return. (This was a normal rabbinic teaching technique, by the way, to answer a question with a question.) Jesus asks them, “Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it from human origin?”
This very shrewd and brilliant question puts the religious officials in an embarrassing dilemma. It’s a dilemma because no matter how they answered, the outcome would be bad for them. For example, if they answered that John baptized by divine authority, then the religious officials would also be forced to admit that Jesus was the Messiah, since John the Baptist was the one who testified to Jesus’ Messiahship. So admitting the truth about John and Jesus’ divine authority, undermines their own positions as the human religious authorities.
On the other hand, if they answer that John’s baptism was of human origin, they would most likely incite a riot from the crowds witnessing this confrontation. This would be because most of the people in the crowds believed John to have been a true prophet and had chosen to be be baptized by him. It was both on account of John’s witness and the word getting around about Jesus’ healing ministry that brought the crowds to hear Jesus teach in the first place. So, the religious officials realized that it wasn’t safe to say to the gathered crowds that they had been baptized and deceived by a charlatan. No, indeed, that wouldn’t do at all. So, faced with this dilemma, the religious officials decided neither of these answers were safe for them and they took the expedient way out and said, “We do not know.” And, Jesus replies simply, perhaps with a shrug and a satisfied grin, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.”
One of the reasons why this counter-question by Jesus was so shrewd is because Jesus basically exposed the religious officials as not being able to discern the difference between true and false prophets—and that was their job! Being able to do that was a large part upon which their own authority rested, and they basically said, we don’t know. That admissions is sort of like an English teacher admitting to an audience that he can’t read.
But not content to stop at this phase of the religious officials’ public humiliation, Jesus goes on to demolish them further. So, tell me, Jesus says, “A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, “Son, go and work in the vineyard today.” The first son answered, “I will not,” but later changed his mind and went. Then the father went to the second son and said the same. The second son, said, “I go, sir,” but did not go.
Jesus asked the religious officials which of the sons did the will of the father. Unlike after his first question to them about John, the religious officials did not confer with each other before they offered their answer. The answer to this question was obvious to them. They answered immediately, “The first.” And, then Jesus replies. “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.”
It was with this conclusion to the parable that Jesus discloses a devastating truth to the religious officials. The religious officials are represented by the second son in the parable, the one who says he will go, but does not. Like the second son, the religious officials are the ones who are outwardly obedient, formal, upright and respectful. This is captured in the response of the second son, “I will go, sir!” But Jesus’ point here is that the second son was content with just the show of obedience and not actually living out the life of obedience.
By contrast, the first son represents the tax collectors and the prostitutes and all those who don’t even pretend to be religious or obedient, “I will not!” says the first son contemptuously, willfully disobedient, and without pretense. But the difference between the two sons is that the first son, changes his mind, and eventually goes and works in the vineyard as his father had asked him to. The second son said, yes, but refused to work. So, in effect, Jesus gets the religious officials to confess that the tax collectors and the prostitutes who changed their ways, were the ones who followed the will of God. And, they themselves, the highest religious officials in the land, were the disobedient ones.
But if that wasn’t enough, even more devastatingly, Jesus says to them that it is the tax collectors and the sinners who will enter into the kingdom of God ahead of them. In other words, it will be the disobedient ones who later repented, who will proceed the religious leaders into heaven. The religious leaders are not doing their job, they are not paving the way for the people to encounter the Word of God and preparing for the Messiah. The profess their faith, but they do not live it out. And, Jesus sees right through them.
But, there is good news for the religious leaders. Jesus isn’t saying that there is no place in heaven for them, but the parable demonstrates what it is going to take to get there—a change of mind, a change of heart, which leads to a new way of life. All of their standing in the community and their outward profession of faith means nothing if they don’t live out a life of faith.
Perhaps it is the religious leaders who are the most to be pitied. They humiliate themselves publicly by not answering Jesus’ question truthfully, but instead try to play it safe. Then they reveal their own lack of self-awareness by failing to see that they are the second son in the story. And, to cap it all off, the one’s they are supposed to be leading, will turn around and proceed them into the kingdom of heaven. The last will be first, Jesus had always said.
There are many lessons for us in this exchange between Jesus and the religious leaders. One that immediately comes to mind is when we avoid speaking the truth about God in order to play it safe. How many times have we done that in our own lives? To what extent are we doing it now? Perhaps we have done it because we think if we speak the truth about God that we will be made fun of, or people will think we’re crazy, or that we’re too “serious” about religion. Or that if we speak the truth but don’t lead a life in accordance with our own convictions, then people will view us as hypocrites. To what extent do we “play it safe” when it comes to responding truthfully to Jesus when he addresses us?
Another question we might ask ourselves is how much like the second son and the religious officials are we? In what ways do we make a good show of being religious, especially those of us who occupy lay and ordained leadership positions within the church, but deep down its all for show? And, when Christ calls us to a new life of obedience we will outwardly say, “I will go, sir!” but inwardly we say, “not on your life! What you are asking of me is too much, or too, hard, or too risky, or too dangerous, or without glamor.” We all have our reasons for failing to be obedient to God. If we are like the second son when Christ calls us to make changes to our lives, what will it take to get us to work in the vineyard? How do our minds need to be changed so that our hearts will be softened and our feet will follow a new path?
One final question we might ask ourselves, and this has to do with what we think of the first son in the story? In what ways might we be too self-satisfied with our own standing in our church, our community and society that we might write off the willful atheists or people who unashamedly lead hedonistic lifestyles or pursue wealth to their own destruction? Do we think that they have no hope for redemption? No hope for transformation? Do we just give up on them? What sort of Christian witness will it take for them to change their minds, like the tax collectors and prostitutes of Jesus’ day?
The good news is that no one is beyond redemption, not the prostitutes and the tax collectors, nor the chief priests and the elders. Each person no matter who they are and their standing in society is called by God addressed by God. God addresses us to live a life of faith and obedience, to love God and to serve the neighbor in ways that are specific to the gifts that God has equipped each of us with in the context in which God has placed us. How will we respond? Will we say, “I go, sir” and then not go? Or, will we say, “I will” not, but have our minds changed by the grace of God and the truth of God’s love in Christ? We all have a choice. What choices will we make?
Obedience to God lies not in words, but in action. May God give us grace to do his will. Amen.