In one of my recent posts, you may recall I spoke about the motive in people’s hearts that lay behind their actions. That is also relevant to this week’s reading too, in which we hear how the religious leaders tried to trick Jesus by the way in which they questioned his authority.
We can picture the scene: Jesus had entered the temple courts and was teaching, and that point the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him and asked: “By what authority are you doing these things?”, “And who gave you this authority?”
If Jesus had answered that his authority came from God, which would be tantamount to declaring himself as the Messiah, they would immediately have accused him of blasphemy and brought him to trial (blasphemy carried the death penalty, Leviticus 24:10–23). If Jesus had said that his authority was his own, the religious leaders could simply dismiss him as a fanatic and could trust that the crowds would soon return to those with true authority (themselves). It isn’t that a line of questioning like this is wrong as such – after all, we know that Jesus’ authority was indeed from God, and he is the Messiah – but furthermore Jesus went on to use such a line of questioning himself. The root of the problem instead lies with the chief priests and the elders and their inability and unwillingness to recognise the truth that was literally standing before them and the nefarious motives in their heart.
In Jesus’ case, he is the Way, the Truth and the Life and the clear motive in the hearts of the chief priests and elders was essentially to bring down the person who threatened the status quo and challenged their spiritual blindness. Jesus therefore played them at their own game and turned the question on them. “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. John’s baptism—where did it come from? Was it from heaven, or of human origin?””
Much like the question posed to Jesus, the chief priests and elders knew that answering either way would undermine their position and their own authority. We can see that in their reply…they said to themselves, ““If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will ask, ‘Then why didn’t you believe him?’ But if we say, ‘Of human origin’—we are afraid of the people, for they all hold that John was a prophet.” So they answered Jesus, “We don’t know.””
Having received that response to his question, Jesus then said: “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.” The reality is that in Jesus question, he did imply an answer to their question – both he and John the Baptist received their authority from God. They had been spiritually blind to John and now they were spiritually blind to Jesus.
I’m going to pause there for a minute to ask you what do you think? What would you have done? Do you think that how Jesus answered was reasonable?
The account doesn’t end there though. Jesus could quite simply have walked away. Instead, he shared a parable with them, and again one that gives insight into the nature of the Kingdom of Heaven and asks them what they think.
The stage is set, and the scene is as follows… ““There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work today in the vineyard.’ ‘I will not,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went.” “Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but he did not go.” “Which of the two did what his father wanted?””
The man in this parable represents God, while the two sons represent, respectively, the ‘sinners’ (or outcasts among the Jews) and conservative Jews. The first of the sons said he would not go to the vineyard, but later changed his mind and went anyway. This son represents the ‘sinner’ and outcast who rejected the initial call but subsequently ‘repented’ and then obeyed.
The second son said he would go to the vineyard, but then didn’t. This son represents the Jewish leaders of the day who said “yes” to the Kingdom message (that is, they accepted the outward call to Jewish piety) but did not obey its intent. They rejected the call to true obedience. They said they wanted to do God’s will, but they constantly disobeyed. They were spiritually blind, and they were too stubborn to listen to Jesus and the truth.
The irony is that the answer that the religious leaders gave was correct. The son who did what his father wanted was the son who eventually obeyed. Jesus then explained that corrupt tax collectors and prostitutes will get into the Kingdom of God before the religious leaders. These were astounding words. The tax collectors and prostitutes were representative of the despised classes, those who were the most despicable in that society. The pious religious leaders had said they would “go to the vineyard” but then had refused. The tax collectors and prostitutes had obviously strayed from God, but those who repented of their sin would enter the Kingdom of God.
I believe that repentance is so hugely important. None of us get it right all the time. There are sins of omission (where we might sin unintentionally or unknowingly) and sins of commission (where we might choose to do something sinful on purpose and knowingly). None of us have a monopoly on the truth. But we know where to find the truth; in Scripture, and in the life, ministry & teaching, death, resurrection, and exaltation of Jesus. With that comes responsibility – if we know the truth and do nothing about it, that is tragic in the extreme. If you want to see something of the fullness of Jesus’ authority, do read Philippians 2:1-13.
In the context of the Gospel reading though, John the Baptist had come to show them the way of righteousness and they did not believe him. Even when the religious leaders saw how sinful people repented and believed – lives transformed – these leaders still refused to turn and believe. Neither, then, would they believe Jesus.
Lord, open our eyes that we may not be spiritually blind. Open the eyes of our hearts that they may be enlightened. Help us to embrace your truth and to live as your disciples. Lord, we believe – help our unbelief and may we recognise you and the fullness of our authority in and on our lives. Amen