TODAY’S SCRIPTURE: Matthew 21:23-32
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?” 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?” They discussed it among themselves and said, “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.” Then he said, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things. “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.’ “‘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 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.
Jesus was frequently questioned by groups who opposed Him, such as the Pharisees and the Sadducees. On this occasion, it was the chief priests and the elders, who were members of the Sanhedrin. Earlier in this chapter, they felt their authority questioned when Jesus overturned the tables of the tax collectors. They came to Him, questioning who gave Him the authority to do such a thing.
Jesus, in His wisdom, knew they were trying to trick Him, so He used the rabbinical technique of answering their question with a question: did John the Baptist’s baptism come from heaven or from man? They realized that He had reversed the trap they had set for Him — If they said John’s baptism came from heaven, they would have acknowledged John’s testimony concerning Jesus being the messiah and the Son of God. But if they said John’s baptism came from man they would face the wrath of multitude, who held John as a prophet. They weakly said they didn’t know the answer to that question, because they could not come up with an answer that would both please the crowd and honour themselves.
Jesus then said that He would not answer their question either, but instead He began four parables, the first of which we heard in the Gospel this morning.
He spoke of two sons – both guilty of breaking the commandment to honour thy father and mother — the one who said he would not obey but ended up obeying, and the one who said he would obey his father but did not. Jesus asked them which of the sons did the father’s will, and they answered correctly: the one who changed his mind and obeyed his father.
Jesus then turned back to the subject of John the Baptist. John was sent to prepare the way for the Saviour, preaching to the unbelievers. Tax collectors and prostitutes – euphemisms for those who openly sinned — heard him and repented. Many who were self-righteous rejected John’s message.
The chief priests and elders realized that the tax collectors and prostitutes of the parable were the son who was ultimately obedient, and they themselves were the son who was ultimately disobedient. Jesus tells them that those who openly sinned and then repented will be first into the kingdom of heaven, before His accusers with their rebellious disobedience of God despite their position in the temple. Since they were very judgemental, this was a very difficult realization for them.
Today – as back then – accepting authority and practicing obedience to that authority is a problem. We fully intend to follow God’s will but we often get sidetracked or tempted away and we fail to follow through. We are reminded of what Paul wrote in Romans 7:19 as he described the battle within himself: “For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.”
The struggle of Paul’s soul is the struggle of our souls. Paul knows that he is so often like the first son. Just as Paul knows that he does not always live up to the standards Jesus has set up for His people, we also want to do what we know is right and yet we find ourselves doing what we have sworn we would never do, proving that there is a difference between knowing what is right and doing what is right.
Let us take this parable as a challenge to look at our own hearts.
As with all of His parables, Jesus invites us to insert ourselves into the roles of the characters. Which son am I? Which son are you? It’s not just what we say, it’s also what we do. Do we confess our belief in Jesus and then show the opposite by our actions? Do we pretend to be obedient and then disobey God? Are we judgemental toward those who in our eyes are not living up to what we think Jesus wants for their lives? Do we start out disobedient but ultimately obey after all? Each of us has unique spiritual gifts; do we use them to serve God or to serve ourselves?
Just as neither son in the parable enthusiastically obeyed the father, hesitant faithfulness is better than unfaithfulness. But let us strive not to be like either son. Instead, let us be eager to obey God. May we be more like Jesus, who received his authority directly from God, and in obedience he humbled himself.