Themes of Conflict: Jesus’ authority


Scripture: Matthew 21: 23-32 Nigel Bunce

The Temple leadership challenged Jesus’ authority to preach and to act.  In response Jesus asked them a question concerning the validity of John’s baptism.  This led to a stalemate between them.  Jesus followed this up by telling a parable about two sons who were asked by their father to work in his vineyard. It raises this question: How hard are we willing to work in the vineyard to come to grips with help for society’s have-nots? 

Today’s Gospel in context: Jesus’ authority

Painting by James Tissot (1836-1905)- The Pharisees Question Jesus

Recent Scriptures have focussed on the subject of discipleship. Jesus is now in Jerusalem. The theme changes to conflict with the Temple leadership concerning Jesus’ authority.  The Temple leaders were expecting the coming of a Messiah, who would usher in the righteous rule of God.

They did not recognize that it was Jesus.  So they asked, “ What authority do you have to do “these things” and who gave you that authority? “These things” were that Jesus overturned the money-changers’ tables. He said the Temple officers had made the sacred building into a bank.

But Jesus was in the Temple grounds, on their turf. “How dare you behave like that? Who gave you the right to do so?”

Jesus didn’t answer their questions directly. He said, “First answer me this question about John the Baptist. Did God ordain John’s baptism? Or did John cook up the idea on his own?” This tied the authorities in knots. They did not want to say that God inspired John’s actions. If so, they should have believed John. They should also have accepted the heavenly voice proclaiming Jesus as God’s Son.

Yet, the dregs of society – tax collectors and prostitutes – believed what John the Baptist had told them: “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is drawing near.” So they did not want to argue that John was wrong. Crowds of Jesus’ supporters were shouting “Hosanna in the highest. Blessed is he who comes in the name of Lord.” It was a stand-off between Jesus and the Temple officials. They wouldn’t commit themselves. So Jesus said, “Then I won’t answer you either.”

Our ‘take’ today on the authorities’ question

The answer to Jesus’s question seems obvious to us today. Christian tradition tells us that Jesus was/is the Son of God. So of course we accept Jesus’ authority to preach and heal. For a moment, let’s set aside those two thousand years of Christian tradition. The words of the heavenly voice were miraculous. They defy rational explanation.

Can we accept that instance of divine intervention in human affairs at face value? Or do we look for some other reason to accept Jesus as God’s Son? Otherwise, Jesus was merely a wonderful teacher whose ideas were ahead of his time. Setting aside ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’ and ‘Do to others as you would have them do to you.’ But those are moral teachings, not divinity. We have the same dilemma as the Temple officials.

The parable of the two sons

One said he would do what his father asked but didn’t. The other said he would not do what he was asked, but then changed his mind. Jesus asked, “Which son did the will of the father?” We all get the right answer – the one who said ‘no’ but did ‘yes’. So what?

The ‘so what’ is that this little parable forms a bridge between the Temple officials’ challenge to Jesus’ authority and the parable of the wicked tenants, which we will read next week. The clue in today’s parable is that the sons were sent to work in a vineyard, That’s a metaphor for Israel in the Hebrew Scriptures, as we saw last week. Therefore, in the parable, God is the father who asks his sons to work in the vineyard.

In the NRSV Bible, the “good son” was the first one. But other ancient manuscripts reverse the order, so that it is the second son who obeyed his father. (See, e.g., D.B. Wallace (2004). That order makes the two sons metaphors. Israel is the son who says yes but does not follow through. The early Christians are the son who recognize Jesus, and do God’s will. It makes the parable into Matthew’s polemic against the Temple authorities.

An uncomfortable message for modern Christians

At our baptisms, we promise to follow Jesus and proclaim the Good News. But what do we do about it in practice? Do we bother to go into the vineyard at all? Or maybe we make it into the vineyard but don’t do any back-breaking work. Like hoeing the weeds between the vines or gathering the grapes.

I have to admit that I have some sympathy for the Temple officials in the first part of the reading. They challenged Jesus as to where he got authority for his preaching. Because we know the story, we scoff at them. They refused to accept new ideas or changes.

But in reality, most of us resist change – except for changes we advocate ourselves! And then we criticize those who don’t go along with our brilliant ideas. Advertisers talk about “early adopters” who embrace new products and new technologies. I know that I’m not an early adopter. I wasn’t first to buy a computer, or a cell phone. But now I use them all the time.

The Temple leaders were not early adopters of Jesus’ message. But the first century CE was a time of change and upheaval. The Romans controlled secular society. The Temple officials had previously been on top in the Jewish theocracy. The last thing they needed was some populist new preacher shaking up the religious side of society, too. Did he come from God, like John the Baptist claimed? Or was he just a trouble-maker?

The parallel between today and those turbulent times

Just when Western societies are starting to come to grips with issues of fairness, inequality, and racial and gender discrimination, along came COVID19. Workplaces shut down. People lost their jobs, their income. Governments had to focus their attention on keeping people safe, and on making sure that they had enough money to buy food and pay rent.

Yet COVID exacerbates these problems about inequality. People with the least security in society have fared worst in the pandemic. ‘Have-nots’ have experienced more COVID-related infections, deaths, and job losses. They can’t work from home. They can’t afford to stay home to help their children study on-line. And even if they could, they can’t afford to buy high-end laptops and internet service for their kids.

Very appropriately, we hear calls to fix injustices. Not just pre-existing ones. But also those that have come to light during the pandemic. Like inadequacies in long term care homes. People ask whether we can afford all these programs. My answer is this. We can if we are prepared to pay for them.

To sum up

The stalemate concerning Jesus’ authority to preach and to act finds a parallel with today’s societal challenges.  How hard are we willing to work in the vineyard?  Because, for too long, we have been asking for European levels of social care at North American levels of taxation. Perhaps now is the time for our legislators to come clean with us. Social programs cost money. There is no free lunch. Our Scriptures consistently call us to care for the less fortunate in society. If we have the will, we can find the way. It’s what Jesus would have us do.  Amen.