Proper 21 • Matthew 21:23–27 (28–32) • September 25, 2011
By Gerhard Bode
Why the Question about Jesus’s Authority?
The events in this account from Matthew 21 take place on the Monday before Jesus’s crucifixion. The context of this pericope is important to note, especially since the text includes the first in a series of challenges by Jewish leaders in Jerusalem to Jesus’s authority. One day earlier Jesus had entered the city amid great celebration. He had cleansed the temple and then healed the blind and lame in the temple courts while children proclaimed, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” Already at this point, the chief priests and the scribes were indignant with Jesus and with the whole scene in the temple. The next day, after Jesus had cursed the fig tree, he returned to the temple courts to teach the people. Again the chief priests—this time with the people’s elders—came up to Jesus, interrupted his teaching, and asked by what authority he did these things and who gave him this authority. Likely they were still upset by Jesus’s disruption of the temple business the day before. Perhaps they were trying to exert their own authority in the temple courts. More likely, the question was a trap. Clearly, Jesus had no authorization from the temple leaders to drive out the moneychangers, heal the sick, and teach. (Clearly, Jesus had little regard for the authority of the temple leaders.) If in his answer to their question Jesus claimed a human authority, the chief priests could trump it and accuse him of subversion; if he claimed divine authority, he was guilty of blasphemy. Whatever the reason for their question, the chief priests and elders revealed their lack of faith.
Jesus’s Answer to the Question
Jesus gave a response to the question of the chief priests and elders, but it was not one to satisfy them. He turned the question back on them and in doing so, got right to the heart of their problem. The point of reference was John the Baptist. What did they think of him and his message? With whose authority did John do what he did? Weighing their options, the chief priests and elders realized that they had fallen hopelessly into their own trap and pleaded ignorance. Because of this, Jesus replied that he would not tell them by what authority he does these things. Nevertheless, he did tell them a parable illustrating their error (21:28–32).
The parable of the two sons is, in part, about the Word of God and how people respond to it. The first son hears his father’s command to go and work in the vineyard but first rejects it; later, he changes his mind—and his direction—and obeys. The second son hears his father’s word and promises to obey, but in the end does not. Jesus’s next question—“Which of the two did the will of his father?”—was an easy one for the chief priests and elders, but they quickly found themselves in another trap as Jesus went on to identify them with the second son in the parable. They did not listen to John the Baptist—a true prophet of God—when he came preaching the Word of God and calling for repentance. Instead, notorious sinners like tax collectors and prostitutes—ones who had previously disobeyed God’s commands—now listened to John and believed his preaching. Like the first son in the parable, they changed their minds—and their direction—and they repented of their sins. The chief priests and elders did not believe John even when they saw former sinners repent and believe. As a result, chief sinners—tax collectors and prostitutes—were going into the kingdom of God before them.
Authority, Word, Repenting and Believing
In rejecting John the Baptist, the Jewish leaders also rejected his message. John’s message was, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Mt 3:2). The chief priests and elders had no use for John’s way of righteousness, which pointed to the way of the coming Savior. Convinced of themselves and their own righteousness, they thought they needed neither repentance nor the kingdom of God. They ignored the Father’s command and did not do his will. In the same way, the chief priests and elders of the people did not recognize Jesus’s authority. They heard what he said but did not change their minds. They saw what he did but did not believe. They would accept only their own authority, and in doing so, they rejected Jesus’s authority, which comes from God the Father who sent him.
As the Son of God, Jesus had divine authority over all creation and over all powers on earth; nevertheless, within days he would submit to the authorities that sought to kill him. Yet ultimately his divine authority would be revealed in his glorious resurrection from the dead. Jesus’s victory over sin and death throws open the doors of the kingdom of God to believers repenting of even the greatest sins.