Children do some funny things and some annoying things. One abiding memory of our youngest son comes from the time he was four years old. I really can’t remember what I had done to provoke the outburst but I still remember the result. Our son stood there, pulled up to his full height, small though he was, hands on hips and looked me in the eye and asked in his most challenging tone: “What right do you have to tell me what to do?” I have no idea where he came across such a phrase, even his 14 year old brother had not used that to my knowledge. I didn’t have time to worry about where the question came from. I needed to explain that I actually did have the right to tell our son what to do by virtue of the fact that I was his mother. I’m not sure how happy he was with the answer, but a son who would not accept that I had any authority in his life was going to be a big problem. Our youngest son continued to be the most challenging of all our children. I suppose one answer was not going to address the whole issue.
When I read the story of Jesus being challenged in the Temple about his authority by the chief priests and elders it conjures up a picture of my youngest son and his challenge to me. Of course there was far more as stake here than the orderly running of a big family. The day before our passage, Jesus had ridden into Jerusalem on a donkey and was hailed by the crowds as ‘The Son of David’ – the successor of King David. In the Temple Jesus had overturned the tables used by the money changers and animal sellers. He had caused chaos and disrupted the worshipping life of the Temple. In offline terms he was acting as a vandal; in online terms he was a troll and in SL a griefer.
There was an uneasy truce between the Jewish religious leaders and the Roman authorities. Although the Jews were free to practise their religion unhindered, the chief priests were in charge of more than just the running of the Temple. They were also rulers and judges. Herod, a puppet of the Roman authorities, appointed his supporters to the priesthood, with the High Priest being more of a politician than a priest. In order to stay in his position, Herod had to make sure that the priesthood supported the Roman occupation, and in order to stay in their positions, the priests had to keep everything running smoothly. Although the priests were rich from Temple taxes, they probably lost sleep fairly often as the huge gap between their lifestyle and that of the peasants whose taxes supported it meant that the risk of a riot was never far away.
Into this situation, Jesus rode to popular acclaim. He took no account at all of the authority of the priests in the Temple and berated them publicly for the way they were running the Temple. Imagine the fear the priests felt at the thought of Jesus leading a rebellious crowd in Jerusalem. Also, Jesus as king would be a threat to their positions as many of them were appointed by the king. It would also bring the anger of Rome on to the Jews as any talk of a king other than Caesar was treasonous.
It’s easy to understand why the chief priests and rulers felt it necessary to challenge Jesus. They were in a difficult position as, if they had simply arrested Jesus for insurrection, the crowds who supported him may well have rioted and all would have been lost from their point of view. I’m really not sure what answer the priests were expecting Jesus to give. I don’t suppose they expected a clever question such as Jesus asked.
Being asked where John the Baptist’s authority came from left the leaders in a very tricky situation, and they knew it. We are given a chance to eavesdrop on their deliberations. We know they should have said that John’s authority came from God but it was the ordinary people rather than the priests who had believed in John as a prophet of God. Saying that John came from God implies that they too should have listened to him. Saying John had human authority only risked the riot they were trying hard to avoid. Probably saying ‘We don’t know’ was the best they could do.
Jesus was not content to simply refuse to answer the question about his own authority. As he often did, he told a parable, that of the two sons in which it was very plain to whom he was referring. The first son represented the people who had turned their back on God, rejecting his way of life. They were the tax collectors, prostitutes and sinners. They probably knew what they were supposed to do to please God but they had chosen to go their own way. However, once they listened to John and then to Jesus many of them changed their minds. They believed in Jesus as the Son of God and went off to spread the good news to their neighbours and friends.
The second son represented the religious leaders. There is no doubt they had said ‘Yes’ to God and that they were trying to serve him by keeping all of the Law, even adding to it to make it better. However, they were not doing the work that God wanted to be done. The work in the vineyard was surely to bring the people into God’s kingdom but all they were doing was burdening the people with unpayable taxes and the unbearable load of endless laws.
What is happening here is a situation such as Ezekiel spoke of. People who were righteous, such as the Pharisees and priests, had drifted away from the right path. They no longer followed the heart of the Law. God said he would punish them for this. But those who had once been sinners until they heard John and Jesus and changed their minds, were offered life by God. In this passage, as in Jesus’ parable, it’s the position that someone finally takes that matters. There is always chance for change, whether for the better or for the worse.
In Jesus, God was fulfilling his promise that he spoke through Ezekiel. He was giving people a chance to repent and turn around, away from the wrong way of life and towards a God-honouring way of life. We know from stories such as that of Zacchaeus that people really did get a new heart and a new spirit when they opened themselves to what Jesus was offering to them. This offer was open to all, including the chief priests and rulers. However, they were too sure of themselves and so couldn’t hear God’s wonderful invitation: “Why will you die, O house of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone,” says the Lord GOD. “Turn, then, and live.”
The invitation hasn’t changed, of course. No one is outside of God’s grace. Everyone is welcome to turn around and receive a new heart, a new spirit and the gift of eternal life.
As for the question on authority that the chief priests asked of Jesus, which he didn’t answer, we have our answer in what could have been the second reading today from Paul’s letter to the Philippians, most of which is used as our affirmation of faith.
God is the source of Jesus’ authority. He gave to Jesus: “the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
Helene Milena – Lay Pastor