The context of this story is important. Jesus has just made his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, riding in on a donkey and being hailed by the crowds as the Son of David, the fulfilment of their hopes and prophecies and dreams.
Immediately after that, Jesus went into the Temple and overturned the tables of the traders, claiming that space back for God. As a result, in verse 14, he continues a ministry of healing; showing that he has authority not just over the crowds and the religious institutions but authority over nature itself.
Is it any wonder, then, that we read the opening words of our passage today in verse 23: “When he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, ‘By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?’”
Jesus is clearly a threat to the religious and social leaders of the day. He’s exhibiting enormous and miraculous powers, the crowds are absolutely enthralled by him, his courage and boldness in confronting the institutions of power is astounding. Of course they would want to question his authority.
And the questioning comes out of the security of their own authority. They are the leaders. The Chief Priests are in a spiritual lineage that goes all the way back to Moses’ brother, Aaron. The Scribes are the most learned theologians in Jewish society. The Elders have years of experience and the unquestioning respect of the people.
But Jesus – acting like any good rabbi – responds to a question with a question, inviting them to reflect on the nature of authority.
“Jesus said to them, ‘I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?’” No matter what they say, it’s going to be the wrong answer. If it’s from heaven, then why did they not believe John the Baptist in his time? And it it’s human origin, they are, quite rightly, afraid of the crowd, who thinks John was a prophet. So the best answer they can come up with is: “We don’t know.”
And in that moment, the religious leaders in this scene are unmasked. They claim authority and power and privilege over the people. But their chief concern is to protect their standing in society – and their reputations. They don’t give an answer because they don’t want to lose what they have.
And, of course, in that encounter, we have a lesson for me, and for you, and for everyone who holds positions of authority. We each of us has authority, just as we each of us is a servant of someone or something.
And what do I say, what do you say, in those moments? There was one pastor and teacher who said: “My conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Hier stehe ich. Ich kann nicht Anders tun. Gott hilfe mir. Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me.”
The leaders that Jesus was addressing are unable to recognize the authority of Jesus to challenge them like this for the simple reason that he is acting out of a form of authority they have never encountered.
For them, authority comes with a title, with societal respect, with wealth and prestige, with the ability to make decisions that the people will obey, unquestioningly, and with the weight of history on their side.
But that’s not the type of authority that Jesus is modeling to them as the authority of the Kingdom of God.
The authority of Jesus, the authority of the Kingdom of God, is of a completely different order altogether. The authority of Jesus is worked out in his welcoming of sinners and prostitutes. The authority of Jesus is worked out in his welcoming of little children. The authority of Jesus is worked out in his welcoming of the outcasts and those on the margins. Ultimately, the authority of Jesus is worked out in a life of service, not ruling; a life marked by betrayal and personal sacrifice, rejection, torture and a criminal’s death on the cross. That is where the authority of Jesus lies: not in some sort of power game that brought with it prestige and wealth and the respect of the people. And the religious leaders have never seen anything like that before and have no idea how to respond to it.
And as Bishop Smith said just last week in his Zoom Bible study, when Jesus examines the nature of authority, he shows that “it’s never the grabbers who have ultimate authority. It’s the one who lays down the power and authority he has.”
That is what authority in the Kingdom of God looks like. And Jesus underlines it with the parable that follows about the man with two sons.
To us, the choice is obvious: the better son is the first one, who first says ‘No’ but goes on to do the right thing. But that would not be the obvious choice for his original audience, because the first son who said ‘No’ would have brought real shame and embarrassment on his father by disobeying him. OK, he went on to do the right thing in the end. But in terms of undermining the social standing of his father in the eyes of the community, the damage had been done in his initial refusal to obey. They were both equally guilty in the eyes of their father.
Jesus wants the religious leaders to choose between them; they are both equally sinful – but which one is more likely to be redeemed in the eyes of the father? In the light of that, there is only one choice to make…redemption and forgiveness is available to the son who at first disobeys and embarrasses his father but is not available to the son who mocks his father – and continues to mock him – by his refusal to do what is asked of him.
The key in this passage comes in verse 29: “Later he changed his mind and went.” That’s actually a poor translation of the Greek. A closer translation would be to say, “Later, he changed what he cared about and went.”
And that is the key idea here. When this son said ‘No’ to his father, all he really cared about was his own comfort, his own way of living. But later, he changed what he cared about and chose instead to care for the honor of his father and then went out into the vineyard to work for him.
At the heart of this passage is a simple question: What do you care about? What do I care about? Are we like the religious leaders to whom Jesus is talking, whose primary care is for social standing and personal reputation and the comforts that come with a lifestyle of privilege? Or is our primary concern going to be for the honor of our Father, who asks us to go out and work for him in the vineyard of his Kingdom? If our primary concern is for the honor of God, we will be called out of our comfort zone and we will need to undertake some work for him. But that is what he asks of us. And the message of this parable is that, if we respond to the call of the Father and change our concern from us to him, then we will be acceptable to him, regardless of what we have done in the past. All of us have said ‘No’ to our God in the past. But as soon as we say ‘Yes’ to him, the past is washed away and no longer counts against us in his sight. It doesn’t matter what our past contains: all that matters is the ‘Yes.’