Matthew 21: 23-32 – The Authority of Jesus Questioned
23When Jesus 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?’ 24Jesus 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. 25Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?’ They argued with one another, ‘If we say, “From heaven”, he will say to us, “Why then did you not believe him?” 26but if we say, “Of human origin”, we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet,’ 27so they answered Jesus, ‘We do not know.’ He said to them, ‘Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.
28‘What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, “Son, go and work in the vineyard today.” 29He answered, “I will not”; but later he changed his mind and went. 30;The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, “I go, sir”; but he did not go. 31Which of the two did the will of his father?’ They said, ‘The first.’ Jesus said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, the tax-collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. 32John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax-collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.
Text ©The New Revised Standard Version, alt, Used with permission.
Taken out of context, as this passage is, we are likely to associate the challenge to Christ’s authority with His teaching in the Temple, but if we realise that Jesus has just been in the Temple casting out the money-changers and healing the blind (Matthew 21:12-14), we see the question in a different light. This wasn’t just anyone asking a question, it was the Chief Priests – think of it as the Archbishops and Bishops – and the elders of the faithful people – our lay church leaders – challenging His authority to cast people out of the Temple and to use it as a healing venue. Given that those Chief Priests and elders were only allowed to be in their positions of pseudo-authority because the Roman forces were using them to keep the people from causing disruption, it isn’t surprising that they were anxious to find out where He thought His authority came from, and who gave it to Him. Authority can reside in a position of power, but even people elected to that position – Presidents, Prime Minsters, Chief Priests, etc. – cannot assume the authority and often consider they have more authority than they actually have.
In response to the question, which was also part of a plan to remove Jesus from His sphere of influence and ultimately send Him to the Roman powers as a trouble maker who needed to be executed, Jesus challenged them on the authority of John’s baptisms. If the priests and elders admitted that John’s work was on instruction from heaven then they would be asked why they had not submitted themselves to baptism too; if they claimed it originated as a human response, then the crowds would be vocal against them. It was a question which they couldn’t answer safely, and so they muttered under their breath “we do not know” as they acknowledged defeat.
Well guys, if you couldn’t answer that simple question what’s the point of me telling you where I got my authority to do the things you complain about?
Jesus very frequently talked in parables: stories which have a face value and which have a much deeper implication for those who need to be brought to heel. The Chief Priests and elders were not dumb fools. They knew when Jesus was having a go at them, but He did it in such a way that they couldn’t prove it.
Though those questioners had already conceded defeat on this occasion, Jesus wasn’t finished with them. The story of two sons would have reflected many others in Scripture – Cain and Able, Jacob and Esau to name just two cases; and the reference to a vineyard would have resonated with the audience too. One son says “No” but recants and goes to work for the father. The other son says “Yes” but doesn’t honour his commitment. It’s very clear to the religious leaders which camp Jesus has them in, and they don’t like it one bit. Unusually, Jesus then hits them with a brick. He likens tax-collectors and prostitutes to the first son, who did the right thing, and so will enter the Kingdom of God ahead of those who are likened to the second son, those who made a commitment to follow God’s directions and lead the people to a life of faith in God, but went their own way because it gave them power and prestige. He answered His own question about the authority of John, and criticised the leaders for not taking heed even when they had seen what John’s baptism produced. It’s a reminder of the adage “there are none so blind as those who WILL not see.”
Are we blind because we don’t want to see what God is calling us to do? Are we like the first son, or the second?