Tensions were high that day. In fact, they had been on high alert for some time.
Jesus had arrived in Jerusalem. This city, which had served as the religious center for the people of Israel for so long, was where Jesus said he would fulfill his calling as the Messiah.
For three years now, Jesus had been on a journey all throughout Israel. In these three years, Jesus had engaged the religious leaders and proclaimed freedom from sin to all. It had been three years that had been highlighted thousands of people coming to believe in him, while others questioned who Jesus was and why he was doing the things he was doing and saying the things he was saying.
His journeys had taken him to Jerusalem before. In those days, it was customary for the Jews to go to Jerusalem once a year, especially for the Passover. Jesus would have made these annual pilgrimages to Jerusalem for the Passover. It was during this particular Passover that Jesus came to Jerusalem knowing he would fulfill his calling. It was this week Jesus would be arrested, crucified, and rise from the dead on the first Easter morning.
It was also during this week that Jesus gave some of his most passionate teachings and had his most direct engagement with the religious leaders. After riding into Jerusalem on a donkey to loud shouts of “Hosanna,” Jesus walked directly into the temple. He came to clean house. He overturned tables. He got rid of the markets and proclaimed the Temple to be a “house of prayer.” That night, he left Jerusalem and spent the evening in Bethany.
Jesus returned to Jerusalem the next morning. After cursing a fig tree, Jesus walked straight into the temple court. One day after clearing the temple, Jesus was back and he was teaching. The people had to know what had happened just a day earlier, and I do not believe I am reading much into the text by suggestion that the tension could have been cut with a knife.
Presumably, word would have gotten out that Jesus was teaching in the temple courts. Remember, large crowds would follow Jesus when he taught and this would have been no exception. You can imagine how word would have been passed throughout the court and the area around it. “Jesus is teaching. Come let us hear what he has to say.” “Did you hear? Jesus is here! And he’s teaching. Let us go.”
Without a doubt, the religious leaders – the Pharisees and Sadducees – would have been among the ones to hear that Jesus was teaching in the temple courts. You can imagine their frustration and their anger to hear that Jesus – this teacher whom they have been up against for three years, and who had caused such disruption in the Temple a day prior – was back and teaching about righteousness, holiness, and a relationship with God. You can probably see them running full speed towards the crowd to see what was going on.
What they saw left them even more angered. The reports were right. Jesus was in fact teaching in the Temple court. So they marched up to Jesus, disrupted the crowd, and began another classic interaction between Jesus and the Religious Leaders. In this tension-filled interaction, Jesus tells us a lot about himself and turns the question back on us about how we will respond to what Jesus is doing.
It begins with a demand, and perhaps a stern demand at that. The Religious Leaders demanded to know “By what authority are you doing these things? Who gave you the right?” In these forceful questions, the Religious Leaders get to the heart of one of the central themes in Matthew’s gospel – that is, by what authority was Jesus given to preach, to heal, and to proclaim the kingdom of God in the way he was doing? The question of Jesus’ authority is central to the entire message of the Gospel, and here it comes to a head.
But why was it such an important question? The question of Jesus’ authority challenged no other institution more than the civil and religious groups who were in power. The Gospel of Jesus Christ challenges the power structures, then and today, and proclaims that God is the true giver of authority and power. With Christ’s death and resurrection, the Gospel says that the authorities of this world were no longer in control. God is the authority giver, and Jesus has the authority to proclaim freedom to the captive and healing to the sick. He has this authority because Jesus is the Son of God. His authority came because of who he is – the Son of God.
Jesus doesn’t respond in this way. Instead, he poses a question to the Religious Leaders that he knew they could not answer. There was no way that the Religious Leaders could answer by what authority John the Baptist did his ministry, because to answer it would challenge their own authority. Because of their unwillingness to challenge their own position and own views, Jesus does not answer their question.
Instead, he tells them a parable. He tells us of two brothers who were asked by their father to go to the vineyard to do some work. The first son refuses, but eventually decides to go. The second son says he will go, but never does. When asked who was obedient, even the Religious Leaders admit that it was the first son who was truly obedient to his father.
In explaining the parable, Jesus does something important. He essentially tells the Religious Leaders, and us today, that we have a decision to make with regard to the authority of Jesus. We are called to respond to the claim that Christ is the Son of God and that his authority to teach, to heal, and to save the lost is derived from this very fact. In asking us to make this choice, Jesus is not simply asking us to believe his teaching, but calls us to believe in him as the one who is the Son of God. He also says something else that is striking. He compares the prostitutes and tax collectors – the sinners who heard the message of Christ, believed in him, and followed him – to the first son. They were disobedient at first, but changed their ways. Just like the first son who refused to listen to his father but changed his ways, the sinners, those whom the Religious Leaders believed to be unworthy of being in the Temple, changed their lives, repented, and began to be obedient. In contrast, the Religious Leaders were like the second son. They knew what to do. They even said they were going to be obedient and follow the wishes the Father had set for them. In the end, they chose to go their own way, and their refusal to recognize the authority of Christ, to believe in him and his message impacted their own relationship with God. They were the ones on the outside, because they refused to recognize the work of the Son of God that was existing in their midst.
While Jesus was directly speaking to the Religious Leaders in the midst of a tense interaction, Jesus is also speaking to us today.
As individuals, Jesus asks us to find ourselves in the story. Are we the first son or are we the second son? Have we acted like the first son and refused to recognize Christ, only to later come to Christ? Have we refused to do what is right, only to come back to the Lord? In this passage, Christ says that no matter what you have done in your past, no matter what obstacles have existed, when we believe in Christ, all is forgiven. We are set on a new path of a deep relationship with Christ.
If you find yourselves in the story as the first son, be encouraged and be continuously strengthened in your relationship with Christ. Do not falter, but press forward toward the goal of imitating Christ in your life – among your families, with your friends, and those whom you interact with on a regular basis. Grow in your faith and be continuously renewed by the love of Christ working in you, and through you, by the grace of the Holy Spirit.
But, what if we are that second son? Have we promised to follow God, but then only do our own will? Have we said that we will be obedient to Christ, but then only follow the ways of the world? The Religious Leaders professed with their mouths that they believed, but their heart and actions told a different story. Do our hearts and actions tell a different story about who we truly believe this day? Do you claim to recognize Christ and his authority with your words, but deny him in your heart?
If you find yourselves in the story as the second son, there is time. Christ calls those who find themselves as the second son in the story to change their ways. All is not lost. Those who repent and believe in Christ’s authority as the Son of God and proclaim him as Lord and Savior will find peace and salvation through Christ’s free grace on the cross. Christ is calling you to change your ways and believe in ways that you might have never known possible. It won’t be easy. Change is always difficult, especially if means giving our lives over to Christ for the first time, or renewing our faith in the Lord. The benefits of a deeper relationship with the Lord and salvation are worth the struggles that come in changing our ways from being a second son to a first son.
Christ’s authority demands a response from each of us. The Gospel of Jesus Christ requires that we respond to the message of Christ’s birth, death, resurrection, and ascension. Will we proclaim with our words and not truly follow Christ, or will we proclaim with our words, our hearts, and our actions that Jesus Christ is truly Lord and fully confess and believe in him?
The question has been asked.
How will you respond this day?