Lectionary: Matthew 21:23-32
This reading follows Jesus first entry into the temple in Jerusalem, where he turned over the money tables and drove out the traders. There is also a curious story about the cursing of a fig tree. To get the feel of the story it is better to read all of chapter 21.
The lectionary for the week begins at 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 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?' And they argued with one another, ‘If we say, "From heaven", he will say to us, "Why then did you not believe him?" But if we say, "Of human origin", we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.' So they answered Jesus, ‘We do not know.' And he said to them, ‘Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.
‘What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, "Son, go and work in the vineyard today." He answered, "I will not"; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, "I go, sir"; but he did not go. Which 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. For John 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.
We get a drama in chapter 21 where Jesus drives the traders out of the temple, and yet comes back the next day, and they do not arrest him. He has a personal presence that is overpowering, although they still try argue with him. After driving the traders out them out, he goes back to where he is staying at Bethany. On the way back into the city next day he finds the fig tree without fruit and curses it. "May no fruit ever come from you again!" And the fig tree withered at once. This is a symbol. The fig tree says that the temple cult of Israel has already been found wanting and is cursed. So the idea that they will outsmart him with their questions is laughable. The readers are primed for Jesus to win.
He does win. In the reading he outsmarts them in the argument about authority. Then he makes his own assault back on them. This is a rabbinic style of arguing, but dare I say it, not too far removed from what goes on in Parliamentary point scoring today. It is clearly the purpose of this story to show Jesus superiority over the priests and temple authorities. The standing of John the Baptist is also reinforced.
What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, "Son, go and work in the vineyard today."He answered, "I will not"; but later he changed his mind and went. 0The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, "I go, sir"; but he did not go. Which 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.
This is deeply insulting to the priests. They are the custodians of the temple, and of the faith, yet he identifies them as the second son, the hypocrite who said he would do the father's work, but then did not.
We could read this story like an historical artifact. We could see it as words of encouragement for early Christian readers who saw Jesus defeating the religious authorities. Surely it is more than this. What might it say to us?
The priests in this story are the religious establishment. They are the good people in church. Today, the religious establishment is us! Are we the kind of people, who when God is present among us, do "not believe him?" Do we make all the right religious noises, "I go, sir," but do not go? It's all very well to say we believe, but it means nothing if we do not live it out in our daily lives.
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