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Matthew 21:23-32

Lesson Focus

Proper belief in Jesus mandates that we are obedient, even when it goes against what we are accustomed to believing and doing.

Lesson Outcomes

Through this lesson, students should:

  1. Understand that proper belief in Jesus requires obedience, even when it challenges our accustomed beliefs and practices.

  2. Understand that Jesus' use of questions and parables reveals the importance of recognizing God's authority and being open to new ways of understanding and following Him.

Catching up on the Story

Since we last looked at Matthew’s narrative, Jesus has predicted his death at the hands of the chief priests and scribes, fielded a question from James and John’s mother asking that they be in positions of power in Jesus’ coming kingdom, and healed two blind men. He has also entered Jerusalem for the last time. Crowds of people shouting “Hosanna to the Son of David” greet him! While in Jerusalem, he cleans out the Temple and curses a fig tree. Even though Jesus’ death will soon occur, Jesus has much more to teach.

The location for the next couple of passages remains the same. Jesus is in Jerusalem and will spend much of his time in the Temple.

This will allow the Jewish religious leaders to engage Jesus in serious conversation. The nature of the following conversations between Jesus and the religious leaders is rather antagonistic. This will be plain to see as we move into this week’s text.

In the Temple… Our text begins with Jesus entering the Temple. It isn’t long before the chief priests and elders of the people lay a trap for Jesus. They approach Jesus and put a question to him.

Unlike the questions that others have put to Jesus over the last few chapters, this question, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” is meant to trap Jesus. The religious leaders hoped that his answer would allow them to publicly discredit him (i.e., to get him to say he is not the messiah) or would allow the religious leaders to bring charges of sedition against Jesus (Jesus claims to be the messiah which has huge political implications. Rome did not like anyone who claimed to be King. This is, ultimately, what happened.)

The question itself is interesting. The religious leaders want to know who gave Jesus this authority to teach and preach. It is important to remember that Israel’s religious teachers were officially sanctioned.

John Wesley says this, “Which also they supposed he had no authority to do, being neither priest, nor Levite, nor scribe. Some of the priests (though not as priests) and all the scribes were authorized teachers.” (Wesley, 72).

So, if Jesus is not teaching with authority that the Jewish religious establishment officially sanctioned, someone or something else must give him authority to teach with great authority.

Douglas Hare, a commentator on Matthew, suggests that the “Question assumes that there are different kinds of authority and that Jesus is exercising the authority of some kind (this is implied by the second question, ‘Who gave you this authority?’). It asks, ‘What is the nature of the authority you exercise?” (Hare, 245).

There are likely three sources of authority for the religious leaders: God, Satan, or Jesus himself. The religious leader's question seems to imply that they do not believe that the authority that Jesus is exercising comes from God.

Jesus, rather than answering the question directly, offers his own question and issues a challenge. Jesus will ask a question, and if the leaders can answer it, Jesus will answer their question. The religious leaders accept the challenge.

The question that Jesus puts to the religious leaders is every bit as much a trap as the question that the religious leaders asked. Jesus wants to know what they think of John’s baptism. Is it from heaven (of divine origin), or is it of human origin? The religious leaders put their heads together and began to work on an answer. The way the text reads makes us feel that they know what they want to answer but cannot answer it. Matthew tells us they are caught between a rock and a hard place.

If they say that John, who was loved by the crowds, baptized people with power from heaven, then Jesus would question them as to why they did not believe. Additionally, John proclaims that Jesus is the Messiah, the one for whom they all have been waiting. If they affirm that John’s baptism was from God, then they would highlight, before everyone, their unbelief. On the other hand, if they deny that John’s baptism is from divine origin, the crowds would turn on them. Either way, the religious leaders lose credibility. Finally, the religious leaders answer Jesus’ question. They take the safest route and declare that they do not know from where John’s baptism came. Since they will not answer the question, neither will Jesus answer their question. Bruner and others believe that Jesus’ non-response hides yet mysteriously announces Jesus’ true authority. It also highlights the incompetence and illegitimacy of Israel’s first-century leadership (Bruner, 372).

More Questions and a Parable

Jesus is not yet done asking questions. He immediately asks these religious leaders what they think about this next story he will tell. There was a father who had two sons. He approaches the first son and tells him to go work in the vineyard. The first son responds that he will not go, but he changes his mind and goes out to work in the vineyard. So, the father goes to the second son and tells him to go to the vineyard and work. Immediately, the second son says that he will go but never does. Jesus wants to know who the religious leaders believe did the will of the Father, the one who said he wouldn’t go but then did, or the one who said he would but then did not go?

The religious leaders actually answer this time! They believe that the first son, the one who eventually went into the field, is the one who did his father’s will. Many church fathers have read this story and decided that the first son represents the Gentiles while the second son represents the Jewish people. After all, Gentiles existed long before Israel became God’s chosen people. The Gentiles initially rejected God, but now that Jesus has shown them the way, they respond (Aquinas 725).

If Israel is the second son, then the story is fairly condemning of the religious leaders. They have said they believe and follow God, yet their actions show otherwise.

It is also likely that the first son represents the “tax collectors and prostitutes” Jesus will speak about in just a moment, while the second son represents the religious leaders themselves.

Either way, the news is not good for the religious leaders who seem to have missed something very important about who John and Jesus are and what they are doing. I’m not so certain it matters who exactly these two sons represent for this story to speak to us. For us, our belief that Jesus does exercise authority to teach and direct our lives morally and ethically will be proved true when we do what Jesus commands us to do. If we truly believe that Jesus has authority, then we will do what Jesus wants. For Matthew, discipleship always entails a significant level of obedience.

After the religious leaders answer the question correctly, Jesus brings some rather harsh judgment down on the religious leaders. Even the extortionist tax collectors and prostitutes will enter the kingdom of heaven before them!

It was people like them who responded to John’s message and now Jesus’ message. Not only have they believed and repented, but they have also begun to be obedient. Meanwhile, the religious leaders think they have beliefs all figured out, and they think they have ethics all figured out, too, but in the end, they have rejected John and Jesus. Not even the turning of the most undesirable people in society to God was enough for the religious leaders to consider that God might be working in new ways through John and Jesus. It is important to note that Jesus is not making a blanket statement about all Jews. After all, the tax collectors and prostitutes that Jesus referenced were part of Israel.

Jesus is making a very specific argument about those who fail to believe even after seeing God's work through John and Jesus. This is not the end of the road for those in Israel who refuse to believe.

So What?

What does this mean for us? The Jewish religious leaders were caught in the trap of religious correctness. They held their beliefs very closely. But their determination to believe correctly caused them to be blind to the new way God was working through John and then Jesus.

They had become so focused on one way of seeing the world and one way of seeing God and how God relates to them and the world around them that when God began to move in unexpected ways, they were blind to see it. So, they perceived Jesus as a threat.

Often, I believe that this is the temptation for us to become so focused on religious orthopraxis or right practices that we fail to see how God is working in our world here and now.

What put the religious leaders at odds with Jesus was that they had an alternative vision of what it meant to be the people of God: rigid conformity to purity codes over the compassionate embrace of the outsider. Perhaps the problem is that we become so locked into certain traditional ways of being the people of God that we do not see the new thing God is doing. Perhaps we don’t often recognize that there are “tax collectors and prostitutes” who are entering the kingdom of heaven before us because they have recognized the authority of Jesus when we have not.

What I’m not saying is that we abandon orthodox Christian beliefs or traditional practices. No, rather, I am saying that we become more open to different ways that God might be calling us to work in his vineyard.

Discussion Questions

Read the text aloud. Then, read the text to yourself quietly. Read it slowly, as if you were very unfamiliar with the story.

  1. Why do you think the religious leaders want to know by whose and what authority Jesus is operating? Under whose authority could Jesus possibly be operating?

  2. Why doesn’t Jesus just say that his authority comes from God in heaven?

  3. Why does Jesus respond to the religious leaders' question with a question of his own? Why does Jesus want to know from where John got his authority?

  4. Who and what were the religious leaders afraid of? Why?

  5. How are we like the first son? How are we like the second son?

  6. Jesus declares that the “tax collectors and prostitutes” will enter the kingdom before the religious leaders. If the story were set today, who are our “tax collectors and prostitutes?”

  7. Where is God working in unexpected ways and unexpected people in our own community? Are we (the people of God) involved with his work there?

Works Cited

Thomas Aquinas, Catena Aurea: Commentary on the Four Gospels, Collected Out of the Works of the Fathers: St. Matthew, ed. John Henry Newman, vol. 1 (Oxford: John Henry Parker, 1841).

Frederick Dale Bruner, Matthew: A Commentary: The Churchbook, Matthew 13-28, Revised & enlarged edition (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2004), 372. See also: Donald A. Hagner, Matthew. 14-28, (Dallas, Tex.: Word Books, 1995).

Douglas R. A. Hare, Matthew: Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1993).

John Wesley, Explanatory Notes Upon the New Testament, Fourth American Edition (New York: J. Soule and T. Mason, 1818).