Between last Sunday’s gospel reading and today’s, Matthew records two events that set the context for today’s reading. The first is Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem (21:1-11), the result being, Matthew says, “all the city was stirred.”
The second is the cleansing of the temple (21:12-16), the event that precipitated the crisis between Jesus and the “chief priests and elders” who will plot his arrest and death. Jesus enters the temple in Jerusalem, creating quite a scene. He overturns the tables of the money changers and drives out those who are buying and selling, disrupting the temple revenue. He goes on to use the temple for healing the blind and the lame.
In the opening verses of today’s reading, Jesus is teaching in the temple when the chief priests and elders, representing both religious and civil lay authorities, ask him, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” “These things” include his teaching and healing ministry, his provocative entry into Jerusalem, along with the cleansing of the temple. Jesus’ opponents hoped to discredit him and trap him into claiming his authority came from God, making him vulnerable to a charge of blasphemy.
In true rabbinic style, Jesus challenges the leaders with another question that presents the priests and elders with a dilemma. “Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?”
The religious establishment in Jerusalem cooperated with the Romans to maintain peace and security. John’s popularity posed a religious as well as a political threat to their control. Admitting a Divine origin for John’s baptisms would put these leaders at odds with Roman and well as Jewish authorities. On the other hand, if they reply that John’s baptism was of human origin, they feared the hostility of the crowds, who revered John as a prophet.
Maintaining a middle ground, they neither acknowledge John’s authority nor oppose the crowd. They can only reply, “We do not know.” Jesus dismisses the leaders right to question him, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.”
Jesus’ opponents had rejected John the Baptist’s proclamation of the kingdom and call to repentance. There is no reason to expect their response to Jesus would be any different. The real issue isn’t the authority of Jesus or John; the issue is how one responds to God’s call to repentance and invitation to a new way of living.
Jesus goes on to tell a story of a man and his two sons to illustrate his point that such middle ground has no place in God’s kingdom. A man asks both of his sons to go and work in the vineyard. One refuses, but later changes his mind and goes to work. The other son promises to work, but does nothing. Jesus asks, “Which of the two sons did the will of his father?” The meaning of the parable is crystal clear: only the first son did his father’s will.
By admitting that those who say no, but then repent are the ones who do the father’s will, the chief priests and elders indict themselves. The resistance of these leaders to John and to Jesus wasn’t due to a lack of knowledge but due to a deliberate lack of trust. They didn’t believe the truth about God and wouldn’t accept the truth about themselves.
The Jewish leaders are the people who said they would obey God, and then did not. The tax collectors and prostitutes are those who said they would go their own way, and then took God’s way. Those who seemed least likely responded in belief and trust. Tax collectors and prostitutes were as far removed from inclusion in God’s kingdom as could be imagined. Yet Jesus said they would be admitted ahead of these Jewish leaders.
Today’s parable of the two sons is a “mirror story.” It’s purpose is to show the chief priests and elders – and anyone else full of their own righteousness – how things really are. Rather than pointing an accusing finger at these religious big shots, Jesus simply holds a mirror up to them.
This sort of parable can be a mirror to us in our time. Jesus is telling us in this story that to do the will of God is not primarily about the words we say, or the promises we make. These are important, but what is ultimately important is whether we go and do the work that God asks of us.
As St. Ignatius put it, “love shows itself more in actions than in words.” Our actions are the true test of our faith. We may not enjoy it; we may do it reluctantly; we may wish God had asked something different of us or someone else to do it – but we do it out of love for God and our neighbor.
When we reflect on our past and the direction of our lives, perhaps we want the second chance Jesus offers us in this parable. Perhaps we want the chance to change our minds, to change direction and do the good things we are called to do, and to do them with the wholehearted “yes” this parable inspires in us. May our lives demonstrate our “yes” to God and God’s call to action. Amen.
Resources: Synthesis, 2008, 2017; Jude Siciliano, 2011; Fred Craddock, et.al., 1987; William Barclay, 1975.