September 28, 2023 • Life for Leaders
Scripture — Matthew 21:23-32 (NRSV)
When 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?” 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.”
Those who actually believe the message of the kingdom and try to live it out are the tax collectors and the prostitutes in this passage. The religious leaders had all the knowledge necessary to do the work, but they didn’t follow through. Where are you in this story?
Yesterday, we looked at the Epistle passage for this upcoming Sunday, a passage that speaks of the humble and willing nature of Christ’s sacrifice and what this means for our own life of faith. Today, as we continue to progress through Matthew in Ordinary Time, we find Christ himself dealing with the questions of authority and humility.
It’s not immediately clear from looking at just this passage, but it occurs during the middle of Holy Week. Matthew 21:1-11 shows Jesus’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem—mounted not on a horse as a military conqueror, but on a donkey as a sign of peace. Matthew 21:12-13 describes Jesus using his authority to clear the moneychangers out of the temple. In 21:14-16 the first challenge to Jesus’s authority in this chapter occurs: he is healing the blind and lame in the temple and receiving the praises of children, and the “chief priests and the scribes” object. Jesus goes home for the night (21:17); then, after a puzzling passage in 21:18-22 where on his way back the following morning Jesus curses a fig tree, the religious leaders approach him again. They’ve had a night’s sleep to think all this over, and so has he.
As often when arguing with the religious leaders of his day, Jesus asks them a question they can’t answer: by whose authority did John the Baptist baptize? Caught between having to either admit John was a prophet or having to fear the reaction of the crowd if they called John a fraud, they cannot answer. So Jesus tells them a parable about two sons—one who says he won’t go work in his father’s fields but does, and one who says he will, but doesn’t. Which one did what the father wanted, Jesus asks them? They respond quickly, for this question seems easy to answer: the first, who actually did the work, did the father’s will.
That’s when Jesus pulls what my kids would refer to as a “mic drop.” Those who are actually “doing the work,” in the sense of believing the message of the kingdom and trying to live it out, are the tax collectors and the prostitutes. The religious leaders have all the knowledge necessary to do the work, Jesus implies, but they haven’t followed through. They are like the second son, and they are not doing the will of the Father.
I think that it’s no accident that the lectionary puts this passage together with yesterday’s. What does humility look like? What does authority look like? Jesus humbles himself and does not enter Jerusalem as a military conqueror. But—even when he curses the fig tree, which is as unproductive as the temple’s leaders—he knows who he is listening to, he knows he is doing his Father’s will, and he knows who is going to humbly follow him into the kingdom.
Food for thought. Where are you in this story?
Answer the question at the end of the devotional. What implications does your answer have for your life and your faith?
A great song I learned recently about Jesus welcoming all into the Kingdom is Rick Lee James’ “The Invitation.” (Lyrics here.) Listen, pray, worship, and think about how you can follow Jesus’s will and how you can welcome others.
(Prayer for the Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost in the Book of Common Prayer) O God, you declare your almighty power chiefly in showing mercy and pity: Grant us the fullness of your grace, that we, running to obtain your promises, may become partakers of your heavenly treasure; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Banner image by Mateus Campos Felipe on Unsplash.
Find all Life for Leaders devotions here. Explore what the Bible has to say about work at the unique website of our partners, the Theology of Work Project’s online commentary. Reflection on today’s Life for Leaders theme can be found here: Parable of the Two Sons (Matthew 21:28-32).
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Jennifer Woodruff Tait (PhD, Duke University) is the editor of and frequent contributor to Life for Leaders. She is also the managing editor of Christian History magazine and web editor for the Theology of Work Project, and a priest in the Episcopal Church. She has written a book of poetry, Histories of Us. Jennifer lives in Berea, Kentucky, with her husband, Edwin, and their two daughters.
Click here to view Jennifer’s profile.