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Matthew 21:23-32

September 22, 2014

The chief priests and elders confront Jesus in the temple the day after his temple protest.  This is ominous; these are the people who will soon have him arrested.  They ask him, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?”  What is the reason for this question?  Surely they don’t think Jesus is doing this by God’s authority.  I would assume they already have their minds made up that Jesus is acting either by the influence of Satan, or that he is delusional, or that he is acting out of a selfish need for attention.  But surely not God’s authority!  So why ask the question?

Are they hoping Jesus will say he is acting by God’s authority?  Will this make Jesus look like an ego-maniac?  That seems to be the case, because Jesus very purposely avoids directly saying his authority is from God.  Instead, he poses an alternative question asking by what authority John the Baptist did his ministry.  Jesus is implying that his authority is the same as John’s, and that the chief priests will get their answer concerning the source of Jesus’ authority when they discern the source of John’s authority.

The chief priests do not want to admit that John’s authority was from God because his ministry was outside the rituals of the temple and without authorization by the priests.  John was claiming that his baptism could forgive sins, which must have been a highly offensive claim for the temple priests.  On the other hand, they did not want to say John was acting purely on his own because John was quite popular with the people, and they people regarded him as a genuine prophet.  So the chief priests answer Jesus’ question by saying they don’t know.

But if the chief priests cannot discern the source of John’s authority, then it is not possible for them to discern the source of Jesus’ authority either.  Jesus has made them look like fools while still implying that God is the source of his authority.

A side note:  Jesus’ cunning way of getting out of this trap works because John the Baptist is so highly regarded by the common people–more highly regarded than Jesus is.  Jesus is riding on the coat-tails of John’s popularity.  Not until after the resurrection will Jesus be seen as greater than John.

Jesus then tells a simple parable that turns out to be revolutionary.  A man has two sons.  The first says he will do his father’s will but doesn’t.  The second says he will not do his father’s will but does.  Which one actually did his father’s will?  The second, obviously.  The revolutionary idea in this parable is this:  those who appear to have rejected God and religion may actually be the ones doing God’s will, while those who claim to represent God and religion are failing.

As an example of this truth Jesus points out what has been happening among many of the tax collectors and prostitutes.  These people, based on their occupations, are seen by the religious leaders as being outside the realm of God.  And yet, many of these people have been responding to the message to turn to God and be forgiven.  Their lives are not neat and clean, but their hearts are in the right place and they are moving in the right direction.  They are fulfilling the principles of God’s unconditional love while the regulators of religion are focused on rules.  As a result, Jesus makes the radical claim that tax collectors and prostitutes are entering God’s kingdom ahead of the priests!

Jesus was never much of a fan of institutional religion, and today this attitude has become increasingly popular, especially among the “millennials” (those born in the last two decades of the last century and who are now teenagers and young adults).  As a result, many people are replacing “religion” with “spirituality.”  Religion is institutional while spirituality is free to take whatever form the individual wants.  There are a lot of advantages to being free-floating spiritual rather than institutionally religious.  But there is at least one aspect of this modern trend that Jesus would have qualms about:  its highly individualistic character.  God’s kingdom is a social reality grounded in faithfulness to God; it is people working and praying and serving and loving together.  True God-centered spirituality is also other-centered, and so we must work out a healing life together in community.  Of course, doing things together means having some sort of organization, and having some sort of ongoing organization means having an institution.  So the answer to the problem of institutional religion is not to get rid of organization but to make it more open, equal, and fill it with the free Spirit and love of God.

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