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.’Matthew 21:23-32
I must confess, this interaction between Jesus and the religious authorities is a bit uncomfortable for me. In our passage it says that some of Jesus’ opponents were ‘the chief priests’. The chief priests were those who were (for want of a better word) employed to study the scriptures and perform religious acts in the temple. Now that sounds a bit like what I do. Like the chief priests I am paid to study the scriptures and facilitate the worship of God. At this moment in the Temple, Jesus stood opposed to people like me.
But the chief priests were not Jesus’ only opponents on that day. He also engaged with the elders of the people. Now, the elders would be people who we might call ‘distinguished members of the laity’; members of the laity who knew their Scriptures very well, who other people often deferred-to on matters of Religion; who helped the church make decisions; who carried a bit of authority with their words. Does this sound like you? Are you someone who people give-way-to on church matters? If so, then beware. Jesus could be talking to you.
Maybe you don’t belong to either of these groups. Maybe you are the one who does the deferring, who looks up to others who seem to know best. If this is you, then watch what Jesus does: in our reading Jesus takes the perceived authorities down a few pegs. God is not concerned with those who can talk a good game. Who say they do the Lord’s will but sneak away when no one’s looking. God is interested in you. He is interested in those who do his will, even when they initially think they cannot. It is the one who initially says ‘no’ but changes his mind that Jesus commends.
So what is it that causes this confrontation between Jesus and the religious leaders in the temple? The answer is in verse 23, they ask Jesus ‘by what authority are you doing these things?’ By what authority? How often is this asked by people in churches. Something new comes along, some change is proposed and very soon ‘by what authority?’ is often asked. It is instinctive to interrogate and question people when something is happening that doesn’t line quite up exactly with our image of God… When we ask, are we wisely bringing a prudent level of scrutiny? Or are we looking for ways of obstructing something that doesn’t quite fit our preferences? ‘Don’t let yourself become an obstacle to what God is doing’ is the warning that ripples off the pages of the Gospel today.
Indeed it is a terrible thing to become an obstacle to God. It is also a great irony that those who believe they know God’s plans better than anyone else are themselves the ones who are the biggest hindrance to God’s work. It is a serious situation. Jesus goes on to mention something that would have been unthinkable to the religious authorities at the time (verse 31):
the tax-collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of youMatthew 21:31
Now, in Matthew’s gospel, the kingdom of God is an idiom for salvation. Jesus is saying that even tax collectors and prostitutes are receiving eternal life before the chief priests and the elders. The unsettling question is: what if the people who originally said ‘no’ to God with their lives changed their minds and became instruments of his will?
In our context tax collectors and prostitutes may not have the same impact as it did then, so let’s explore if there are other groups that would offend us in the same way. What about some politicians, traffic wardens, or journalists? Are we comfortable with those entering the kingdom before us? Or even lead thieves, pedophiles and abusers of animals? How comfortable would you be if you found out those people were entering the kingdom of God before you?
Jesus makes it clear that the criterion for entering the kingdom of God is not through our study of Scripture, nor is it through what we say in Church on a Sunday; it is whether we are repentant and do what God requires of us. On the other hand, if you feel you do not know much about God, or if you feel like you don’t belong in Church, then Jesus is saying that you too can enter the kingdom of God just as well as anyone else can. The key is repentance, the key is turning to God and aligning with his will for you and the world around you.
And what is God’s will for us? In the next chapter Jesus is asked that very same question and he responds:
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.Matthew 22:37
You shall love your neighbour as yourself.Matthew 22:39
What then does the Lord require of you? He requires love. Just as he loves you, so we ought to love him and one another. How much would our communities change if our wills aligned with God in such a way as that? What would our reality be like if the will of God rolled down the hill of this church and across our parishes like streams of water – if the commandment to love washed over this benefice? I suppose really, there’s only one way to find out…