The Authority of Jesus Questioned
When he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the poeple 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 Jon 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.'
The Parable of the Two Sons
'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 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.'
The more I reflect on the life of Jesus, the more I realise that he would have gotten into a lot of trouble if he was a child in most church 'Sunday schools' today. In this week's Gospel reading, we find Jesus (as usual) being questioned by the religious authorities and (as usual) his answer seems neither straight forward nor clear.
I'll answer your question if you answer mine.
His answer feels a little truculent ... childish ... rude even.
'I'll answer you if you answer me' is the kind of answer that gets you in trouble in Sunday school. I know from experience. (It's also the kind of answer that gets you in trouble in full-time ministry ... but more on that another time.)
And yet Jesus is being straight-forward and clear — in his own inimitable style. From what I understand of Jewish life in the first century, there were essentially two types of teachers. The first were 'rabbis', local teachers who were charged with passing on the community's beliefs to the next generation and ensuring that their orthodoxy was preserved. The second were 'rabbis with authority' (or "smeeha"). These rabbis had the authority to teach new understandings of the Torah and their calling was to the nation of Israel as a whole.
We see it when Jesus says:
You have heard it said ... (You have been taught by a local rabbi)
But I tell you ... (I have the authority to bring a new understanding, to show this in a new light, to challenge you in a new way.)
There were many rabbis but only a few of them had authority. 'Authority' or 'Smeeha' was passed on when two rabbis with authority laid hands on another rabbi and blessed them. Thus the question, 'Where did you get your authority?' is a real, valid and normal question in Jewish first century life and ministry.
It was not so much: 'Who do you think you are? What right do you have?'
but more: 'What are your credentials? Can you give us some references?'
And Jesus can ... He is being straight-forward and clear because his answer is IN his question.
Where did John the Baptist get his authority?
Jesus' 'authority' is special because it came from two 'sources' rather than two rabbis. At his baptism, he is given authority by John and by the Holy Spirit who descends in the form of a dove as the Father says, 'This is my Son, whom I love. With Him I am well pleased.'
This. Is. Huge.
A rabbi whose authority comes from the traditional blessing and from God Himself?
This is unheard of.
And yet, rather than feeling liberated, the Pharisees feel trapped. They have caught out, shown up and exposed.
If they say that John had authority then they condemn themselves for not listening to him.
If they say that John had no authority then they will anger the people that they are trying to lead and control.
This is the danger of religious politics, the peril of pursuing power instead of truth. They are damned if they do and damned if they don't. Jesus has answered their question but his question leaves them with no answer, no power ... and, crucially, no authority to question him.
Jesus goes on to tell them a parable about two sons.
The first son has all the wrong answers but ends up humbly pursuing a life of obedience.
The second has all the right answers but is living a life of disobedience.
I believe in salvation by faith and I do not believe that we can work our way into Heaven ... However, Jesus' final question is one that should shake us to our core.
He doesn't ask:
'Which son said the right words?'
'Which son had answered correctly?'
or 'Which son called the father "Sir"?'
He said, 'Which son did the will of his father?'
Which is why Jesus' kingdom is for humble whores and transformed tax collectors rather than the rigidly religious and the obtusely and offensively orthodox.