Honor or obedience?


Matthew 21

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The Parable of the Two Sons, By Andrey Mironov 777

23 When he 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?”

Our Gospel reading this Sunday has us now in Jerusalem. The narrative we associate with Palm Sunday of Jesus’ riding into Jerusalem upon a donkey and “cleansing” the temple has just occurred and now, the next morning, Jesus returns to the temple where he is confronted by the temple authorities: “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?”

It sounds to us like a question, but it’s not. They know full well that no officer in the nation has authorized this action. It’s a little like your parent asking, after some blatant infraction, “Just who do you think you are?!” There is no answer to the question and, normally, the person is condemned to silence and shame.

But Jesus has an authorization – he has a prophetic commission from God. Still, it is not a claim he can make on his own. To do so would be the height of hubris. Such an acclamation that he is an agent of God can only come from the community. So Jesus, instead of hanging his head, answers shrewdly: “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.”

So Jesus asks about John’s authority – and now the Jerusalem leaders must hang their heads in silence. They cannot say that John was a prophet without risking the question why they did not listen to him, nor can that say he was not a prophet without risking the wrath of the crowd. So they say nothing – and Jesus’ refusal to answer becomes not his shame but his victory.

The chief priests and elders, the elite rulers of the city and nation, now become the victim of a question from Jesus about two sons: one refused his father’s request but later changed his mind, the other said he would do as the father asked but didn’t. At this point, before Jesus poses his question, everyone in the crowd is siding with the second son. The first boy is shameful to defy his father in public; the second son is the good son.

In a society in which public honor is the highest value, a good son would never publicly refuse his father (and this is a society where everything is public).   Everyone knows that the good son is the one who says, “I will go” even if he has no intention of going. The good son upholds his father’s honor.

But Jesus doesn’t ask who was the good son. He doesn’t ask which son fulfilled the commandment to honor his father. He asks which did the father’s will! Jesus isn’t much interested in the rituals of honor; he declares that God is looking for justice and mercy. The Jerusalem elite give God great public honor – it is a magnificent temple and their rituals and sacrifices are grand – but it is the “sinners and tax collectors” who have heard the message of God’s kingdom and shown allegiance to the way of God. They are the ones who have shared their bread and forgiven one another and treated all as members of God’s house. They are the ones “entering the kingdom,” receiving and sharing the gifts of God, and taking their place at the banquet of God.

It is a teaching that takes us back to the beginning of Matthew’s gospel where Jesus says: Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.”

Or again: Whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”

It’s the difference between a house built on sand and one built on rock.


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