by Katy Lines
By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?
Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?
Which of the two sons did the will of his father?
Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?
Things are ramping up in the city. Jesus is drawing closer and closer to the heart of the seat of power and authority. He is escorted into the city by the people, carried on an earthy donkey, a far cry from the stateliness of a noble steed. Once in the city, he then has the audacity to enter the very center of the universe, the dwelling of God guarded by religious leaders… the temple. Not only enters it, but disrupts the commerce and rituals. But that was all yesterday.
Today, Monday, he has the nerve, while coins are still being dislodged from between stone tiles, tables repaired, and pigeons wooed back into captivity— he has the nerve to enter the temple again and begin teaching as if he was authorized to do so! This backwater rabble-rouser threatening the status quo, who does he think he is?!?
Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin? Jesus could have identified with any number of people whose authority he could compare to his own— maybe King David, or Moses the lawgiver, or Abraham the patriarch. But instead, he associates himself with a prophet from the margins who met an untimely death for challenging the authority of the king. Jesus himself, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped (Phil 2:6). The old order is being threatened. The order that promotes hierarchy, authority, self-preservation. The old order that encourages religion to serve it. The old order that did not invite abundant life for all, but only for a select few.
Which of the two sons did the will of his father? The correct answer, which the religious leaders supplied— “doing” is superior to “words”— is obvious, especially for those who know their traditions and theology. What’s Jesus up to? Maybe Jesus isn’t pitting “saying” vs. “doing” but connecting the responses to him by people of the margins against the hypocrisy of the leaders: 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. Status and authority are like the words of the first son— hypocritical and ultimately meaningless. But those who believe and walk in Jesus’ way— John’s way of righteousness— they will understand and participate in God’s good dominion. The old order of death-dealing is on shaky ground, and those who have benefitted from it are threatened by the good news of life that Jesus brings, that Jesus leads the way to, that Jesus is.
Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants? Three times the landowner sends delegates, each being received with violence, even finally the landowner’s own son. In the death-dealing world that those in authority cling to, violence begets violence. Their answer to Jesus’ question— He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the fruit at the harvest time— reveals the religious leaders’ own willingness to participate in violence and death, and to project their vision of vicious justice onto the landowner/God.
Jesus’ response then to those in authority threatens them: First, he questions that which is the very seat of their supposed authority— their interpretation of the scriptures: Have you never read in the scriptures:
“The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes”?
(Matt 21:42, quoting Psalm 118:22-23)
How dare he question our knowledge, education, and hermeneutics?
THEN… he dares to suggest that the inheritance of glory which was assumed for those with power and authority is actually intended for any who participate in the good way of Jesus: Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom. How dare he? We were born into this privilege and deserve this abundant life. His way would offer that life to just anyone. Just everyone.
Those who benefit from the death-dealing way-that-things-are feel threatened. Events are culminating. The people are hungry for the life that Jesus offers everyone. But for those with authority, the risk of losing what makes them special is just too great. They will use their power and influence to bring down this troublemaker. How dare he threaten us.