Sermon Commentary for Sunday, October 1, 2023
Matthew 21:23-32 Commentary
Comments, Questions, and Observations
This is the day after Jesus has cleansed the temple. Now he has returned and the leaders have come out in force to challenge this man upsetting the system. They demand that Jesus tell them who he thinks he is: by what authority is he changing and teaching things, and who gave him the right to do so?
But quickly, these leaders are in over their heads. Maybe they shouldn’t have confronted him in public because now they are caught in a display of dueling authority and they have to try to keep the crowd on their side. This will be a problem, for these leaders did not embrace John the Baptist, who seems to have been a particularly influential figure among this crowd. The leaders also imply that they know what is at stake—they acknowledge that John’s authority came from heaven, but they chose to not believe him or his message of reform and preparation. Their past actions mean they should answer that they viewed his authority as earth-originating, but the crowds—their base—won’t like that. The leaders try to hedge their bets for what the crowd will accept and say, “We don’t know.”
Though Jesus also doesn’t answer the leaders’ question directly, he makes his point much more clearly. His question about John the Baptist’s authority intimates that his authority is the same as John’s. Plus, Jesus and John aren’t really the type to defend their authority: they are too busy living it.
Then Jesus tells this short parable—one who’s main point doesn’t seem an obvious connection to the quarrel about authority. But that’s perhaps because we’re looking for Jesus to prove his authority while he is making a point about accepting true, godly authority—we too are still waiting for him to answer.
Jesus isn’t talking about himself, he’s talking about the leaders of the temple. Our clues come from the repetition of words. The leaders ask Jesus by what authority he is doing things. It is the same word that Jesus uses when he asks, “Which of the two did the will of his father?”
Another clue comes from the details of the leaders’ decision to not acknowledge John’s authority even though they know they should believe him. As Jesus points out in explaining the parable, they have shown that they don’t believe John because otherwise they would have changed their minds (repented), with the implication being that this would have been seen in their lifestyles (as it was seen in the lives of the tax collectors and prostitutes who heeded John’s teachings). They are not like the first son who initially said no but changed his mind and went to work like his dad asked!
Even in this indictment, Jesus is telling them that they can still change their minds and their ways. Even in judgement, there is kindness and opportunity. Jesus’s last sentence (verse 32) is quite telling, though: “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.” In other words, even after they saw the proof of John’s authority play out in people’s lives, they continued in their obstinance.
Was it because they didn’t want to give up the sense of control they had? Was it laziness or rebellion? Like the second son, who at first did the acceptable thing, i.e., looked right on the outside, the leaders of the temple failed to be obedient to God’s will when it was shared with them by John, and they will likely do the same with Jesus.
The second son looked and sounded obedient, but proved himself otherwise. The first son looked and sounded disobedient, but was proved himself righteous by his repentance. The tax collectors and prostitutes Jesus mentions lived in open disobedience until John’s message changed their minds and they repented. Jesus tells the leaders of the temple that the repentance of tax collectors and prostitutes could lead them, the chosen ones, into the kingdom of God! But they must believe and change their own minds about these things.
And remember, this is a public conversation. Jesus was teaching to the crowd in the temple when the leaders came to hound him with their question of authority. So when Jesus opens his parable with, “What do you think?” he isn’t just asking the leaders—he is asking everyone listening to decide for themselves whose authority they will follow, and what kind of “obedience” they will exhibit.
The temple leaders were worried about losing the crowd based on how they talked about John the Baptist. Now, Jesus tells them that they have truly lost because they have rejected the way of righteousness (rather than losing because of something they did or didn’t say). Proof of authority lies in its good fruit.
This is a desperately good word for us today. Look at the real fruit. Lives of goodness, kindness, self-control, patience, love, joy, peace, generosity, and gentleness. There we will find people who understand the heart and will of God and who seek God’s face. There we will find people who care less about the power aspects of authority and more about knowing the one who rules our hearts, Christ Jesus.
This is the first of three parables that directly address the hypocrisy and unfaithfulness of the leaders of the temple. The lectionary has us engage all of them over the next three weeks, and in fact, over the next six weeks (through Nov 5) each of the lectionary texts take place in the temple. You might want to consider framing this as a mini-series.
One of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 Presidential Campaign slogans was “I’m with Her.” There were buttons and signs and t-shirts, it was shouted at rallies and superimposed on social media profiles, and it was proven by votes on election day. When Jesus sparred with the leaders of the temple over questions of authority, he was essentially communicating, “I’m with him (John the Baptist).” Further, the parable about obedience shows that who we’re “with” is seen in obedient action not just lip service—something that John and Jesus exampled but we can also show.
Sign Up for Our Newsletter!
Insights on preaching and sermon ideas, straight to your inbox. Delivered Weekly!