Ps. 25:1-10; Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32; Philippians 2:1-18; Matthew 21:23-32.
Way, Jesus said to [the chief priests and elders], “Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the harlots go into the kingdom of God before you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him… and even when you saw it, you did not afterward repent and believe him” (vv. 31b, 32).
After expelling animals and suppliers from the temple, Jesus returned the next day, to teach in its courts. The “High Priests” demanded, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” (Mt. 21:23b).
Jesus then asked how they comprehended the authority of JB; they refused to answer. Jesus declared John came in the way of righteousness, but the chief priests and elders refused to believe him. Today we inquire what does Jesus mean by, “the way of righteousness”?
We return to the start of Jesus’ ministry, presenting himself for baptism. JB balked, saying, “I need to be baptized by you” (3:14a); still Jesus insisted, “Let it be so for now; for thus it is fitting for us to fulfil all righteousness” (v. 15). Both John and Jesus came from God in the “way of righteousness”, a twosome.
Moses was nuptial best-man bringing Israel to God at Sinai, proclaiming the union consummated in sacrificial blood on the Altar and sprinkled on the people (Ex 24:6-8).
When Jesus was baptized with water and the Spirit, John directed sinners to Jesus as God’s way. God declared Jesus his “beloved Son” and so John directed sinners to God’s “Son called out of Egypt” (Mt. 2:15). JB was the best-man of a new nuptial proclamation, that Jesus would be God’s sacrificial “Lamb” for consummated union in his own righteous blood for believers.
So why are we concerned about the chief priests and elders, their lack of belief? Is it possible that you and I have something in common with those who denied John and Jesus authority? Jesus demonstrates by a parable question:
A father (God) directed one of his sons to work in his vineyard (place of Presence and Righteousness); the first lad refused outright; but later repented.
The father made the same request of his second son, who readily agreed to comply; but then did not. Jesus wants to know, which son had done the father’s will; the chief priests unanimously replied, “The first [son]”. Now, O Christian, you too may agree; but pause to consider, it may not always safe to side with Jesus’ adversaries.
The fact is that each son was compliant and disobedient. Jesus posed something of a “trick question”; either answer might be right or wrong, depending on how one understands JB and Jesus “fulfilling all righteousness”.
Consider the second son; by agreeing to his father’s request to attend his vineyard, the son witnessed to his father’s authority and right to the son’s obeisance. Jesus does not tell us whether the second son’s witness was duplicitous or whether he simply changed his mind; this may be intentional. On the other hand, the first son’s disrespect radically denied the father-son relation; yet he later repented.
When the priests and elders opted for the first son as having done the father’s will, they instantly were exposed liars. Knowing JB’s was from God, they refused his call to the first son’s repentance. Jesus quotes from Isaiah, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me…’ (Mt. 15:8, 9; Isa. 29:13).
What about our choice the son that did the father’s will? We may agree with the priests and elders thinking the first son; but only, if we humbly align in repentance with harlotry’s sin, acknowledging JB’s authority to proclaim of Jesus, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (Jn. 1:29, 36).
By the parable of Two Sons, which ever answer is given, we discern that Jesus attested to his own authority. OT temple cultus blood would soon to be replaced with his blood.
Unlike the chief priests, the authority of John and Jesus are received in repentant faith by sons partaking of Jesus’ Baptism as righteousness of God.
In this baptismal sense Jesus’ asks, “which of the two did the will of his father?” for entrance into his Vineyard. Chief priests refused the father’s grace invitation; confessed harlots accepted.
Five hundred years earlier, Israel sat captive by the “waters of Babylon” (Ps. 136), complaining of God’s injustice permitting exile from the Land (Ezek. 18:1-4). Our nature always deflects sin’s culpability.
After mankind’s loss of “free will”, Eve said, “the serpent made me do it”; Adam blamed the woman God had given him; and you and I self-absolve by blaming first parents; thus, the “people’s proverb”, “The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge” (v. 2).
Since man’s fall, our will is in bondage to inherited sin; we are incapable of doing what God wills, to “make [ourselves] a new heart and a new spirit!” (v. 31). If we are to obtain a new heart and new spirit toward God; seeing him who desires our life, then God must do the creating (36:25-27).
Before arriving at the Lord’s table, we prayerfully intone, “Create in me a clean heart, O God and renew a right spirit within me” (Offertory, Ps. 51:10).
St. Paul urges the way of righteousness by the mind of Christ that possesses God’s own thoughts. In “hearing” Jesus and increasingly “doing his word” (Mt. 7:24), we recognize Jesus’ authority sourced in submission to God:
“Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves… Have this mind… in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And… humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death…” (Phil. 2:3-8). Amen.