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?’ 24Jesus 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. 25Did the baptism of John 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?” 26But if we say, “Of human origin”, we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.’ 27So 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.
28 ‘What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, “Son, go and work in the vineyard today.”29He answered, “I will not”; but later he changed his mind and went. 30The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, “I go, sir”; but he did not go.31Which 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. 32For 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.
Translation: And when he went into the temple, the chief priests and elders of the people came up to him as he was teaching, saying, "By what sort of power are you doing these things, and who gave you this power?" But Jesus answered them, "In like manner, I will ask you one word, which if you might speak to me I will tell you by what power I do these things. The baptism of John, from where was it? From heaven or from humanity?" And they were in dialog with one another, saying, "If we say 'out of heaven' he will say to us, 'Why therefore did you not believe him?' But if we say "from humanity' we are afraid of the crowd for all hold John as a prophet." And they answered Jesus saying, "We do not know." And he said to them, "Neither will I tell you by what power I do these things."
"What do you think? A man had two children, and he went to the first and said, 'Child, go work in the vineyard today.' And he answered, 'I will not,' but afterward, being sorry, he went. But he went to the other likewise. He answered, saying, 'I am, Lord,' and he did not go. Which out of the two did the will of father?" They said, "The first." Jesus said to them, "Truly I say to you that tax collectors and prostitutes go before you into the kingdom of God, for John came to you in the way of justice and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and prostitutes believed him, but when you were seeing, you were not sorry afterward to believe him."
Background and situation: Matthew follows Mark (11:27-33) in the first part of the lection, then switches to Special Matthew with the parable of the two sons. (The Lukan parallel is 20: 1-8.)
It is passion week and Jesus has already entered into Jerusalem and driven the moneychangers out of the Temple. He did not, as many suppose, "cleanse" the Temple. Cleansing assumes that the Temple is "impure" and needs some sprucing up so that it can be useful again.
Jesus makes no effort which could be categorized as "cleansing." No, he "overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold doves" (21:12). Clearly, this is an attack on the Temple's financial base and the ruling families who ran it.
The money-changers made it possible to change Roman money into Temple money. (Roman coins, with their idolatrous images of the Emperor, could not be carried into the Temple.) The money-changers, acting on behalf of their employers, were happy to do this for the small exchange fee of roughly 50%. Give them two dollars worth of Roman coins, and you get one dollar of Temple money in return.
Doves were a suitable sacrifice for those who could not afford to offer sheep. Even these low-cost options, however, carried a significant mark-up in price. Later in the first century, the son of Rabbi Gamaliel would lead a successful protest against the exhorbitant mark-up on sacrificial doves. As a result of this protest, the price was lowered 99%!
After chasing the moneychangers out of the Temple, the "chief priests and scribes" are said to be "angry" because of "the amazing things he did" (21:15) and because the children were in the Temple crying out, "Hosanna to the Son of David." (Even inside the Temple, the "little ones" are singing his praises. If you're a Temple plutocrat, this is an unsettling development.)
In rabbinical style, Jesus counters their question with a question about John the Baptist, a query which put his opponents in a considerable political bind. "The baptism of John," he asks, "From where was it? From heaven or from humanity?"
The "chief priests and scribes" correctly perceive their dilemma. If they say that John's baptisms were by the authority of heaven, Jesus will ask why they didn't "believe"--pisteuein--John. If they say that John's authority was of human origin, they will aggravate the crowd because "all" regarded John as a prophet.
John may have had some closet support, even among these chief priests and scribes. Matthew had said earlier (3:7) that "many" Pharisees and Sadducees went out to John. The Sadducees were the priestly party. Many among the "chief priests" would have been Sadducees.
Sure enough, the "chief priests and scribes" argue with one another--dialogizonto, they were "in dialog" with each other--but can't come up with an effective strategy to counter Jesus' question, especially when they are not of one mind on the question themselves. They eventually throw up their hands and say, "We do not know."
Jesus has accomplished four important things: First, he played on the divisions within his opposition. One's position on John the Baptist was something like a first century "wedge issue." Jesus' question exposes a political fault line within his opponents.
Secondly, the embarrassing equivocation of these Temple authorities in response to Jesus' question has further lowered the crowd's estimation of them. If this is the best the "establishment" can come up with, maybe they're not as smart as they've been telling us they are.
Third, Jesus has again aligned himself in the popular mind with John the Baptist. He reminds the crowd that he and the Baptist had much in common. Jesus presents himself on the side of a popular hero, and in opposition to the ruling circles which killed him.
The fourth thing Jesus does is frame the heart of the discussion, as the "chief priests and scribes" themselves had proposed, precisely on the issue of exousia--power, authority, ability. If the crowd was right that John was indeed a prophet, then clearly his authority came from God. The problem is that the "chief priests and scribes" did not "believe."
Pisteuein means "faith." The word is a verb in Greek and "faith" used as a verb sounds funny in English so we typically say "believe" instead. It should be understood not as "believing" after considering rational evidence, but rather as "radical trust," an orientation of one's entire being.
The heart of Jesus' argument, then, is that exousia is about pisteuein--"authority" is about "trust." That being the case, Jesus will not tell the chief priests and scribes where he gets his authority since they've already shown that they don't trust anyway.
Parables of judgment: Next, Jesus offers three parables of judgment--one each from Special Matthew, Mark, and Q. The first, from Special Matthew, is parable of the two sons. (This text has a number of textual variants. Some early manuscripts even have the "chief priests and scribes" identifying the second son, not the first, as the one who did the will of the father.)
Jesus begins the parable by asking, "What do you think?" Let us pause to note this extraordinary development: Jesus supports free inquiry! Jesus asks people what they think at least six times in Matthew. Matthew clearly portrays Jesus as supposing that people were able to think for themselves and that their opinions are worth listening to.
He then discusses a father with two children--tekna. The father wants the children to work in his vineyard. (This recalls the parable of the laborers in the vineyard in the previous chapter.) One says no, but later, is sorry--metameletheis--and goes. The other says, tellingly, "I go, sir"--literally: "I am, Lord"--but then doesn't. (This recalls those who say, "Lord, Lord," but don't actually do what the Lord wants. See Matthew 7: 21.)
Which one did the will of the father? The "chief priests and scribes" answer "the first." This plays right into Jesus' hand. His tone takes an abrupt change from telling a simple story to one of utter seriousness and then outrage. "Truly I say to you" is an indicator that what follows is of special import--then the outrage: "Tax collectors and prostitutes go before you into the kingdom of God."
Why? Jesus then refers back to John the Baptist. John came in "the way of justice" and they, the authorities, did not "believe" him. (NRSV has "way of righteousness." Dikaiosunes can be translated as either "righteousness" or "justice," which mean roughly the same thing in a first century context. We tend, however, to view "righteousness" as personal piety and morality. This is not about that. Jesus means "way of justice.")
John, you'll remember, was leading a renewal movement outside the "authority" of the Temple. His was a "baptism" for "repentance" (3:11)--not Christian baptism as we understand it today, but rather as a cleansing and "turning" onto a new path, which is the true meaning of repentance (metanoia).
That Jesus refers to John's "way of justice" is an indicator that Jesus has in mind the actual practice of the kingdom of God--again, not intellectual assent, or even "feelings," but rather actual doing of the "way" (hodos). What is that way? Open table fellowship, radical egalitarianism, and the upending of heirarchies.
Jesus, you'll remember, had just told the parable of the laborers in the vineyard (20:1-16), an upending of heirarchies if there ever was one. He followed that by saying the mother of James and John was out of line in angling for a privileged position for her sons (20:20-23), then followed that by denouncing the authorities who "lord it over them" (20:24-25).
"It shall not be so among you!" he says (20:26), then goes on to say that those who would be first must become slaves (20:27-28), yet another radical inversion of heirarchy. Then what did he do? After entering Jerusalem, he struck at the economic power of the Temple.
Could Jesus possibly be any clearer? The way of justice involves turning the power structure of the world upside down.
Tax collectors and prostitutes got it. Of course they would. It's obviously in their interest. It's not for nothing that Jesus had a broad level of support among the people. But the "chief priests and scribes"--even after they saw it!--refused to budge, were not "sorry," and did not "believe" John.
John Meier thinks that metameletheis serves the same function as metanoia here. I'm not so sure. Matthew certainly knew of metanoia--he'd used it to describe the baptism of John--but he did not use it here.
The difference is subtle. Metanoia means to turn and move onto a new path--"the path of justice." Metameletheis is similar, but carries an additional component of regret, of being sorry.
The first son was sorry he had said no, then went to work in the vineyard. The Temple authorities, on the other hand, were not sorry, did not change their mind, and, even worse, did not "believe" John. They opposed him, colluded with the power that killed him (Herod), did not walk in the "way of justice," and were opposing God.
With this first controversy story of passion week, in his first round against those who would later in the week conspire to kill him, Jesus has leveled an exceptionally provocative and serious charge against the Temple. They are unjust! They are against God! What's more, Jesus has further solidified his association in the popular mind with their martyred hero, John the Baptist.