Jesus consistently had challenging encounters with the religious authorities of his day. I guess it isn’t surprising since he kept pushing the boundaries, offering different ways to look at the rules, and teaching wider understandings of what God wants from and for God’s people. The chief priests and elders had responsibility for the community and they thought they had things all sorted out. They saw Jesus as simply a troublemaker who was out of line.
In this week’s gospel reading, the chief priests and elders confront Jesus in the temple where he is teaching. Not long before this encounter, Jesus has entered Jerusalem in a loud procession where the crowds are shouting “Hosannah!” and using a royal title for him. In an earlier visit to the temple, Jesus throws out the merchants who exchanged Roman coins for temple coins and merchants who sold animals for sacrifice. These were dangerous actions in Roman occupied Jerusalem; Rome allowed some degree of religious freedom to minority groups in occupied territories so long as they did not question Roman authority or create a stir. A parade for a potential king could lead to real trouble for the Jewish people.
The religious authorities are trying to find a middle road between the rules of their religious observance and the desires of their own people and the expectations and authority of Rome. This new rabbi with a notable following who was disturbing the peace in their temple was suspect. When they ask Jesus where his authority to do these things comes from, Jesus questions them about John the Baptist’s authority. As they skirt the question Jesus does as well, then tells a parable about a man with two sons and a vineyard. The father tells each son to go and work in the vineyard. One son says he won’t go then does. The other son says he will go and then doesn’t. Jesus ends by asking which one did what the father wanted.
Questions of authority are woven through this passage. The chief priests and elders, the Roman empire, John the Baptist, Jesus himself, the father in the parable, each of the sons, and finally, God each have some degree af authority. Where does authority come from and what is its purpose? Jesus clearly tells the religious authorities they are using their authority to exclude people whom God is including. The reasons the religious authorities see to exclude people are not barriers to following Jesus and living out what God wants from them and all God’s beloved children. Authority is tricky. It can be used to support and care for people or it can be used to judge and hurt them. Those in authority may believe they know what is best or what God wants yet be mistaken. Jesus keeps surprising the religious authorities in scripture as well as us with a wider and more inclusive vision of how we are to live in community together. It seems that Jesus teaches us that authority is best used to welcome and include rather than separate and exclude.