23When 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.”
So on this week’s bulletin, I so wanted to put a picture of Tony Danza on the cover. You’ll all be happy to know that Dan encouraged me not to.
But really, this passage is about “Who’s the Boss”?
The Chief Priests and Elders come up to Jesus and ask, “Who the heck to you think you are?”
See, Jesus had been causing a ruckus. He’s finally letting the cat out of the bag, although he’s not directly saying so. Through his actions, he’s let the people who are paying attention know who he really is. Instead of parading around shouting “I’m the Messiah!” from the rooftops, he’s grabbing someone else’s donkey, marching into Jerusalem like a king, flipping the tables in the Temple in a fit of rage, and then cursing a fig tree ala three year old because he was hungry and it wasn’t producing any figs.
It’s bold. It’s a little bit crazy. And it’s not going to end well.
Who the heck do you think you are?, the Chief Priests and Elders ask.
Who do you think you are, causing this ruckus?
Overturning the tables, and the peasants’ expectations and the status quo?
Telling folks that the last shall be first and the first shall be last?
Overturning our systems of power and prestige and financial establishments?
Who do you think you are, coming in here, disrupting our political systems, our financial and religious systems, even our agricultural and labor economies?
Who the heck do you think you are?
Who’s the boss here? And why are you acting like one?
Jesus, remember your place, they are reminding him. Remember that you are just a Jewish peasant, questionably educated, if at all, from the dirty, questionable, town of Nazareth, from questionable parentage. Remember that you’re just a carpenter’s son, if Joseph really is your dad, and that crazy locust eating guy with the dreadlocks and the body odor, he’s your cousin. Get back where you belong. Remember your place.
Jesus, remember that the crowds surrounding you are fair-weather friends. They are going to abandon you as soon as you stop giving them what they want. They are there to just suck the life out of you and then it’s no more “Hosanna!” No more, “Prophet!” No more, “Save us!”
Remember that this Temple has been here for over 500 years, and this economy has been working for us, and we’ve made nice with the Romans and we’ve been left alone and we can handle these crowds, and everything is copacetic.
Jesus, remember who you are.
Who do you think you are? They ask him.
By whose authority do you do these things?
And so. Like all true teachers, like all the good leaders, like all the folks who have ever meant anything in our lives, Jesus has a way of determining what they really need.
Do they really need to know the answer to that question? Or do they already know it, and are afraid to admit it? Afraid to confront it and embrace it and live it.
Who the heck do you think you are?
Jesus answers their question with a question.
John the Baptist, that guy you rejected, that guy you didn’t believe, that guy you thought was crazy, that guy who upended your social systems and called you all to repent, the one who lived on honey and locusts and wandered the wilderness and refused to participate in any of the powers of oppression of either the Roman State or the Temple Authorities, he knew who I was.
So where did his authority come from?
And with that, he’s caught them. He’s put a mirror up to them. He’s helped them answer their own question. If they say that John’s authority is from God, then they have to admit that they were wrong. If they say that John’s authority came from himself, from human origin, then the crowd will revolt. Either way, answering the question means that they are admitting that they are not the ones in charge, they are not the ones with the right answers.
The crowd knows something that these religious right do not.
The ones who are in pain, the ones bleeding for twelve years, the ones who prostitute themselves, and are hated by society, the ones who have scabs flaking off their skin and snotty-nosed children crawling all over them, the ones looking for water in the heat of the day, they know something that you do not. They know what their need is. They know what their weaknesses are. They know that they have pain and questions and fear and exhaustion. They know that they need more than their own self-righteous indignation.
They know that they need Jesus.
Where does Jesus’ authority come from? From heaven or from humanity?
I think the answer is yes.
The answer is both.
Because Jesus came to us as a human, full of humanity and hunger and flesh and exhaustion, full of temper tantrums and condemnation and overturning of tables and cursing of fig trees. Because Jesus rides to us like a king — but on a donkey, he heals us — but with his own spit, he offers us living bread and wine — but of his own broken body.
Jesus’ authority comes from both his humanity and his divine chosen-ness.
So what’s worse, Jesus asks, to be the broken person who tries to do the right thing, or to be the broken person who lies about doing the right thing, and then goes and collects the tax money from the temple, or proclaims to know all the right answers from high above the crowds in the bell towers or the ivory towers or the financial towers where things are clean and well-kept and organized and decent and in order?
These people over here, the ones whose lives are a mess, the ones who are broken and hurting and wandering and wasting and living in fear, they are the ones who’ve got it right. They know their brokenness. They know their lack. Their need.
But you, he tells them — Can I even say, he tells us — You parade around in your fancy robes and and claim that you have the answers. You claim that you are in the right. You claim to have the authority because of who your father was, or because of your education, or because you picked yourself up by your bootstraps, or because of where you were born. You’ve put yourself first.
And in your rush to get to the front of the line, you’ve missed it. You’ve passed by my face in the beggar on the street. You’ve missed me in the face of the minimum wage worker who just made your sandwich or frothed your latte. You couldn’t see me in the bus driver or the single mom with the two year old throwing a temper tantrum in the grocery store.
You’ve been so busy being right, doing what you’re “supposed to do,” following the path laid out for you, that you’ve gotten so so lost.
I’m not going to tell you who I am, Jesus says. Your fear won’t let you hear it anyway.
I’m not going to tell you who the boss is. It’s all too messy for you. It’s all too full of life and doubt and the messiness of transformation.
But if you want, come work in the vineyard with me for a bit. Get some calluses on your hands and stain your fingertips with grape juice. Come sweat and work and ask a few questions. Come work in the soil and help with the compost and get a little sunburnt. Change your mind and go. Work side by side with someone you think you’re too good for. Learn from them. They’ve seen something that you haven’t. They understand something that you don’t. Change your minds. Go into the vineyard. Here it is, right in front of you, right where you can see it.
Follow the crowd of brokenness and you’ll change your minds, you’ll believe.
Oh Jesus, help us to change our minds, and go.
And also, This: