By What Authority?

16 Pentecost, September 28

First reading and psalm: Exod. 17:1-7Ps. 78:1-4, 12-16

Alternate: Ezek. 18:1-4, 25-32Ps. 25:1-8Phil. 2:1-13Matt. 21:23-32

“By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” It is not an unreasonable question.

The previous day, Jesus triumphantly entered Jerusalem and cleansed the temple (Matt. 21:12). Then, he healed the blind and lame in the temple precincts. The chief priests and scribes became angry when they heard the children crying out, “Hosanna to the Son of David” (Matt. 21:14-16). So, they naturally want to understand his motives: on whose authority does he believe himself to be acting?

He replies that he will answer only if they first answer a question that he puts to them: “Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” In a subtle way, however, his counter-question implicitly answers their question. The source of Jesus’ authority is the same as that of John the Baptist. They refuse to answer, calculating that if they acknowledge the heavenly origin of John’s baptism, Jesus will ask why they did not believe John; if they say it was of human origin, they will incur the wrath of the multitudes who believe that John was a prophet.

Jesus then goes on the offensive, telling the parable of two sons asked by their father to work in the vineyard. The first son refuses the request but then “changes his mind” — a phrase related to the Greek verb “to repent” — and goes into the vineyard to work; the second son agrees to the request but then does not go. Which of the two, Jesus asks, does the will of his father?

When the chief priests and elders answer correctly, “The first,” Jesus springs the trap. They are like the second son, saying all the right things but ultimately failing to follow through on their promises. In particular, they stand condemned for their rejection of John the Baptist. By contrast, the tax collectors and prostitutes are like the first son: they initially appeared to be sinners, but are now repenting and entering the kingdom of heaven ahead of the chief priests and elders.

A key point in today’s Gospel is that Jesus speaks of the kingdom of heaven as a present reality. Already the tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom.

Eschatology is the branch of theology dealing with the last things or end times. Theologians distinguish between “future eschatology” and “realized eschatology.” In future eschatology, the kingdom of God is yet to come. In realized eschatology, the kingdom is already present so that people can enter it at any time.

The New Testament combines elements of both future and realized eschatology. Much of its eschatological teaching is summed up in the saying that the kingdom is “already but not yet.” In the life and ministry of Jesus the kingdom has begun to dawn, so that it is meaningful to speak of people “already” entering it now. But its final consummation is “not yet,” and must await the return of Christ on the Last Day.

Today’s Gospel cues us in on the need to be watchful for opportunities to experience anticipatory foretastes of God’s kingdom here and now. The key lies in our willingness to heed the call to repentance, and to “change our minds.”

Look It Up
Read Matthew 11:7-19 and 17:9-13, in which Jesus also speaks explicitly of John the Baptist. What cumulative picture emerges of how Jesus understands John’s role in relation to himself?

Think About It
In our living of the Christian life, how might we be tempted to follow the pattern of the first son who promised to work in the vineyard but then did not go?

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