Ding, ding, ding! Round one goes to Jesus of Nazareth.
That’s how we’re tempted to see exchanges between Jesus and the religious champions of his day – as theological boxing matches. In today’s gospel passage, the chief priests and elders throw out a cunning challenge, and Jesus sidesteps the attack and lands a one-two, question-dilemma combination that leaves them stunned. Then while they’re staggering, he backs them against the ropes with a parable and pummels them with an insult to their social standing.
We in the crowd may be going wild, but likely we’ve missed the point as entirely as the scribes and Pharisees did before us. Jesus seldom asks questions, poses parables, or challenges the status quo merely to win arguments or to defend himself from accusations. Rather, he does all these things as an extension of the rest of his work – teaching, healing, and saving.
In fact, it’s just this work that the chief priests are challenging. “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” What Jesus has been doing is teaching in the temple; before that, healing; before that, cleansing the temple; before that, accepting cries for saving help – “Hosanna!” – as he entered Jerusalem.
But in answering the chief priests’ challenge with a question of his own, Jesus is doing more than deflecting their attack. He is teaching by exposing the assumptions that lie under the priests’ challenge. He asks them whether the baptism of John was from heaven, or of human origin. The priests and elders aren’t happy with either option – and that’s precisely Jesus’ point.
If John’s teaching or the teaching of Jesus or of the priests themselves were solely and unambiguously a matter of channeling God’s will, everyone would recognize its divine origin. The human teacher would be nothing but a mouthpiece for God, but would become less human for being so. On the other hand, if John or Jesus or the priests were acting only from their own human understanding, their teaching about God would lack any special authority.
By leaving his own question unanswered, Jesus suggests that doing God’s will requires a human being in relationship with the divine. If our work is based on an arrogant claim of our own authority, it can’t long remain true to God’s will. But neither does God require that we minimize our own humanity in order to do God’s work in the world. We are fallible creatures trying to teach and heal and love other fallible creatures, and perhaps our humility in teaching, healing, and loving is a more essential ingredient than our authority ever could be.
Paul writes that Jesus, though infallible and in the form of God, “did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death.”
By taking our form, Jesus also humbled himself by setting aside obvious signs of his divinity and divine authority, and instead doing the slow and hard and uncertain work of teaching and healing as a human among humans. His entire life became a great teaching for us – the example of a person wholly in relationship with God.
Jesus’ obedience, even to death on a cross, also shows that he understood completely the role of God’s authority over us as human beings. When Jesus refused to declare to the chief priests and elders “by what authority I am doing these things,” it was because they were asking him about the wrong sort of authority.
In questioning “by what authority” Jesus did his works, and who gave him “this authority” the priests seemed to be concerned with a human hierarchy, a granting of licenses and diplomas and societal roles. “Show us your credentials,” they seemed to be asking him. Instead, Jesus gave them a parable to suggest that the only credentials needed were the works themselves.
The two sons in the parable contrast the saying versus the doing of God’s will. As even the priests and elders could see, it was the son who went and worked who was doing his father’s will. Despite having been rebellious and lippy and arrogant, he changed his mind and went. In doing so, he demonstrated the only authority that mattered – the authority of the one who gave him the assignment. The newly faithful son didn’t get authority of his own for obeying; all he got was work.
That son went into the fields as a flawed and a humbled person, and did his father’s will. Paul encourages the Philippians to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” That is, to follow Jesus’ example of complete humility and obedience. Fear and respect for God’s authority, trembling in the recognition that we’re mere humans doing God’s own work.
We can only do God’s own work because it is God who is at work in us, enabling us “both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” God’s authority keeps us on track; our humility in accepting God’s grace keeps us from acting in pride by which we might seek our own authority over others in God’s name.
Doing God’s will doesn’t require status in the church hierarchy, or authority gained from years of study – thanks be to God! All that is required is that we change our minds and believe, and that we then go and work in the vineyard – work as human beings, for God’s good pleasure.