As we return to highlighting different events in Jesus’ life provided in Matthew’s Gospel, by the time of those recorded in our passage Jesus has twice foretold his death as he makes his way to Jerusalem in these, his final days on earth—it’s now Tuesday of Holy Week—receiving the “Hosannas” of crowds while riding on a donkey. And throughout Matthew, he has carried out the ministry we saw him begin back in June, “teaching in [the] synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness.” But as we’ve also continually seen, the religious leaders in particular haven’t always appreciated his teaching and actions—and Matthew 21 is no exception. Prior to our passage Matthew reports the well-known account of Jesus entering the temple courts and driving out “all who were buying and selling there” as he “overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves” while noting that they’ve made his house a den of robbers rather than a house of prayer as God intended. Yet this very Jesus who shows such anger against those abusing the temple displays his usual compassion to the needy for in the very same passage we read in verse 14, “The blind and the lame came to him at the temple, and he healed them.” And we mustn’t miss Matthew’s ironic comment on the response of the religious leaders in the very next verse: “But when the chief priests and the teachers of the law saw the wonderful things he did and the children shouting in the temple courts, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David,’”—what do we expect next? They rejoiced? They were delighted? They praised God? No, “they were indignant” (verse 15). What is wrong with these leaders? How could they possibly see Jesus healing suffering people and being praised by children and yet be indignant? Yet they were.
Well, shortly thereafter Matthew tells how more religious leaders continued to question Jesus in our morning’s passage. In verse 23 we’re told that Jesus—who, as noted, had entered the temple courts and driven out the money changers—again “entered the temple courts, and, while he was teaching, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him. ‘By what authority are you doing these things?’ they asked. ‘And who gave you this authority?’” Now for those who didn’t accept Jesus as the Christ, as the promised Messiah foretold in the Hebrew Scriptures, this, I suppose, is a reasonable question. Who is he to interrupt their usual business dealings in the temple? Who is he to ride into Jerusalem as a King? Who is he to accept the adoration and praise of people? Who is he to heal the sick and suffering? Who is he to forgive sins? So they want to know who, specifically, has granted him the authority to do such things. Because they don’t hold Jesus to be God, they don’t realize that Jesus is his own authority.
Still, never one to answer a question posed to him in a straightforward manner, “Jesus replied,” starting in verse 24: “I will also ask you one question. If you answer me, I will tell you by what authority I am doing these things.” That sounds reasonable enough. So he goes on to ask, “25 John’s baptism—where did it come from? Was it from heaven, or of human origin?” John is God’s prophet and in posing this question to the chief priests and elders of the people Jesus is linking his ministry with John’s for John the Baptist, the Elijah who was to come, was also foretold by Scripture. And as the religious leaders hadn’t accept him as fulfilling the Scriptures, neither had they accepted Jesus for both were tied to Scriptural prophecy and to each other as John prepared the way of the Lord—that is, as he prepared the way for Jesus. If John was rejected, there was no way Jesus could be accepted. The implication is clear: just as John the Baptist’s coming fulfilled the Scriptures—God’s Word—so, too, did the coming of Jesus the Christ, God’s Messiah foretold in those very same Scriptures.
Now John’s baptism, a baptism of repentance was intended to prepare people for entry into God’s Kingdom by means of Christ Jesus, God’s Messiah. As such John’s was a baptism of heavenly not human origin. And the elders and chief priests knew this. In the latter half of verse 25 we’re provided a glimpse of their deliberations as “[t]hey discussed it”—that is, Jesus’ question—“among themselves.” On the one hand, they realized, “If we say, [that John’s baptism was] ‘From heaven,’ [Jesus] will ask, ‘Then why didn’t you believe him?’” That’s a fair question for they hadn’t accepted John’s authority and they—and Jesus—and all who were present knew it. On the other hand, verse 26, they went on, “But if we say, [that John’s baptism was] ‘Of human origin’—we are afraid of the people, for they all hold that John was a prophet.” To deny that John was God’s prophet, to deny that John’s baptism was of heavenly origin, was to deny what the people held to be true. The people, unlike these religious leaders, correctly understood that John was God’s prophet and therefore his baptism was in keeping with God’s command. So the religious leaders solved this dilemma by stating, verse 27: “We don’t know” if John’s baptism was of heavenly or human origins. Since answering Jesus’ question directly was a lose-lose proposition, they deemed it better not to take sides on this matter. Better to plead ignorance than to expose their true beliefs—that is, to expose their lack of belief in God having sent both John and Jesus. Then by way of response, though Jesus didn’t go so far as to say, “Yes, you do know,” his answer in effect amounted to the same thing: “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.” They hadn’t fooled Jesus. He knew they had tried to dodge his question.
So Jesus next turned, as we’ve seen throughout Matthew, to one of his favorite instruments for teaching: a parable. Now I confess that when I first saw that this parable was included in this week’s lectionary reading, I was confused. I didn’t initially see what Jesus’ exchange with these religious leaders had to do with this parable. Yet it’s clearly a continuation of his interaction with them. By means of this parable Jesus indicated his refusal to leave well enough alone, offering instead some pushback to the religious leaders’ claim of not knowing whether John’s baptism was from heaven or of human origin. So Jesus provided them a chance to redeem themselves—or at least to own that they did, indeed know by what authority John baptized—and by extension—by what authority Jesus acted. So he told them this brief parable recorded in verses 28–30:
28 …There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work today in the vineyard.’
29 “‘I will not,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went.
30 “Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but he did not go.
This parable isn’t complicated. It has only three characters—a father and his two sons of whom he makes the same request: “Son, go and work today in the vineyard” (v. 28, 30). The first son replies that he won’t—“but later he changed his mind and went” (v. 29); the second says he will—“but he did not go” (v. 30). So Jesus, having indicated to the religious leaders that he wanted to know what they thought about this parable —the parable begins with the question, “What do you think?” in verse 28—now turned and asked them in verse 31: “Which of the two [sons] did what his father wanted?” Notice that Jesus didn’t ask which of the two said he would do what his father wanted, but rather which of the two actually did what his father wanted. And the religious leaders—as would even a child listening to this parable—answered correctly, “The first” son did as his father wanted. Because the first son went and worked in his father’s vineyard.
And for having correctly answered the question Jesus posed to them in this parable, the chief priests and elders of the people were rebuked by him at the end of verse 31: “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you.” Wait, what? How so? What does this parable have to do with tax collectors and prostitutes entering the kingdom of God ahead of these religious teachers? At first blush this seems like a non sequitor—the logic doesn’t seem to follow. Yet I think the answer to understanding Jesus’ final rebuke lies in the religious leaders’ initial refusal to answer his question about John the Baptist in verse 25: “John’s baptism—where did it come from? Was it from heaven, or of human origin?” I want to go back to the third chapter of Matthew’s Gospel for a moment to remind ourselves about John and his ministry of baptism, especially as this relates to the birth and life of Jesus. That chapter begins with the following words: “1 In those days” That is, in the days after the Magi visited Jesus at his birth; in the days after his escape from Herod’s massacre of all boys two years and under when an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream telling him to flee; in the days after Jesus’ return to Nazareth after an angel of the Lord appeared a second time to Joseph in a dream indicating it was now safe to return—In those days “John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea 2 and saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’” “Repent!” Turn from your evil, selfish ways and turn instead to God’s loving and selfless ways. Stop depending upon yourselves and the way you would like things to be and start depending upon God and the way he intended things to be. “Repent for God’s kingdom has drawn near.” “Repent for God’s Son, the King of that kingdom, is here!” And Matthew then acknowledges that John the Baptist’s ministry and message had been “spoken of through the prophet Isaiah” when he foretold, “A voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’” Prepare the way for the Lord—prepare the way for Jesus the Messiah—prepare the way for Jesus the Christ—prepare the way for Jesus who has come as your Savior and Lord— prepare the way for Jesus, King of heaven and earth!
And at the end of chapter 3, Matthew records how Jesus himself is baptized by John and, when he is, his identity is confirmed not only by the Scriptures given by God—which John also fulfilled and preached—but also by Triune God for as Jesus “went up out of the water,” “At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17 And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.’” Considering these combined accounts, what further confirmation of Jesus and John’s authority could one need? The tax collectors and prostitutes needed no further confirmation. When they heard Jesus “teaching in [the] synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness,” they responded—that is, they believed John and Jesus—they repented for they understood themselves as sinners in need of God’s healing; they understood themselves as sinners in need of God’s saving, and so they turned to Jesus, the one who is the only door to God’s heavenly kingdom; the one who is the only way, the only truth, the only, life—the one who is the only way to the heavenly Father.
So these tax collectors and prostitutes who believed John the Baptist; these tax collectors and prostitutes who believed Jesus are those about whom the religious leaders had earlier said in their deliberations, “But if we say, [that John’s baptism was] ‘Of human origin’—we are afraid of the people, for they all hold that John was a prophet” (v. 26). So these leaders have been judged by their own words. As Jesus went on to explain, verse 32: “For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him.” If the chief priests and elders of the people weren’t convinced by John’s message, they should have been convinced by those who were deemed the most immoral in society—the tax collectors and prostitutes—repenting, believing his teaching, and turning to Jesus, the way of righteousness John pointed to. But even this didn’t convince these leaders. And for this they are judged.
Prior to John the Baptist’s coming, the tax collectors and prostitutes chose to do their will rather than God’s. In this they were like the first son in the parable, refusing to do their heavenly Father’s will. But after John came, urging people to repent for the Kingdom of God was near; imploring them to Behold Jesus the Christ; beseeching them to Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, the tax collectors and prostitutes, again those considered the “worst” sinners in society repented—that is, they did the will of their Father in heaven by believing his Word, by believing his prophet, John, by believing that Jesus was indeed the Father’s beloved Son whom he loved and with whom he was well pleased, and by changing their lives in living for him rather than for themselves; living by God’s terms rather than their own.
The chief priests and elders of the people, however, as religious leaders had said they would do the Father’s will, but in rejecting his messenger, John the Baptist, and—more importantly—in rejecting his Son, Jesus the promised Messiah, they didn’t do the Father’s will. So they were like the second son in the parable. They didn’t keep their word. And in answering Jesus’ question in the parable of the two sons correctly, the religious leaders effectively betrayed what they knew and so disclosed the content of their hearts. They weren’t as ignorant as they pretended to be. They knew the answer to the questions they posed to Jesus. So again, the tax collectors and prostitutes were like the first son in the parable for in the end they did what their heavenly Father wanted—they turned from their ways, embraced his Son, and so were ushered into his Kingdom. And conversely, the religious leaders were like the second son in the parable for they said they would do the Father’s will but they didn’t. They believed neither his messenger, John the Baptist, nor his Son, Jesus. And for not repenting and believing God’s kingdom was withheld from them.
Isn’t this message what we are reminding ourselves about this morning and every communion Sunday?
Aren’t we called together by Christ to bear witness to the truth that he is the Lamb who has been sacrificed for us to take away the sin of the world—to take away our sin—to die in our place that we might be reconciled to our loving and heavenly Father?
Aren’t we called together by Christ to acknowledge and own that it’s impossible for us to please God by our own efforts and so he calls us to respond to him by believing his Word—by believing his prophets—by receiving his Son’s perfect obedience on our behalf that we might know and love our gracious Father through this very Son whom he loves, this Son with whom he is well pleased?
Aren’t we called together to bear witness to the this gift of sonship—of becoming children of our heavenly Father—that is available to any and all who profess Jesus is the Christ, God’s Messiah, God who came in the flesh and lived and suffered and died and rose from death that we might not ever have to experience the separation from God that he experienced for though our earthly lives will end, we will continue to live with him for he was and is the resurrection and life who has given his eternal life to all who confess him as Savior and Lord.
Brothers and sisters, let us this morning and every day celebrate the Lamb of God who died and rose to take away our sins;
let us this morning and every day celebrate the life of the One who came and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth, that we might never experience separation from our heavenly Father;
let us this morning and every day celebrate and bear witness to the Father who calls us to himself and sends us into his vineyard to bear witness to his goodness and love that his Son, Jesus Christ, whom he loves and with whom he is well-pleased might be lifted up and so draw all people to himself.
Let us pray.
 Matthew 16:21: 21 From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.; 17:22–23: 22 When they came together in Galilee, he said to them, “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men. 23 They will kill him, and on the third day he will be raised to life.” And the disciples were filled with grief.
 Mark’s Gospel provides these events chronologically whereas Matthew combines them at times.
 Matthew 21:1–11.
 “How to Share the Gospel,” 6/16/17, Matthew 9:35–10:8.
 Matthew 9:35. This statement is made previously in Matthew 4:23–25.
 Matthew 21:12–13 referencing Jeremiah 7:11 and Isaiah 56:7.
 Partial parallel accounts (leaders questioning Jesus) may be found in Mark 11:27–33 and Luke 20:1–8. Mark and Luke record Jesus as then telling the Parable of the Tenants rather than inserting the Parable of the Two Sons prior to that of the Tenants as in Matthew.
 Matthew 11:13–15: 13 For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John. 14 And if you are willing to accept it, he is the Elijah who was to come. 15 Whoever has ears, let them hear.
 Matthew 2:1ff.
 Matthew 2:13ff.
 Matthew 2:19ff.
 Isaiah 40:3.
 John 10:7–9: 7 Therefore Jesus said again, “Very truly I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. 8 All who have come before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep have not listened to them. 9 I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. They will come in and go out, and find pasture.”
 John 14:6: Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
 John 1:29.
 John 11:25–26: 25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; 26 and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
 John 12:32: And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”