Avoiding the Question: Matthew 21:23-32

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Coming right on the heels of Jesus kicking the merchants out of the temple, and the Pharisees challenging Him about what the children were cheering, we discover a new challenge. It would appear that the following day, as Jesus arrived in the temple and began teaching the crowds, the chief priests collectively had decided that what had happened the day before had broke the chain of command.

In our passage for this episode, we discover the chief priests challenging Jesus regarding what happened. In the priests challenge, we can see multiple layers, and we can see many ways that Jesus could fail. Let’s read what happened, and discover how Jesus responded to these religious leaders.

Our passage is found in Matthew’s gospel, chapter 21, and we will be reading it from the Contemporary English Version of the Bible. Starting in verse 23, Matthew tells us that:

23 Jesus had gone into the temple and was teaching when the chief priests and the leaders of the people came up to him. They asked, “What right do you have to do these things? Who gave you this authority?”

24 Jesus answered, “I have just one question to ask you. If you answer it, I will tell you where I got the right to do these things. 25 Who gave John the right to baptize? Was it God in heaven or merely some human being?”

They thought it over and said to each other, “We can’t say that God gave John this right. Jesus will ask us why we didn’t believe John. 26 On the other hand, these people think that John was a prophet, and we are afraid of what they might do to us. That’s why we can’t say that it was merely some human who gave John the right to baptize.” 27 So they told Jesus, “We don’t know.”

Jesus said, “Then I won’t tell you who gave me the right to do what I do.”

Most people stop reading here, right after Jesus declines to answer these leaders, but Matthew continues by sharing more of Jesus’ response. After Jesus tells these leaders that He won’t tell them who gave Him the rights they are challenging, Matthew continues in verse 28 by telling us that:

28 Jesus said:

I will tell you a story about a man who had two sons. Then you can tell me what you think. The father went to the older son and said, “Go work in the vineyard today!” 29 His son told him that he would not do it, but later he changed his mind and went. 30 The man then told his younger son to go work in the vineyard. The boy said he would, but he didn’t go. 31 Which one of the sons obeyed his father?

“The older one,” the chief priests and leaders answered.

Then Jesus told them:

You can be sure that tax collectors and prostitutes will get into the kingdom of God before you ever will! 32 When John the Baptist showed you how to do right, you would not believe him. But these evil people did believe. And even when you saw what they did, you still would not change your minds and believe.

In this passage, and in Jesus’ follow-up discussion with the religious leaders, we discover a powerful truth: Knowledge that is not applied is worthless. Verse 32 hits this point directly by saying, “When John the Baptist showed you how to do right, you would not believe him. But these evil people did believe. And even when you saw what they did, you still would not change your minds and believe.

The belief of the tax collectors and prostitutes was visible because they repented, turned to God, and away from their sin. The evidence of their changed lives should have been enough for these leaders to praise God, except that they were too inward focused. They couldn’t deny that John’s message brought results, but they didn’t like him because he wasn’t one of them – and because he challenged them regarding their character.

This also brings us to the truth that someone who knows they are living sinfully and apart from God’s will is more savable than someone who believes themselves to be living perfectly for God. It is harder for an arrogant follower of Jesus to be saved than it is for the most sin-filled, evil person who decided to change, come to God, and repent. Anyone who believes they don’t need to repent has just placed themselves in the same group these religious leaders are in, and this group risks losing their salvation.

Jesus’ parable in this passage teaches us a powerful truth that we all intuitively know to be true: Talk is cheap, and actions speak louder than words. You know your true friends by how they act towards you and how they treat you more than what they simply say.

Nowhere in this passage or parable does Jesus ever imply that lying is okay. The clear ideal would be for one son to say that He would go and help, and then follow up by going and helping. However, when given the choice between someone saying they will do something and then deciding to do something else vs. someone who says they won’t help but who ultimately comes to help, you and I would always prefer the one who came.

This is the same with God. The religious leaders talked like people who followed God, but their actions, and the way they treated others was nothing like God. In a similar way, while there are many true Christians in the world today who live and love others like Jesus did, it is also not difficult to find people who claim to be Christians who are act nothing like Christ. Also, we can look among the growing number of people who are not followers of Jesus, and while many are living evil lives, there are plenty of examples of people who act like Jesus even if they don’t know who He is.

I believe Jesus is challenging these religious leaders with the truth that it is easier for someone who cares, loves, and desires good to come to Jesus and be saved, than it is for an arrogant person who claims they know Jesus to be saved.

In our own lives, we can also learn from this truth. Regardless of whether we never knew Jesus or if we grew up knowing about Him from as long as we can remember, this moment in time is a new moment, and it is a moment where we can decide to humble ourselves before Jesus and let Him into our hearts.

An arrogant pride stopped the religious leaders from discovering and accepting Jesus, and arrogant pride in our own lives and hearts risks our own salvation.

As we come to the end of another podcast episode, here are the challenges I will leave you with:

Always seek God first and humbly come before Him with a repentant heart and a teachable spirit. There will never be a time when we have learned it all, and so we should always be willing to learn, grow, and move closer to God through every experience we face in life.

As you continue seeking God and growing toward Him, be sure to always pray and study the Bible for yourself, to grow that personal relationship. While other people can help you on your journey, your relationship should be your own, and you should never let someone else stand between you and Jesus. Through prayer and Bible study, you can personally grow closer to God.

And as I end every set of challenges by saying in one way or another, never chicken out of, or move away from where God wants to lead you to in your life with Him!

Year of the Cross – Episode 6: When some religious leaders challenge Jesus, we see Him skillfully sidestep the question, but then He immediately follows up with a challenge to them about the state of their belief. Discover what we can learn from what Jesus taught, and how this teaching is just as applicable in our lives today.

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