Under whose authority?
Yesterday’s fig tree cursing and cleansing the Temple were a really big deal, so now the big guns come out to challenge just who Jesus thinks he is. This would be Caiaphas, Annas and the ruling council of the Pharisees and Sadducees. They ask Jesus under what authority He cleansed the temple. Jesus has just challenged the way things are done in the temple – so they want to know how He thinks He is allowed to do that. That makes Jesus’ counter question sheer genius.
“Was the baptism of John from heaven or man?”, Jesus wants to know not what they think of John or his ministry, but his baptism. The priests had all sorts of washing rituals. John was not a priest, yet he baptised. So Jesus’ counter question is what authority allowed John to do a new ritual in Israel. Jesus takes it right down to the essentials – is it from God or man? It’s a dilemma, what they call in chess a fork – you only have a choice of two moves and both would involve losing a piece. If they say it’s from God, then Jesus can ask why they didn’t accept it. If they say it’s from man, the crowds around won’t be happy.
Jack Nicholson’s line from ‘A Few Good Men’ is a good one – “you can’t handle the truth.” The chief priests don’t care for truth, just their own interests. And that puts them in opposition to God’s authority.
Now Jesus tells a story to make it even more obvious to the crowds, borrowing from Isaiah 5, which speaks of Israel as a vineyard brought out of Egypt and planted in a choice land. God dug and planted a vineyard, built a tower to protect it and is looking for fruit. It’s about them. It’s a veiled, but clear attack right back at them. They will beat and kill him, but God will destroy them.
He is describing to them who they are, and what they are doing. And, indirectly, he is answering their question, “By what authority do you do these things?” He says, “Here is my authority: I am the owner of the vineyard. I am the rightful heir to it. I am the beloved Son whom the Father has sent. You’ve killed the prophets, stoned and beaten those who came from God; now here I am, the Son.” And he told these men what they would do: They would beat him, kill him, and cast him out of the vineyard. Jesus is under no delusions as to what is going to happen to him. But then he goes on to predict what would ultimately happen, that God has the final answer. He asks,
“What will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and destroy the tenants, and give the vineyard to others.” (Mark 12:9)
In Mark’s account it looks as though Jesus answers his own question, but Matthew makes it clear that Jesus asks the question, and it is the scribes and the chief priests who give the answer. Jesus tells the story, and says, “Now, in that story, what would the owner of the vineyard do?” Matthew records that the scribes and chief priests said, “Why, he’ll come and destroy the tenants, and give the vineyard to someone else.” Jesus says, “You are right. You have judged yourselves” (Matt 21:40-44, paraphrased).
“Have you never read the scripture:
‘The very stone which the builders rejected
has become the head of the corner;
this was the Lord’s doing,
and it is marvelous in our eyes’?
And they tried to arrest him, but feared the multitude, for they perceived that he had told the parable against them; so they left him and went away.” (Mark 12:10-12)
Those priests had a false religious authority that presumes to dictate, and to usurp power and authority that was never rightfully theirs. Jesus makes this abundantly clear. But he says, “That is not the end. When human authorities act that way, you can remember that God is not yet through.” And what he said here actually took place. The resurrection made the one whom the builders rejected truly the foundation of the corner. Jesus stood with his disciples and said, “All power, all power in heaven and on earth has been given unto me,” (Matthew 28:18b). He is the Lord of everything, in control of history, the ultimate determiner of all that happens on earth.
Forty years later, Roman armies came in, surrounded the city of Jerusalem and captured it, and the chief priests, the scribes and the elders were led away in chains into captivity, to be dispersed among the nations. God did exactly what he said he would do in this parable. Human power is limited, but God is large and in charge!