Our reading this week is from the gospel of Matthew:
Jesus 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?”
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Jesus replied, “I will also ask you one question. If you answer me, I will tell you by what authority I am doing these things. John’s baptism—where did it come from? Was it from heaven, or of human origin?”
They discussed it among themselves and said, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will ask, ‘Then why didn’t you believe him?’ But if we say, ‘Of human origin’—we are afraid of the people, for they all hold that John was a prophet.” So they answered Jesus, “We don’t know.”
Then he said, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.
“What do you think? There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work today in the vineyard.’ ‘I will not,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went. “Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but he did not go.
“Which of the two did what his father wanted?”
“The first,” they answered.
Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. 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.” (Matthew 21:23-32)
If we are going to arrive at life-giving interpretations that do not devolve into anti-Semitic tropes, we’ll need to understand the context of this passage. First, this passage represents a debate within Judaism. Christianity does not exist yet. So the passage doesn’t point to a choice between Christianity and Judaism, or some embracing “Christianity” ahead of others. Jesus was a Jewish man. The tax collectors and prostitutes in this passage are all Jewish folk, as were the chief priests and all the elders.
This is instead a debate among people in different social locations within Judaism, the elite and powerful of a society and those who were shunned or pushed to the edges of their society, about what faithfulness to the God of the Torah looked like and how to follow the Torah’s economic teachings.
Jesus had just overturned the money changers tables in the Temple, a political symbol and not solely a religious one. The Temple was the “Capital building” of the Temple state of Jerusalem over which Rome exercised imperial control. The chief priests and elders were not only religious leaders but also held political positions of power, property, and privilege.
By flipping over these Temple tables, Jesus staged a political protest over the exploitation of the poor, and his authority for teaching and acting was challenged by those in positions of authority within the Temple state.
Again, all of this happening economically, politically, socially, and religiously, and within Jewish culture and society.
This story gives those of us who are not Jewish a window into a society from which we can glean wisdom as we stand in solidarity with the oppressed and marginalized, those in underprivileged social locations in our own society.
We’ll explore some of these lessons, next.
(Read Part 2)