Several years ago I went golfing with a group of men from Church. It was a fund raiser and more than 50 men were there. All of us looked like golfers. We all were dressed like golfers. We all rode around in golf carts. We all had golf bags with clubs and golf balls. But you know what, when we teed off, it became very obvious who among us were really golfers. And it was obvious from my first swing that I was not a real golfer. You see, I was really golfer look-a-alike. Now, granted, I had never claimed to be a golfer and I was only there to help raise money for a worthy cause. It turns out that I had been invited for comic relief; I and a couple of the other priests were there to get a chuckle at how bad we were. But before I took my first swing, I did not look different than anyone else. The gospel lesson today is about this very thing—it’s about being real; it’s about being who you say you are.
In our gospel lesson we see Jesus being confronted by the chief priests and elders and they interrupt him while he is teaching to demand from him, “By what authority do you do these things and who gave you this authority?” These two questions weren’t just out of the blue. Jesus, the afternoon before, had gone into the temple courtyard and thrown out the money changers and driven out those who sold animals for sacrifices. That really ticked off the chief priests because they got a percentage of those monies. So who did Jesus think he was? How did he think he could do these things? Who gave him the authority to boss people around in their temple? Further, by what authority is he now teaching?
You see in those days one was supposed to get his authority from these men, the chief priests and elders, they were the ones would recognize someone to be a rabbi, that is, an accredited teacher. They were the ones who authorized people and gave them authority to teach. But Jesus had not gone to them for any authorization. And it isn’t as though he didn’t have authority because clearly he did. Scripture says that that the crowds were astonished at his teaching because he taught them as one having authority, not like their scribes. He taught them and said that this is the way it is. He didn’t say things like ‘this is one way to look at this matter’. He taught with authority.
But he didn’t just teach with authority. Jesus had authority over illness and healed people. He told bodies to be well and the bodies got well! He healed lots of people. He not only showed his power in healing but he had authority over evil and unclean spirits. He could simply command them to leave a person and they did. Even more troubling for the religious leaders was his authority to forgive sins. Remember when a paralyzed man was lowered to him while he was in a house and he forgave the man’s sins. The scribes and Pharisees who were present were thinking to themselves, “That’s blasphemy!” And then Jesus, who knew what they were thinking, said, so you know that I have authority to forgive sins, he told the paralyzed man to get up and walk which the man did. Jesus also had authority over nature and he told the crowds that he had the authority to make those who believed in him children of God. Jesus had authority and he was not afraid to use it. And the authority he had he had not gotten from the chief priests and elders.
On the previous afternoon, he had entered the temple courtyard and driven out those who were selling and buying and overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves. What do you think? Could just anyone have told people to stop selling and get out? Could just anyone have overturned tables with money? The temple guards would have grabbed another person. The people selling and buying would have knocked him down but Jesus had authority. When he came to those who were selling and buying his anger was apparently very intimidating. They left when he said to go. They were scared of him. He had presence; he had authority.
So it’s the day after and now the religious leaders asked him by what authority do you teach and do these things? They were trying to intimidate him by coming as a large group of Chief Priests and elders of the people. They wanted Jesus to cough and shuffle his feet and perhaps look away and be embarrassed. But that doesn’t happen. Instead Jesus answers their question with a question. He was using a common rabbinical device in asking a question back to them. They had approached him as the ones who had the religious authority. They came to him as though they sat in the seats of judgment. They were the ones to make religious decisions for the nation of Israel. So Jesus gives them an important religious decision to make. What about John’s baptism? Was it from God or from man? This was not a dodge. It was a valid question. Notice, he doesn’t ask about John per se, but about his baptism. His baptism was one of repentance and turning one’s life to follow God and stop doing bad things. This was the message of the ancient prophets. How could that not be of God? Isn’t that exactly what God wants?
But it wasn’t quite so simple for those religious leaders. The chief priests and elders were between a rock and hard place. They had rejected John and his message three years earlier even though John and his baptism had been immensely popular. Of course, by rejecting John, they had also rejected John’s testimony about Jesus. John had openly declared that Jesus was the Lamb of God, he had declared that Jesus was the one who was going to baptize with fire and further that he, John, was unworthy to even untie Jesus’ sandal straps. So if they accepted John as from heaven they would have to automatically accept Jesus as John had proclaimed him which was something they were not about to do. But on the other hand, the crowd all around them knew John was from God. So if they said what they themselves really believed, which was that John baptism was from man, they would lose any credibility as religious leaders that they had. So they had to, with embarrassment I imagine, say that they didn’t know. So now they were the ones who had to shuffle their feet and look away. And remember these are the men who are supposed to be making these kinds of judgments—but they will not. So it is that Jesus then says that he will not tell them by what authority he is acting because they have abdicated their responsibility and position.
He then tells them the parable of the two sons whose father had asked them to go work in the vineyard. Just like last week, working in the vineyard is doing God’s work. The first son said, “No way,” but then later changes his mind and goes. Just like those who repented at John’s preaching and those who followed Jesus. The next son says, “Certainly,” but then never goes. This son is like the Chief Priests and elders. They looked religious. It appeared that in everyone’s eyes they were working in the vineyard but they were really frauds; they were not real. So Jesus points out to them and the crowds that were listening that not only have these men abdicated their authority they have also stopped following God. Because the proof that God was speaking through John the Baptizer was that people’s lives were changed. The prostitutes changed their behavior. The tax collectors changed their behavior. The major sign, the proof that God is involved is that people’s lives are changed. People stop doing what is bad and begin to obey what God has told us to do.
Anyone can dress like a golfer. Anyone can hang out at a golf course, ride in a golf cart, and have golf clubs. But to be a real golfer, one needs to golf and work at it, and to hone your game. Following Jesus is the same way. We can say we are Christians; we can even go to church. But the real proof that God is involved in our lives, the real proof that we are Christians is that we obey what He says and work at becoming more like Jesus. We need to stop doing those things we know are wrong and do those things that we know are right. That is the difference between real and fake. Let us be careful not be simply religious look-a-likes but to be true followers of our Lord Jesus Christ and obey him in spirit and truth.