In yesterday’s Gospel, the chief priests and the elders put a critical question to Jesus, asking him by “what authority” he did what he did. It was a trick question. They were all learned enough in the Scriptures to know who it was had the authority to cleanse the courts of the Temple and to forgive sins – it was the Messiah. The question they really wanted to ask Jesus was whether he was the Messiah. Why did they not do so?
Part of the answer comes in verses 25 and 26 – “they were afraid.” Jesus put them on the spot by asking about John the Baptist. They were scared that if they said that his baptism was “of man” then they would fall foul of the people. But, of course, if they said it was “of God” they’d be asked why they had not believed him. Jesus was putting them in the same position with regard to their real question. If they had said that his authority was “of man” they would have fallen foul of those who had recently celebrated his entry into Jerusalem. If they acclaimned him as Messiah – well then what?
Then their world would have been turned upside down. They were a privileged class. They were, in effect, the “second son” to whom Jesus refers in verse 30. They paid lip-service to doing the work of the Father, but in practice they put burdens on the people and puffed themselves up. Like the rich man getting into Heaven, their privileges blinded them to the Good News. They prayed that the Messiah would come, they knew from their Scriptures that he would – one day. But that “one day” was that day, and they were in no way ready to receive him. It ran counter to their interests to do so.
That was no the case with the outcasts, who here are symbolised by the “tax collectors” and “prostitutes”. They, who had already lost all in the eyes of the religious and the righteous, had no barriers to receiving the hope brought by Jesus. For them, having their world turned upside down was a good thing. How remarkable for them, as for us, that in spite of the things we have done – and not done – we can receive the Good News. We are not asked to “earn” it by “good works”. But if we have received it, then we give as we have received, not in the hope of reward, but because we have been rewarded.
As with the elders and chief priests, perhaps our own preconceptions can blind us to the Good News. How hard is it for us sometimes to accept that Grace is free when we can feel that we work hard in the vineyard – and yet those who join at the final hour are rewarded as though they had done a full day’s work. But then which of us could ever be worthy of salvation? Which of us does not want that precious gift and to emphasise its preciousness in the way the world does that, by talking about the price paid; and here were are being told that even if we start by disobeying the Father, if we turn and do his work, then we are saved.
As usual, Jesus’s wisdom is beyond that of the religious establishment of his day – and not, perhaps just his day. We can set up all sorts of rules and regulations, dos and don’ts, but if we receive his word as children and obey, then we do his work.