Matthew 21: 23-32 Authority and the Parable of the Two Sons

A.N. Mironav, Parable of the Two Sons, CC by SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:The_Two_Sons

Matthew 21: 23-32

Mark 11: 27-33, Luke 20: 1-8

23 When he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” 24 Jesus said to them, “I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. 25 Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” And they argued with one another, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ 26 But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.” 27 So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.

28 “What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ 29 He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. 30 The fatherwent to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. 31 Which of the two didthe will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. 32 For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.

Jesus re-enters the temple after the night in Bethany. He has already upended, at least temporarily, the business of the temple and once again his presence brings conflict with the religious leaders in the temple. Throughout Jesus’ ministry he has evoked conflict with the religious leaders in the area he works, primarily with the Pharisees in Galilee and now with the religious elite of Jerusalem. Like the prophets who clashed with religious authorities before Jesus, it is helpful to remember that Jesus’ words, actions, and presence is unsettling to those with religious and political authority in his world. As Richard B. Hays can state:

Jesus’ message was controversial and threatening to the established institutions of religious and political power in his society: the message carried with it a fundamental transvaluation of values, an exalting of the humble and a critique of the mighty. The theme of reversal seems to have been pervasive in his thought. (Hays 1996, 163)

This conflict which opens a series of parables about reversal is a conflict between two perspectives on faithfulness. The chief priests and the elders represent the voice of the established order of the temple and in a reductionist way the priestly voice speaks to orthodoxy (right prayer/worship)[1] while Jesus, John, and the prophets have generally focused on orthopraxis (right actions). The authority of the chief priests and the elder comes from their position in the temple, but they do not have faith which allows them to see how God is at work in the things Jesus does and says.

The prophets and the psalms frequently criticize the people who continue to worship God in the temple but who fail to live in accordance with the covenant. Both John and Jesus have, in their own way, attempted to call the people into the ways of righteousness and have been resisted by the religious and political leaders in their proclamation and work. Jesus is now doing this work in the temple, and the chief priests and the elders say to him, “by what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” Jesus is doing the work, which included healing and teaching as well as the work of driving out the moneychangers, and especially with works like healing the authority must come from somewhere. The primary question is not whether Jesus has the authority to do what he is visibly doing, but where the authority is coming from. Previously Jesus was accused by the Pharisees of deriving power from Beelzebul (12:22-32), and while Warren Carter is correct that “the question is not about his identity but whether they will recognize it.” (Carter 2005, 423) Yet, from Matthew’s perspective the issue is not the ability of the chief priests and the scribes to acknowledge Jesus’ authority as proper but rather will the chief priests and elders have faith to recognize the works, the baptism of John, and John (and Jesus’) way of righteousness coming from heaven.

Politicians are famous for not answering the question that is asked, but I do not believe that is what Jesus is doing here. This scene sets up three interlocking parables, but Jesus’ question helps the reader (and has the potential to help the religious leaders) understand the first question better. Matthew links the language of Jesus and John the Baptist throughout the gospel[2] and so a question about the things John does gives the answer to the authority for the things Jesus does. If the authority of John is from heaven, the works that Jesus does are authorized by heaven, but if one cannot see the baptism of John and the transformation it brought into the lives of those who came to John as an action of the kingdom of God then one will not have the faith to understand how God is at work in the things Jesus does. Throughout this passage what the NRSV renders ‘believe’ is ‘have faith’[3] but even though Jesus does not directly answer their question, the first short parable gives them the answer.

Entering this and the following parable, it is helpful to understand that just like the fig tree the vineyard is a representation of Israel. Probably the most familiar reference to Israel being the vineyard of the Lord is Isaiah 5 where the LORD does everything possible for a vineyard to be fruitful, but it only bears wild grapes:

For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting; he expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness but heard a cry. Isaiah 5:7

It is important to note that in these parables of Jesus the vineyard is not destroyed, instead better sons (in this parable) and faithful stewards (in the following) parable are sought to work in the vineyard. It is not Israel that is the primary problem but the leaders who resist the will of the father. In this parable the father goes to the first son who states “I do not will/desire to go[4] but this son repents[5] and does the work of the father. The second son in contrast declares “I am, lord” but does not go. The inclusion for the second son of lord (Greek kurios) which can mean ‘sir’ but missing that this means ‘lord’ misses the connection with Matthew 7:21:

Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.

The one who repents and goes into the vineyard does the will of their father, just like the sinners that observed John’s coming in the way of righteousness and had faith in him by repenting and changing their life did the will of God and enter into the kingdom of God. The religious leaders have seen the change in others but have resisted both John and Jesus and could not see God’s kingdom at work in the things they do.


[1] Orthodoxy is normally understood as correct beliefs, but the word itself means ‘right praise/prayer.’ The high priests and the elders are primarily concerned (as they are portrayed) focusing on the proper operation of the temple in its worship of God.

[2] Compare John’s message in 3:1-12 with Jesus in 4:17 and 10:7

[3] This may seem like semantics, but faith in Matthew’s gospel is an openness to where God is at work in the things Jesus (and John) are doing. For more on this see my discussion on Faith in Matthew’s gospel.

[4] The Greek thelo is the act of willing or desiring, so the action is not merely declining but stating it is not the desire of the son to do what the father asked.

[5] Greek metamelomai which means regret or repent.

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