Questions Posed, Corruption Exposed: John, Jesus and the Mercy and Authority of Israel’s Lord

Luke 20:1-19

And in those days, as he was teaching the people in the temple, proclaiming Good News, that the Chief Priest and the Scribes came up to him along with the elders. And they came demanding:
“Can you tell us by what authority you do these things? Who gave you permission?”
And in answer, he said to them:
“I have something to ask too; and you can answer me: The baptism of John; was it from heaven or was it [just] from men?”
And so, in discussing this among themselves they said [to each other]: “If we say ‘from heaven’, he will ask us why we did not believe him, and if we say ‘from men’ the people will stone us because they hold John to be a prophet.”
And so they answered that they did not know [from whence John’s baptism had come]. And Jesus replied: “And neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.”
Then he began to teach the people [and did so] with this parable.
“There was a man who planted a vineyard, letting it out to farmer-tenants and was away for considerable periods [leaving it in their hands]. And bye and bye he sent a servant to the farming tenants that he might receive [his share] of the harvest from the vineyard. But the tenants sent this one away empty-handed after giving him a thrashing. And he persisted, sending another servant but they sent him away empty, thrashing him in a manner most insulting. And persisting, a third servant was sent who was thrown out after he was severely wounded.
“And so the owner of the vineyard said to himself: ‘What can I do [to persuade these tenants of my rights as owner]? I will send my beloved son. Surely they will give him due respect.’
“But upon encountering him, the tenants discussed together and said to one another, ‘This then is the heir; let us kill him that this inheritance may be ours. And expelling him from the vineyard they had him murdered. So what is the Master of the vineyard going to do? [I will tell you.] He will come and completely overthrow the tenants and give the vineyard to others.”
And hearing this [concluding answer of Jesus] they said: “Surely this should not be!”
And he, looking [eye to eye] at them said this:
“What then do you make of what is written: ‘The Stone rejected by the builders has become the capstone of the corner’? And further, whoever stumbles over that stone will be broken; on whomever it falls it will crush them to pieces.”
In that self-same hour, out of fear of the people, the chief priests and the scribes determined to put him under arrest for they [generally] presumed it was then he was referring to in this parable.

The Chief Priests and the scribes did not have the authority to make Jesus answer their questions. Luke tells us that despite their devious ways, they had to respect the rules for open discussion in that place. We learn that their plans for his arrest (and murder) were well advanced, but they were constrained by their fear of what the crowds would do and had to bid their time, waiting for an opportune moment to pounce.

But the possibility was there that they would find themselves included in Jesus’ teaching sessions in the temple precincts. It arose when they came to him asking him (would politely demanding be more appropriate?) to tell them how he had been authorised to do what he had been doing and to teach what he had been teaching. But if, at this point in our reading, we assume a split between “doing” and “teaching”, we may be in danger of avoiding the teaching that was implicit in his cleansing of the temple, the fulfilment of Malachi’s prophesy (Malachi 3:1). Surely the Chief Priests and the scribes were exposed by that authoritative action which clearly showed to the people the cumulative negligence of those responsible for temple administration.

And Jesus showed himself willing to engage in this discussion. His classroom was never a “closed shop”. But would his interlocutors provide him with their view of the person who had so recently announced the coming of God’s Kingdom and who had paid for his obedience to Heaven with his life?

So, you fellows, tell me what are we to make of the Baptism of John? Was it from heaven or from men?

Actually Jesus takes their question of him and his authority and reapplies it to the person who had come before him, cousin John. In other words:

By what authority did John baptise? Who authorised him to do so?

Now what we have next in Luke’s account is the record of the “private” discussion among the Chief Priests and the scribes. The public face of this exchange was presented to the crowds when Jesus pulled out of the proposed discussion when his interlocutors said that they had no opinion to give on the matter. We know otherwise. Luke has told us. They preferred to give no public opinion on the matter.

And since we know this, we can say with some certainty that someone on the “inside” of that discussion (perhaps one who was later converted) conveyed the details of this prevarication to Luke when, years later, he investigated the event. They saw themselves caught between being further questioned by Jesus as to their corporate acquiescence in his death – their failure to unambiguously endorse John’s proclamation of the need for Israel’s ongoing repentance in the context of the covenantal promises of the Lord God – and the general view of the crowds that John was indeed a true prophet, sent by God, a genuine son of Israel. So Luke tells us they felt trapped.

And so in their desire to protect themselves from any examination of their dodgy conduct, and so avoid the need for any repentance on their part, the connection between Jesus’ authority and John’s Baptism remained unexplored – at least by them.

We know, from what Luke tells us of Jesus’ words right at the outset of his second book,
They were not to depart from Jerusalem, ‘but wait there for the promise of the Father, which you heard me talk about when I said to you that John may have baptised with water, but before many days you too will be baptised with the Spirit of holiness’ (Acts 1:5).
that John’s Baptism and Jesus’ authority are inextricably bound together. This a major theme that is explored in this two books. For us, receiving Luke’s report in 2017, the public answer of the Chief Priests reads as:

We really would prefer not to discuss that, sorry. (Could we interpolate: “That would come under confidentiality provisions”?)

And so, when Jesus replies:

Well fellows, that being so, I’m sorry too, but if you can’t engage with me on that question, which is so vital to any understanding of my authority and my being here, then our exchange isn’t going anywhere! You’ve thereby blocked yourself from getting any answer to your own questions! Pity about that!

And with that Jesus returned to give his attention to the crowd of eager people who had gathered and he proceeds to give his parable to them, presumably for their questions and answers probing how it reflects upon the way the Kingdom of God is to come in their lives. Isn’t that why they were following Jesus? Isn’t that why they were there in the temple hanging on his words?

But, as we consider the parable in its central point, let us note what Luke tells us after he has recounted it. The central point is found in Jesus’ rhetorical question and in his answer:

So what is the Master of the vineyard going to do? [I will tell you.] He will come and completely overthrow the tenants and give the vineyard to others.

And then there is a response “from the class-room” to Jesus’ conclusion to the parable – the owner of the vineyard takes the stewardship away from those to whom it had been given, who have presumed upon their own authority to despise the owner’s rights and flouting the authority they have been given. The vineyard will be given to others:

And hearing this [concluding answer of Jesus] they said: “Surely this should not be!”

The questions for us are these: who is Luke suggesting is ‘they’? What do ‘they’ mean by saying this?

Here Jesus’ teaching in a parable is presented as relating to popular understanding of what stewardship under Heaven implies. In this sense the crowd, as well as the Chief Priests and the scribes, are together giving their assent to the teaching that they are called into service by the God of Israel. But note that Jesus has now returned to the initial question about authority that the Chief Priests and the scribes had initially raised but had then withdrawn.

For them to apply the parable about the possibility that their service will be taken away by the vineyard’s Lord is tantamount to a denial of their existence as God’s people. And to this sentiment Jesus then adds further to his teaching by affirming that they should be considering the entire scripture and not just parts of it that confirm their own place in God’s plans. These plans, the plans of the Holy One for the stewardship of the vineyard, are not subverted by the builders’ inept rejection of what has been authoritatively provided to them.

The stone that the builders rejected has become chief cornerstone (Psalm 118:22)

Recall that we have already suggested that Psalm 118:26 was Jesus’ inspiration for his own song of praise and that this was taken up by the crowds, to the chagrin of the Pharisees, when he, astride a pony, with his celebrating followers, entered Jerusalem from Bethany. And now he recalls that stone and teaches the crowd in the temple precinct about other references to stones in the prophets. There is the stone of stumbling, mentioned by the prophet Isaiah (8: 9-15), and the prophetic reference to the stone that grinds to dust all opposition to the Kingdom of the Holy One in Daniel’s explanation of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream (Daniel 2). So it is as if he is saying,

People, please keep the entire revelation of Israel’s Lord in mind.

And Luke’s use of ‘they’ strongly suggests that the Chief Priests and the scribes were in agreement with the crowd in their:

“Surely, this should not be!”

But with the inclusion of these “stone references”, the Chief Priests and the scribes – fully committed to their murderous plans – feel themselves to be exposed. They have refused to enter into the discussion about Jesus’ authority because of the crowd’s devotion to John’s Baptism. is he not fingering them as builders who have cast the stone aside, just as in the parable, the stewards of the vineyard had mercilessly beaten the servants of the vineyard’s owner, not to mention the murder of his son. They presumed that Jesus had told the parable to send a message to the crowd that murderous plans being hatched by those who opposed him.

And Luke has also told us that the Chief Priests and the scribes refused to answer Jesus out of a fear that they would be stoned (v.6). So there is also deepened subtlety, not only in Luke’s account, but in what he tells us about Jesus’ alert perception of what his opponents has in mind for his own murder.

In fact, that fear-filled response on their part was because they read Jesus’ pedagogy in terms of their own devious and manipulative techniques of public communication. That fear-filled response was a fear that the crowd would find out what they had wanted so desperately to avoid: their complicity in John’s demise, in his murder, and their hell-bent determination to do away with him.

But if they had been attentive to Jesus’ teaching, they would have heard of the mercy extended to those builders who had hitherto rejected the Lord God’s ongoing provision. And perhaps the fact that we have learned about the discussion that took place among these religious officials indicates that eventually, for some, the message got through.




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