Column: Jesus uses the Baptist to explain his own mission

by Father Mike Stubbs

Once in a while, someone will approach me for advice concerning a problem of one of their friends. 

As the person speaks, I begin to suspect that the friend is fictitious — that the person actually is speaking of his or her own problem. The similarities between the person’s own situation and the situation being described are too close. 

Perhaps the person has adopted this indirect approach out of embarrassment. To deal with the facts head on is just too difficult. 

Something similar may be taking place in Sunday’s Gospel reading, Mt 21: 28-32. Previously, Jesus has been engaged in an argument with the chief priests and elders of the people. They challenged his authority to teach.

Jesus responded with a question about John the Baptist. After they decline to answer his question, Jesus then tells the parable which we hear as Sunday’s Gospel reading. On the surface, the parable appears to address their reaction to John the Baptist: “When John came to you in the way of righteousness, you did not believe him; but tax collectors and prostitutes did. Yet even when you saw that, you did not later change your minds and believe him.”

Jesus is appearing to attack his opponents for their lack of trust in John the Baptist. At the same time, they similarly mistrust Jesus, while tax collectors and prostitutes have responded well to him, just as they did toward John the Baptist. 

Jesus’ criticism of the chief priests and the elders of the people serves as a defense of his own ministry toward those marginalized from society. In talking about John the Baptist, Jesus has really been talking about himself and his ministry to the tax collectors and the prostitutes.

In that respect, the parable in Sunday’s Gospel reading resembles another more famous parable, found in Lk 15: 11-32. Usually called the parable of the prodigal son, it also contrasts the behavior of two sons — the prodigal son and the elder son who stayed at home. Its audience also includes the opponents of Jesus, in this case identified as the scribes and the Pharisees.

This parable, like the one in Sunday’s Gospel reading, also speaks to Jesus’ ministry to the marginalized of society and to the authorities’ rejection of Jesus. Of course, it goes a step further in examining the compassion of the father who welcomes back the runaway son. That is why we usually look upon it as a parable about God’s mercy, rather than a criticism of Jesus’ opponents. But we can also understand it as an indirect attack upon them, going by means of a story rather than open confrontation.

Why does Jesus take the indirect approach toward the chief priests and the elders of the people in Sunday’s Gospel reading, going by way of John the Baptist to defend himself? By drawing a parallel between himself and that popular martyr, does Jesus wish to have some of that popularity rub off on himself? Does Jesus wish to avoid too open a clash with the authorities for reasons of his own safety, to escape the fate dealt to John the Baptist? Is it simply a matter of timing, because the hour has not yet come?

We know that eventually that moment will arrive. It will result in the cross, a bloody struggle between life and death. Till then, Jesus is content to teach. And we are left to absorb his wisdom.

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