People don’t like being challenged. Unknowingly, I pushed buttons recently. An acquaintance posted on social media a slanderous and inaccurate comment about a public figure. I simply asked for sources but it ignited a firestorm of abusive dismissals of me and any position that my question seemed to imply.
When Jesus entered the temple complex the religious leaders asked a simple question. What authority did He have? Jesus handled it beautifully. Instead of dodging their challenge, or exploding, He turned their trick question on them and they were silent (Matt. 21:23-27).
Then He told a parable about two sons (co-starring tax-gatherers and sinners) whose father asked them to work in his vineyard. One said, “I will, sir”, but never followed through. The other refused but later realized he was wrong and went to work. Jesus did what good teachers often do; He engaged His listeners with a question. “Which of the two did the will of his father?” The son who changed and set to work, of course. But the question did more than engage them, it had awkward implications: The religious leaders were being shown up by tax-gatherers and harlots. They had believed John the Baptist while the leaders stubbornly refused to change (Matt. 21:28-32).
Next, Jesus told a parable about a landowner who rented out his vineyard. The tenants rebelled against the owner’s slaves and then killed his son. Again Jesus engaged the leaders with another question with a clear answer,
“When the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those vine-growers?” They said to Him, “He will bring those wretches to a wretched end, and will rent out the vineyard to other vine-growers who will pay him the proceeds at the proper seasons.” Jesus said to them, “Did you never read in the Scriptures, ‘The stone which the builders rejected, this became the chief corner; this came about from the Lord and it is marvelous in our eyes’? Therefore I say to you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you, and be given to a nation producing the fruit of it.” (Matt. 21:40-43)
Jesus had used the questions to expose the religious leaders’ rejection of the kingdom of God. Then He had predicted their destruction. His method of asking questions with obvious answers put the hearers in the uncomfortable position of having to silently back down or change.
Further, He had asked what seems like an insulting question, “Did you never read [Psalm 118:22]?” Of course they had read it; they probably had it memorized! The implication is that they knew the words well but had failed to grasp the real meaning. Jesus was accusing them of missing the point—they were rejecting Him.1 Again, the leaders had little choice, either change their position or save face somehow. They were offended and sought to seize Him when the crowds were gone (Matt. 21:45-46).
Jesus knew that people hate to be challenged, so why did He pursue the conflict? Did He go too far? Before answering, consider three unknowns:
- The Gospels are relatively expressionless. The best we have are Greek records of a Hebrew or Aramaic dialogue—no tone of voice, no facial expressions, few other non-verbal clues. Jesus might have been smiling, playfully chuckling, or hugging them while He exposed them. Was He weeping as He warned them? Perhaps He showed respect somehow. Any of those could have softened His impact.
- We have no idea whether Jesus had an ongoing relationship with the elders. He certainly saw the chief priests a few times. He ate with Pharisees in Galilee. Relationships can soften disagreement.
- These men were expert legal debaters; verbal wrestling was their sport. They knew the rules and the stakes. And Jesus knew too. Even as a boy He had seen them in action in the temple. Some people are used to challenges like this.
We should reflect on these three things to minimize offense in our own communications. As we do that the message is more likely to be heard. But in the end we have to accept that Jesus did offend. Within the week He was arrested and killed. You see, Jesus knew that His worldview—the coming of a kingdom lovingly ruled by His Father—was incompatible with the religious leaders’ worldview. He knew how unbending they were. He knew where the clash would eventually lead. Time was short. He gave them one last chance to change—even if it pushed buttons.
- Six times Jesus asked religious leaders something like “Have you never read . . . ?” Four of those times are claims that He was the Messiah fulfilling the Scriptures. (Matt. 12:3-5; 19:3-6; 21:16; 22:31 and the parallels.) [↩]