Authority has always been an issue in the church, Hebrew, then Christian. Those born or appointed to power always want to exert it. Those down below resist it, or challenge it. Jesus always allies himself with those down below. Not encouraging for those of us who harbour ambitions! Jesus always operates at ground level. Earthed. Even below ground level. Down in the depths! Here, religious heavies tackle Jesus. "By what authority....?" He could look them straight in the eye & say, "Well, my own actually!" But he teases them, & the issue, a bit. With a look of despair? A scowl? Or a twinkle in his eye?
Their answer to his question about John the Big Dipper is weak to say the least. Sounds like a lot of today's spin doctors! Jesus has them over a barrel & they know it! They taste the Source of his authority, but without internalising it. Authority delegated to humans by God is never given as a control mechanism. Instead, like all else of God, it is rooted & grounded in love. Better at loosing than binding. Empowering more than limiting. Nurturing more than keeping under control. Imagining more than stifling. Those who'd gone out to John B recognized genuine authoriity when they saw & heard it. Not the sham stuff their heavies dispensed. Now these same leaders face Jesus & taste if not recognize his even more inherently divine authority.
Those of us who exercise preaching or teaching or administrative authority in our congregations, & pastor them out & about, need to draw from that same God-well if we're to be a genuine article. To be reckoned with because God is to be reckoned with, & we are recognizably 'of God'. Not merely human in the 'authority' we claim & exercise. But if those genuinely in touch with God can see through us, see we're just pious frauds, not at all of God, we'll find ourselves over the same barrel Jesus has his critics over. We can't outwit godly people any more than we can outwit God.
Versions of the story differ, with the two sons responding to their father in different ways. I don't know that it matters much, except as evidence of a story being passed down by word of mouth & changing in the process. 'Chinese Whispers' we used to call it. A clear warning to literalists. In any case, the thrust of the story is clear. Jesus makes his point. Ah, but what is it?
Jesus ends with a blistering warning that to accept God's Rule means to accept things must & will change. Not easy. Much of the malaise sapping today's church stems from our wanting to give ourselves to God, go to work in the vineyard, all that kind of thing, at one level - providing we can go on living the way we were? Right beliefs, right living, right relationships, all demand change. It's not just sex workers & money manipulators who need to recognize God's authority & change. All of us! But to insist on carrying old baggage with us as part of the deal will only make sure there is no 'deal'! That 'nothing changes' is contrary to all Jesus is on about. All he stands for.