The final confrontation had begun. Jesus came to Jerusalem knowing He was about to be abused and executed. In the process, He must call attention to the moral failures of those who hated Him.
The Sanhedrin were well aware of Jesus, having commissioned quite a few delegations to investigate Him over the years of His ministry. They did the same thing with most rabbis not already under their collective thumb. All the more so in this period of time when messianic fervor was high. So they knew that Jesus was a cousin of John the Baptist, the alleged prophet who had been recently executed. Both of these men were viewed as partisans of a sort, aligned with a broad collection of anti-establishment preachers and activists. Part of the Sanhedrin’s mission was keeping these agitators under control to avoid provoking any conflict with the Roman government. The Jewish people were notorious for how easily they could be stoked into rebellion.
So here is Jesus saying things that made it sound very much like He is claiming to be the Messiah. To the Sanhedrin that meant not only a threat to their tenuous permit from the Roman officials who there in the city, but a serious threat to Sanhedrin wealth and power. Here He was, so close to the highest of holy days, wandering in and out of the city with His teaching and miracles that questioned their authority in very popular ways. This included an obvious prophetic act of clearing the Bazaars of the Sons of Annas out of the Court of Gentiles.
The next day, He returned and they demanded He declare what authority He had to act in this way. Not least was the matter of destroying the property of the sellers and currency changers, causing them significant financial loss, and inconveniencing the Diaspora Jews visiting from out of town, who couldn’t get their proper offerings for the rituals. In the process, Jesus made public fools of them yet again.
His answer to their query was unexpected. They knew He was clever, so they were anticipating something difficult, and He didn’t disappoint them. He responded to their question with a question of His own: What was the source of authority behind His cousin, John the Baptist? They huddled for a moment and realized there were trapped. Naturally, they dismissed any prophet, regardless how orthodox, who dared suggest they had attended his sermons only to be seen performing righteous rituals, a form of ticket-punching. John told them to come back when they were ready to manifest genuine fruit of repentance. Were they not the very measure of righteousness and God’s favor? How dare John suggest they were serpents!
But the crowd that had gathered to see Jesus today were convinced John was the real deal, a genuine prophet of Jehovah. If these elders and Temple officers were to denounce John, it would provoke a riot in this atmosphere. So they pretended to have no opinion because they couldn’t tell whence his authority. To this Jesus responded that they likely wouldn’t understand His authority, either, so there was no point in discussing it.
Then He launched into another of His famous parables. The symbols were obvious: a powerful figure representing God. His vineyard represented the Covenant Nation; the fruit was their mission of living by the Covenant and harvesting all the blessings of shalom. He ordered each of his two sons to work in that vineyard. The first said, “No.” He at least was honest about his intentions. However, he later came under conviction and went to do the work. The second son promised to get right on it, but never showed up at the vineyard. The officials could smell it coming.
Jesus asked of them which did the will of the father? Obviously it was the first one who repented, and they answered so, probably with some wariness. Rightly so, because Jesus lowered the boom on them. He declared that the “traitorous” tax collectors and shameful prostitutes would enter the Messiah’s Kingdom before any of the officers and elders standing there. It was well known that those who repented at the preaching of John the Baptist often then went on to support the ministry of Jesus. While their wealth was regarded as tainted by evil, those outcasts kept Jesus and His disciples well funded. The penitent son represented those outcasts, while the polite lying son represented themselves. Once more, Jesus made them a laughingstock, painting them as fakes.