Who Exactly is in Charge Around Here? (Part I), or: Jesus: 3, Government: 0. (Luke 20:1-26)

What did Jesus come to do?

What is the Gospel? What is the good news for all people?

Jesus said it, very simply, in his first recorded sermon: “I have come to proclaim freedom for the prisoners…and to set the oppressed free.”

Jesus came to bring revolution. That is the Gospel. That is the good news for all people: freedom from slavery!

But: who is the slave-master?

For the Jews of Jesus’ time, it was the Roman empire. A lot of people thought, “Oh, good, the Messiah is here to destroy the Romans!”

But very early on we discovered that this was not true. Right after John the Baptist anointed Jesus king by pouring water on his head, Jesus was driven deep into the desert where the devil met him.

The devil is this incredibly ancient, incredibly powerful spirit-being who had stolen control of the earth from from its rightful rulers, Adam and Eve, right back at the beginning of human history. He did it in such a clever way that he actually persuaded Adam to voluntarily hand over control!

So for uncounted thousands upon thousands of years the devil ruled this planet, holding mankind in slavery to violence and death.

The devil is the slave-master Jesus came to destroy.

And the devil, knowing this, met Jesus in the desert and tried to negotiate. Three times he tried to persuade Jesus to compromise and join him.

Jesus refused. The war began. And then we discovered why the devil tried so hard to negotiate: Jesus beat him easily! The war only lasted from Chapter 4 to Chapter 10 — and then the devil’s army of demons broke, disappeared! For the last ten chapters, Luke has recorded only one exorcism and only two or three healing miracles. The war against the devil has been over for a long time!

So why hasn’t the whole countryside risen up and proclaimed Jesus king?

Well, even though the devil’s demon army is defeated, his human agents are untouched. And to make matters worse, the devil’s human agents are, in fact, the rulers of Jerusalem. And to make matters even worse than that, the devil’s human agents are, in fact, the religious rulers of Jerusalem! They are the priests at God’s temple! They tell the people, “God wants you to do this or that!” and the people do it! The people think they are obeying God! — but they are actually still slaves to the devil.

Jesus’ war against the demons was easy, because when someone is sick or demon-possessed it is obvious they need to be rescued! Nobody says, “No, no, no, no, please don’t heal my friend. He likes being paralyzed!”

But Jesus’ war against the religious rulers is very, very difficult, because it is less obvious to the people that they need to be rescued from their own religion.

So for hundreds of years, the temple priests have ruled Jerusalem, holding the Jewish people in slavery to a distorted version of God’s law.

The corrupted temple system is the slave-master Jesus has finally come to Jerusalem to destroy.

And the temple leadership, knowing this, are going to meet Jesus today in the temple and try to negotiate. Three times in this chapter the religious rulers of Jerusalem are going to try to discredit Jesus in the eyes of the people. They want Jesus to admit, in public, for all the people to hear, that the rulers of Jerusalem speak for God.

Jesus, in return, has to discredit the religious leaders in the eyes of the people. He wants to demonstrate clearly, for all the people, that he is the rightful king: he is the one who speaks for God. He has the authority to set the people free.

That is what this chapter is about.

Today we’ll look at the first two challenges to Jesus’ authority. Next week we will look at the third.

So, beginning with verse 1: One day as Jesus was teaching the people in the temple courts and proclaiming the good news — the good news of freedom from slavery — the chief priests and the teacher of the law, together with the elders, came up to him.

Now, that list of titles doesn’t really mean much to us anymore. So allow me to modernize this verse so we can be properly intimidated:

One day as Jesus was teaching the people in the temple courts and proclaiming the good news, the Prime Minister’s cabinet, the High Court Judges, together with the Members of Parliament, came up to him.

Intimidated yet?

So there’s Jesus, in the temple courtyard, talking about freedom, and suddenly here come the motorcycles and limousines and the trucks full soldiers and bodyguards. And they’re like, “This is the temple! Only we priests have authority to teach here! We haven’t given this man permission. So arrest him for preaching without a license!”

But of course they can’t do that. That would just prove they really are tyrants who work for the devil. First they have to discredit Jesus, and prove that he works for the devil. Then they can arrest him, and the people will support.

So instead they apply a little kung fu:

“Ahem. Sorry to interrupt. Tell us by what authority you are doing these things? Who gave you this authority?”

Jesus says, “Let me ask you a question first: tell me: [4] John’s baptism—was it from God, or was he just popular with the mob?”

This is a really clever question!

John was a prophet. Prophets speak for God, and they anoint kings. John was also the son of priest. Priests speak for God — and they anoint kings.

When John baptised Jesus, he was acting as a priest and a prophet, anointing God’s chosen king.

In other words: Jesus’ authority comes from God, through God’s true priest/prophet. Jesus does have authority to teach in the temple, to proclaim freedom for his people.

So [5] They discussed it among themselves and said, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will ask, ‘Then why won’t you accept me as your king?’ [6] But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ all the people will stone us, because they are persuaded that John was a prophet.”

By the way, being stoned to death was the Old Testament penalty for rejecting one of God’s prophets.

So the goverment is stuck. If they admit John’s authority came from God, the mob will crown Jesus king right away! If they say John’s authority came from his popularity, the mob will kill them!

So they say nothing, verse 7: “Mr. Prime Minister, what would the government like to say in the matter of John’s baptism?” “Well, the government would like to say, ‘Ahem, ahem, ahem…We don’t know where it was from.’”

So Jesus says, “Fine! If you can’t answer my question I guess I don’t have to answer yours.”

But there is more to it. These are the religious leaders of the Jewish people. Their authority comes directly from God! — so why don’t they  know whether John the Baptist was a real prophet or not? Did God just forget to send them that memo? Perhaps they’re not in God’s whatsapp group?

The government came to question Jesus’ credibility in the eyes of the people.

They ended by questioning their own credibility in the eyes of the people.

Jesus: 1. Religious leaders: 0.

Now it’s Jesus turn to serve. With everyone there listening, he goes on to tell the people this parable:

A man planted a vineyard, rented it to some farmers and went away for a long time. [10] At harvest time he sent a servant to collect the fruit, but the tenants beat him and sent him away empty-handed. [11] He sent another servant…but this one got worse treatment. [12] He sent still a third, and this one almost got killed.

Basically, these vineyard managers are trying to void the contract. In those days lease-agreements like this one included an escape clause: if the owner failed or forgot to collect the rent after a certain number of years, the managers could keep it all.

What Jesus is describing here is a labor dispute!

[13] “Then the owner of the vineyard said, ‘What am I gonna do? I will send my son, whom I love; perhaps they will respect him.’

“My son, whom I love”…where have we heard that phrase before? Oh, yes: when John baptized Jesus, anointing him king, there was a voice that spoke from heaven: “You are my son, whom I love.”

Gee, I wonder what this parable is actually about?

I wonder if the “vineyard owner” is God the Father. And I wonder if he has been sending his “servants” — the prophets — to the “vineyard” — the Jewish people — to ask the “managers” — the religious rulers of Jerusalem — for “the fruit” — of repentance, but the “managers” have been simply beating up “the owner’s servants” and sending them home?

And now, perhaps, God the Father, instead of getting angry and destroying the managers, has sent the Son “whom I love” to try and persuade the Jewish leaders to offer up the fruit of repentance…?

Maybe? Maybe not?

Well, let’s finish the story and find out:

[14] “But when the renters saw the son coming, they talked the matter over. ‘This is the heir,’ they said. ‘If he is coming on his own, that probably means the Old Man is dead. So let’s kill the boy, and then we will own the vineyard!’ [15] And that’s just what they did: they threw him out of the vineyard and killed him.”

Then Jesus asks the crowd: “Finish the story for me. What happens next? Do the managers get away with it? Of course not! The owner of the vineyard is going to show up, kill those guys, and give the vineyard to someone else!”

When the people heard this, they said, “No no no no no no no no, cannot!”

Which is a strangely strong response to a simple story, isn’t it?

But that’s because they know this is not just a story. This is a prophecy — a prophecy from the Old Testament. In the book of Isaiah Chapter 5, the prophet tells a story about a vineyard God planted and loved and cared for — but it produced only bad fruit. So God destroyed that vineyard.

Isaiah says clearly that the vineyard is the Jewish people, and the walls around the vineyard are the walls of Jerusalem.

Sure enough, Jerusalem was destroyed by the Babylonian people of Iraq.

Now, six hundred years later, Jesus has just repeated Isaiah’s prophecy: Jerusalem is still a fruitless vineyard. But even worse, the rulers of Jerusalem are going kill God’s Messiah! Therefore Jerusalem will be destroyed by another foreign army.

Jesus has just pronounced a double curse on the city: first, the rulers are going to reject the Messiah; second, the city going to suffer because of it.

That is why the people respond with such horror. They are saying, “No! No way! If the Messiah came our rulers would accept him! Which means this judgement on Jerusalem will never happen!”

[17] Jesus looked directly at them and said, “Oh yeah? Then explain Psalm 118 to me. It says: ’The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone’. What does that mean?”

Well, if we turn back to Psalm 118, we see what it means. According to Psalm 118, as Jesus approached Jerusalem last week the priests should have welcomed him.

Did the priests do that? They did not.

And if we look back at Psalm 118, we see that God predicted their rejection in verse 22: “The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone” — that means the foundation stone of the whole building.

Psalm 118 predicts that the rulers of Jerusalem will reject the Messiah — but the Messiah will become king anyway.

So the people are saying to Jesus, “No, no way, there’s no way our rulers would reject our own Messiah!”

And Jesus is saying, “It has already happened! Your rulers are busy rejecting me right now. But I am going to be crowned king even after your rulers throw me out of Jerusalem and kill me!”

Then Jesus says, [18] “Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces; anyone on whom it falls will be crushed.”

Just a few minutes ago the rulers of Jerusalem were worried that the people would stone them for rejecting John, God’s prophet.

Here Jesus is saying they will be stoned for rejecting God’s ultimate prophet: the Messiah. And it will be the Messiah himself who will bring that judgement upon them.

[19] The teachers of the law and the chief priests — the High Court Judges and the Prime Minister’s cabinet — looked for a way to arrest him immediately, because they knew he had spoken this parable against them. But they were afraid of the people.

Jesus: 2. Religious leaders: 0.

Now it’s the government’s chance to serve again.

[20] Keeping a close watch on him, they sent spies, who pretended to be sincere.

That means they were pretending to be conservative Jews who hated the Romans and were looking for a Messiah to lead them.

They hoped to catch Jesus in something he said, so that they might hand him over to the power and authority of the governor.

They want to get him arrested by the Roman governor.

[21] So the spies questioned him: “Teacher, we know that you speak and teach what is right, and you’re not afraid of these corrupt priests and political fat cats. So we trust you to solve a theological problem we’re having: [22] Is it right for us to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”

Now this is some really clever kung fu!

See, paying the tax to Caesar — the Roman emperor — was not just about money; it was about slavery. Every person in the Roman empire had to pay one silver coin to the emperor every year. The coin was only worth one day’s wage, so it was not a high tax — but it was a humiliating one. It was the emperor’s way of saying, “everyone belongs to me.”

But the Jewish people are supposed to belong to God!

So this is the puzzle: should they pay the tax, and tell the emperor, “Yes, we belong to you”? That would be blasphemy! — speaking against God’s Word.

Or should they refuse, and tell the emperor, “No! We belong to God!” But that would be sedition.

If Jesus says, “Yes, pay the tax,” the people will say, “Oh, so now you want to sell out to Rome?” They’ll reject him.

If Jesus says, “No, don’t pay the tax,” the Roman governor will say, “Sedition! Crucify that man!”

That is a tough puzzle to solve.

But there is another, deeper layer to this trap. Guess who collected the Roman tax and passed it to the emperor? That’s right: the religious rulers of Jerusalem. Which means they have already “officially” answered this theological question. They have already interpreted God’s law and decided it is okay for God’s people to pay the slave-tax to Caesar.

If Jesus says, “Yes, pay the tax,” he is agreeing with the rulers of Jerusalem; he is admitting they speak for God.

If Jesus says, “No, don’t pay the tax,” he is saying, “I am the king! I speak for God!” — but he will pay for that declaration with his life.

In the first episode, Jesus asked the religious leaders a question that they couldn’t answer without either a). admitting Jesus is in charge, or b). getting themselves killed.

Now the religious leaders have asked Jesus a question that he can’t answer without either a). admitting that the priests are in charge or, b). getting himself killed.

But Jesus recognizes the trap. He says, [24] “Show me a denarius

— that’s the silver coin they would have to use to pay the tax —

Whose image and inscription are on it?”

“Caesar’s,” they replied.

And you can still see these coins in museums: on one side there is a picture of Tiberius Caesar, along with the words, “Tiberius Caesar, son of the god Augustus Caesar”! On the other side is a picture of Caesar’s mom dressed as the goddess of peace, along with the words, “chief priest”.

So we have to realize that for conservative Jews, this coin has blasphemous pictures and writing on both sides. It is thoroughly corrupt! For a conservative Jew this would be like walking around with a silver idol in your pocket!

And these guys were walking around with this silver idol in their pocket! Jesus said, “Hey, do you guys have one of these coins?” and one of them said, “yeah, I got one!”


Jesus basically tricked them into blowing their own cover. Conservative Jews would not carry this coin around. Spies from the government might though!

So Jesus says, “Whose picture is this? Whose name?”

They say, “Caesar’s.”

And [25] he said to them, “Then give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”

[26] They were unable to trap him in what he had said there in public. And astonished by his answer, they became silent.

And we also are astonished by his answer, and become silent, because…we don’t know what just happened.

How did Jesus escape the trap? How is this an astonishing answer?

Well, this is where we have to remember the larger context of this chapter. None of these episodes stand alone. This episode about the tax is linked to the first episode about John’s baptism: both episodes are about who has the authority to rule God’s people.

And in the middle, between these two episodes about authority, is Jesus’ parable about the vineyard.

The vineyard represents the Jewish people. Who does the vineyard belong to? God. The managers of the vineyard — the religious rulers of the people — are supposed to make sure the vineyard produces fruit for God. When God sends his Son to collect the harvest, the religious rulers are supposed to hand it over to him.

In other words: “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar; give to God what belongs to God — namely, the fruit of his vineyard.”

Boom goes the dynamite.

This is what Jesus just said, in public, for all the people to hear: “I think it’s okay for the rulers of Jerusalem to keep on paying the tax to Caesar, since those coins belong to Caesar anyway; but I also think the rulers of Jerusalem should give God’s people back to God’s Messiah, since the people belong to him anyway!”

That is an astonishing answer. Jesus’ kung fu is the best. Without saying “yes” or “no” to the question, Jesus basically told the government of Jerusalem, “Hey, you guys love money and power so much that you’re willing to sell out to the Romans? Fine! Go! Do it! Whatever. I don’t care!

But give me back my people! They are made in my image. They have my name written on them. They belong to me.

So do not get between me and my people! Do not get between me and my inheritance — or I will end you!

“I am the son; give me the fruit of my Father’s vineyard!”

“I am the rightful king; give me my Father’s kingdom!”

Just like Moses said to Pharaoh in Egypt, Jesus is saying to the devil’s servants in Jerusalem, “Let my people go.”

No wonder the government is silenced. Jesus is refusing to back down. They want him to negotiate. They want him to admit that they speak for God. But he will not.

Jesus: 3. Religious leaders: 0.

Well, here we are, just hours away from 2018.

And as we do every week, we have to ask the question: so what? What does this ancient writing have to with our lives?

One way we can answer that question is by looking carefully at that situation, and then looking at our own, and seeing if there are any similarities.

The Situation:

When Jesus arrived in Jerusalem two thousand years ago, he found the common people living in slavery — a slavery administered by their own corrupted religious leaders. And most of them did not know it. They were unhappy, that’s why they liked Jesus’ talk about change. However, they thought the problem with their system was the people running it. They did not realize that their problem was the system itself.

Is that still the situation today? Do we find that most ordinary people live in slavery to systems the devil has devised, administered by their own corrupted religious leaders?

The answer is: yes!

We also find that most ordinary people think the problem with the world is the people running it. Most ordinary people seem to believe that if they — or their friends, or people who think like them — came to power, then everything would be great!

That, my friends, is complete foolishness.

In fact, if we define “religious thinking” as “a belief without any evidence”, then that belief is a kind of religious thinking that even atheists are guilty of! There is absolutely no evidence anywhere in history that we can improve the world by changing the people in power! And yet most people continue to believe it, and act on it.

The people of our world do live in slavery to their own corrupted religious leaders. It does not matter if those leaders are Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Atheist, Humanist, or even — supposedly — Christian, the results over the centuries have been startlingly similar. Power corrupts. History shows us that even when good, moral people come to power they soon learn to love power itself.

So our situation today is really the same as the situation in Jerusalem two thousand years ago: the system itself is corrupt. The devil has tricked all humankind into into the religious belief that we could save ourselves if only we were in charge.

The Solution:

Okay. If our situation is the same as in Jerusalem, what was Jesus’ solution to the Jerusalem situation? — and can that solution apply to us?

Jesus’ solution to the Jerusalem situation was to change the system. He had two things to say: one to the rulers, the other to the people.

To the rulers he said this: “Give me my people. Hand your power over to me. If you refuse, there will be a judgement on you and your city. You will have to pay back every penny you have stolen; you will have to suffer every agony you have forced on others.”

To the people he said this: “Be my people! Accept me as your king! I have defeated the devil, I have opened all the prison gates. Those religious leaders do not have the authority to hold you anymore: you can leave anytime you want. If you can walk, follow the sound of my voice! If you can’t walk, if evil men have crippled or blinded you — if you have crippled or blinded yourself! — then call out, and I will come and get you. Call out, and I will save you from the judgement that is coming upon Jerusalem.”

Does that solution apply to our situation today?

Yes. Most definitely yes.

We see the power of our governments; we’ve watched the rise of global super-companies like Google and Amazon; we read stories about corporate greed, abusive working conditions, terrorism, genocide — and we wonder what can be done. And we are all tempted to think, “I bet if my kind of people were in charge…!”

But Jesus says to every tyrant, and every potential tyrant — and that’s all of us, by the way — he says: “No. I am in charge.” He is still saying to the governments of the world, “Stop lying to my people.” He is still saying to the companies of the world, “Pay my people a living wage.” He is still saying to every husband in the world, “Trust me with your wife.” He is still saying to every mother, “Give me my children.”

As Christians we do add our voices to his. We do speak up against abuses, against injustice. But we do not do so in order to take power for ourselves — that would turn us into tyrants! We speak up only to tell the powerful that the people belong to Jesus. And that everyone who gets between Jesus and his people will one day pay the penalty. They will have to pay back every penny they have stolen; they will have to suffer every abuse they have perpetrated on others.

Jesus is also still speaking to the people. He is still saying, “Be my people! Accept me as your king. The devil does not have the authority to hold you anymore: you can leave anytime you want. Have you been a victim? I will pay back every penny that was stolen from you; I will heal you from every agony you have suffered. Have you been a tyrant? I will pay back every penny you owe; I will suffer every agony you have forced on others. I will save you from slavery and from judgement.”

Two thousand years ago it all happened just as Jesus said: the religious rulers of Jerusalem refused to listen. Jesus promised that the owner of the vineyard would come, kill them, and hand the vineyard over to someone else’s control — sure enough, on September 7th of the year 70, the Roman army took complete control of Jerusalem. They pulled down every wall, cut down every tree, and set fire to the entire city. They slaughtered everyone they caught: men, women, children.

It was the most terrible day in the history of the Jewish people.

But interestingly enough the Christians of Jerusalem — Jews who had become Jesus’ people — saw the Roman army coming and remembered Jesus’ warnings. They left the city, and they were saved from God’s judgement, just as Jesus promised.

This also applies to our situation today. Judgement is coming. Every tyrant in the world — from the greatest to the least — will be forced to pay back every penny, every abuse. It will be the most terrible day in the history of the world.

But those who are Jesus’ people will escape.

So, practically speaking then: what are we supposed to do in response to this?

If you are here today and you have power of some kind in this world…then obey Jesus’ command: “Give me my people.” If you are a politician, a business-person, a manager, a husband, a mother, an older sibling, then keep in mind that those you have authority over do not actually belong to you. You will have to explain your managment to God one day — so act accordingly. And pray for God’s mercy on your past mistakes.

If you are here today and you feel powerless, abused, enslaved, if you are hearing Jesus’ voice for the first time…then answer him. Just say, “Jesus, make me one of your people!” and he will. He will pay what you owe; he will restore what has been stolen; he will save you from judgement.

If you are here today and you are already part of Jesus’ family, then be encouraged — even when the situation is discouraging. We are called to speak with Jesus’ voice. But not everyone will hear it. It is not obvious to most people that they need to be rescued; only those who recognize that they need help will hear Jesus’ voice. So relax already! We speak, and then we live as free people.

It’s as simple as that.

Happy New Year, brothers and sisters.

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