Mark begins his Gospel with the ministry of John the Baptist. After Jesus is baptized by John he moves into his public ministry.
After entering Jerusalem, Jesus told a parable about two sons.
28 “What do you think? A man had two sons. And he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ 29 And he answered, ‘I will not,’ but afterward he changed his mind and went. 30 And he went to the other son and said the same. And he answered, ‘I go, sir,’ but did not go.31 Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you. 32 For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him. And even when you saw it, you did not afterward change your minds and believe him.”
Jesus was speaking here to the chief priests and elders of the people who had just questioned his authority (v.23). He explained this parable without any request to do so, making sure that his audience knew exactly what he was saying by it.
The lesson has to do with doing God’s will in the end, as a final outcome. Many people express good intentions. The chief priests and elders would have been perceived as just the kind of people who were known for doing God’s will. If that were the case, they should have been the first in line expressing their repentance and receiving the baptism of John.
When we understand the nature of sin, we realize that we are all in need of repentance. That sense of guilt would be even more pronounced when coming face-to-face with the likes of John the Baptist. Yet these guys are so numb that they even question the authority of Christ. Their relationship with God was little more than a nice show, having no humility or sense of need.
On the other hand, tax collectors like Matthew our author and prostitutes saw their sin. Like the first son in the parable, they did not do the will of the Father from the beginning, but later changed their mind. They repented at John’s preaching and followed Jesus with transformed lives. In a culture obsessed as ours is with not making anyone feel bad, let’s take note that as far as Jesus is concerned a little guilt can be a good thing. There is no repentance without it.
2 Now when John heard in prison about the deeds of the Christ, he sent word by his disciples 3 and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” 4 And Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5 the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. 6 And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.”
John the Baptist was languishing in prison. Conditions were harsh even for him, a man unaccustomed to comfort. Further, he was not a criminal, and he knew he didn’t belong there. Where was that Messiah that was going to set the world right? Jesus was certainly that very man, wasn’t he? There was the voice from heaven and the Spirit descending like a dove. He was a relative and John knew him well enough to believe Jesus of Nazareth was the one. But again, here he was, locked up and no happy ending anywhere in sight. Who can blame him for asking Jesus for some word of hope or instruction?
The doubts of a saint are vastly different from the doubts of the skeptic. When we find we don’t have the Jesus we wanted, we need assurance, even if we are determined to believe. It’s a question of trust. We can trust someone during difficult times, but still acknowledge that the times are difficult. Disappointment with God is a real thing. Our faith may waver, but it will not fail. Surely, as we wait, God will strengthen our heart.
The skeptic sees things differently. Difficulties just add to his denials. She builds a wall of doubt out of bricks inscribed with objections. Trials are never an acceptable outcome of obedience. Disobedience can always find its reasons.
The saint knows better. The narrow gate and the difficult way lead to life. The rugged cross is something to cherish and something to cling to, while awaiting to exchange it for a crown. Is this the Jesus we wanted? No matter, it is the real Jesus. And he would tell us the same thing he told John:
“The blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.”