"I tell you the truth, the tax collectors and the prostitutes ..." (Matthew 21:31)

"I tell you the truth, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you." (Matthew 21:31)

Why would they enter the kingdom of God ahead?

Jesus is speaking to the institutional temple priests and elders who came to Jesus to question his authority for teaching in the temple courtyard. Remember, they had said to Jesus:
"By what authority are you doing these things? And who gave you this authority?" (Matt. 21:23)
So Jesus had told them the parable of the two sons (Matt. 21:28-31), to which they agreed that the first son - who told his father he wouldn't do the work at first but then changed his mind and did it - pleased his father more than the second son - who told his father he would do the work and then didn't.

Jesus was comparing the institutional temple priests and elders to the second son. This was because they were presenting to everyone (including God) that they were God's representatives. They were saying they were doing God's work. But they were actually seeking to maintain their authority and superiority in their positions as politically appointed salaried officials of the temple. 

Thus, despite their presentation as God's representatives, they were not doing God's work. Their interests were self-serving. Thus they were misrepresenting themselves.

This is Jesus' point here.

Why is this worse than being a prostitute or tax collector?

But why is this worse than the prostitutes and tax collectors? Why will these folks return to God in the spiritual realm before these institutional temple officials, according to Jesus? Weren't the prostitutes and tax collectors also serving their own interests, and in far worse ways?

Actually, no. The reason is that Jesus says they will reach God first is because they weren't misrepresenting themselves. They weren't pretending to be God's representatives when they weren't.

The prostitutes and tax collectors were not presenting to the world that they were so dedicated to God when they weren't dedicated to the Supreme Being. The prostitutes and tax collectors were not wearing the big robes. The prostitutes and tax collectors didn't use the position of religious teacher for their own purposes.

The prostitutes and tax collectors weren't taking salaries and nice living arrangements in exchange for supposedly teaching people about God.

Rather, the prostitutes and tax collectors presented to society exactly who they were. They were at least being honest about their roles. For this reason, they stood a better chance of honestly turning to God.

What would we call someone who represents themselves as being affiliated with something they are not affiliated with? Or misrepresenting a product they are selling? Or someone who asks for donations for a particular purpose and then takes those donations and uses them for their own purposes? Or someone who represents themselves as helping others when they are abusing followers?

We would likely call such a person a fraud, or worse.

Is there a history of fraud among religious institutions?

Fraud in the name of religious practice has unfortunately been a continuing circumstance in human history. Long after this conversation between Jesus and these sectarian teachers, we continue to see fraud among some people and institutions.

Over the centuries we have uncovered obvious fraud by priests, popes, cardinals, bishops, reverends and ministers of the various sects of sectarian institutions. They have achieved positions of authority through politically derived councils of men while collecting salaries and other perks in exchange for teaching and performing rituals.

Meanwhile, their activities have indicated that their real interests were in achieving and maintaining power and authority over others. And sometimes outright abuse of followers.

They sought to maintain positions of false authority and superiority by retaining professional salaried positions. If they were serving God why did they collect salaries? Was serving God not enough?

Fraud in the name of religious activity is not confined to the institutions that have claimed to represent Jesus. We've also seen fraud among some holding positions of rabbis, gurus, imams, and others around the world. We have seen those who maintain that they represent God when they actually seek to exercise their superiority over others and use their followers for their own gain.

We have also seen some people that have represented themselves as God incarnated onto the earth. Truly, some institutions have been set up to elect one "god" after another to the position of "god incarnate."

All of these belong in the same category of the institutional temple priests that Jesus was speaking to. Why? Because they are fraudulently representing themselves.

Did Jesus' life illustrate this?

Jesus did not accept an official title from the temple and accept money or a salary for teaching in the temples. Jesus was not elected to his post as teacher. He received no materialistic reward for his teaching or healing activities.

Rather, Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist and was empowered by the Supreme Being. He didn't need to misrepresent himself, because God empowered him.

Those who know God and serve God - like Jesus - do not assume ecclesiastical titles given by councils of humans. Their titles do not rely upon the approval of others. And they do not accept salaries for teaching about God. Those who actually represent God seek to please Him with their lives, and do not misrepresent themselves. Jesus illustrated this with his life.

And Jesus' close followers like Peter and James also illustrated this with their lives.

God's representative is focused on pleasing God. This is why Jesus stated:
"By myself I can do nothing; I judge only as I hear, and my judgment is just, for I seek not to please myself but Him who sent me." (John 5:30)
Pleasing God has nothing to do with pleasing people. We can see this by Jesus' example. Even though he was accepted as a rabbi by his followers, he was condemned by the ecclesiastical teachers of the temple institution. Why? Because he did not teach and do what they wanted.

Rather, he taught and did what the Supreme Being wanted him to. He was God's representative and loving servant, not theirs. This is why he said:
"For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of Him who sent me." (John 6:38)