Exodus17:1-7; Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16; Philippians 2:1-13; Matthew 21:23-32
TV psychologist and celebrity Dr. Phil was once asked, “If you could interview anyone in the world, past or present, who would it be?” Apparently he replied, without hesitation, “Jesus Christ. I would really like to interview Jesus Christ. I would like to have a conversation with him about the meaning of life.”[i]
Careful what you wish for! Today’s reading from the gospel of Matthew shows that conversations with Jesus are dangerous. Theologian Charles Campbell says, “You would be crazy to ask Jesus about [the meaning of life]. He would turn you upside down and inside out. He would confound all your questions and probably end up telling you to sell everything you own, give the money to the poor and come, follow me.”[ii]
Why in the world do the chief priests and the elders take Jesus on? Well, as so often is the case, we need to first look at context. This conversation occurs during Jesus’ last week on earth, the day after he rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, and then headed to the temple, where he overturned the tables of the money changers and began to heal the lame and the blind. On this, the second day of this fateful week, he has returned to the temple to teach. He has claimed his place as the son of God in this, the center of Jewish religious life. So, in fact it is hardly surprising that the chief priest and the elders would challenge him on the question of authority—you can hear their subtext: Just what makes this two-bit preacher think he can walk in here and take over?
This question of Jesus’ authority is of vital importance to Matthew. This conversation between Jesus and the temple leaders is the first of five challenges to Jesus’ authority in the 21st and 22nd chapters of Matthew. Professor Stanley Saunders notes that these challenges are “‘zero-sum’ contests, in which the winner gains honor—and power—at the loser’s expense. If Jesus were to lose any of these challenges his occupation of the temple would cease, his challenge to the authorities in Jerusalem would end, and the leaders would regain control of the temple. If they win any of these challenges, there is no need to crucify him.”[iii]
And make no mistake: this question of authority was also very important to the religious leaders of Jesus’ day. Who was in, who was out, who was in charge, and who had to just be quiet and obey—these were all vital questions linked to their power base.
This maverick has come into their house and literally upset it all. He has commandeered the temple, and is claiming that he has the right to be there. Of course they question whether he has any right to do all that. Is it right for him to use the “platform” of this holy space to challenge the very people in charge of the temple? This upstart prophet is messing with their power base!
These issues feel very familiar to us today, don’t they? We are certainly in the midst of many power struggles here in our nation. Perhaps the most intriguing of late is taking place in some of our modern day temples: professional football arenas. Players are claiming the right to come into these sacred spaces and use their own star power to raise awareness of “police brutality against African Americans and racism in general.”[iv] The President and others are outraged that they are mixing politics with sport; they see protesting in any way during the National Anthem as anti-American.
Listen to this quote from a New York Times article on the subject, published this past Friday: “It is clear from interviews with N.F.L. officials and more than a dozen teams that owners and team executives would prefer that the protests end, both for personal reasons and because it risks inflaming the president, who has been a friend and ally of many of the owners, and alienating fans and sponsors. But they are also wary of appearing heavy handed and upsetting the image of unity that the league sought to project last weekend.”[v]
The chief priests and the elders take on Jesus because he threatens their very way of life. But they also see the groundswell of support that he has generated; they realize that taking him on directly could inflame the crowd and create even more chaos than the overturned tables of the day before. So they know they must tread carefully. They decide that argument is their only alternative; they must take him on in a war of words. They try to trap Jesus with a clever and challenging question.
That’s where they go wrong. They ask Jesus, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” And that opens up exactly the conversation that Jesus would like to have.
As he so often does, Jesus first answers their question with a question. His question bring up John the Baptist, who one theologian reminds us is “a marginal character, ripped straight from the pages of Israel’s prophetic history, who met an untimely death for challenging one of Israel’s actual authorities, (Herod). Such a choice signifies to his audiences (both those in the story and those reading it now) that Jesus’ authority is likewise marginal. He does not aspire to traditional forms of authority, whether ‘religious’ or ‘political’ in nature.”[vi]
This question about John the Baptist not only answers the priests’ “gotcha” question in a way that supersedes their trap, but also makes it clear that he is not the Messiah they are expecting. He comes not with a warrior’s power, not from the right family pedigree and the right education, but instead from a very different place: his strength comes from the margins, from those who are last, who are sometimes reviled—in short, not from those who are powerful by the world’s standards.
OK – that’s fine. We know that about Jesus, don’t we? He always stands with the least and the lost. No surprise there. But the kicker comes with the parable that follows. Jesus tells a story about two brothers, one who says he will do his father’s will, but doesn’t, and one who says he won’t work, and then does. Everyone who hears it gets his point: the repentance of the second son is preferable to the hypocrisy of the first.
The only thing surprising about this parable is that, for a Jesus parable, it lacks all surprise. The story’s point is unambiguous: What we say matters far less than what we do.[vii]
And this parable doubly indicts the priests and elders: Not only is Jesus pointing to his own actions of turning over the tables and healing as much more important than any pronouncement of his own authority, but he is also making it clear that the temple leaders are all talk, no action. You see, the priests and the elders are not really interested in identifying who Jesus is or in understanding what he is saying about God and God’s desire to actively engage the world; they are concerned about maintaining their own privilege and power. Their words belie their lack of action.
Through this simple parable, Jesus plainly shows the leaders of the temple that their actions don’t match their words. Their lack of action makes them hypocrites.
And if the parable didn’t make it clear enough, Jesus draws the line more boldly in comparing their ultimate fate to that of tax collectors and prostitutes, those on the bottom rungs of Jewish society. Their gotcha games and their posturing show that they have not heard the message of hope and healing that Jesus imparts. Even the very lowest of the low get it—they have listened to God and have believed the message of hope brought by both John the Baptist and Jesus.
With all of this said, Jesus then points to the issue at heart: the priests and the elders have not had their eyes open. They are so concerned with retaining their power, and keeping the status quo, that they have become paralyzed and unable to see what is before them. They are so afraid of what might happen, that they cannot even see the possibilities before them. Jesus challenges them to dare to change their minds and believe.
Now, it would be easy to only see this is as a story about the failed establishment of Jesus’ day—about the poor scribes and Pharisees who just don’t get it. But remember, encounters with Jesus are dangerous! We can probably count on the fact that Jesus has a message here for us, too—one that we may find hard to swallow. Can we dare to open ourselves up to what Jesus is saying, and see the places in our own lives where we our words don’t match our actions?
By and large, we who sit in these pews week after week are people of enormous privilege. And we are also quite an articulate group; we can talk, and analyze, and debate with the best of them. But are we listening? And do our actions match our words? And are our eyes open to see the way things are changing around us, and are our hearts open to change?
Jesus came to the world 2,000 years ago to shake things up; to turn things upside-down; to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. If we are really listening, this story from Jesus should probably make most of us very uncomfortable. Maybe instead of just talking, we each need to find a way to act. Maybe you feel compelled to kneel (actually or symbolically) with those football players who protest against racism. Or maybe you will reach out a hand to those who society has marginalized, teaching them, or feeding them, or advocating for their rights, or even just listening and bearing witness to their struggle.
And maybe those small steps will open your eyes and your heart and bring change—not only change in the world, but also change in you. Jesus points in this story to his authority, which comes from the truest source: Love. Jesus calls us to love the world and our neighbors, following his example. He doesn’t say it will be easy; he doesn’t say we won’t be uncomfortable. But he does promise that this road leads to the kingdom of God. May we all choose to walk with Jesus.
Let us pray:
O God, you made us in your own image and redeemed us through Jesus your Son: Look with compassion on the whole human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which
infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us; unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle and confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth; that, in your good time, all nations and races may serve you in harmony around your heavenly throne; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.[viii]
[i] Campbell, Charles, Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A, Volume 4. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011) p. 117.
[iii] Saunders, Stanley, “Commentary on Matthew 21:23-32, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3394, accessed 09/29/2017.
[iv] Belson, Ken. “After Anthem Protests, N.F.L. Plots a Careful Path Forward,” The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/28/sports/football/nfl-trump-anthem.html?hp&action=click&pgtype=Homepage&clickSource=story-heading&module=second-column-region®ion=top-news&WT.nav=top-news, accessed 09/29/2017.
[vi] Blanchard, Kathryn D., Feasting on the Word, p. 118.
[vii] Donelson, Lewis R., Feasting on the Word, p. 119.
[viii] “Prayer for the Human Family,” The Book of Common Prayer, 1979, p. 815.