Sermon on Matthew 21:23-32 for Pentecost +16 A, Sept. 28, 2014
When he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” Jesus said to them, “I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” And they argued with one another, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ But if we say, ‘Of human origin’, we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.” So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.
“What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax-collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. 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 after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.”
Saying, Doing and the Difference it Makes
Like the man in the parable Jesus told, I have two grown sons. I am an “empty nester” now, but I have to admit that compared to many others, I had it really easy. They are both good lads; we never had knock-down, drag-out fights. I tried to make my demands on them reasonable, and for their part, they were helpful and compliant.
But there was one trick that they used that frustrated me on, let’s say, more than one occasion. That was the “yes, but not immediately” response. “Please cut the grass,” I would say, and then hear “Okay, but can I do it tomorrow, because I have some really pressing urgent thing I need to do now?”
They could be very convincing. So, often (this is confessional) I would acquiesce and agree to the delay. Of course, the next day, they would “not remember” my request, and we would start over.
Saying “yes,” but doing “no” got to be an issue.
This was not nearly so big a deal to me, in our Western culture, as it would be in Middle-Eastern cultures. We look at “right and wrong” a bit differently. We, in the West, think in terms of guilt and innocence: if the job eventually gets done, it’s done; that’s fine.
But in the Middle East, today, and in the days of the bible, honor and shame were even more important moral categories than guilt and innocence. (see comments in Feasting on the Gospels, Matthew, Vol. 2, by Cynthia Jarvis)
So a son who publicly said “no” to his father’s request would have shamed his father’s honor. The son who said “yes” honored his father, as he was supposed to do.
God’s honor is a big topic in the Hebrew Bible. The prophet Malachi based his whole critique of Israel’s sin on the basis that they were dishonoring God.
“A son honors his father, and servants their master. If then I am a father, where is the honor due me? And if I am a master, where is the respect due me? says the LORD of hosts” Mal. 1:6
In those days, Malachi accused the temple priests of offering second-rate sacrificial animals; worship on the cheap. Dishonoring to God, the Father, the Master of us all.
Jesus was deeply aware of the need to honor God as God. In the Lord’s Prayer he taught us to say, “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be thy name” – may your name be holy – may you be honored.
How are we supposed to honor God? The prayer answers the question. We are to pray, “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” We ask God to help us resist the impulse to do succumb to temptation to do evil, but to follow his lead instead, and do good. Jesus links together honor and faithful obedience. Obedience honors God.
So, people who live in such a way as to appear as though they are saying a big “no” to God by disobeying every day, clearly do not honor God. Roman-collaborating tax collectors and obviously people like prostitutes are God-dishonoring kinds of people, right?
On the other hand, the people Jesus is talking to in this scene, the “chief priests” who conduct the sacred services at the temple and the “elders of the people,” with their perfect teeth and Italian suits, say their honorific “yes” to God early, often, and right out there in public. This is obvious to nearly everyone. Except to Jesus.
Where we are in the story
Let us take just a moment to recall where we are in Matthew’s story of Jesus. This is near the end. After spending most of his ministry in Galilee, Jesus has made the journey to the capital, the center of power. He mocked Pilate’s army parade with his donkey ride into Jerusalem, and he has just cleared the money-changers out of the temple, temporarily shutting the whole thing down.
People are angry with him – people with something to loose, that is – like “the chief priests and elders of the people.” They demand to know by what authority this non-priest from a no-name family out in the sticks thinks he is doing these things?
Jesus evades their question with a clever one of his own – but notice this: he brings up John the baptist. He says he will answer their authority-question only after they answer his authority-question: by whose authority did John call people for baptismal repentance: God’s, or his own?
This is doubly significant. On the surface level, it is significant because the “unwashed masses” of people believed John was a prophet, authorized by God. But these shiny men in power did not go out to get baptized. They sat that one out. To publicly admit what they cynically believed in private would turn the people away from them, destroying their power-base. So they are stumped into silence.
John the baptist’s demanding message
Below the surface, there is something going on at another significant level. What did John call the people to do? Why get baptized for repentance? Repentance from what? What was it that made the powerful gentry stay away?
Luke is the only one of the four gospel writers who has preserved John’s message for us, beyond the general call to repent because the kingdom was coming. Listen to John’s central message:
“the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” In reply he (John) said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.” (Luke 3)
Soldiers who had the power to extort whatever they wanted had to stop their extortion. Tax farmers who enriched themselves by economic strangulation had to change their ways. And anyone who had something to share had to share with others in need, from coats to food, if you had it, you had to share it.
This was the message that the powerful and the wealthy of Jerusalem did not go out to hear. This was the last thing they wanted to hear. They had something to loose.
But other people behaved differently. Tax collectors and prostitutes did go out to hear John’s message and responded with a repentant “yes.” Tax collectors like Matthew himself were ready to join Jesus, and when they did, they not only stopped gouging, they showed their “yes” of obedience by making amends.
Jesus and The Common Good
Jesus consciously took up John’s message. Jesus called his followers to lives of honoring God by means of obedience, shown by their commitment to working for the common good.
We are just moments away, in the story, from Jesus’ parable of the separation of the sheep and the goats. The sheep are recognized, the king at the end of the age will say, because they lived for the common good. The king in the story says to them,
“for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’” (Matt. 25)
What is that parable, if not a serious call to living for the common good? This is how to honor God; by lives lived attentive to suffering, with eyes open to need, with acts of compassion and justice.
Jesus reserved his harshest criticism for the apparently honorable people of his day who had positions of power and respect. He told them directly:
“John came to you in the way of righteousness [or, justice] and you did not believe him, but the tax-collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.”
We are getting close to the midterm elections. Politicians today know how to dress nicely, look good and speak well. They all look like honorable people in their press photos. Most of them claim at least a moderate amount of religious interest. Some are actually embarrassingly public about their religious commitments.
But the test, for me, when I go into the voting booth, is not how honorable they look on the outside. The test I use is the Jesus-test: are they working for the common good? Do they even believe there is such a thing as the common good?
Are they working for the vineyard – which we saw last week is a symbol of the nation as a whole? Are they more like the son, in Jesus’ parable, who made a show of honoring his father with his public “yes” but who failed to follow through? Or are they like the son who had a change of heart and, in the end, got the job done?
You can make a list of the things people today are saying are issues that should concern voters. In fact that is a good idea. Then go through the list and ask yourself: did Jesus ever mention this? It is surprising to consider the issues that seem so important today that Jesus was silent about.
Then make another list of the issues Jesus cared about. Look at the way he lived his life, what he did, and what he said. Then ask, for each of the potential candidates, “Is she or he talking about this? Are the issues that were important to Jesus important to her or him?”
Then pray for guidance. We are not herd animals who blindly follow the pack. We are Christians who are committed to honoring God by following Jesus. This is our core value that effects everything: our personal relationships, our regular spiritual practices, and our public lives as citizens of this country and of the world. May God give us the grace to be faithful sons and daughters, to say yes, and to honor God by our actions.