You might remember back on September 27th we started talking about the Monday of Holy Week in Matthew chapter 21. Guess what? We’re still on the same day. You might not have realized before this just how busy the day after Palm Sunday was for Jesus. All of these encounters he’s having with Pharisees, Scribes, Sadducees, and Herodians is on this same day. The events of the day start with Matthew chapter 21, verse 18, and go all the way to at least the beginning of chapter 24 when Jesus leaves the temple in verse 1. After that there is a lot more teaching and frankly I just haven’t tried to trace the timeline anymore right now. The point is, these questions and answers, challenges and schemes are all on one very busy day for Jesus and today we get to arguably one of the most important and well known teachings of Jesus.
For those that enjoy Rite I, today’s Gospel reading is familiar. At the beginning of the service this passage is almost always recited with the introduction, “Hear what our Lord Jesus Christ saith:” These two statements of Jesus would also have been very familiar to the crowd listening to him. This interaction is a little different than many of the others that come before it on this day. The question the Pharisees ask seems to be a bit more inquisitive, a bit more about hearing what Jesus really has to say. They are still testing him, but the teeth have gone out of their motive just a little bit. I think they are actually curious as to what Jesus will say.
So when asked what the greatest commandment is, Jesus answers them by quoting Deuteronomy 6:5, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” This verse and several others from Deuteronomy make up what is known as the Shema, an essential prayer in Judaism. This particular verse would be recited in the Shema at morning and evening prayer, and would be taught to everyone in their religious upbringing. You can think of it similarly to how well we know the Lord’s prayer or the twenty third Psalm.
But then Jesus does something I don’t think the Pharisees are expecting. He adds to this verse from Deuteronomy by quoting from the Levitical laws. There are six hundred thirteen commands that come out of the Law of Moses, and here Jesus takes this bit to throw into the mix. What he says comes directly from Leviticus 19:18: “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.”
Jesus said to him, ‘ “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’ I often say this is the simplest and hardest of all God’s commands. It distills everything down to the most basic and understandable of directions, and yet these are some of the hardest expectations to live up to for us sinful humans.
The first part, that comes from Deuteronomy, grounds us in a live oriented toward God. By using this verse, Jesus is pointing out to these Pharisees that one’s entire life, everything we do should first be centered around our love of God. Secondly then, Jesus adds that we should love our neighbor as our self. One cannot attempt to love God, cannot orient their life toward God if they do not also seek to love God’s creation. Part of that includes our neighbor, our enemy, our family, our rivals. It also includes ourselves, which I think again makes this harder than we would expect.
It is often not very focused on, we sort of assume when we tell someone they should love their neighbor as themselves, that they love themselves as purely and caringly as God does. But how often is that really the case? Or is it more the case that when we hear these words we think that the care we show for our neighbor will probably need to exceed that which we have for ourselves? This is not just about loving your neighbor, it is also about seeing in yourself a beloved child of God that is forgiven and redeemed of anything that you could possibly do or say.
Like I said, the easiest and hardest of all the commands that God gives us. I recently saw a quote, and I have no idea who the original author is, that said, “When you learn how to sit at the table with your Judas, you’ll understand the love of Jesus Christ.” This distills a lot of complicated emotions and work into one little sentence. It definitely rings true, to consider that Christ, the incarnate God, knowing what Judas was going to do sat at table with him, broke bread with him. It is important for us to do everything we can to seek reconciliation in our hearts with our Judas’ so long as it does not harm ourselves in the process.
Loving your neighbor as yourself, or the phrase I just gave you about Judas, while very hard work of followers of Christ can also be turned against victims of abuse. It can be used to justify keeping people trapped in harmful situations or forcing them to pretend everything is ok. It is used to silence opposition to evil. That is never what any of this is truly meant for. Jesus never once said you have to love the evil within someone’s heart. The overturning of tables, the winning of these back and forth arguments are still done with love. It is pointing the Christian at the work that we always have to do to better follow Christ. When he calls us to love our neighbor, remember that he is also calling us to love ourselves. There can be no love of neighbor if you don’t start, first, with yourself.
Bishop J.C. Ryle writes, ““It costs something to be a true Christian. It will cost us our sins, our self-righteousness, our ease and our worldliness.” I believe that to be true, especially of Jesus’ command. We will certainly have to give up our ease, give up our self-righteousness to seek out a life that loves God and loves God’s creation. Our actions must reflect our love of other in thought, word, and deed. If we cannot do that, then we have a long way to go to be able to really truly love God.
Quite often the core values and doctrine of our faith are pushed aside or diluted because of the harmful ways in which they have been used. It is a difficult line we walk these days. We must acknowledge that God’s commands are still God’s commands. We are still called to act in the ways that Christ seeks to teach us. But we also must be aware of the ways in which sin twists the words and actions of those who sometimes think they are doing God’s work and that others know very well they are not but instead are using it for their own gain.
The simplest and most difficult work that God will ever call you to is ground your life in love and service to God, to love all of creation, to love your neighbor, and to love yourself.
Proper 24, Year A, 2017
Holy Innocent’s Episcopal Church, SF
I’m going to start off this morning my being brutally honest with you. The gospel passage today really frustrates me. It frustrates me not because of its own content but more its ability to be used and misused in so many ways. Obviously of course this applies to much of the bible, but I definitely have heard this passage used many times to promote values that otherwise seem completely contrary to the Kingdom of God. It also seems to fall, whether on purpose or not, in the lectionary when we are in the midst of annual stewardship. It does follow in our reading of the Gospel of Matthew and Jesus’ last days in Jerusalem, but I can’t help but think that someone felt it very clever that this passage is always near the end of October.
Part of the reason this story is so misused and misapplied has to do with where you place the emphasis on Jesus’ words. Let me demonstrate. In Jesus’ response to the impossible question, he answers ‘Give to Caesar that which is Caesar’s and give to God that which is God’s.’ The emphasis in that tone is on rendering unto the Government authority those things of this world and to God, I think, the implied assumption is those things of a spiritual nature. Often this also is seen as Jesus providing a non-answer to the Herodians and Pharisees who gang up on Jesus to ask him this question with no right answer. I read it a very different way, but before I tell you my version, let’s cover a few details about this story that make it particularly interesting.
First there are the characters involved. Herodians and Pharisees are even less complimentary than oil and water. Historians characterize Herodians as Jews that were sort of a political party. Of course in the time of kings and emperors, you didn’t exactly have parties as we think of them, but perhaps more as a devotional society. They supported and adored Herod Antipas, as their name implies. Remember that at this time, Palestine is ruled by Rome and Herod rules only by the grace of Caesar. So these are in a sense zealots for the political status quo. They are Jews who support not rocking the Roman boat because that might upset Herod’s ability to rule. They want Herod to stay in power no matter what, and no matter how terrible and insane he is.
Then there are the Pharisees. This isn’t the first or last time we’ve heard of them. They are a Jewish sect with certain religious and political leanings. They teach resurrection of the dead, but also interesting is that they were adamantly opposed to Hellenization, or the spread of Greek culture and philosophy. They also saw the occupation of their kingdom by Romans as blasphemy, especially their desecration of the Temple in Jerusalem. They aren’t interested in supporting Herod necessarily; they are devoted to God and the Law.
These two groups don’t have a lot in common or much reason to work together. But they both want to get rid of Jesus. They come up with a question that Jesus can’t possibly answer in a way that satisfies both of them. If Jesus supports paying taxes he’ll surely lose the support of some of his followers, and if he suggests we shouldn’t pay the taxes, well then he’s being subversive and they can have him arrested!
Also mixed in this is that they are still in the temple in Jerusalem, at the very epicenter of life and faith for the Jewish people. If we follow the narrative of Matthew and the passages that we’ve heard in the last few weeks that come right before this, we have to assume that Jesus is still in the Temple, it is still the day after he flipped over the tables, and there are still people trying to get him in trouble. That is particularly important when Jesus asks for a coin. He’s already gaining the upper hand in this exchange by asking for a coin, “used for the tax” and one is brought to him. Jesus knows that you can’t pay Roman taxes with anything other than Roman coins. But there’s also a reason there are money changers in the temple. These coins bear a graven image of a false God on them, the Roman Emperor, worshipped as a living God. It is a direct violation of the first and second Commandments. So here we have someone able to produce a blasphemous object in the temple of Jerusalem. I like to imagine a twinkle in Jesus’ eye when it so easily is handed over. This whole exchange is both life and death in a sense of entrapping Jesus so he can be discredited or arrested, but remember it is also very familiar at this time in society, as part of the intricate dance of honor and shame that comes with debating the Law and God.
So now that I’ve talked about some of the key things to keep in mind about this story, I’d like to share with you how I see it play out. I see Jesus approached by this group of smug Pharisees and Herodeans thinking they’ve really got him this time, and they pose this question. First slightly exasperated Jesus first chides them for testing him once again. He calls them hypocrites, but then maybe with a heavy sigh thinks about it for a minute and then asks for the coin. He turns it over, holds it up to them and asks the question, “Who’s head is on this coin?” The men answer, and Jesus tosses it back to them and shrugs saying “give to the Emperor that which is the Emperor’s” and turns to walk away from them. The men grin and elbow each other thinking they’ve gotten Jesus this time….but then Jesus turns around and adds, “and give to God the things that belong to God”. In the common language of younger generations, that is a mic drop moment. The men questioning Jesus slump their shoulders, realizing they have been bested, but Jesus doesn’t gloat, because this isn’t just about winning this argument, but about imparting important wisdom.
So down through the ages we hear this phrase used in religious and secular circles of all sorts. It has been used to justify oppression by the Government, enforcement of tax, to get good little Christians in line to pay their taxes. But that’s reading Jesus’ response as a single sentence and emphasizing only the first half. I want you to hear it as two separate statements. And frankly, the second statement completely obliterates the first. You might ask ‘How do I know that?’ Let me ask you this: What doesn’t belong to God? What are things that are exempt from the command to render unto God that which is God’s? The answer my friends is nothing. There is nothing that doesn’t first belong to God. I’m reminded of the offertory sentence we use before beginning the mass, “All things come of thee oh Lord, and of thine own have we given thee.” Of thine OWN have we given thee. Everything we offer to God on the altar is already God’s.
Regardless of how you might feel about taxes or what they are spent on, there is a practical side of this that says, yes, paying taxes is lawful. Jesus would be right to say that. In truth as we ponder what does and doesn’t belong to God, it is also fair to say that while everything belongs to God, he also doesn’t care about bags of Roman coins. Those things are of this world and will pass away. They are not the eternal things of God’s Kingdom.
And though all things belong to God, we also know that God is not possessive, God does not demand we give because of some need to physically possess like pagan idols. We don’t take the money or the bread that is brought to this table and burn it to somehow metaphysically send it to God. We take that bread, we bless it, break it, and share it. We take the money and we keep the doors of this church open, the programs running, the people served, the Gospel proclaimed.
In this season of stewardship, perhaps I shouldn’t say this, but while there is a deeply rooted reason for working towards a full tithe when you give, there is also a part of the spiritual practice of giving that says it is not what we give that matters to God, it is the act itself of giving. We give as an act of worship, as an act of thanksgiving, of praise, of service. Tithing to your church is not the same as donating to a nonprofit. Making a pledge is about service to God, it is as much about sacrificing yourself as taking time out of each day to pray is a sacrifice.
I’m not ever going to tell you what to give, whether that is your money, your time, or your skills. They are all of great worth here in this community and are put to proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ. But I will say give. Don’t give because I’ve asked you, or because the treasurer asks you, give because God asks you to share in the grace of the Kingdom. Whatever it is you bring to offer, the very fact that you have done so is where grace abides. Ed Bacon, former rector of All Saints in the Diocese of Los Angeles says about giving, “That is the essence of life, and that is the essence of what makes you alive, when you not only receive the graces of God but you also give the graces of God away very generously.”
I like that idea of giving graces away generously. Living a generous life is a life immersed further in the Kingdom of God. There are so many wonderful and amazing quotes that I’ve found on the topic of giving. From Charles Dickens and Mother Theresa to Winston Churchill and Kahlil Gibran, they all say the same thing: to give of yourself is the greatest blessing, to yourself and to the rest of the world. So as we come into that last week before our ingathering of pledges, I ask that you spend that week considering what it means to give and how you do it. Give of yourself in every way you can. Don’t give in the expectation of blessing, but give in the faith of God’s unending and abiding love. Ponder the ways in which you can give to this community, and think of the ways in which St. Andrew’s can best give to the wider community here in the Twin Lakes region. Look deep within yourselves and find the grace to take the blessings which you have received and pass them on to the next beloved child of God. Then you will have surely given unto God that which is always truly of God.
Not counting the Feast of All Saints on November 1st, which falls on a Sunday this year, there are five Sundays left in this Season after Pentecost before we celebrate the Reign of Christ the King and begin our church year anew in Advent. We are in that deep place in the season after Pentecost where the narrative of the Gospel slows to a crawl and we spend a lot of time diving into one or two moments in the life and ministry of Jesus. As we come to today’s reading from the Gospel of Matthew, I’m starting to feel like a television narrator whose voice comes on at the beginning of an episode to say, “Previously on the Gospel of Matthew.”
But, we are still in the same scene that we have spent the last two weeks hearing and considering. Jesus is still in the Temple on Monday, and he is still in a standoff with the chief priests and elders who have challenged his authority to teach, or for that matter flip over tables. In this tense exchange, Jesus fires off parable after parable at them, and ends with a pretty strong indictment with today’s final parable. This is the end of this encounter, and Jesus finishes strong. He once again rebukes the arrogance of the temple elite, and warns them of turning their back on God.
To understand this parable, we need to first understand a bit more about the cultural norms that are assumed in this parable. The kingdom of Heaven may be compared to or perhaps the essence of what it’s like to exist in the kingdom of God is similar to a wedding feast put on by a king for his son. The basic parallels are obvious, God is the King, Jesus is the Son, and the kingdom of God is this eternal wedding banquet. But what we often misunderstand, using our modern, whimsical notions of kings and banquets is that this isn’t the sort of invitation you take the time to ponder your availability for.
In the culture and time that Jesus is speaking, this is the sort of invitation you wouldn’t dare refuse. One did not say no to a king’s request for your attendance. It was definitely a huge honor to be invited; absolutely a blessing on your status, but it also carried the weight of ruin, if not death for refusing to attend. One did not refuse the king. You could think of this in terms of Herod, an insane ruler who thought everyone, including his own family, was plotting against him. He wouldn’t think twice about having someone killed.
But in general, you did not refuse, whether it was Herod or not. You never wanted to be perceived as insulting the king. Interestingly the king sends out slaves to tell the invitees that no expense has been spared, that the fatted calves have been slaughtered, that a wonderful feast is prepared for them. And yet still they refuse, and worse, mistreat or kill the slaves the king has sent. For the context of the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus is alluding to the maltreatment of the prophets God has sent to the people of Israel. In response to the prophets being ignored, beating, and killed, the king sends soldiers and destroys the city. This is alluding to the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile of the Jewish people.
So now the king sends servants out again, this time to invite everyone they find. This is no longer just for certain guests but for everyone. Much like last week’s parable, this is another one of those misused pieces of scripture that have been leveraged to justify anti-Semitism. To say that the first guests refused and so now they are no longer invited. But I wonder, when the king says to go out into the streets and invite everyone, if that original crowd isn’t also part of the group. I think it is a human reading, not God’s intent to justify excluding anyone from the invitation to the Kingdom. It is important to remember verse 10, “Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests.” Both good and bad. God’s arms are stretched wide to welcome everyone.
Then we come to that slightly jarring conclusion of this parable. When the king is mingling with the guests, he sees someone not in wedding robes. I think a lot of people hear this parable and think, “That’s unfair! This guy was dragged in off the street! How could he possibly be expected to be wearing the correct attire?” But this is another one of the cultural competency things that we have to know to better understand Jesus’ meaning behind the parable. The king is not expecting that everyone on the street has a spare wedding robe packed with them, nor would anyone necessarily expect to own their own wedding robes.
The practice was rather that when you arrived at a splendid affair such as a wedding banquet for the king’s son, you would be given an appropriate wedding robe to put on at the door. It was the graciousness and generosity of the host to hand them out, and it was the respect of the guest to wear the robe. But here the king notices someone who isn’t wearing the wedding attire and he asks the guest how he got in without getting a robe.
This question may not be accusatory, but rather even embarrassed that a guest was slighted by not being given a robe. But the guest does not answer; he remains silent, unable to provide a good reason for not having it. The guest thinks he can be there because he deserves to be there, not because he has been invited by the king. Warren Carter writes, ““The absence of the wedding garment suggests a failure to discern and honor the authority and goodness of the king. He is one of the ‘bad’ who has failed to behave or live in a manner appropriate to the status of being invited by the king… This guest, though inside the wedding banquet is guilty in the same sorts of offenses as the elite leaders who did not honor the invitation, and suffers the same fate.”
I recently stumbled across the writings of J.C. Ryle, first Anglican Bishop of Liverpool, from 1880 to his death in 1900. He had a lot to say about the church of his time that I find equally applicable to us today, and a lot of it is, as the kids say, spicy. He doesn’t really hold back in his criticism of what cheap grace, and you’re probably going to be hearing from him now at times as I find something that resonates with our scripture readings. The first quote I ever read of his, this last week, is one that I think helps us consider the parable that Jesus is teaching here to the chief priests and elders. Bishop Ryle once wrote in his commentary on Matthew 16, “It would have been well for the church of Christ, if the warnings of the Gospel had been as much studied as its promises.”
How I think that applies here to this parable is in our nature to shy away from things that make God sound like a temperamental king and then in turn we also fail to spend time pondering how we often act as ungrateful guests. All three of the parables we have heard over the last couple of weeks have been warnings about listening to God and not turning your back on the prophets he sends. They have been warnings about the many generations who have failed over and over to live according to the law of God, to love your neighbor as yourself.
To turn away from the kind of life Christ teaches us is to turn our back on the Kingdom of God, to arrogantly stroll around the banquet after refusing the gift of a wedding robe. This isn’t about guilt or fear or coercing someone into a Christian life. God’s grace and forgiveness are always available to us. This is about our sin and our own egos clouding our vision of God’s kingdom. We actively ignore the invitation. Every day we make choices that turn our back on the values of that Kingdom, and Jesus is trying to help us, and to help his contemporaries see that. It’s sort of like when someone tells you that they aren’t mad at you for something you’ve done wrong, they’re just disappointed. That’s so much worse.
Our faith, our religion, must not be just a thoughtless act of self-indulgence. It cannot be for our own edification or done out of simple ease of repetition. We are called to follow Christ and his teaching, to tirelessly live out the values of the Kingdom of God and to turn again towards God when we have fallen and failed. When the king asks us where our wedding robe is, it is a mistake to think we can shrug and wonder who the king is for asking us such a question. Instead we must recognize the grace and good will and be ready to accept the garments of God’s kingdom. If we want to be a part of the wedding banquet, we need to start acting like it.
Today’s gospel is an immediate continuation of what we heard last week. Remember that Jesus is in the temple, it’s the day after Palm Sunday, it’s the day after he flipped over the tables and drove out the money changers, and now the chief priests and elders have confronted him to ask just exactly who he thinks he is. So instead of answering their question directly, Jesus has asked them a question in return and told the parable of the two sons; one who does the will of the father and one who does not.
Jesus has just finished telling these temple elite that tax collectors and prostitutes have more favor in the eyes of God than they do. He’s really not holding back on these guys. And then he says, “here, I’ve got another story for you” and launches into our passage today. We hear the well known parable of the wicked tenants. Jesus is doubling down on his criticism of these people that have come to challenge his authority in the temple, but is also foreshadowing what will happen in just a few short days after this encounter.
The parable of the wicked tenants is pretty straight forward in imagery. There’s a landowner who plants a vineyard. Then he hires people to do the work for him, and leaves. This was a very common experience in Jesus’ time. Most of the people listening to this probably either owned a vineyard or had worked in one at some point. They understood the social contract of tenant farmers and landowners and the meaning of this story…and I’m pretty sure those Jesus was directing this at weren’t too happy about it.
The parable takes an unexpected turn, a dark one that violates everything understood about the scenario. No one in their right mind would kill the slaves or worse the son of the landowner thinking they would get away with it. But it really is the perfect analogy for Israel, for God’s prophets, and ultimately for God’s son, Jesus, coming to the tenant farmers and being killed. The farmers are the people of Israel, God’s chosen people, who he has sent many of his prophets to and instead of heeding God’s word they have silenced the prophets.
So finally God has come in the flesh, Christ is manifest as God’s son, to bring the fulfillment of the law, of the contract with the landowner. And they kill the son all the same. This is Christ’s answer to the question of under who’s authority he’s doing these things in the Temple! He is clearly stating that he has come directly from God. And as the parable comes to its end, Jesus asks the elders what they think the landowner would do to the wicked tenants. Of course they say he should put them to death and give the land to better tenants.
I have to wonder if these chief priests understood it was about them when they answered that way, or if it was after they had answered that it dawned on them. Either way, one thing I want to point out here, because a lot of these parables are fiery and often steer us in a direction of seeing God as wrathful and vengeful, that Jesus isn’t the one who says that the wicked tenants should be put to death. God never says that they should be punished so severely. It is chief priests and elders who come up with that particular gem.
Historically, this passage has fueled and justified a lot of anti-Jewish doctrine and supersessionism. That is the doctrine that Jesus and Christians totally replace and supersede the Jewish people. Therefore it’s ok to kill them because they are no longer loved by God. The old wicked tenants have been replaced with the new good tenants. It’s important to acknowledge that because it is an entirely false reading and it is an evil distortion of the Gospel to justify bigotry and hatred.
Jesus isn’t speaking to all Jews when he tells this parable. He is answering a question from the chief priests and elders of the temple regarding his authority. The wicked tenants are the chief priests and the elders. They are the religious elite who have ignored the word of God through the prophets for generations. They are the temple leaders who are going to plot to have Jesus arrested and killed. This is criticism from a Jew to Jewish leaders.
Now while we may think of ourselves as the obvious good replacement tenants, we first need to consider whether we want that responsibility. I think there are two ways to look at this. The first is to say that the replacement tenants are other religious leaders, and it not becomes their job to pick up where the others have left off. In that case we can also see this as a warning and criticism of all religious leaders who will always fail at times and exhibit behaviors of the wicked tenants.
The second possible way of looking at this, as all of us being the new, and hopefully good tenants, is to put on our shoulders the responsibility of listening to God and bearing fruit from his vineyard. Do we appear to be doing that? Are we bearing fruit for the Kingdom of God or perhaps the better question is what sort of fruit are we bearing?
Lest we get too smug for being the new tenants, we must remember that we are only here to work. The vineyard still belongs to God. If we are not good stewards, then we become the wicked tenants, or at least the bad or perhaps incompetent tenants. It is up to us, to work hard at listening for the call of God, listening for the direction of God, and discerning the will of God through the Gospel and the Holy Spirit that has been left to us.
And in the face of possible failure, as we consider how good we might be as replacement tenants, or tenants at all working in the God’s fields, remember also that when the wicked tenants ignore, stone, and kill the servants of the landowner, instead of sending soldiers, instead of responding with equal force, the landowner sends his son. The landowner sends his own son, unarmed, to speak to the tenants. The landowner reaches out with compassion, with care, with a vulnerability that offers the wicked tenants another chance.
This parable is of course Jesus’ continued press against the chief priests and elders of the temple. It is part of the same tense confrontation we started hearing about last week. It also serves as a reminder to us, not only that all of us need to consider what sort of tenants we are in God’s field, but also a particular reminder to religious leaders. Are we listening when the Holy Spirit speaks? Are we following the direction of the landowner’s son? Or are we ignoring the calls and arrogantly trying to claim the vineyard for ourselves? Sometimes we are the wicked tenants, sometimes we are the replacement tenants. But we are always in need of God’s grace, love, and mercy.
Have you ever been in an argument with someone, and you were so emotionally jarred by it that you just couldn’t come up with a response to something they said? How many times have you, the day after a conversation like that, thought of the best come back ever? I know for me that’s happened a few times, as I replay conversations in my head over and over again. If I had just said that, it would have put that person in their place and I would’ve won the argument.
In the time of Jesus, being able to outwit someone of status in an argument or debate was a way of gaining honor. The society thrived on this system of honor and challenge, and the encounter we hear about today in the Gospel is a great example of that. This isn’t just a normal attempt to discredit Jesus though, there is a whole lot more to this story than who can ask or answer the right questions. In a way, Jesus actually does answer their question…it just isn’t entirely obvious when he does.
Context is everything for today’s Gospel reading. Just hearing the portion we do, it would be easy to forget what has immediately preceded it. This could be any time that Jesus is in the Temple, though he wasn’t there very much, and the chief priests and elders are mad at him for pretty much everything! But this particular set up is really interesting and I think it gives us a view of a Jesus that just isn’t putting up with the institutions crap anymore.
This incident takes place on the Monday of what we would consider now Holy Week, right after Palm Sunday. So first Jesus enters the city, riding a donkey, through the gate that was traditionally known to be where the Messiah would enter Jerusalem. People are waving branches and shouting, “Hosanna in the highest!”. Jesus goes directly to the Temple, and starting with verse 12 of Chapter 21,
“Then Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who were selling and buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves. He said to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’; but you are making it a den of robbers.” The blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he cured them. But when the chief priests and the scribes saw the amazing things that he did, and heard the children crying out in the temple, “Hosanna to the Son of David,” they became angry and said to him, “Do you hear what these are saying?” Jesus said to them, “Yes; have you never read, ‘Out of the mouths of infants and nursing babies you have prepared praise for yourself’?” He left them, went out of the city to Bethany, and spent the night there.
After Jesus spends the night in Bethany, he walks back into Jerusalem on Monday morning. Verse 18 says: “In the morning, when Jesus returned to the city, he was hungry. And seeing a fig tree by the side of the road, he went to it and found nothing at all on it but leaves. Then he said to it, “May no fruit ever come from you again!” And the fig tree withered at once.” Are you starting to see a picture of a Jesus that’s kind of on a roll here? As Annie and I were reading and studying the Gospel this week, we started calling this Sassy Jesus, because he’s just not interested in putting up with stuff from chief priests to fig trees.
So now, you can imagine better as we come to today’s Gospel passage, why the elders and the chief priests come right up to Jesus and ask him, “By what authority are you doing these things?” In other words, after watching Jesus ride into the city with all the fanfare, seeing him turn over tables and drive out the money changers, they see this guy come back into the Temple so they march right up to him and say, “who do you think you are?”
Kathryn Blanchard writes about this moment, “Those in charge of the temple, still reeling from the outrageous spectacle of the previous day, are in no mood to coddle this countryside rabbi; but because of his motley band of followers they feel constrained to deal with him carefully. Argument seems to be their only option, and Jesus, in spite of being a temple nobody, is feeling equally argumentative.”
Jesus answers their question with a question. The rabbinic showdown of wit and rhetoric has been engaged. The question the chief priests and elders ask is in some ways a trick question. Their authority in Israel is given by God to Moses and then passed down through the ages. Warren Carter helps explain this, ““Their own authority, centered on the Temple, is clear. They are the social, economic, political, and religious elite allied with and legitimated by Rome. Their authority consists of social status and power over others and is based on birth (chief priests), training (scribes), wealth (elders), and political alliances. They want to know what Jesus’s legitimation is.”
So if Jesus answers that his authority comes from God, that is easily refutable based on biblical tradition in the eyes of the elders, even if it’s true. It might even be seen as blasphemy. There is also no human teacher or other rabbinic tradition that Jesus can name. Frankly, the real answer, that his authority comes from himself, while true just won’t be accepted by these people. Jesus knows all of this, and so he gives the only answer he can. He asks a question that has only one right answer, and puts the pressure back on the elders.
Jesus’ question back to them, regarding the authority of John the Baptist, contains multiple important layers. The first is that there’s no right answer for them to give. If they acknowledge that John the Baptist was sent by God…and there are a lot of Jewish folks at that time that see John as the most recent prophet…then they are going to have to acknowledge Jesus’ authority also from God. But if they want to say John doesn’t have authority, they know that there are a lot of people standing around that are going to be very upset.
But that’s not all. By asking this question, Jesus aligns himself with John in the sense of their ministry and place in society. John was on the margins. He was in the wilderness. He was murdered because he spoke out against an insane ruler who cared for nothing but their own grandeur and hold on power. This shows us that in a way Jesus’ authority and ministry is likewise on the margins. It does not come from the powerful rulers of the world; it is not rooted in the institutions of the temple. Jesus’ authority is for the least of these, and in the deafening silence of the chief priests and elders, he offers them a parable that says exactly that.
When we hear stories from the bible we often think about where we are in the story. Are we a bystander? Are we a disciple? But rarely do we hear a story like this and think, “are we the chief priests and elders?” And as much as we can listen to and shake our heads at how they treat Jesus and refuse to answer his question, deep down in our own hearts, I think we do actually have a lot of the same thoughts and attitudes that these temple elite exhibit.
In reflecting on this passage and its application to our lives and worshipping communities, Charlotte Cleghorn asks, “How often do older members become upset when newer and younger members begin to take on leadership responsibilities? What happens when new ideas are presented and acted upon? What happens when something in the Sunday liturgy or worship service is changed or furniture moved?” It isn’t a stretch to see ourselves reacting in the same way to changes in what we expect. It isn’t a stretch to think we would ask the same question….who does that person think they are? What authority do they have to come in here and do that?
As the chief priests and elders stand there in silence, perhaps uncomfortably so because they can’t answer his question, Jesus continues with the rabbinical debate rhetoric. He asks them then, “what do you think?” and then offers a parable of two sons, one who says he won’t do what his father has told him to but then does, and a second son who says he will do what his father has told him to, but then doesn’t. There couldn’t be a more clear analogy here. Those that have repented of their sin and disobedience to God are the ones who are more favored.
Those who have lead lives of sin but then heard the words of John the Baptist and amended their lives are placed above these chief priests and elders, who at least in word, pay homage to God and yet do not live out his commands. These temple authorities, though they profess obedience to God, have failed to act in accordance with God’s word. That is the final thing we need to take from this passage today. An uncomfortable mirror to hold up to our own lives. Are we those that profess our faith loudly with words, but fail to exhibit it at all with our lives and our actions?
This isn’t about pointing fingers at others, this is about self reflection. Stanley Hauerwas, an American theologian says, “Rather than presuming that these parables provide grounds for determining ‘who is in and who is out’, we should rather attend to how these parables work to help those who are ‘out’ identify themselves.” This is for the chief priests and elders to reflect on their own hearts, not for the disciples to stand there and point fingers at them. So too for us, we must reflect on our words and our actions and consider whether we are doing God’s will or whether we are offering empty promises that are nothing but hollow words.
The encounter of Jesus in the temple is another moment in his ministry where he teaches that the values of God’s kingdom are not the values of sinful broken world. The least and last, the repentant sinners, the marginalized, have more blessing heaped upon their heads than the finely dressed authorities who parade around their temples with empty hearts and faithless lives. Once again Jesus offers us something to consider in our own discipleship. How are we following him, or maybe even why are we following him. Do we find that our lives are like the second son, the one who promises to do what their Father asks, and then doesn’t? Or can we be more like the first, regardless of what our answer is at the beginning, in the end we do the will of our Father who calls us to a life of values alien to a world that embraces sin and suffering more and more all the time?