Our reading from Matthew this week once again gives spiritual wedgies to those who think that Jesus was “a good guy” or “a hippie before His time.” Stories such as this week’s appear just enough to make us uncomfortable, sometimes, about His behavior. As we noted at Wednesday’s class, Jesus often has a seriousness or edge to His teaching. More often than not, He is demanding that people make a decision about His identity and where they will place their faith. Today’s readings illustrate that “edge” quite well.
To place the story in the timeline, this is the second day of Holy Week. Yes, that Holy Week. Yesterday, in Matthew’s narrative, Jesus has entered the city of Jerusalem in triumph riding the donkey and colt. The crowd went wild. Could He be the messiah? Was He coming to claim the throne and deliver them? Upon entering the city, Jesus went immediately to the temple. Matthew records that it was at this time that Jesus overturned the money changers tables and the benches of those selling doves. His pronounced judgment is that God’s house of prayer has been turned into a den of robbers. Then, just when we and the temple leaders are no doubt certain that He has lost all control of Himself, He heals the blind and the lame, all of them, who come to Him. Rather than rejoicing at the healings, we are told, the Temple leaders become indignant. Imagine, they are indignant despite the miracles which occur in their presence!
This morning, Jesus has gotten up and headed out to the Temple. On the way, He has cursed the fig tree for not bearing fruit. And He gets to the Temple and begins His routine of teaching those interested in what He has to say. All that sets the background for today’s reading.
The same Temple leaders who were indignant yesterday come to Him with a question: by what authority are you doing these things? And who gave you this authority? Whether the leaders were trying to re-establish their pre-eminence after yesterday’s actions or they are trying to trap Jesus as part of their conspiracy, we do not know. Perhaps they intended to shame Him for not having the right degree to teach in the Temple. Maybe they are still questioning how He heals. Certainly, Jesus knew where they intended to go in their line of questioning. He tells them He will answer their questions but only on the condition that they answer His first. “Was John’s baptism of heaven or from men?”
Jesus’ question has placed these religious leaders on the horns of a dilemma. If they proclaim that John’s baptism was from heaven, then they have to admit that Jesus is the One for whom John paved the way. Naturally, they cannot accept this. For starters, He claims to be the Son of God. He often rebukes them in public, “knowing full well that they are supposed to play nice in the sandbox.” Heck, yesterday He dared to throw out the vendors and money changers – doesn’t He know that the Temple needs money? No, they cannot accept that this carpenter’s son from Nazareth is at all significant, let alone God’s Anointed.
Of course, if they say that John’s baptism comes from men, the crowd is not going to be very happy with them. In fact, they fear that if they give this answer, the people may revolt because they all held that John was the first prophet since the passing of Micah. For the centuries between Micah and John, God had been silent. Naturally, the people feared that God had abandoned them. But John’s voice in the wilderness gave them hope! Woe to the Temple leaders that want to fight that battle! Plus, if they admit John’s baptism was from heaven, the people might remember that they were not baptized in John’s repentance. That will not do, either.
So, in an effort to be clever, the leaders say that they do not know from where John’s authority came. Like those in our midst who keep putting off until another day whether they believe or not, they have already given their answer. In fact, just as He accused them earlier in Chapter 12, He judges that they have hardened their hearts to God.
In football terms, the temple leaders have been forced to punt. They have come in with the intention of restoring things the way they were only to find themselves now on the defensive. Rather than walking away from them, Jesus chooses to teach them His judgment of them through the parable of the two sons. When finished with His narrative, Jesus asks them which of the two sons was the obedient son? The leaders quickly answer that the first, the son who refuses to work but then goes into the vineyard, is the obedient son. And Jesus then explains how the parable applies to them and to the tax collectors and prostitutes. The leaders are like the second son who says the right thing but does nothing. He claims to honor the father, but in reality he rejects the father. Similarly, the temple leaders ignore the spirit of the torah when possible and use the letter of the torah to create burdens on the people they are supposed to be shepherding. The tax collectors and prostitutes, on the other hand, are like the first son who, at first, dishonors the father, but then repents and goes to work. The fruits of his repentance, as it were, are his dirty hands from the vineyard. The tax collectors and prostitutes gathered around Jesus did ignore their Father for a while. But when they were confronted by John’s call to repentance or Jesus own ministry, they repent. The ones who should have recognized Jesus are blind, and the ones who should have missed Him see! The leaders fight Him tooth and claw and reject His authority even to the point of His death, while the tax collectors and prostitutes submit to His teaching and His authority.
Brothers and sisters, for all its uncomfortable teaching this is an easy parable with which to get comfortable, if we think we are one of the good guys. No doubt we would all like to think of ourselves standing behind Jesus, on His side – as it were, watching Him hold the Temple leaders accountable for their hardness of heart. Like little kids, we can imagine ourselves blowing raspberries at the bad guys in the story. Yet think of the tragedy in these lines. The very people who should have best recognized Jesus as He was among them were so hardened in their hearts that they missed Him. Their agendas and ambitions, their worries and fears, caused them to reject Jesus and His Gospel and to put Him to death! Rather than pointing all Israel to Him, as did John, they conspired against Him, even after His death and Resurrection.
Are we, in the end, really any better? How many of us reject Him for a time? How many of us would ignore prayer, ignore worship, ignore every single call that God has on our lives as our Lord and Savior, because we have our own agendas? How many times in our lives are we the bad guys in this story? I’m too tired. I’m too busy. The house needs cleaning. I want to play golf. I want to sleep in. I did my time on the Vestry once. I got 50 yard line tickets. I want splurge on me. On and on we display our own hardnesses of heart. Time and time again we fight against what He wants to accomplish through us. Like the temple leaders, He forces us repeatedly to answer who we think He is.
In the end, brothers and sisters, it really is a question of authority. From whence do you think it comes? If it is a good story, a nice moral tale with a tragic end, then we are, as Paul says, most of all to be pitied. If Jesus’ authority was His own creation, He is no different than any cultish or charismatic leader who came before or after and we are stupid to be anything other than the second sons of His parable. But if His authority is of God, look out! If the story from that holy week is true, why do we chafe so hard against His authority? Thankfully and mercifully, brothers and sisters, all He requires of us is repentance and an effort at obedience, if we believe He is the messiah. And in that repentance and in that willingness to obey, even if we fail and subsequently find ourselves repeating the process, we find ourselves gifted with the very privileges and responsibilities He first offered those leaders, privileges and responsibilities and love which impel us to carry forth into the world around us the opportunities for others to become first sons and daughters of their Father in heaven.