Matthew 21: 23-32
1 October 2017
“Take my lips, oh Lord, and speak through them; take our minds and think with them. Take our hearts and set them on fire, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen
It’s hard not to notice that in the recent past we’ve had ample opportunity to reflect on the presence of real evil in our world. Drugs and violence haunt all our towns. There is the threat of war involving nuclear weapons that can undo creation. That’s not to say that there isn’t evidence of goodness too of course. In some ways it seems people are more concerned about reaching out to help in their communities, making things better for folks who are struggling one way or another. There are things as small as the way you all generously welcome N.A. And there are things as big as people who take real risks to help others in the face of serious disasters. Still the presence of real evil in our world is both blindingly obvious and very hard to come to grips with. How do we square the obvious evils with that notion that God is with us actively providing for the needs of all the beloved creation? How can we make sense of real evil in light of scripture, in the light of our faith? Here’s the thing. To me at least, it seems crucial that I rest my hope in the promise that God is more powerful than all the evil we see and experience in our lives. And, as I’ve said before, I think it’s fairly useless to ask, that why question. You know the one. Why did this evil thing happen? Why did this terrible thing happen to this innocent who so clearly deserves better? What might we find when we reflect on today’s lesson from the Gospel According to Matthew? Let’s think about that. But first let’s pause, because it’s important to get the context. Over the last weeks we have been reading along in Matthew. Listening in as Jesus taught and healed and saved. And, as he began to predict his passion. This week though we have skipped over some important passages that serve to set the scene for today’s lesson. What have we missed? First, we missed Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. You know, It’s the story about how came into the city riding in the back of a donkey with the crowd waving palm branches and crying “hosanna”. Matthew tells us that all the city was “stirred” by his entrance. People were, to use my cousins phrase, “whipped up” by Jesus’ presence in Jerusalem. Then, according to Matthew, Jesus went on to the Temple to teach and preach. Do you remember that part of the story? It’s the part about Jesus’ “cleansing of the temple” when he confronted the uses and abuses that provided for temple sacrifices. This is Jesus’ single most important action in Jerusalem. It will lead straight to his crucifixion. Now, I could easily get off on some mini-sermon on either of those two events. But, the important thing for today is to note that our reading is set in a context of significant tension and controversy. Understand, while it was common practice in the rabbinic tradition to debate over the meaning of scripture and the action of God the debate we heard part of today will have very serious consequences. The religious leaders challenged Jesus with their question.
“By whose authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” It’s a tricky question and, as any good rabbi might, Jesus answers with his own question. Jesus is teaching by laying bare the assumptions behind the challenge. There is no good answer to Jesus question at all. If those leaders answer that John the Baptist’s ministry was of God then, why weren’t they paying attention? If they answer that John’s ministry wasn’t from God then they demonstrate their own inability or unwillingness to accept any answer Jesus gives to the question. Notice what Jesus does next. He tells three parables that, each in it’s own way, pronounces judgment of those religious leaders. We heard the first of them today. I need to state an important point here, this lesson from scripture puts us squarely in the position of Jesus’ questioners. And that’s a good thing. You see, we need to ask those questions about Jesus’ authority for our own selves. We need to form our own response as we continually grow into mature faith. If John, or Jesus, or any one of us, is simply a person playing with religious ideas then there is no room for God to intervene in human affairs and Jesus is nothing more than a powerful moral teacher. On the other hand, if we admit that Jesus’ authority really does come from God, well then, we find ourselves confronted by something we cannot control, the powerful mystery that God is at work in our history through human teachers. Looked at from that vantage point Jesus becomes a kind of icon, a window, so to speak, through which we experience God.
The parable pronounces judgment for us just as much as for those religious leaders of Jesus’ day. The point is not really whether or not Jesus’ authority comes from God. The real issue is how we respond to God’s call to repentance and God’s invitation into the Kingdom. It’s quite clear in the parable that both responses are possible. We can say yes, but not live up to that yes as the second son did. Or we can do what is asked even if our initial response is to say no as the first son did. What about those religious leaders of Jesus’ day? They claim to be faithfully obedient to God. But all the while they are blind to the notion that authentic obedience means responding in faith to the new thing that God is doing. They cannot see God’s hand at work in either John the Baptist’s ministry or in Jesus’ ministry. In the story as Matthew tells it those religious leaders represent the first son. They know that repentance is necessary, and they know that God accepts the penitent. But they don’t trust it, they don’t trust God. Do you remember what Jesus had to say? “truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the Kingdom of God ahead of you.” Huh. Really? Those sinners going in ahead of the good religious leaders? Who would have thought. The point is that those outcast, those sinners, were open to God’s transforming power. They accepted that power when they believed John, when they believed Jesus. They were renewed. They were transformed. They came into God’s ever-present Kingdom. Isn’t it easy for us to say, oh yes, I am a Christian. I believe in God, I believe in Jesus. It’s just that believing in God and believing God are two different things. We are asked to do the harder thing. We are called, even challenged, to believe, to trust, that God is present and active in our world, transforming all our experience, even when we can’t see it so clearly. Even in the face of our worst fears, even when confronted with the obvious evil in our world. Isn’t that the really powerful thing about scripture? It’s so much more than a quick reference guide for our particular problems and dilemmas. Scripture is a record of God’s action in history. We see that God is indeed loving, and just and good. And we see God’s ability to bring good from evil.
Remember, scripture really is the story of relationship, of God’s transformative, transforming, relationship with us. The stories found in scripture, our faith stories, show us situations and people transformed by the power of God at work in human history. Evil is an ever-present reality in our world. But so is God. God is in the midst of all our days, right here with us and God is more powerful than all the evil we see and experience in our lives. But there’s more. When we turn back to God in faith, we are transformed to become kingdom people, people who, by faith, make the power of God’s presence more real day to day. By the power of God working in and through us we become that evidence for goodness in the face of evil, God’s people who in ways both small and large make God’s love real for those who need it most. Amen