Thompson’s Sermon from Sept. 25, 2011

September 26, 2011

They Asked, He Told … A Parable
Matthew 21:23-32

23 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?” 24 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. 25 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?’ 26 But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.” 27 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. 28 “What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ 29 He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. 30 The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go.31 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. 32 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.

When I read this passage I couldn’t help but think of the significant event that happened this week in our nation which was the repeal of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy. I don’t know if this qualifies the United States Military to be labeled as a progressive organization, but this certainly represents progress. I honestly think this change in policy will enable other institutions to be more open and honest about the various ways we humans are sexually configured. In the United Methodist Church, if they ask, you still can’t tell if you want to become an officer (so to speak), but maybe this change within the military will help the church move ahead.

The exchange between the leaders of the temple and Jesus in today’s passage doesn’t reflect this same debate, but it does expose a deep conflict within the religious community during Jesus’ day, and the dangerous nature of dialogue. It’s so much safer to be quiet than to speak.

The don’t ask don’t tell policy that used to exist within the military wasn’t a satisfying policy, but it points to the safety of quietness. Flying under the radar is an effective strategy at times, but it isn’t good when people are compelled to operate in a secret manner within their own community, and there’s some strategic secrecy going on in our gospel lesson today. There were high stakes involved in the questions that were posed and the answers that were sought. The question at hand was about authority. Who had it, who wanted to keep it, and how to use it?

The men who approached Jesus didn’t come asking him a question in hope of learning something. The question they posed was designed to give them information they could use against him. Just prior to this exchange Jesus had overturned the tables of the money-changers in the Temple and while it was clear that Jesus had been motivated to do this out of his passion for God, and it was undoubtedly an act that had been inspired by God, but it never works for people to lay claim to God’s authority for themselves. The chief priests and elders could easily have used Jesus’ words against him if he had said it was God who gave him authority. Then they would have labeled him as a blasphemer – which is much worse than an ordinary troublemaker.

Jesus wasn’t afraid to answer their question – he was already facing eminent death, but he wanted to expose their misguided agenda in the process. And by posing a question to them about the nature of John the Baptist’s authority he placed them in a compromising position. If they didn’t acknowledge that John the Baptist had been led by God they risked putting themselves at odds with a lot of people who loved John the Baptist and considered him a true prophet. If they did consider him to be led by God they showed themselves to be at odds with God by choosing to ignore him.

Jesus’ counter-question put them in an awkward position and Matthew portrays this well. Their little huddle and internal debate about whether or not they should answer Jesus’ question is a nice portrayal of powerful people conspiring to maintain position without regard for the truth. They asked, but they wouldn’t tell, so Jesus told a parable, and it said it all.

This is not a hard parable to understand. It is a story that highlights the difference between saying the right thing and doing the right thing, and it shines a bright light on those who were inclined to talk the talk as opposed to walking the walk. Which I dare say has some relevance to all of our lives. These chief priests didn’t calculate the danger of asking Jesus a question. They thought they could ask him a question that would place him in a compromising position, but they failed to recognize how un-tethered they were to the source of true authority.

The truth is you just don’t want to enter into a debate with someone who is the perfect embodiment of God and simultaneously willing to die to reveal the nature of God. That’s just not a person with whom you want to tangle, but they were so blinded by their own self-importance they were unable to recognize how poorly constructed their own religious empire had become. They knew to lay claim to the authority of Moses, but they didn’t know what that actually meant.

It would take another parable from Jesus before these officially religious people realized he was talking about them, and things deteriorated from there. Unfortunately they were so unconscious of their faithlessness this experience didn’t lead them into any kind of self-examination. Instead it led them into resolve to try to eliminate this man who dared to challenge their authority. And we all know how well that worked out for them.

Now I wish we could just celebrate this as a good story of the bad guys getting caught in their own net, which it is, but it isn’t just a story about them. This is a net we call all fall into if we aren’t careful. We’re here this morning because we love Jesus and we have genuine gratitude for the way in which he was willing to die in order to reveal the true nature of our loving God for all of us. But he also died in the way he did in order to expose the emptiness of giving lip-service to God without wanting to understand what it means to actually serve God.

The religious authorities of Jesus’ day felt very righteous in their resistance to Jesus because they felt they were maintaining traditions that had come to them from Moses. They hadn’t made up their religious practices, they had been handed the traditions that they were out to protect. You can fault them for not really wanting to engage in any critical analysis of how well their current practices matched up with the teachings of Moses and the prophets, but we all know how resistant institutions are to change. Nobody likes to be the clown who raises questions about cherished traditions.

Of course Jesus did more than raise questions, he literally overturned the tables, and while we appreciate what Jesus did we don’t always understand the ways in which Jesus is at odds with those of us who claim his name. If we aren’t careful we’ll fall into the same trap that those who were claiming to follow Moses fell in to. They claimed his name but they had strayed from the essential nature of the Mosaic tradition.

Clearly those of us who do the official work of promoting Jesus are particularly susceptible to this problem of maintaining traditions that carry Jesus’ name while failing to abide by his teaching. I can testify that we clergy people continue to make officially heathen people look rather saintly. If any Elder in the United Methodist Church reads this parable without experiencing a bit of the cringe factor they are either in jail for a righteous cause or delusional. This type of spiritual threat to those of us who work as professional Christian leaders is real and powerful. It’s easy to forget who really runs the church.

But it isn’t just a problem for clergy people. This invitation to follow Jesus was for us all, and the truth is we are all equally challenged. Jesus doesn’t just want us to love his name, he wants us to love God more than we love anything else and to love our neighbors as ourselves. And if anyone thinks this is not bone-jarringly difficult you aren’t paying attention.

We don’t need to be delusional about the world in which we live and the ways in which we are duped by various empires in this world that are at odds with the Kingdom of God and who distort the nature of God. I mean I hate to sound ungrateful for the comfort and security that we enjoy as citizens of this country, but none of us need to be confused about the priorities of our nation. Our nation doesn’t claim to be a religious institution, but we don’t need to treat it like one either. And we aren’t really inclined to want to want to know the ways in which our allegiance to God is compromised by our fondness for security.

Loving the good positions we enjoy in life is not the same thing as loving God, and that’s what the chief priests were confused about.

I guess the good news for us is that we do have Christ as our lord, and while we are probably all compromised in our capacity to follow him well, his love for us is uncompromising, and the opportunity for us to experience redemption is always at hand. While we often fail to resist the claims of various godless agendas upon us, there are those moments in our lives when we actually do step into the vineyard and join in the good company of those who do more than say the right words.

The tax collectors and prostitutes may have been the first to find their way into the Kingdom of God, but there’s hope for all of us, and I take comfort in this. God doesn’t let any of us go regardless of what we say or fail to do. And thanks be to God for this! Amen


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