Proper 21a, September 28, 2014

September 29, 2014

Revealing Questions
Matthew 21:23-32

21:23 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.

Dr. Charles Campbell is a professor of homiletics at Duke Divinity School – which means he tries to teach people how to preach. And that’s got to be one of the hardest jobs there is. I don’t know how you train people to speak for 12 to 20 minutes in a way that’s creative, inspirational, relevant, insightful, wise, witty, and true to the Biblical text. I wish someone could have trained me to be all of those things. Actually I wish I had given them the chance to train me to be those things. I hardly took any classes in preaching. I’m not sure what I thought I would be doing when I became a preacher, but it turns out that preachers do a lot of preaching.

I came across something Charles Campbell wrote as I was working on my sermon earlier this week, and it made me think he’s the kind of professor I would have enjoyed having. He mentioned that while he was channel-surfing one day (which is very endearing to me – I like a professor who owns up to engaging in a mindless activity). So while he was channel-surfing he came across someone who was interviewing the celebrity psychologist, Dr. Phil, and he heard Dr. Phil say something that got his attention.

Dr. Phil usually does the interviewing, but on this occasion Dr. Phil was being interviewed, and when Dr. Phil was asked who he would like to interview if he could interview anyone from any period of time he immediately responded by saying he would like to interview Jesus Christ. He said he would like to have a conversation with Jesus about the meaning of life.

Charles Campbell said that when he heard Dr. Phil’s answer he immediately thought to himself how badly it would go if Dr. Phil tried to interview Jesus. It just never went well for people who tried to extract information from Jesus. Jesus would probably not have given Dr. Phil the interview of his dreams. It’s far more likely that such a conversation would turn in to a nightmare.

Children could probably ask Jesus questions without being frightened by his response, but it usually didn’t go well for the adults who asked him questions. Of course, the people who questioned him were usually out to do him in, so they were often trying to get him to say something that would either get him stoned to death by a crowd or arrested by the police, but that’s not what generally happened. Such interrogators usually found themselves running for theological cover.

But even those who weren’t out to get him were often troubled by his response to their inquiries. I’m thinking of the well-meaning and well-endowed young man who asked Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life and Jesus told him he should go sell everything and follow him – which is not what he was hoping to hear. Maybe Dr. Phil could do what no-one else ever did, which was to leave a conversation with Jesus without having your world turned upside down, but I’m with Dr. Campbell on this – I don’t think it would be a real career-boosting move for Dr. Phil to interview Jesus.

One of my early life lessons came when I was old enough to throw a rock relatively hard and accurate, but not old enough to know when to use such a skill. What I learned one day is that it’s not a good idea to attack a wasp nest with a rock. I had brute force on my side, but they had numbers and speed. I don’t think I’ve ever trusted brute force as much after that day. And you should never underestimate the ability of your adversary to retaliate. That was a very educational experience for me. An educational experience – that’s what you call an idiotic act a couple of decades later

I don’t know if the chief priests and elders were ever able to recognize this encounter with Jesus as being an educational experience, but they certainly underestimated their adversary, and what they exposed was not what they wanted people to see.

I’m guessing these chief priests and elders were accustomed to being in the role of Dr. Phil – they were the ones who put people on the spot and made them answer uncomfortable questions. They were hoping to expose Jesus as being someone who was totally out of bounds, and I can understand where they were coming from. This conversation happened the day after Jesus had gone in to the temple and totally disrupted the religious marketplace. When they asked Jesus who gave him the authority to do those things, the things they were talking about included turning over the tables of the money changers, freeing the unblemished animals that were for sale, and driving the sales staff out with a whip. Those things Jesus did had not gone over well with the temple authorities, and they wanted to know who gave him the authority to do such things.

They thought their question would get him to say something blasphemous or incriminating, but it blew up on them. His question to them about the authority of John the Baptist put them in an exceedingly awkward position, and their hesitation to answer him revealed them to be the ones who were operating with false authority. He exposed them to be like the son who said he would go in to the field but didn’t. He declared them to be less righteous than those who were generally considered to be the least righteous people in the community, and it was believable.

Last week I heard someone quote that old saying: It’s better to keep your mouth shut and be thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt. I don’t always let this wisdom guide my mouth, but I know there’s some truth to it, and it’s not that hard for me to keep my ignorance to myself. I have learned to be careful. I think I would have known not to challenge Jesus. I’m not like Dr. Phil – I’m careful about who I choose to engage in conversation.

Being careful has it’s benefits. Careful people don’t provoke powerful adversaries, but it’s possible to be too cautious. We don’t have any stories in the gospels about the careful people who kept their distance from Jesus. Careful people didn’t get close enough to him to be questioned or challenged, and in so doing they avoided having the most profound educational experience you could possibly have.

When I read this morning’s passage I find myself being grateful that I’m not like one of those chief priests or elders who are blinded by their allegiance to their religious institution. I can tell you, I don’t have that kind of allegiance to my religious institution. It would not hurt my feelings if someone cleansed our denominational temple, but I’m not unindicted by this passage. What I see in this passage is the value of encounter with Jesus, and how important it is to become engaged with who he was and to hear what he had to say.

It’s not good to avoid those educational experiences that happen when you engage with the unknown. It’s important to step in to situations that are out of our control and disruptive to our comfortable patterns of behavior. It’s in those situation that we can learn the most about ourselves and become more fully alive. Jesus didn’t challenge people because he enjoyed giving people a hard time (he may have, but that’s not why he did it). Jesus challenged people because he wanted them to discover true life. Jesus didn’t call for repentance because he was a religious brute who wanted to exercise his godly authority. Jesus wanted people to leave their old lives behind in order to live better lives.

The religious executives could understand why the tax collectors and prostitutes needed to let go of their old lives, but they couldn’t see their own form of unrighteousness. The only thing they could see is the need to get rid of this man who would do these things that were so disrespectful of their authority. I don’t know if any of them were able to see what Jesus actually revealed. We don’t know if any of them learned the right thing from this educational experience, but I think I know what he would want us to see.

Jesus wants us all to see the truth about ourselves. He wants us to understand what it is we are professing without doing. He wants us to know who we are serving, and who we are hurting. What illusions are we promoting and what truths are we denying.

Honestly, I think Dr. Phil had a good answer when he was asked who he would like to interview. I’m sure that’s not an interview he would be able to control, but that’s an interview we all need to have. We need to be in touch with the one who sees us for who we are and who loves us enough to ask us those perfectly unsettling questions.

When you leave here today don’t go out and be careful. Go out and be faithful. Be dangerously faithful to the one who doesn’t just want us to be comfortable. Be faithful to the one who wants us to find true life.

Thanks be to God that Jesus knew how to disrupt deathly behavior and to bring us to life.

Thanks be to God! Amen.


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