Year A 10/1/23. Matthew 21:23-32
Grace to you and peace from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
When the Bible drops us into a tense conversation with Jesus and the powers that be, it helps us to know where we are and what’s just happened. In our gospel today, we actually find ourselves at the beginning of Holy Week. Jesus recently entered the holy city on a donkey, led a procession to the Temple, and proceeded to throw out the money changers, turn over tables and then heal the sick and suffering. He did all of this under the noses of the current religious authorities: the chief priests and the elders.
I can only imagine how that felt to them. Who does he think he is? What authority does he have to do these things?
-They are enraged.
-They are confused.
-They are shell shocked.
-They don’t know what happens next, but they’re watching, and waiting, planning to trap Jesus if he dares to set foot in the Temple again.
I bet they’re still sweeping up the mess he made, still filling out reports for the roman allies, still getting things back in order the next day… when he does come back. He just waltzes in, sits down and starts to teach, like it’s what he’s always done.
This is where we come in today.
We can almost feel the restraint in their collective voices when they approach Jesus saying: “by what authority are you doing these things and who gave you this authority?”
This is not how it’s done.
There is a necessary order.
They want to see his credentials.
In the Greek the phrase: by what authority are you doing these things— is closer to ‘what kind of authority are you working from?’ Earlier in the gospel the religious authorities claimed Jesus was using demonic powers. They want to know –does his authority come from God? From Satan? From himself? But, they aren’t actually curious–they’re trying to get Jesus to say something that will indict him.
In classic Jesus fashion, he answers their question… with a question of his own.
Jesus practically says: “Riddle me this: 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. Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?”
The interviewer becomes the interviewee. The power balance is shifted.
Jesus loved to answer questions with more questions. Loved to make the disciples and the chief priests and the elders think for themselves rather than answer their quiz questions for them. Think back to the best teachers you’ve had--what made them different from other teachers?
Did they care about you? Did they want you to succeed? Did they push you to be the best you could be? Did they draw out your gifts and help you see yourself holistically?
This is what a good teacher does--a good teacher gives you the tools to dig deep for yourself; a good teacher trusts your ability to come to an answer for yourself, rather than doing the homework for you. Jesus uses questions to draw people out--so they can see themselves and their ideas more clearly.
Still, Jesus sets his own trap with his question--he knows the chief priests and elders are afraid of the crowd. If they say John’s baptism was of human origin, they defame a revered prophet in the eyes of the crowd.
But if they claim John’s baptism was from heaven--then they’re indicted for not believing him and opening their world view to include John’s baptism. It’s a double bind--the only answer… is to not answer at all- “We don’t know,” they say. It’s a cop out.
They know they can’t win this round with Jesus and in response, Jesus pushes the temple leaders to see themselves more clearly. He takes it a step further, sharing not one, not two but three parables to illustrate his point that they are… missing the point.
We hear the first parable today about a vineyard, a man, and his two sons. Dad asks the sons to go and work in the vineyard--the first son says no flat out and later changes his mind and goes; the second son says, “yeah, Dad, I’ll help out,” but he doesn’t end up going; he doesn’t end up doing what he says he will.
The chief priests answer the riddle correctly saying the first son did the will of the father--and Jesus picks up the mirror and says, the other son is you!--you are behind in getting it, you’re not able to see what the tax collectors and prostitutes understood long before you.
Jesus is saying: you’re the ones with access to the scriptures, the supposed righteous who are closest to God, the ones given authority by Moses. You’re trained to spot the Messiah when you see him! Yet, you’ve rejected God’s invitation to come closer, to work with me, to bear fruit worthy of repentance.
Also, they experienced John the Baptist first hand. He came preaching and teaching repentance, baptizing in the name of the one who is to come…. And they were too entrenched, too rooted in the past to be affected by his teaching and preaching. They did not change their hearts and lives as the tax collectors and prostitutes did.
So what is Jesus teaching us today? To connect the dots a little more, we need to rewind to the morning of this same day– to a certain fig tree. In the morning, Jesus was on his way to the temple, and he was really hungry.
He reaches to pick fruit off of a fig tree and his hand comes up empty. There is no fruit. Jesus curses the fig tree for not living up to its potential and it withers away at once.
My first thought is, can someone get Jesus a snack already? He’s about to face his opposition without any breakfast–that’s never good. No one wins in a hangry fight.
But really, why does this incident with the fig tree matter? The fig tree represents the temple leadership. They are good at talking the talk–but they don’t walk the walk.
They didn’t recognize the life saving grace being offered to them through John. They’re invested in the status quo, in maintaining their power and authority at all costs–even at the cost of the people. They do not bear good fruit–in fact, they don’t bear fruit at all.
Yet, even in the midst of all their hypocrisy, Jesus extends an invitation. Notice he doesn’t say the temple authorities are never going to enter the kingdom of heaven, the chief priests and the elders are simply not first in line. They will be led by those whom they have been conditioned to believe are beyond saving, those who stand on the margins, those who don’t count in their eyes.
This may be a tough pill to swallow. It is humbling to be told, wait your turn or someone was in line ahead of you. As humans, our egos can be so fragile; we bruise easily.
It is up to these learned men, who hold a significant amount of power and authority in the people’s eyes, to learn to open themselves to new perspectives–to give over parts of their power, to empty themselves as Christ did– so that all may be fed and healed, forgiven and found.
This is where I believe the good news for the temple staff, and for us, lies–the hope in the haystack of judgment. Borrowing from the words of theologian David Lose:
We can hear in Jesus’ parable and its explanation, the surprising possibility of hope: that someone who has refused to listen to God can still change their mind.
The hope that it’s never too late to respond to the grace of the Gospel.
The Hope that our past actions or current status do not determine our future.
The Hope that even those we deem unworthy of saving, even if it is
ourselves–that no one…no one… is beyond the grasp of the love of God in Christ Jesus.
This means that no matter what has happened in our past, no matter what pain we carry around in our memories, buried under layers, or just under the surface–God is eager to meet us right here in this moment, and offer us a future open to hope and possibility.
So I ask you all today: Are there things getting in the way of you fully receiving God’s grace? What might we be holding onto that makes it difficult to believe and accept God’s forgiveness or to imagine a future different from our past?
Past, present and future are all relative as God’s time is not the same as ours. In fact, in the act of remembering Jesus’ death and resurrection through celebrating Holy Communion–God comes to us and breaks time open. We are joined at the table with the saints who have gone before us, and those who have yet to come into this world.
By the power of the Holy Spirit we are always living in God’s present moment. Throughout scripture, God promises to actively forgive our sins and forget them too. All we have to do is turn around.
Turn around from thinking we have all the answers;
turn around from being stubborn and fixed on our own image of God when God shows up in a new way in our lives;
-and turn back to God and to one another to learn how to do the will of our Creator.
Which is simply to bear fruit–to respond fully to God’s grace by caring for one another and the world God made, by being generous caretakers of all that God has given us.
So dear church, you are invited now and in every moment to ‘turn then, and live…‘for it is God who is at work in you.’