A Sermon on Matthew 21: 23-32
My children make me one proud Papa. As my son John and daughter Hannah live into their young adult lives, they are trying to listen to and follow their hearts. They have each found good companions for their journey into adulthood. They honor me. They inspire me. But there are moments!
One of those moments during my son's high school years a moment I wrote about on my blog was when I had to go to the principal's office about something John was doing in all his classes: winning every argument. Even his teachers said they lost all their debates with him. Essentially they were saying to me, "Who does your son think he is?" Their response caused a part of me I'll call it my "inner father" to think, "All RIGHT! You GO, boy!" Debate is an art, and while I'm not as good at it as I'd like to be, John was, in that moment, beginning to perfect some kind of gift he had been given at a time in his life when, everywhere he turned, the multi-media of messages told my teenage son just how IM-perfect and IN-adequate he was. Not to mention the age-old proverb, "children should be seen and not heard." So there he was, trying not to mislead others with his silence, speaking his truth in the best way he knew how. He was doing what high school students do. He was questioning authority.
Another memorable moment in my son's teen-age dance with authority took place in a more public way. The annual Gay Pride parade had come to town. There was a group there, known today for picketing military funerals. They call themselves a "church," a group, but I believe they are just a group of adult children still stuck in their own version of adolescence. They stood with picket signs as close to the parade as possible. It was a dozen or so adults and teenagers, with a few small children. One young boy held a sign that said, "God's Hate is Great." My son approached him and said something like, "You know, you don't have to believe or say what your parents believe or say. You can be different. You can think differently." I don't know what the boy did, but the angry adults standing nearby came toward John, and he walked away.
In the words our Prayer Book uses in our Outline of Faith, the Fourth Commandment is restated this way: "To love, honor and help our parents and family; to honor those in authority; and to meet their just demands" (p. 848). "By what authority?" the religious leaders asked Jesus back then. Today we might ask someone who pushes the envelope: Just who do you think you are?
So, just who did Jesus think he was? The religious authorities demanded to know the source of authority claimed by this young rabbi. Even though he was one who, throughout Matthew's Gospel account, taught with authority (7:29) and healed with authority (8:9) and forgave sins with authority (9:8) and even shared his authority with his disciples (10:1), those temple leaders were not convinced. Now they were debating with him in the same temple in which Jesus threw out the money changers, after riding into Jerusalem on a donkey. These urban leaders were still reeling from that spectacle in their temple, and they were in no mood to put up with this countryside rabbi. And yet, because so many of Jesus' disciples had first followed his cousin, John the Baptist, another popular teacher, these religious leaders wanted to be careful. Debate seemed their only option, and they were good at it. But not as good as Jesus. He got game.
Jesus danced with those leaders by answering their question ("By what authority?" Who do you think you are?) with his own question: Was the baptism of John heavenly or human? Which is another way of asking, "Who do you think John was?" John was the last of the Hebrew prophets, but he was also the first prophetic voice to speak of Jesus. And he had them here. If they said "human," the leaders would have to answer to the John-loving crowd which, in Luke's version of this story might actually stone them (20:1-8). But if they said "heavenly," then they would have to answer debater Jesus' next question: Why then did you, good religious leaders that you are, not believe a prophet of God?
Yes, Jesus was on his game. He had them, and they knew it. So they said, "We don't know." "I don't know" is usually a good answer to a religious or spiritual question, but not then, not there. Jesus claims checkmate and essentially says, If you won't answer my question, I won't answer yours either. He's using his powers of argument to make these religious leaders think "outside the box" of authority. In fact, he is challenging and confronting them with questions of identity "Who ARE you?" and definition "What IS authority?"
The word authority has a word inside it: author. When someone has authority, it's because they authored something. They've written a story. God, we might say, is the author of all creation. Not even the most argumentative religious leaders in Bible times (or our own) can argue with that. Then, who is Jesus? One of our Eucharistic Prayers says Jesus is the "head of the church and the author of our salvation" (The Book of Common Prayer, p. 369). God writes all the creation stories, and for those who follow Jesus, he writes our healing, our reconciling, our salvation stories. To follow Jesus is to assume there is some actual healing, reconciling and saving that we need. To follow Jesus is to believe in his power and his authority to heal and to save.
So how do we respond to Jesus' call to reconciliation; to healing, health and wholeness to salvation? How did religious leaders respond in Jesus' day? Jesus makes them think about all this with another question, asked through the lens of a story of healing and salvation. A father asks his two sons to go to work. One dishonors his father, then honors him by actually showing up. The other son honors his father with his words, then dishonors him with his actions. Jesus asks, "Which of the two did the will of his father?" The answer this time is easy, for those chief priests and elders and for us today: the first son, who "changed his mind." The church word for this dynamic is "repentance." It means to turn your life around; to go in a new direction; to see the error of our ways; to admit the need to mend a broken relationship to be saved, often from ourselves.
Now, it's real easy to try and locate ourselves in the role of Jesus or one of his disciples. But what if we are more like those religious leaders in the temple, afraid of salve on our wounds, fearful of salvation? What if we were to ask ourselves about our own resistance to changing our minds? What happens for you and me when strangers want to present some new ideas about God or about this church? What happens for us when something in the Sunday service changes? What, God forbid, if someone wanted to shake things up around here?
What's it like to answer, like the religious leaders of Jesus' day, a question to which you already know the answer but you really don't want to hear it? What's it like to be asked a question that just might challenge you to change your mind, let alone your heart or your life? What's it like to be in a losing debate, not with a teenager but with Jesus? Jesus keeps confronting us with his identity, his authority, calling us to believe in him. Jesus, the author of our salvation, is happy to argue and debate with us. But it is deeds, not words he wants.
"By what authority?" By God's? Just who do you think Jesus is? Who do you think you are? And how will you and I respond to Jesus' call the call to repentance, the call to new life, the call to health, healing and wholeness, the call to salvation? Will you do whatever it takes to follow Jesus, to believe in him?