The Holy Gospel According to St. Matthew the 21st Chapter
When Jesus 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?’ 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. 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?” But if we say, “Of human origin”, we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.’ 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.
‘What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, “Son, go and work in the vineyard today.” He answered, “I will not”; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, “I go, sir”; but he did not go. 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. 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.
My name is Pastor Erik, and I approve this message. Have you seen the nasty, ugly tactics? Can you believe the bold faced lies? Have you seen the way they whip a crowd into a frenzy? I know pastors aren’t supposed to comment on politics but I don’t care what anyone thinks about it anymore, I’m just going to say it out loud…the Chief Priests and the Pharisees are both just HORRIBLE!
The names have changed since Jesus confronted the political leaders of his day but the tactics, blind party loyalty, the hatred and blind certainty that I’m right and you’re wrong hasn’t changed that much, has it? In Jesus’ day these two groups were less religious groups than they were political parties. The Chief Priests KNEW they were right. They had LOTS of power. They had LOTS of money and they knew that anyone else in power would be a disaster (especially for their wallets). The Pharisees, on the other hand, KNEW with fanatical, fundamentalist, certainty that four more years of Chief Priests in office meant the spiritual doom of the nation and eternal separation from God. They KNEW, that only by forcing the people to follow their strict, fundamentalist reading of scripture could the country ever hope to escape total destruction.
These guys H-A-T-E-D each other! They made the Maine governor’s race look like a love fest! Now, normally these two parties NEVER agreed on anything. Normally they were more gridlocked than Congress! NORMALLY they NEVER reached across the aisle for any reason, but when Jesus came to town for the last time, a miracle occurred! Getting rid of Jesus was the ONE change they could ALL believe in! They may have fought over WHAT they hated most about Jesus, but they totally agreed they hated him and he had to go!
Jesus was a threat to them because over and over again Jesus pushed an agenda of radical change that threatened them directly! Jesus kept saying that the rich and powerful would be cast down and kicked out and the powerless and poor would rise into a place of power and abundance. Those words threatened those wealthy, powerful politicians then, for the same reason those sorts of words threaten so many politicians today… those politicians WERE the rich and powerful! So, on the only issue on which they could agree, they confronted Jesus and asked him “by what authority do you teach like this.” Their hope was to trip him up, get a juicy sound bite, put together a nasty attack ad and send this Jesus guy to a quick political (and actual) death!
When Jesus dodged their trap they weren’t happy. But worse than that, Jesus told them a parable that made the traditionalist, powerful and wealthy Priests and the ultra conservative, super pious, fundamentalist Pharisees shake with anger. Jesus told them this story about the two sons, where one SAID he would get right to work but didn’t, and the other defied his father in public, saying he wouldn’t work... but then actually went out into the field and worked.
What Jesus was telling them in this parable is that there are only two things God cares about: Are you gonna DO IT? Or are you just going to TALK about it? Jesus was telling them, and us, that to God, what you have, how you look, even what you say... REALLY doesn’t matter compared to the one thing that does REALLY matter and that is whether or not you believe! Now, here’s where we need a brief, but critically important, moment to talk about what it means to “believe.” These days, “believing” has come to mean something that happens up here in our noggins. It’s agreeing to some impossible-to-prove ideas up here in our heads... it means signing a statement of faith or checking a list of boxes. In Jesus’ day, THAT wasn’t believing... that was just GOBBLE, GOBBLE, GOBBLE! Back in Jesus’ day, believing was something you did, not so much with your head and your mouth but with your feet, your hands and your life. Believing in Jesus’ day was following a certain path and living that particular way in the world.
That’s why, when Jesus asked those politicians about believing John, they knew he wasn’t asking them if they thought John’s ideas were right. He was asking them if they had taken up a John the Baptist way of living their lives and of course they hadn’t and that meant they were trapped. John the Baptist was the third rail of Palestinian politics… the politicians hated John but the people loved him. So with one little parable Jesus had just reminded all the regular people that both the Chief Priests and Pharisees were ALL and ONLY about smooth talk, looking good, being seen in the right crowd and making the right gestures. They were all SHOW. In one little parable, Jesus had told them they had it all wrong. Salvation…being with God at the final banquet, going to heaven, having a meaning-filled life or however want to describe it…NONE of that depends on having certain ideas straight in your head. THE ONLY thing that God cares about is are we living a Jesus kind of life or not. Are we GO or are we just SHOW?
So what does a Jesus kind of life look like? It looks like loving God by appreciating and caring for the gifts we’ve been given, and living our lives in self-giving service to the people around us. It’s a life lived for the other before the self. It’s a life of generosity and compassion that brings healing, wholeness and life to everyone around you whether they deserve it or not; whether they'll appreciate it or not; whether they'll thank you for it or not. The Jesus Way of living is to GO and live THAT kind of life and in living that way we are promised that we will experience a real life, an abundant life and an eternal life. So you can see why the politicians hated it. A Jesus life is all about the GOING and DOING for others and those politician’s whole lives were all and only about the TALK and the SHOW for themselves.
I do have a little sympathy for the Chief Priests and Pharisees. The Jesus Way, after all, is HARD! It means feeding the hungry AND asking why people are hungry. The Jesus way means caring for the poor, but more than that, it means asking why people can work 40 hours, make good choices and still not make ends meet. It means being generous and compassionate, but it means more than that. It means changing the world so that everyone has enough... enough food, shelter, self worth and dignity. That’s what living the Jesus way really looks like and THAT is HARD. Harder still is the fact that Jesus asks you and me that same question... will we live the Jesus way or not? The Jesus way of living is HARD but it comes with the promise of a real life, a meaning filled life, an eternal and abundant life for the world. The other way just doesn’t. So what will it be? Will we be all TALK and SHOW or are we ready to WALK and GO? Amen.