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Who Indeed?

A Homily from Matthew 21:23-32

© The Rev. C. Joshua Villines

Virginia-Highland Church

September 29, 2002

It’s not really that difficult to make a scene in public. Most of us have done it at one time or another – gotten so caught up in our emotions or the excitement of the moment that we publicly and loudly act in an uncharacteristically dramatic way. Those of us who are extroverts are all too familiar with those moments – and with the long, silent pauses that come after we’ve said or done something that has made everyone uncomfortable.

That isn’t really the hard part though. The hard part is showing our faces the next day; walking into an office or a living room where everyone is waiting to see what bizarre thing we will say or do next.

It is just that kind of wary crowd that awaits Jesus at the beginning of our New Testament lesson for today. He is coming back to the Temple, the holiest place in the world, where only 24 hours earlier he had overturned chairs and tossed aside tables, chasing away the opportunists who had come to make their living off the piety of the faithful. Undoubtedly it had been quite a spectacle, and surely some of those present came in the hopes of seeing more furniture go flying.

Others at the Temple had come for another purpose. Jesus’ ministry had greatly upset the established religious hierarchy. He was healing the sick and feeding the hungry. He was drawing on the very power of God to change lives, and he was doing it without a license. As the religious leaders of Israel knew, there were time-honored practices for dealing with the sick and the poor. There were appropriate ways to pray to a God whose answers they didn’t really expect. There was a right way to do things.

And Jesus wasn’t following any of it. Even worse, he was getting results, far better results than the good, church-going folk of the day ever imagined. People with broken bodies came to the Temple hoping to find perhaps a little comfort and security; and these were things that the priests knew how to provide. When Jesus showed up, however, he offered real healing – not just comfort but transformation. Not just contentment, but hope. And he did it without asking permission.

One might think that the religious leaders would have been grateful. After all, theoretically their goal and Jesus’ should have been the same: they wanted to glorify God and care for God’s children. Jesus was doing just that. He may not have been doing so through established channels, but he was nevertheless doing the very things that supposedly Israel’s leaders most wanted to do – but could not.

Sadly, from what we can tell in the biblical record, this is not the approach taken by the vast majority of the trained religious leaders of Jesus’ day – the ministers, preachers, and seminary professors whose job it was to know the will of God. Instead of taking the risk of following the unknown, they clung to the familiar, flawed, human system that they had developed over centuries. Jesus was real, present, and holy; but they found a God who was distant and uninvolved more comfortable. They valued the institution they had created and which paid their bills more than they wanted to know the very God for whom the institution was created.

And so, they watched with some anticipation as Jesus came into the Temple. Yesterday he had caught them off guard, but today they were ready for him. Perhaps – just to be careful – they made sure not to stand too close to the chairs or tables. Nevertheless they had a plan. When the time came, they would trick Jesus into saying something sufficiently heretical or blasphemous that they could arrest him and put an end to the nuisance he had become to their comfortable lives.

So, when Jesus begins to teach, they slink into the crowd and one of them asks, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority.”

This is more than a prompt for blasphemy. It’s their primary frustration with Jesus. The “chief priests and elders” (as Matthew calls them) knew how to spot someone who carried God’s message – because they were the ones who gave the permission to teach and to preach. If Jesus’ did not speak under their authority, then under whose? If He did not serve them, then how could he serve God?

I have some sympathy for that view. We humans are weak, frail, and often stupid creatures. As a way of protecting ourselves from our own weaknesses, we put into place standards and systems which are intended to weed out those who cannot or should not lead us – as clergy, as teachers, or in any of a myriad number of other roles.

Yet truth is truth, and if we are to be faithful to the One who created us we are called to recognize truth wherever we find it. But how are we to know? If part of the message of this text is that sometimes those entrusted with the truth will miss it, and those who seem clueless will know it – how are we to know whom to trust?

Part of the answer is in the text itself. Who is looking for the truth? In this case, it’s certainly not the clergy. They are only asking questions to trap Jesus, not to learn. Jesus recognizes this and answers their question with a question. He asks, “Where did the baptism of John come from: was it from God, or just on human authority?”

The grenade that they had tossed to Jesus has been lobbed right back to them, and the religious leaders gather in a huddle to figure out what to do. There are only two answers to Jesus’ question, and neither serves their cause. If they say “from God” then they might as well endorse Jesus’ ministry since Jesus is the obvious heir to John’s work. If they say that John’s baptism was simply a human act without God’s blessing they are very likely to anger the crowd, a crowd which holds John in high regard.

Here then is another sign of when to suspect the “wisdom” of those who claim to be the experts. They do not speak from their hearts. When Jesus asked them a simple question, the religious leaders did not even pause to think about what they really believed. They immediately tried to figure out which answer would serve their agenda better.

Beware agendas, and beware preachers who do not speak from their hearts. Then as now, we do not have to look far to find places of worship where men and women of God hide behind their pulpits saying what they think people want to hear rather than what they truly believe.

Mind you, those beliefs might be wrong. Even Paul, architect of the Christian faith, confessed to ignorance. In fact, the disciples who followed Jesus were almost as ignorant as the scribes and priests who challenged him. The only difference was that – rather than responding only to what they wanted to see – they acted upon what they actually saw and experienced.

Finding truth doesn’t always mean finding the person who has it. It can simply mean finding someone who’s also willing to look for it with you, and it can likewise mean ignoring those who are ignoring it. We cannot start to figure out where we are right or wrong, where the truth might be hiding, unless we begin with honesty.

Those who set out to trap Jesus aren’t willing to take that step, so instead they avoid the question and end up caught in their own snare. They answer, “We do not know.” Jesus replies, “Then neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.”

He does however, tell three stories in reply. The first of them is in our text for today. In it, Jesus tells the story of someone with a vineyard and two children who have chores to do. Apparently parenting has not changed much in 2,000 years, because both children have to be told to do those chores – and neither can be counted on to do what they say.

The first one says, “I don’t want to go work in the vineyard today.” Surprisingly, though, the child has a change of heart and goes and does whatever needed to be done.

The second one says, “Sure thing. I’ll get right on that,” but never does a lick of work.

Jesus asks, “Which one of these did what their father wanted them to do?” (Right away we can see the point here, even if the religious leaders cannot. Often in Jesus’ parables God – who is our Mother and Father – takes on the admonishing role of a parent.) Either the religious leaders miss the hook or the bait looked so tasty that they decided to swallow it anyway.

“The first one,” they reply. They’re right. The question wasn’t “Who told the truth?” since both children lied. The question wasn’t even “Who made their parents the happiest?” because we don’t know. As far as we can tell, no one but the two children knows who actually did the work. Everyone else just knows that the work got done.

The question, though, was who did the will of the one who gave them the task. Who did what needed to be done? Who did what mattered?

The answer was is: the first child – the one who looked like she wasn’t going to do anything. Jesus informs the religious leaders that they are, in fact, no different from the second child – who kept up appearances but never did anything.

“The tax collectors and prostitutes are going into the realm of God ahead of you who were meant to be their religious leaders,” he tells them. “John came and you didn’t believe, but these who look the least like faithful believers – they believed; and you never did.”

How do we know the truth? How do we know those who are honestly seeking it? They are the ones who do the work of God. Who are the heirs to John the Baptist? Those whose lives show the touch of God and whose efforts are for the causes of God.

This puts us in something of an odd situation. For every real prophet like John, there are thousands of heretics and egomaniacs who draw huge crowds by feeding on the prejudices and ignorance of those who follow them. Likewise, for every self-serving minister out there who would rather serve the institution of the Church than the God of the Church, there are many faithful, pious men and women diligently working to change the world according to God’s priorities.

What makes all this so odd is that, if we use the filter Jesus established, we find ourselves left with a rather mixed bag of people. Much to my chagrin, many good liberal churches and religious leaders would get filtered out if the standard we set is doing the work of God (not just giving lip service to what we want the will of God to be). Likewise, those remaining liberal churches might find themselves side-by-side with some very conservative, even fundamentalist believers who would never set foot in their churches.

If the litmus test is whose hand is on the hammer at a Habitat for Humanity building site, and not who is saying the “right” things in their places of worship, we might be very surprised by who passes and who fails.

Like it or not, the Christian world is divided into camps, and even those who have trouble articulating what exactly defines each group can tell you unerringly which camp someone is in. In many ways, the beliefs of some of those camps are mutually exclusive. Our church has been the victim of that. Some fellow baptists have pointed out that – if we are right about some of our beliefs – then they must be wrong about some theirs.

Being a rather argumentative sort, my instinct is to say to them, “Same to you!” Actually, my instinct is to say something much stronger, but my desire for honesty in this place does not extend to swearing from this pulpit.

I think I’m right. I think we’re right. And I want to believe that makes us the real Christians. I want to believe that we’d pass the test Jesus set in his parable, and that they would fail.

But looking for the truth means not settling for the answers I want. The truth is, some of “them” – and sadly it’s easier to think of some fellow believers as “them” instead of part of “us” – some of them pass that test much better than I do. Their lives echo Christ’s sacrifice, mercy, and generosity in ways I cannot approach.

Of course, some of “us” pass that test too. Which is to say that, when push comes to shove, the things which Jesus says define us as Christians are not the things that we allow to divide us. We split over doctrine, claiming that it is right doctrine that defines real Christians.

In so doing we forget that it is the radical call to transformation – to being transformed and to transforming – to being set apart and Holy which defines Christians. And holiness is as rare now as it was then, and can perhaps be found in equal – but small – measure in all sorts of places.

The religious leaders came to Jesus asking what is real, because they could not see that He was what they were looking for. They posed as seekers of truth, when in fact their questions only served to hide the reality of who they were and who God is. If we use our own journeys to blind us to the companionship of our fellow travellers, then we are no better. Like the first child, our only hope is to change our minds – change our hearts – and set to the work that has been given to us – alongside whomever else God chooses to call.