The Rev. Jennifer L. Adams – September 28, 2014 – Proper 21, Year A: Matthew 21:23-32
I’m going to start with the very opening of passage we just heard and say that that was really kind of a funny beginning to a gospel story. Jesus entered the Temple, not such a big deal one would think. And as he entered, he was teaching people, which was not that remarkable either, it would seem. But then before he could even settle in, the chief priests and elders came to him and immediately asked him a somewhat accusatory question. And then Jesus immediately asked them a question back. And then while Jesus stood waiting, the chief priests and elders huddled together, debated how to answer Jesus and finally decided (after pooling all of their experience, education and wisdom) that “We don’t know,” was the best they could do. And so they came out of their huddle and replied, “We don’t know.” To which Jesus said something that seemed to run along the lines of “Well if you’re not going to answer me then I’m not going to answer you.” And then he told them a parable.
So what’s that all about? There’s so much that doesn’t seem quite right! Where were the greeters when Jesus entered the Temple? Where was the handshake, the “good morning” or “good afternoon,” or the “nice to see you?” What a rude welcome to a place of worship! Before Jesus could even get his foot in the door they were confronting him. And while we’re at it, why was Jesus so indirect and sort of evasive in his response to their questioning of him? It doesn’t exactly seem like the respectful dialogue or even the reflective listening that one would expect of the Savior of the world. It just seemed to go downhill so quickly on everyone’s part, which is not particularly impressive if you ask me, considering that the players involved were religious leaders and the Christ himself!
It just doesn’t make sense. So let’s broaden the picture a bit and see what else is going on. Maybe it will help us understand some more about why this played out the way it did.
If we back up a few verses in Matthew, it helps. Turns out that the setting was already a hard one, harder than we’d know from just pulling this passage out by itself and reading its few verses. Just a day or so before this interaction in the temple Jesus had entered into Jerusalem to shouts of “Hosanna!” “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” they had shouted as they waved branches of palm in the air. Jesus was being hailed as king and the tensions around him had risen just about to the breaking point in Jerusalem so this parable’s actually told during the peak of the whole gospel story, the point at which Jesus had a large and significant following and when tensions were at their absolute highest. And so the questions from religious leaders that day reflected those tensions which is why they were coming at him with such intensity and even a bit of a threat.
It also helps to know that the first thing that Jesus had done when he entered Jerusalem, the day before the one we heard about in today’s gospel, the first thing he’d done was to visit the temple. So today’s story is actually about his second visit. And on the first visit, Jesus had turned over the tables of the money changers while shouting quotes from Jeremiah who prophesied about the temple’s destruction. So it’s no surprise really that the greeters had run for cover when Jesus came back this time. And it’s no surprise that the temple authorities didn’t roll out the red carpet or reserve a special pew in welcome.
To top it off (as if it needed topping) all of this took place around the Passover – so the city and the temple were packed – the Roman authorities were on high alert and the religious leaders were needing to look good, to serve their people but also to make all appearances of being a calm and peaceful people so that they wouldn’t suffer at the hands of the secular authorities that ruled over them. The Temple couldn’t afford the kind of unrest that accompanied Jesus. The last thing they needed was someone who was being heralded as King turning over tables and stirring up the passions of the people. The Temple leaders were actually likely in their own minds and hearts, anyway, protecting their people.
So this wasn’t exactly Jesus sitting on a peaceful hillside telling a story. And this wasn’t just a random day of worship on which a guest walked through the doors of the sanctuary. Which explains some of why this happened the way it did. The stakes were high and Jesus had swung about some threats of his own the day before. So, the question that the priests and elders asked was justified, “Just who do you think you are?” There was a lot of pressure on these leaders and their question was legit – they wanted to know who had given this guy the right to come in and completely disrupt the temple scene during what was in their minds anyway, for the sake of their people, the worst possible time for something like that to happen.
And so they asked Jesus, “By whose authority are you doing all of this?” and then Jesus did what Jesus had been doing all along; and (just for the record) he had learned this method from the chief priests and elders themselves. He responded to their question with more questions.
First he asked them a can’t win about John the Baptist. And they caught that they couldn’t possibly answer that one safely so the chief priests and elders responded with a relatively wise, “We don’t know.” And so Jesus continued, “Well, what do you think about this, then. . .” And then, (true to their own method,) he told them a story:
A man had two sons and he went to both of them and told them to go work in the fields. And the first son said he wouldn’t go, but then later he changed his mind and did go and work. The second son, however, told his father that he would go into the fields but he never did. “So which of these two sons,” Jesus asked them, “did the will of their father?”
And unlike some parables, this one had an easy answer. “The first one,” they said. Which is obvious, right? It wasn’t what each son said that had mattered it was each son eventually did that mattered. Anybody could see that. Thank goodness, because maybe for a moment or two there was some relief on the scene. The chief priests and elders had answered correctly! So maybe this rebellious, so-called Messiah would key it down for a while and at least let them get through the week. Here they were on common ground after all, agreeing to the interpretation of this parable. Whew.
But Jesus wasn’t done yet, because his role wasn’t just to relieve tensions, it was to bring about a larger scale transformation and that’s a huge part of this story. Jesus pressed on with the already uncomfortable conversation with a direct hit – he told the chief priests and elders that they were actually the second brother in the story. They were the “bad brother,” the one whom nobody wanted to be. Right to their faces, Jesus told the chief priests and elders that they were the ones who said the right things, but weren’t doing the work God was asking them to do.
And then as if he hadn’t said enough already, Jesus added one final piece – he said that the tax collectors and prostitutes – the most sinful of the sinful – the most outcast of the outcast – the most despised and least religious among them – would go into heaven ahead of them (not instead of them, catch that – but ahead of them which was bad enough.) And it was enough to send the chief priests and elders completely over the edge. And probably enough – given everything else that was happening – to send Jesus to the cross.
And so this story is about a lot of things but before we touch the parable I want to look at Jesus here because I think this is first a story about how sometimes the Body of Christ needs to be that presence that agitates, that looks into the heart of a system that means well and pushes it over the edge, because the edges aren’t in the right places.
The irony here is that the leaders of the Temple were so intent on protecting the people by saying and doing the “right things,” that they themselves had essentially become barriers to God’s grace. It’s a hazard of the trade. The leaders of the Temple were so intent on protecting the people – that they themselves had essentially become barriers to God’s grace.
There was so much more to God, so much more to grace, so much more to forgiveness, and holiness, and love, and Jesus had come to show that “so much” to the world. There was so much more to God than even the temple leaders themselves had acknowledged! The temple leaders got pushed over the edge because their edges were in too close.
And Jesus came to tell them that. It was the prostitutes and sinners and tax collectors – those outside of every religious line that had been drawn who were getting this good news. Sure accepting that level of radical grace came with risk, but of all the risks that could be taken, Jesus came to say this was the one to run with. This was the risk to die for. God’s love? Abundant! Forgiveness? All around! Children of God? Not such a select group after all.
As scary as it probably sounded to the religious authorities, especially since they’d relied on those edges their whole lives, Jesus had come proclaiming that maybe there weren’t meant to be any edges at all.
And if you are someone who had said yes to the original invitation, that would be somewhat of a surprise, a potentially threatening one. And it would change the work you had been given to do. It would change your work from protection to invitation. From guarding grace to helping discover it. From containing and purifying the people of God to sending them out into the fields to encounter all the various kinds and sorts of people and gifts and stories and healings and faithfulnesses that were out there too.
Now truth is that we are all on some level the second brother in this story. Don’t be offended; we’re in that together too. There are parts of the fields that we have yet to enter, yet to trust, yet to believe that God is actually at work in in ways that pass even our understanding. So maybe our best bet is to just get out there, and there and over there too, to let the Body of Christ push us over our own edges, trusting that God’s power reaches farther than we can imagine, trusting that the fields themselves are in the hands of one’s larger than our own and that the workers (all of them) are too.