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Wesley Chapel Episcopal Church, Wesley Chapel, FL
Preacher: The Rev. Adrienne R. Hymes
Proper 21/Year A ▪ September 27, 2020
Gospel: Matthew 21:23-32
Jesus Is Not Distracted
Leading up to our gospel passage today, Jesus’ public ministry of teaching, preaching, casting out demons and healing had created for him a rockstar-like reputation amongst Jews and gentiles alike. By the time we enter our gospel passage, Jesus, who was called the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee, had entered into Jerusalem with a bold triumphal procession; and had cleansed the temple of the corrupt commerce taking place.
As the people who kept the gears of the temple business turning were driven out, the blind and the lame, those considered to be unclean and therefore prohibited from being in the temple, came into the temple to be cured by Jesus. Jesus had shown up in Jerusalem, on the turf of the religious leaders, interrupting their regularly-scheduled temple business, and they were angry (vv.12-17).
Our gospel passage takes place on the next day when Jesus returned to the temple to teach. We witness the one-sided turf war unfolding between Jesus and his opponents—the chief priests and the elders of the people. As Jesus was teaching, they came to him asking, “By what authority are you doing these things and who gave you this authority?” (v. 23). Was Jesus’ authority from God, Satan or self-proclaimed? This challenge to Jesus’ authority was intended to entrap Jesus on the basis of his answer.
I am reminded of the private encounter between the Pharisee, Nicodemus, and Jesus in the third chapter of John’s gospel. Nicodemus, a teacher of Israel, admitted to Jesus that he knew he was a teacher from God because, “…No one could do the signs that Jesus did apart from the presence of God” (Jn 3:2).
Jesus responded to the chief priests and elders in the temple that if they could answer his question, he would answer theirs. “Did the baptism of John come from heaven or was it of human origin?” Jesus asked (v. 25). They huddled to decide what to say.
Recall that John the Baptist had proclaimed a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. John prophesied about the one who was more powerful than he who would baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire. And, when John baptized Jesus in the Jordan river, the heavens were opened, the Spirit of God alighted on Jesus and a voice from heaven, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased” (Mt 3:17). John’s prophetic voice had spoken truth to the religious powers, whom he condemned as a brood of vipers (3:7), and who were entangled with the power structure of the Roman Empire. He had stirred up the people, and it is reasonable to think that the religious leaders feared the same from the prophet Jesus.
Remember, there were people in the temple witnessing the encounter. Answering Jesus’ question was risky because either response could jeopardize the religious leaders’ own credibility and authority. Had they replied that John’s baptism was “from heaven,” they feared that Jesus would hold them accountable to their unbelief of God’s prophet, John. They feared also the backlash from the people who believed that John was truly God’s prophet if they answered that his baptism was “of human origin.” Choosing to avoid the risk of either scenario, their calculated response was, “We do not know.” So, Jesus did not answer their question.
Note that in Jesus’ refusal to directly answer the religious leaders’ question, he communicated an unspoken truth that they were unable to perceive; that the temple was not their turf and that Jesus was not empowered by their earthly religious authority. And, there was no rebuttal. What followed was not an expulsion of Jesus by the leaders from their temple turf. What followed was the continuation of Jesus’ uninterrupted teaching.
At first glance, it would appear that the leaders disrupted Jesus’ teaching in the temple. But the exchange with the leaders was masterfully used a teachable moment for those who had come to hear Jesus. That teachable moment extended to the religious leaders through the parable of the two sons. From the time of the arrival through the unfolding conflict, Jesus was not distracted. Jesus was still actively teaching, but his opponents “did not know” that they were also being taught.
In the parable, a father had two sons, both of whom are commanded, “…Go and work in the vineyard today.” The first son denied his father’s command, but later changed his mind and went. The second son said that he would go and never did. The religious leaders acknowledged that clearly the first son had been obedient to his father’s will. That was something they did know, and no doubt they related to the obedient son.
Without mincing words, Jesus shattered their self-righteous thoughts with the revelation that the moral outcasts of society—the tax collectors and the prostitutes—would enter the kingdom of God before them. Why? Because unlike the Jewish religious leaders, those moral outcasts had believed John; had confessed their sins, and had received the baptism of John—and their hearts were turned to God.
On that day, in the person of Jesus, the kingdom of God had come near to the chief priests and the elders, in the sacred space of the temple, but their hearts were hardened. Their obedience to their religious power, hindered them from being obedient to God—from bearing fruit worthy of repentance, and again, they did not know.
As followers of the ultimate authority for all Christians, Jesus Christ himself, this parable warns against self-righteous religion which hardens the heart to God’s presence. Guarding against that very human temptation, Jesus calls us to develop a discipline of repentance—a turning of our hearts away from the sinful self and toward God. When we do this, with intention, we become more pliable instruments to be used by God in accordance with His will, and not our own.
When we do this, with intention, we not only believe that Jesus Christ is Lord; we believe in Jesus Christ, through whom God enables us, “…To will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil 2:13).
Often the Church’s focus is on evangelizing the unchurched or de-churched persons. Consider that this passage might be about the need to evangelize the churched—the religious community.
To admit that from time to time, that even the most faithful people experience spiritual dryness. We need to be reminded of our own susceptibility to rejecting God’s commands like both of the sons did. And, we need to be reminded that, each day, by God’s grace, we can choose to follow in the footsteps of our savior and choose obedience.
The same Word of God, which came to John in the wilderness, and propelled him forward as a prophet, calls each of us to claim our prophetic voices and to reclaim the prophetic voice of the Church, both of which are instruments of God’s grace and mercy, speaking truth to the sin-stained institutionalized powers of this world. And let us be clear that amidst all of the distractions and decay of this broken world, Jesus is not distracted; Jesus is still actively teaching, with authority, through his body—the Church. The question is whether or not we know it. Amen.