The queue for the kingdom

Sermon for the 16th Sunday after Pentecost
Matthew 21:23-32

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?’” “By what authority are you doing these things,” they asked him, and it is important to take a step back and consider what it is they mean by “these things.” You see, they’re not just asking a question about the source of authority for Jesus’ teaching; they’ve got a very concrete “thing” in view. This exchange takes place the morning after Jesus had paid his first visit to the temple, only to discover that its outer court had been debased by the business of the selling of sacrificial animals. “He entered the temple,” Matthew writes, “and drove out all who were selling and buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold doves,” saying to them that “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’; but you are making it a den of robbers.”

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By what authority did you do that? That’s at the heart of their questioning of him, and it is probably quite fair to say that the subtext here is, “and what are you doing back here again this morning?” Had he just done his troublesome act of chasing out the merchants and their animals, they might have been able to just ignore him. But he’s back, and he’s attracting a crowd with his teaching… time to intervene.

“By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” To this Jesus responds, “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?” To answer a question with a question was a common rabbinical debating technique, and one that Jesus used on several occasions. When Jesus does this he isn’t being evasive in the way that modern politicians can be in their parliamentary debates, but instead he is striking past the opening question—which is often meant to corner and discredit him—to get at something deeper.

So, was John acting on divine authority when he was offering his baptism, or was he just making it all up? “And they argued with one another,” Matthew tells us, which gives a picture of this delegation of priests and elders stepping back into the corner and having a bit of a private conference. “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.” Damn… he’s backed us into a corner with this question. We’ll defer. “So they answered Jesus, ‘We do not know,’” to which he responds, “Then neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.”

Or at least he won’t give them the sort of straight-up answer that might give them the ammunition to discredit him as a heretic or blasphemer. No, instead he tells them a parable, and one in which he not only affirms the authority of John the Baptist but also claims for himself the same heaven-sent authority. This sort of a parable can only have been deeply unsettling for those temple leaders. I mean, John the Baptist had been troubling, but he’d located himself well outside of the Jerusalem and its temple; quite literally, John had located himself in the wilderness. Whatever problem that self-styled prophet had posed to the temple authorities, it had been at arm’s length. And John had been a little less canny in his debates and a little more outspoken in his message, such that when he publically critiqued Herod it landed him in the royal dungeon, where he was eventually executed. Problem solved.

Jesus, on the other hand, had very publically entered Jerusalem in the company of a peasant following, and had made an equally public statement when he tipped over the tables of the money-changers in the temple. A bit of what we might call guerilla street theatre, right in the heart of the holy city. Harder to ignore that…

“What do you think?” Jesus said to those priests and elders. “A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today. That son answered, ‘I will not;’—a testy son, apparently—“but later he changed his mind and went.” He changed his mind; picking up on the nuances of the original New Testament Greek, the King James Version translates this as “but afterward he repented,” which links this little parable to the proclamation of John. Meanwhile, the father had gone to the second son and made the same request: Son, go and work in the vineyard today. “And he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” Without pause, the elders and priests answered that clearly the first son—the testy one who’d decided to reconsider his knee-jerk refusal—was the one who had done the will of the father. At this point Jesus spins his little parable right around and confronts them with it so bluntly that they must have gasped aloud. “Jesus said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.’”

You catch the force of that? He’s looking these respected, devout, educated, torah-abiding leaders straight in the eye, and saying to them that just as that testy first son had said, “no Dad, I’m not going to spend the day working in your vineyard,” yet had then changed his mind—had repented—by analogy this is precisely what the tax collectors and prostitutes had done by actually hearing John; by actually believing his call. And—and this is where it gets a bit subversive—because the elders and priests had not taken John’s message seriously and had not changed their minds and believed, they were like the son who said, “Sure Dad, I’ll work in the vineyard,” and then had just returned to playing their video games.

Does the analogy offered by this parable really work? After all, weren’t the chief priests and elders observing the faith as they had received it? At what point is it fair to say that their initial “yes” to the father is followed by a stubborn refusal to actually do the work they’d been called to do?

There’s two points on which I think you can say that they’re rightly criticized by Jesus. First is the point that Jesus himself makes when he says to them, “John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him… and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.” Like one of the prophets of old, he came with a word that legitimately and powerfully critiqued the exclusivity and narrowness of temple faith as it was being practiced. You needed to hear him, just as your forebears needed to hear Jeremiah and Amos and the rest of that hard-nosed bunch. Didn’t you recognize the resonance of the ancient prophets in the message of John? No… no you didn’t, and so your “yes” to God wasn’t followed by the enlivening prophetic way that John was calling you in to.

And secondly, with his reference to the tax collectors and prostitutes, Jesus is very clearly pressing them on their assumptions that such people are, by definition, unrighteous and without a place in the kingdom of God. “Jesus said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.’” Notice here that he never says that they are going into the kingdom instead of you, rather just ahead of you. Jesus is saying that God very much wants to welcome those temple leaders into the kingdom, but in classic “the last shall be first” gospel reversal style, they are going to need to wait their turn and watch as the ones they’ve so habitually condemned as the lowest of the low are the first ones to sidle up to the buffet table at the heavenly banquet; the first ones for whom the risen and ascended Christ will pour a glass of wine. Like the sulky elder brother in the parable of the prodigal son, they are free to choose to opt out of the banquet if they wish; they don’t have to share in the feast with those tax collectors and prostitutes if it offends their moral and religious sensibilities. But it is the only feast in town…

We really shouldn’t villainize them, though, for they are no more outside of the reach of grace than are any of the rather more dubious characters Jesus insists on befriending. No, we as a church—and maybe me particularly, as a priest—need to keep an eye on them, and learn from the problems caused by their assumptions and blind spots and carefully systematized way of expressing their faith. When Jesus says to us, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes”—and anyone else in our world we might find a rather surprising addition to the guest list—when he says, “truly I tell you, they are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you,” pray that we’ll just be able to laugh at the great divine joke that is grace, as we wait to file in to the greatest banquet anyone could ever imagine.

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