Matthew 21: 23-32
Good morning, and grace and peace. A new season for us now, as this the first Sunday of the Fall, after a long and mostly cool summer. Once again in the next week a taste at least of October baseball, which is of course a highlight on my calendar.
A new chapter begun for Jesus and his disciples as well. In Matthew chapter 17 and a number of weeks ago now in terms of our Sunday lectionary Jesus and Peter and Andrew and James and John came down from the Mount of Transfiguration and set out with the rest of the disciples on the road toward Holy Week and Good Friday. We’ve heard Jesus speaking to these friends and to the gathered crowds along the way, sharing with the beginnings of what I’ve called his Last Will and Testament: commands, concerns-- stories he wants them to remember when he’s no longer with them to guide them step by step, inspire, shape them individually and together though the challenges of the day. Equipping them for the new mission that they will discover when the Holy Spirit fills them at Pentecost.
And now our feet are standing within thy gates, O Jerusalem. Psalm 122, a song that would be in the heart and on the lips of every pilgrim approaching the Holy City for the Passover festival.
The first half of the 21st chapter of Matthew, just before the reading we heard this morning, the Entrance to the City. Palm Sunday. The crowds recognizing Jesus, waving their branches and throwing their coats and shawls onto the path as he passed through the ancient gates. A kind of homecoming. Which would be true for every Jew of Jesus day and of ours and I suppose of every Christian too. That’s what people tell me who have been there: a homecoming like no other. I know Dean will be going again pretty soon, and perhaps others of you have made or will make that trip sometime. Making that pilgrimage.
It is of course in a unique way homecoming for Jesus, at Mt. Zion. God from God, light from light. Very God of very God. Not just because he is a celebrity preacher and prophet and miracle-worker, though that certainly would have been what the people in the crowds were responding to. Joseph and his mother certainly would have told him of the story, what happened when they travelled with him as an infant, after his birth, to make the offering of the 40th day. Old Simeon with his prophesy. “Mine eyes have seen thy salvation, which thou hast prepared before the face of all people.” Anna singing the praises of God. And he would have remembered the family journey to Jerusalem for the festival when he was a boy. When he slipped away from his family to explore the Temple, when even as a youth he had met some of the esteemed scholars of Judaism’s holiest place and astonished them with the questions he asked them. And then when Mary and Joseph had finally found him—“How is it that you sought me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”
And so now the Son returns, all these years later, and once again engaging the scholars, the Chief Priests and the elders, in a pointed conversation. Which they receive a little differently. Still astonished, we might say, but any smiles they may have had years ago for a precocious teenager are long gone, and they understand that the stakes are higher, that in this encounter there is much at risk for them.
The question is about authority, about loyalty, about affiliation and identification, about where Truth and Assurance and the presence of God is to be found-- and Jesus of course here saying that true authority comes not from your ecclesiastical office or the academic degrees on the wall or even from the praise of the people, but from God, demonstrated as in John by a life of faithful obedience. It is a direct challenge, and one they can’t duck. John the Baptist had no ecclesiastical office and no Master of Divinity degree. But he looked at the world with a vision and with moral and spiritual clarity shaped by and grounded in God’s continuous word to Israel, the Law and the Prophets, and he proclaimed a message of repentance to the people, calling them to put down their easy accommodations and their casual and sometimes not-so-casual hypocrisies, and to return to the Lord their God. How the song goes: You’ve got to change your evil ways, Baby. He called them to repentance, and so to point to and prepare the way for the Promised One of Israel. The time is now, he said, to worship the Father not simply in external ceremony, but with the sacrifice of the heart, “not only with our lips, but in our lives.” What kind of authority did John have? Where did his power come from? Fine clothes? Social standing? High office? Academic degrees and credentials? The question Jesus asks them. When he pointed his finger at you, and called you to change your ways? When he declared, Behold the Lamb of God? What made that a word from above, a word with authority? You give me an answer to that question, here in the midst of this crowd of witnesses, and then I’ll tell you who I am.
And then Jesus punctuates the moment with the Parable of the Two Sons. The one who uses the right words, who gets the ceremonies right, the outward observances, who prays from the authorized Prayer Book, but then puts the text down at the end of the service and goes away with his heart and his life unchanged, and the one who doesn’t have all the external signs of conformity. But at the end of the day, he is a new man. “Rend your heart, not your garments,” as the Prophet had said. “Then turn to the Lord, and he will have compassion.”
And perhaps here we remember the other parable Jesus once told about a man with two sons. The younger one who did everything wrong, but who returned humbled and broken in tears to the embrace of the Father, and the older one, who fulfilled every demand of the law, but whose heart was made of stone. Echoes here as well of the parable of the Good Samaritan, I suppose. The stunning contrast between the religious leaders who turn their eyes away and pass by on the other side, and the Samaritan who held none of the high offices or honorary titles, but who stopped to help.
If you were beaten and robbed and left by the side of the road, which of these would you hope would pass by along the way? You give thanks for the one who stoops down to pick you up, and you don’t ask questions. Are you wearing the correct vestments for this service? Do you have a Masters Degree?
Even the most flagrant of sinners will be ahead of you in line at the Kingdom’s Gates, Jesus tells these men, revered of the people, respected theologians and scholars, ecclesiastical leaders. Even the riff-raff, they got it. At least when they heard John’s word of hope, about a God who has more and better things in mind for them, when he told them of God’s Anointed One now entering the world in their midst, they listened and yearned for that message to be true. They knew it was true, in their minds as they heard the proclamation of the Scriptures, and in their hearts. You just spent all your time trying to defeat the message and kill the messenger.
The authorities know better than to make a move in that public place, but they’ve heard all they need to hear. The solution to the Jesus problem was going to have to be what had also been for them the solution to the John the Baptist problem. They were just going to need to find the right opportunity to make that happen.
And now our feet are standing within thy gates. Jerusalem, and Holy Week--and the question hanging over the Parable of the Sons frames not only one moment in time, but every moment—and of course our moment. About who he is to us, really. Not about dressing the part or saying the right words, but about getting up when we hear his voice, about turning towards him as he calls our name, and about trusting him, following him.
Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God.