Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 27, 2020
Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16
|Philippians 2:1-13||Matthew 21:23-32|
After teaching high school and junior high for a long time, I retired from the regular classroom and did substitute work in everything from kindergarten on up.
For every sermon I prepare, I bet I could pull multiple examples from the classroom. Like when I was subbing in a kindergarten, and a youngster challenged my authority. I wasn’t her mom. I wasn’t her grandma. I certainly wasn’t her teacher. Who did I think I was?
The chief priests and the elders get pretty snooty with Jesus. Their attitude implies “Who do you think you are? What gives you the right, Jesus, to do and to say these things in this, our holy place?” Brother. Can’t you just see their rather elevated noses and eyebrows? Can’t you just hear their snide voices?
On the day before this encounter, Jesus is accompanied by a great crowd exalting him as king as he comes into the holy city. And according to Matthew, Jesus goes from the streets into the Temple and overturns the tables of those engaged in their perfectly legitimate trade of servicing the needs of pilgrims and worshippers.
Now here he is again, this time – as will become obvious – setting himself up to teach in this holy precinct, this bailiwick of the chief priests and elders. Who does he think he is?!
Jesus turns the tables (though not over turning them this time) on those who challenge his authority by posing to them a difficult question -- What do you think: did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin? It’s a great “trip-‘em-up” question. It’s really asking “Who do you think John was?” John had promised forgiveness of sins to those who were baptized. “So,” Jesus is asking, “where did his authority come from?”
What an affront to the religiously important people of the Temple. They were the ones who insisted that it was sacrifices in the Temple that took sins away. (Well, look. They didn’t have a regular diocesan budget; they weren’t Total Common Ministry. The Temple needed the income from the sacrifices, right?)
If the chief priests now say that John was doing God’s work, that puts the kibosh on everything they do and hold dear. If, on the other hand, they say John was a charlatan, the crowd will probably rise up in wrath because the ordinary people see John as a holy man, a prophet.
In a city teeming with wary Roman soldiers, on edge, expecting trouble, who knows what a wrathful, violent disorder might lead to? So the chief priests and elders decide to say nothing. They bite their tongues, which must really gall these proud characters who usually have so much to say for themselves.
Then comes the coup de grace: Jesus turns the “who do you think you are” question on his questioners. He does it in the form of a parable, in the story of two sons. Now stories of two sons were a familiar theme in Jewish tradition.
Think Cain and Abel. Think Esau and Jacob. That makes this little parable all the more powerful to everyone who hears it that day. It’s a tale about a father giving his two sons instructions for working in the vineyard. One son says “Nah, not gonna do it.” But eventually he does do the work. The other says, “Sure, Pop.” But he doesn’t do the work.
A simple story of grape growers, right? Except -- that it isn’t. The listeners all know this is really about who God’s people are. And about God’s vineyard. And about how the health of the vineyard will be determined by the choices people make.
Who does what the Father wills? Who do we think we are? Do we think we are doing the Father’s will? The way the story’s told, the chief priests and the elders have to admit that the son who says “no” is the one who ultimately does the father’s will. But they admit it through clenched teeth because they know where this argument is going.
Jesus hammers the point home: notorious sinners, those who had originally said “no” to God, will take their places in the lush and joyful vineyard of the Father because when they heard John’s call to repentance, they responded. They repented. And the religious elite? Well, they’re still outside the fence, wistfully looking over it and wondering whether the delights of the vineyard will ever be theirs. They refused to recognize that John came in the way of righteousness, says Jesus – just as they are refusing to recognize that same righteousness in Jesus himself.
Who do those guys think they are? Well they thought themselves children of Abraham, but John says that God could raise up children of Abraham from stones if he wanted to. What a turnaround. John’s baptism puts a question mark against all those generations of circumcision, sacrifice and purity laws. John is dead and gone – but his invitation to experience God’s forgiveness doesn’t die.
Jesus won’t let it die. Jesus still offers the invitation, still lives its freedom, still lives its grace, still remains obedient to the Father’s will. And that’s more than the chief priests and elders can take. Hence on Friday of the same week they take counsel together to put Jesus to death.
We’ve got to think on this incident carefully. Who do we think we are? Whom do we identify with in this Temple court? Those who do the will of the Father? Probably – but remember how they’re characterized here. Not just the prostitutes and the hated tax collectors.
For example, consider the circumstances of the family triangle in the parable. It’s set in a peasant village. There, houses are rudimentary and most activity takes place outdoors. What we mean by privacy doesn’t exist, and the rules of social place and honor apply in every circumstance. For the first son to actually say “no” to his father is a deeply shaming thing. Everyone knows about it; everyone comments on the lack of respect; the father is derided for his lack of authority.
The family is the subject of delicious – and probably malicious -- gossip. In other words, although the son eventually does the Father’s will, it is at great cost to the Father’s prestige and standing in the community. Is the parable telling us how costly it is for the Father to give his children the freedom to find out for themselves who they think they are?
The expression “the will of the father” occurs four other times in Matthew’s gospel, and always in the context of Jesus’s teaching his disciples. Jesus’s own prayer is that he himself might do his Father’s will [26:42]. Surely Matthew is urging his own community to follow the good Son, to do the Father’s will. And through his words to them, he urges us to do the same.
So we need to ask ourselves: Who do I think I am? A naysayer, like the first son in the parable? Well, at times, maybe yeah. A fearful disciple whose “yes” becomes “no” at a crucial moment, like Peter? I hope not, but maybe yeah. A hypocrite like the tax collector whose devious secrets and practices give the lie to all outward show of respectability? I hope not, but maybe. In these, in many things, we must admit the reality of our being all too human as they were.
Think about the Lord’s Prayer. We human beings pray daily that the Father’s will be done. We pray daily that our sins be forgiven. We pray daily that temptation not snare us. The reality is that the sin that clings so easily, that comes to hand and heart so readily, that is so destructive -- on a daily basis -- just seems like human nature to us.
But Jesus does not do what comes naturally. He does the Father’s will. He does what love chooses, and that means determination, resolve, and free choice. The mind that was in Christ that we heard of in the Philippians reading this morning has an implied comparison, and that comparison is with the stereotypical “Adam.”
Christ, like Adam, was a being in the image of God. Like Adam he was in human shape. But unlike Adam, he did not think equality with God was something to be exploited.
Jesus took the role of God’s servant. He humbled himself. He was obedient even to the point an excruciating death on the cross.
In all these things Christ did the opposite of Adam, the typical person. That was the mind of Jesus; that was his determination. “Let that mind be in you,” says St. Paul. And hear as good news, as gospel, that when you fail in that noble thought, you can turn, you can be transformed by God’s grace, and indeed do the Father’s will. Then you will know who, and whose, you are.
I recently ran across an excerpt from Nelson Mandela’s Inaugural Speech of 1994. In it he says:
Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.
Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.
It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us.
We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented and fabulous? You can just hear Mandela’s powerful demand:
Who are you not to be?
You are a child of God. Your playing small doesn’t serve the world. There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel
insecure around you. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone.
And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others. Let’s keep that in mind when we go in peace, to love and serve the Lord.