In today’s gospel lesson from Matthew we have question after question after question. And not your everyday type of question – what time is it? What’s for dinner? Why did the chicken cross the road? If something goes without saying, why do people still say it? If money doesn’t grow on trees, why do banks have branches? What was the best thing before sliced bread? No. The questions that chief priests and the elders asked Jesus were asked to challenge his authority. “By what authority are you doing these things? And who gave you this authority?”
The setting for the questions is inside the temple. It was the day after Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem – the day we call Palm Sunday. The crowds had cheered. They had spread their cloaks and cut branches on the road. They had cried: “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” This crowd-pleasing event was then followed by Jesus entering the temple area… and overturning the tables of the money changers… clearing out the space for prayer… and then healing the blind and the lame. The following day Jesus moved even closer into the Temple Court… began teaching… and then found himself confronted by the chief priests and the elders… who a day earlier were indignant… and now were just beside themselves with disbelief that this man Jesus dared to teach in their space. They ask him a couple of questions – really demand to know: “By what authority are you doing these things?” “And who gave you this authority?” Two direct questions posed to Jesus in response to all that he had been doing… all of his teaching… all of his healing… all of his parables… his interpretation of the Law… his triumphant entry into Jerusalem… and his overturning of the tables of the moneychangers in the temple. All of which caused the blood pressure to rise in the chief priests and elders. Jesus was challenging their authority and they had seen and heard enough… and so they demand to know: “By what authority are you doing these things?” “And who gave you this authority?” Those in authority wanted to know about Jesus’ authority… who put Jesus in charge… and who gave him permission to do this. There seems to be only 2 scenarios. Either Jesus has just taken it upon himself to do all this stuff… or Jesus is operating out of some kind of mandate from God. If Jesus has taken it upon himself to do all this stuff, then, well, he could be subject to censure from the authorities, just like any other citizen. But if Jesus dares to tell them that he has authority from God to do all this stuff, he would basically be challenging their authority right to their face, and they could have legitimate grounds to accuse him of blasphemy. As they see it… no matter how he answers… he’ll be trapped… and the threat to their own authority will be stopped. What do you think? A good plan? Well… it had potential… but Jesus could see through their questions to what lay behind. He could see their motive which was to entrap him… discredit him before his followers… and expose him as a fraud.
In good rabbinic fashion, Jesus responds to their question by posing a question of his own. He says: John’s baptism – where did it come from? Was it from heaven, or from men? Jesus knows the answer. Neither he nor John had any human authority. But the chief priests and elders weren’t about to answer the question that quickly. Upon hearing the question, they immediately realized they had a problem. So, they go into a huddle and try to figure a way out. If they say that John's authority came from heaven, then why didn't they honor John's authority? On the other hand, if they say that John's authority was assigned by people, then that would cause an uproar among the crowds of people who knew that John the Baptist was a prophet sent by God. And remember… the crowd was large. The city of Jerusalem was teeming with thousands of pilgrims in the city for Passover. And coupled with the large crowds of pilgrims… there was the extra security in place. Political drama. It sure goes back a long way.
So, while in their huddle, the chief priests and elders tried to take all this into account… the reaction of the crowds of people… the reaction of their Roman overlords who allowed them to keep their positions of power and authority. What a dilemma. What a tight spot. If they respond one way, it won’t go well… and if they respond the other way, it won’t go well. What to do? Well, they weigh their options… and what do they do? They do nothing. Out of fear for their own standing and privilege, they do nothing. They shrug their shoulders… plead ignorance… and reply: “We don't know.”A cynic might say…has anything changed in the world of politics?
Jesus hears their answer… and because their answer didn’t answer his question… he did what he said he would do… and he doesn’t tell them by what authority he is doing the things he is doing. But… Jesus doesn’t just walk away. He continues his teaching by telling them a story. And he
begins the story by asking them… ‘What do you think?’ Jesus confronts them and wants them to think. To think about who they are… what they do… and why they do what they do.
The parable of the two sons is straightforward. A father with two sons goes to the first and said, “Son, go and work today in the vineyard.” The boy immediately said, “No,” but later he changed his mind and went. Then the father went to his other son and said the same thing. This one answered, “Okay,” but he never did go and work in the vineyard. Then Jesus asks a simple question: “Which of the two did what his father wanted?” The chief priests and elders answered, “The first.” And Jesus replies: “I tell you the truth – the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him.”
So… what do you think? What is Jesus telling us? To repent and believe? What happens on Monday through Saturday is just as important as what happens on Sunday. The words we speak in the temple must be consistent and connected to our actions outside the temple walls. Actions speak louder than words. Practice what you preach. Talk the talk… and walk the walk. What do we see… what do we hear… what do we say… how do we live?
The challenge that Jesus laid at the feet of the chief priests and elders is the very same challenge that is laid at our feet today. To practice what we preach. To talk the talk… and walk the walk. To walk in the way of righteousness. It’s not a call to be perfect, but a call to be faithful and obedient... in both word and deed… united with Christ. It’s about not simply talking about him… but by living out our relationship with Christ in all parts of our lives. Here in worship… and when we leave worship. When we are out and about in our neighbourhoods. When we are at work… at school… at the store… in the restaurants. The Christ that we profess should be evident in our lives… every day. As the apostle Paul wrote in his letter to the Church in Philippi… in his letter to the people he loved… “If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.”
Paul wrote his letter to the Church in Philippi while in prison…confined behind locked doors. He missed being with the people and he longed to be among them as they shared the gospel with the community around them. But he is far from happy with some of them who do not have the right attitude. As he writes he knows they are not perfect – no congregation is – but he wants the people to live their life in the light of the story of Christ. In all that they do, to be like-minded in Christ. As a community to acknowledge Jesus Christ as Lord…and to have that unity…that connection…to be what motivates them to action. To say yes to Christ in both word and deed.
In his book, The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis depicts the devil, Screwtape, offering advice to his apprentice and nephew, Wormwood. Wormwood is charged with making sure a particular man doesn't come under the “evil” influence of God, certainly not submitting to the “enemy,” Jesus Christ (Remember, the story is told from the perspective of the devil).
Unfortunately for Wormwood, though, the man does succumb to the grace of God and professes his faith in Christ. After lamenting this setback, Screwtape declares that it's still not too late to salvage the situation. His solution: don't let the man convert his faith into action. Listen to what Screwtape tells Wormwood:
“It remains to consider how we can retrieve this disaster. The great thing is to prevent his doing anything. As long as he does not convert [his faith] into action, it does not matter how much he thinks about this new repentance. Let the little brute wallow in it. Let him, if he has any bent that way, write a book about it; that is often an excellent way of sterilizing the seeds which the Enemy plants in a human soul. Let him do anything but act. No amount of piety in his imagination and affections will harm us if we can keep it out of his will... The more often he feels without acting, the less he will be able ever to act, and, in the long run, the less he will be able to feel.”
It is a tough challenge to live in Christ. We are called to be like Christ – in what we do and how we do it. Christ engaged people in whatever circumstances he found them and spoke to their deepest needs. Christ saw their hurts and healed them. While Christ spent some time alone in prayer and worship, mostly he was with people – showing them love, faith, hope. He was present with them. He was available. And you know, sometimes being available is what is needed. Being present with someone in need…who is hurting…who is feeling alone. Let them know they are not alone. Being present is an encouragement we can all offer, no matter our technical training or skills.
Have you heard about the man who applied for a job as a handyman?The prospective employer asked, “Can you do carpentry?” The man answered in the negative. “How about bricklaying?” Again, the man answered, “No.”The employer asked, “Well, what about electrical work?” The man said “No, I don't know anything about that either.” Finally, the employer said, “Well, tell me then what is handy about you.” The man replied, “I live just around the corner.”
Sometimes the greatest ability we can have is availability. To be where God can call us, to be within whisper range of his summons…and to answer that summons. We may feel woefully inadequate to answer that summons. What will I say? I don’t have the answers. Why me? Why should I go? Well…what do you think?
It’s a pretty big call, to be like Christ. There is assurance in the Philippians passage that we are not called to do this alone. We are reminded that it is “God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.” If we do our part, if we are faithful and follow Christ, God will work through us.
So, I leave you this day with a question. Is God working through us – to do more than we can imagine or ask for? What do you think? May God continue to surprise us with blessings beyond our imagination. Amen.