Sunday, September 28, 2014

The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 21A] - September 28, 2014 (Matthew 21:23-32 and Philippians 2:1-13)

It was bound to happen at some point. Like a video game character who slowly and methodically encounters and then bests the competition in each level of a video game, Jesus has slowly worked his way through the opposition in the small synagogues and communities through Galilee and has finally arrived at the final stage. He is in Jerusalem now—the crowded, cosmopolitan, capital city, with its colossal Temple and hornet’s nest of religious activity. The challenges to his ministry that were thrown out by the priests, Pharisees, and scribes in all those small towns outside of Jerusalem had been, for the most part, easy for Jesus to handle. But the ones who congregated in and around the “big league” Temple up in Jerusalem were the best and the brightest. They were the chief priests. And if those guys weren’t exactly the best and the brightest, they were certainly the most influential religious leaders and the ones most concerned with maintaining the status quo. They helped control the levers of power that kept the Roman occupying government pacified and the local Jewish population calm and obedient.

Jesus cleanses the temple
Therefore, when Jesus enters Jerusalem and the local population waves palm branches before him and acclaims him as Son of David, King of Israel, the chief priests and scribes get more than a little irritated. And when Jesus makes a bee-line for the Temple and drives out all their money-changers’ tables and upsets the system of keeping religious order in place, they zero in on him immediately. There in the Temple they confront him like the big, fierce opponents that they are. It was bound to happen at some point: Jesus would get in trouble with the final authorities.

That is the scene we witness today, just so you have an idea of what the stakes are. I was never very good at video games, but I was always in awe of my cousins who could reach the final level on Super Mario Brothers and Mike Tyson’s Punch Out. It involved knowing how to press the buttons on the game controller at just the right time and in just the right order. We can similarly be in awe of Jesus’ ability to silence them. He knows how to respond to their traps with just the right counter-questions so they don’t know how to respond.

Their main concern is over Jesus’ authority, itself. Where is he getting the authority to do the things that he’s doing? No one just walks into the Temple and starts teaching, much less flipping over tables, unless he can claim someone gave him the authority to do so. His response to them about where they stand on John the Baptist’s authority is not really straightforward. Jesus doesn’t come out and say, “God the Father gave me this authority,” but what he does say is very clever and manages to silence them.

He knows that, for one, the religious authorities are not genuinely curious about him. They are only confronting him in this manner because they are trying to trap him. If they catch him in a trap, if they catch him saying something that is outright blasphemous, they can do him in.

the chief priests question Jesus, still from Jesus of Nazareth
Secondly, Jesus answers in a less than straightforward manner because he is a little hesitant to put right out there all of the details about his identity as Son of God and where his authority comes from. To us, this may seem strange and a little shady. It may seem like he’s ducking and weaving, but, in fact, Jesus is always a little reluctant to declare too much about what and who he is. The reason is because if people reach any premature conclusions about his identity and the nature of his power before the final event of his crucifixion, their understanding will be entirely incomplete. Jesus is the Messiah, but he is the suffering Messiah. Jesus is powerful Lord of all, but he is chiefly going to display that power on the cross. In short, Jesus holds all of God’s authority, but he exercises that authority by laying it aside completely. No one will really understand that kind of authority—or know how to respond to it—until after he is hung on the cross in shame. That is, it’s bound to happen at some point: the people will eventually comprehend just what kind of Savior Jesus is, but it won’t be here in the Temple, and it won’t be this day.

Before the religious leaders slink off to conspire again,  Jesus follows up with this this short parable about the two sons who are asked by their father to go work in the vineyard. In Jesus’ day, rejecting a father’s authority in public by declining to do what he asked was a big no-no. It was seen as a direct challenge to the father’s status and power. The first son would have raised serious eyebrows. Even a polite “No, thank you, dad” would have been viewed like a temper tantrum. This son would have been shunned and ridiculed and treated in his society similar to the way that folks like the tax collectors and prostitutes were treated by the religious leaders.

The second son, by contrast, says, “Sure, I’ll go work,” thereby maintaining that level of public respect, but then never follows through on that promise. This second son certainly would have looked good, as someone who agrees to the right authority, but he never enjoys the full relationship of that authority. He certainly would have fit right in to the surrounding cultural mores, appearing dutiful and respectable, but never really joining his will to that of his father.

Meanwhile, it dawns on the first son that living under of the authority of his father is something good for him, and that the invitation to go work is still open. He changes his mind, even though he would have been written off by so many for publicly rejecting at first, and is welcomed under his father’s authority.

It is easy when hearing this parable to get stuck on the comparison between these two sons, trying to figure out which one we are more like…or, as is more often the case, trying to label other people in terms of the two sons. That was certainly one of Jesus’ points in telling it; that is, to cause reflection upon the ways in which the hearer does or doesn’t respond.

Jesus condemned (artist unknown)
However, what would have been most peculiar to the listeners in Jesus age, would have not have been the reactions of the two sons, but the reaction of the father. This father does nothing to scold or punish or reject the first son, the one who initially rejects him. This strange father does nothing to write him out of the will or shower praise on the second, publicly-obedient son. This father shows compassion and patience. He displays longsuffering and openness. His invitation to work in the vineyard doesn’t not immediately expire…as if it’s just one offer and then done. Rather, it seems to be open, waiting for as many of his sons and workers as possible to join in on the fun.

That father, you see, realizes what’s bound to happen at some point: the first son will realize it’s better to work in the vineyard, even if he insulted and defied that father in the first place. That father understands that eventually his children will realize that although his authority is firm and clear, it is exercised graciously and in a loving manner. That father understands that it will dawn on his children at some point that his power is made known in his compassion, that, to quote Jesus in an earlier scene, he desires mercy, not sacrifice.

As for the tax collectors and prostitutes, Jesus tells the dutiful religious authorities (who have said “Yes,” to God’s authority so many times but then never follow through), they and the other sinners may have publicly chosen a life that rejects God’s desires, but they are changing their minds and responding to their Father’s invitation and guess what: they’re probably loving the chance to go back and work in the vineyard.

This peculiar father and the way he allows admittance to his vineyard is the very father Jesus has come to represent. This peculiar way of showing authority—by suffering with patience and dying to show compassion—is the very way our God demonstrates his love for us on the cross. Eventually we will understand, through faith, that his kingdom is open to us, and it’s not so much the issue that any of us has to live under his authority, but that we get to. We get to say, “That kingdom is really where I want to be—and because of Jesus, I may be there.”

For Scripture assures us, that’s bound to happen at some point too. One day every knee—in heaven and on earth and under the earth—shall bow and every tongue will confess his authority. We’ll reach that final level, so to speak, to find him there before us: he who submitted to the worst of our earthly authorities—our torture, our coercive ways, our despicable violence, the dubious nature of all our tendencies of human power—he will be the final authority. All of creation will answer to him and wrestle with his justice…and there will be no tricky responses that will enable us to wiggle our way out of it. At some point, it’s bound to happen. He will be ours to confess, no matter how many times we’ve denied it beforehand.

So, in the meantime, let’s give some thought to that vineyard. It’s better to be in there right now anyway, under the authority of a father who, for the time-being, is leaving the gate open for one and all.



The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

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