Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32; Philippians 2:1-13; Matthew 21:1-16
Today’s gospel lesson feels like it was taken right out of today’s political situation. What we have here is a typical give and take between politicians and someone who is challenging their authority through protest. Now, don’t worry I am not going to go into the whole taking a knee controversy, rather I am going to jump into a whole bigger pot, and that is the issue of power, authority, and politics. However, I want to look at the politics, power, and authority of Jesus’ day and let you draw your own conclusions. Most of you know where I stand on most issues and 50% of you will agree with me and 50% of you will disagree and at the end of the sermon those statistics won’t change. What I want all of us to consider today is how Jesus confronted the politics of his day; which leads to how Paul dealt with the politics of his day; which should inform us all how to be Christians in our day.
Today’s gospel begins with the Chief Priests, Elders and other religious leaders asking Jesus by what authority is he doing these things? What are these things? Most importantly, “These things” are cleansing the Temple. The cleansing of the Temple is found in all four gospels, and it is the turning point in all of these gospels that leads to direct conflict with the religious/political leaders of his time. How would the cleansing of the Temple been viewed in first century Israel? First, it was viewed as a political protest against not only the symbol of the Jewish faith, but the center of the Jewish faith. The Temple didn’t represent God’s house, rather it was God’s house. The Temple was where God resided, where worship was held, where sacrifices for sin were made, and where God promised to sit. There could not be a more sacrilegious act at that time than to stage a protest of the Temple, and Jesus didn’t just stage a peaceful protest did he? I mean Jesus went into the courtyard of the Temple and threw tables over, upset the money changers, and released the animals being sold for sacrifice. The point of his protest was that the political and religious leaders had made a mockery of the Temple, their faith and thus of God. Jesus was pointing out their overriding sin of greed and hypocrisy. Now, we as Christians get that, but the religious/political leaders of Jesus’ day saw it quite differently. The religious/political leaders saw Jesus’ actions as an assault on the culture, values, and traditions that the nation held so dear. Also, the religious/political leaders were doing quite well by the system and didn’t appreciate their system being challenged. However, the religious/political leaders faced another problem and that was those that had been disenfranchised by their leadership had found a strong advocate in Jesus and the religious/political leaders were weary of those people. Therefore, the religious/political leaders didn’t feel comfortable attacking Jesus head on and chose a more subtle approach to undermine Jesus’ movement. The approach of the leaders was to expose Jesus as an impostor and not an authentic voice of God. This was the first big mistake of the religious/political leaders of Jesus’ time they underestimated the intelligence of Jesus and that Jesus could play their political games just as well as, and better than they could.
What we have in the first exchange is what politicians call pivoting. Now, I spent six years of my life in Washington, DC living in the home of a politician. I have witnessed first hand this technique, and have know for a fact that this is something that politicians practice with strategists and speech coaches. Yes, all politicians have speech coaches and strategists. Sad, but that is the way of the world. Anyway, back to pivoting. Pivoting is the art of manipulating answers to questions in a way that points to issues completely unrelated to the question. If you have ever been to a town hall meeting of a senator, congressman, or other elected official then you have witnessed this maneuver yourself. Jesus’ interaction with the Chief Priests and the Elders is a perfect example of pivoting. The religious/political leaders ask him, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” Pretty straight forward question which begs a straight forward answer, but Jesus is anything but straight forward. Instead Jesus turns the tables of authority around and says, “I’ll tell you by what authority I am doing all this, but first answer me a question. Was the baptism of John from God or from man?” Dang, Jesus is good because at the end of the day the Chief Priests and Elders are politicians and Jesus knows their weak spots.
You see the Chief Priests can’t be honest in their reply because they are caught in a catch-22. There is no right answer for them and Jesus knows this. They can’t say from God because if they do then the people will wonder not only why they didn’t believe him, but why did they let Herod kill him. Furthermore, they can’t say from man because the people viewed John as a prophet. Their own political ambitions caught them in their own trap so they say, “Uh. We don’t know.” Their response gives Jesus a perfect out and Jesus responds “Then I will not answer your question” But, Jesus goes on to answer his own question about John’s authority.
Jesus’ parable about the two sons is brilliant because he points out the hypocrisy of the religious/political leaders in such a subtle way. The parable of the Father asking his sons to help him in his vineyard and the first saying he won’t come, but does and the second saying he will come, but doesn’t is a slap in the face of those in power. The first is the disenfranchised and the second son is the religious politicians. The Chief Priests know this and the people listening in on the debate know this to be true. To put an exclamation point on the matter Jesus says, “Listen, the tax collectors and prostitutes believed John and were saved, and you had a chance to repent, but chose to ignore John. Guess who will be rewarded in heaven? It won’t be you guys.”
The Chief Priests and Elders could never accept that sinners like prostitutes and tax collectors would ever be saved. Sinners of that degree were beyond repair and beyond God’s reach. Furthermore, it should take a bigger act of repentance than merely showing up at the Jordan and being cleansed by some locust and honey eating self proclaimed prophet. There should be sacrifices made at the Temple, hoops to jump through, legal proceedings to be done, and they the Chief Priests should have a say, not just John. Why should the worst sinners in society just receive forgiveness for free? What have they contributed to society other than disease and graft? There are procedures and protocol to be exercised! They decide who is forgiven and who isn’t not some crazy guy out in the wilderness!
The sad part about all of this is that in the end it didn’t matter how well Jesus was able to pivot around the politicians of his day because in the end they always had his number and Jesus knew it. The message Jesus wanted to spread is that God never pivots, but rather deals with sin head on and that the real sin was the one manipulating everyone, Chief Priests, Elders, Scribes, Pharisees, Sadducees, tax collectors, prostitutes, and everyone in between. Sin is what turns people away from God and towards the self and Jesus understood the true nature of sin and it’s power to corrupt all people. The point of Jesus’ earthly ministry is to show us how God truly desired us to live and how God intended us to take care of each other. Jesus died on the cross leading the greatest protest of all time knowing full well that in the end he would show that only through the sacrifice of the Son would victory over sin be truly won which means only when we pick up our cross and follow him will we truly understand Jesus’ message.
The good news in today’s lessons is that the message of Jesus didn’t die with him and that it continued beyond the resurrection. For if it wasn’t for a religious/political leader who was opposed to all of Jesus’ teaching not turning himself we may not be here today. Yes, I am talking about Paul. St. Paul, a persecutor of the church, an enemy of Jesus turned and embraced the message of Jesus Christ. Today’s lesson from Philippians is a hymn, a hymn that should be written on all of our hearts. Paul starts off by saying “If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing of in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambitions or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.”
We all need to practice the faith of Jesus and not of the religion of today because somewhere we have switched from being the first son to the second son. Some how we have taken all that Jesus taught, did, and died for and manipulated it until we look more like the Chief Priests and Elders. We are pivoting right and left away from the faith of Jesus and more towards our own self ambition and conceit. We are more worried about how we look to others and if someone is getting something they don’t deserve than if we are living according to the teaching of Jesus. Somehow we need to get back on track and follow the one who died for us and not the ones who killed him. We are caught up in the politics of our time and not in the moment of our calling. If we need help getting back on track and a refresher of just who Jesus was and is let us recite our faith’s first hymn together.
Who though was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave being born in human likeness and being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name so that at the name of Jesus ever knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Paul end this perfectly, “For it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work his good pleasure.” Now go into God’s vineyard and do the work of Jesus, its never too late to pivot back and enjoy a truly free life.