Rev. Liz Kearny
Longview Presbyterian Church
September 27th, 2020
23 When he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, ‘By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?’ 24Jesus said to them, ‘I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. 25Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?’ And they argued with one another, ‘If we say, “From heaven”, he will say to us, “Why then did you not believe him?” 26But if we say, “Of human origin”, we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.’ 27So they answered Jesus, ‘We do not know.’ And he said to them, ‘Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.
28 ‘What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, “Son, go and work in the vineyard today.” 29He answered, “I will not”; but later he changed his mind and went. 30The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, “I go, sir”; but he did not go. 31Which of the two did the will of his father?’ They said, ‘The first.’ Jesus said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, the tax-collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. 32For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax-collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.
This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
It may be the 17th Sunday after Pentecost today, but in our text, it is the middle of Holy Week. When the chief priests and the elders ask Jesus, “By what authority are you doing these things,” let’s remember what “these things” are: in this chapter of Matthew, Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a borrowed donkey in public protest, hailed by the people as king in direct opposition to both local and Roman political authorities. Jesus raged against money-changers in the temple, flipping over their tables, physically destroying their property to protest this oppressive practice that denied those in poverty access to the temple. Jesus cured people who were blind and unable to walk as they came to him for healing. And Jesus cursed a fig tree that was not bearing fruit even though this was the season for figs.
And in our text, we are invited to consider two different responses to these empire-disrupting ways of Jesus. The chief priests and elders have the most power in this story, authority not just handed down to them in the priesthood going back to Moses’ brother Aaron, but the political power of the Roman empire handed down to them from Roman leadership, who had made these religious elites local administrators of the emperor’s rule. Jesus has been directly challenging their power as the people flock to him in the streets, are healed by him, and are given access to the house of God as Jesus flips over tables of those trying to keep the poor out of their sight. The religious leaders are angry that Jesus would dare challenge their authority, so they approach Jesus to try and trap him with a tough question. But it is the priests and elders who end up trapped when Jesus turns the tables on them. If they say John the Baptizer’s message was from God, they admit to ignoring and murdering God’s messenger. If they say John’s message was from humans, they will make the people angry since they had followed John’s message of radical return to God’s will.
It’s important to point out here that these religious elites are not struggling to name the truth. They are instead struggling to protect their power. Which is why they respond, “We do not know,” just a two word phrase in Greek that we can imagine them uttering in irritated defeat. When faced directly with Jesus’ empire-challenging action and message, they reject it again just like they rejected John. They equivocate with a non-answer because preserving the power afforded to them by the empire had become their priority. They are the son in the parable who assures his father that he will go work in the vineyard with his words, but his actions never follow. They were not worshipping the God who sets captives free and breaks the chains of injustice. They were worshipping worldly systems of power that promised to preserve the status quo, and it leaves them unable to act according to the will of God.
This is a good moment to pause and interrogate the sources of power we may have started worshipping in our own lives: the political party that has promised to be the solution to all the problems in our country. The accumulation of money in our bank accounts and retirement savings funds. The friends and colleagues and family members who have counted on us not to make this conversation awkward and uncomfortable by saying the names and telling the stories of Black siblings who have been murdered by police. The image of ourselves as good, charitable people that we have clung to for our sense of worth and identity. As Jesus turns the question back to these religious leaders, he turns the question back to us: Which earthly sources of power and privilege do I find myself afraid to lose when I hear Jesus calling me to follow him in disrupting systems of injustice and setting the oppressed free? Is there a call from Jesus in my life right now that I am hesitating to answer because of something else that is demanding my worship?
There is another reaction to Jesus’ anti-empire ministry. In stark contrast to the religious elites, Jesus’ ministry and message was fully embraced by people like tax-collectors and women involved in prostitution. Tax-collectors were agents of Rome, collecting taxes in their local community, often more than their fair share. But participating with the empire didn’t actually benefit them culturally – they were societal pariahs, demonized as they participated in an unjust system that did not ultimately protect them from community rejection. The tax-collectors we encounter in the Gospels were willing to radically turn around from their participation in these systems of injustice and follow Jesus. And women involved in prostiution were certainly at the bottom of the social hierarchy with no kind of protection from their society and no inclusion by the religious elites who named them too unclean to be included in the life of God’s family. But they followed Jesus too. They gave all they had to support his ministry and followed him with boldness. And I think this must be because, for both tax-collectors and women involved in prostitution, earthly sources of power had never protected them. The religious leaders had never included them. And so when Jesus invited them to dinner or healed their diseases or called them to leave what they were doing to follow him, I imagine it was a simple, if not radically bold, choice. They were the other son who at first rejected the Father’s invitation to work in the vineyard, only to later change their mind and let their actions speak for themselves. They could see earthly sources of power for what they were – human-created vestiges that either could not or would not protect the people at the bottom. And this meant they could see Jesus for who he truly was – their liberator, their healer, the savior of the world.
In a sermon preparation podcast I listened to this week, one of the speakers talked about the fact that a Holy Week text like this takes him straight back to the early days of the pandemic shutdown. (Proper 21A (OT 26) – Pulpit Fiction Podcast, https://www.pulpitfiction.com/notes/proper21a) Yes, it is the 17th Sunday after Pentecost today, but what I’m remembering in my body and soul is that today is the 28th Sunday after our church building closed and we began worshipping online to keep each other and our community safe. I won’t speak for everyone, but for me, a wealthy, white, cisgender, straight, non-disabled woman, the pandemic revealed to me what communities on the margins have always known. Earthly sources of power are not capable of saving us, no matter what they promise. A justice system that so many fear will fall apart when a faithful 87-year-old woman named Ruth Bader Ginsberg dies cannot save us. A system of policing that murders a young Black woman named Breonna Taylor while she sleeps in her home and then remains invulnerable to real calls for accountability cannot save us. Retirement savings accounts that can plummet when the world economy shuts down cannot save us. The images of ourselves as good people that crack as we realize our participation in these systems of injustice cannot save us.
But, friends, there is good news in the midst of all the brokenness. Jesus has come to us in the despair to show us another way. Jesus has ridden in on a humble donkey, reminding us in the middle of the pain that with humble ingredients like seeing each other’s faces and hearing each other’s voices on a Zoom call, the Spirit can create intimacy and connection in the body of Christ we never could have imagined. Jesus has torn away the veil from the fig tree of our earthly sources of power to reveal to us that they are not bearing the fruit of life that is available to all people. As the pandemic continues, we see Jesus overturning the tables of injustice as our Black and Brown siblings continue to fill the streets with calls to dismantle unjust systems and to invest in human thriving. And as is the case with the son in all of us who has said to Jesus “I will not” when the call came to work in the Father’s vineyard, we too can change our minds and go. Today is always the right day to change our minds and go with Jesus. Today is always the right day to quit our worship of the systems and the wealth and the images of self that cannot save us and instead throw our lot in with the parade of people that is led by those who have been marginalized, that place where Jesus can always be found liberating and healing and transforming. On this 28th Sunday after the world shut down, we can choose to never go back to the earthly gods that have failed us and we can join the procession of marginalized people who are on the road ahead of, stepping ever closer to the Kin-dom of God, that place where all of us are welcomed home as members of God’s family. Today, we can change our minds and go. Amen.