17 PENTECOST - PROPER XXI - A - 17 MATTHEW 21.23-32
In today’s gospel reading Jesus has re-entered the Temple a day after his having cleansed it by turning over the tables of the moneychangers and driving out the merchants. Now he appears to be calmly teaching when the chief priests and the elders of the people approach him and raise the question of by what authority he is acting the way he is.
“By what authority are you doing these things,” they ask, “and who gave you this authority?” What they really wanted to ask was “who do you think you are coming into the Temple and usurping our authority?” Only God or his Messiah could do that. Jesus does not answer them directly but rather he in turn asks them a question concerning John Baptist.
“Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it from human origin?” Both the elder’s question and Christ’ question require the same answer. If they were honest, it would lead them to confess that Jesus has come from heaven, as was John’s baptism. However, they waffle and respond that they do not know the answer to his question.
Jesus’ question, you see, would require them to take a stand on the role of John. They waffled because they were afraid to admit that perhaps they had been wrong about John. Maybe he was a prophet sent from God.
On the other hand, they were afraid to say John’s baptism was not God-sent for that would cause the people to rise against them. John had a good many followers and was quite popular with the man on the street.
Thus, Jesus’ question leaves them in a dilemma regarding the source of his authority. The religious leader’s ploy to judge Jesus ends up being one in which they are judged by their answer to his second question contained in the parable of the two sons.
Out of their own mouths, they condemn themselves when they answer correctly. Their own self-righteousness has blinded them to the continuity between John’s ministry and Jesus’.
God began a new thing with the coming of John and brought it to completion through Jesus. John had called them to repent; he promised the coming of the kingdom and the One who would baptize with the Spirit.
Now He had come and was standing in their very midst but they refused to acknowledge him as they had John. When they waffled and said, “We don’t know,” Jesus told the parable of the two sons. In the parable, Jesus is contrasting the chief priests and elders with the multitude of sinners who came to John to be baptized.
The religious leaders had every opportunity to know the will of God. They loudly professed that they did know it and said that they were forwarding their knowledge of it in preparing the people for the coming of the kingdom of God. Yet, they rejected God’s prophet (John) by refusing to cooperate with him as they would eventually reject God’s Son and crucify him.
But the sinners, who were open rebels against the laws of God, came and heard John, repented of their sins and were baptized. Even when the chief priests and elders had seen the positive effect of John’s teaching, they still refused to repent and believe.
Jesus’ response goes to the heart of the gospel message. What God calls for is repentance on the part of those who are in need of His grace and are willing to acknowledge their need. As God tells his people in the first lesson through the mouth of his prophet Ezekiel, “Repent and turn from all your transgressions… get a new heart and a new spirit…For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone,” says the Lord God. “Turn, then, and live.”
The proud, the self-righteous, the holier than thou are blinded and ignorant to the fact that they need to repent, and thus remain in their sin condemning themselves. It goes without saying that each of us is responsible for our own actions.
Blaming others for what they have done or failed to do is no excuse for personal responsibility. As St. Paul reminded us just a few weeks ago, we will all stand before the judgment seat of Christ and will have to give an account of ourselves.
There is a cure, however, for hardness of heart and that is the light of grace that opens our eyes to see that we are not perfect either in our relationship with God or with our neighbor. We are not always right.
There are things done and left undone in our lives that need to be remedied. There are certain aspects of our lifestyles that need to be changed along with certain of our attitudes.
Change is possible. We can repent and live! We can get a new heart and a new spirit. Jesus Christ is the source. As Christians, we need be doing more than just saying that we know what God’s will is, we need to be doing it.
We need to put our faith into practice outside of one hour of Sunday morning worship. We need to take to heart the words of the dismissal: “Go in peace to Love and Serve the Lord.” We need to be doing more than just keeping up appearances.
We need, as St. Paul says, to imitate him, “who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself…being born in human likeness, humbling himself and becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross.”
The gospel challenge for us today, in light of Jesus’ teaching, is to make sure we are responding to Christ, allowing him to confront us at any point in our lives where we have been like the second son and said “yes” to God while in fact going off in the other direction.
Rather, we need to be like the first son, who turned from doing his own will to doing the will of the father. It is one thing to know the will of God and quite another thing to do it. To do it requires that we empty ourselves of self in order that we might be filled with the grace of God.
Then, as the collect says, “run to obtain His promises that we may become partakers of His heavenly treasure; through Him whom God has highly exalted and given the name that is above every name, even His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. AMEN+