by Sarah Dylan Breuer
Gospel: St. Matthew 21: 28-32
The context of this Sunday's gospel is "the chief priests and the elders of the people" -- leaders in the Temple hierarchy -- questioning Jesus about what gives him authority. In particular, the Temple hierarchy wants to know what gives him the authority to behave as he does, and especially the authority to claim that he is acting in God's name when he's behaving that way.
It's a question that Jesus might have expected, under the circumstances. Matthew 21:23 and following has the exchange we're looking at in this Sunday's gospel as taking place "when he entered the Temple." He hadn't been away from the Temple long, though -- he was there just the day before. It was an eventful day, to say the least -- Jesus entered Jerusalem surrounded by crowds who proclaimed him as king. Matthew next says that Jesus went into the Temple courts, overturned the tables and seats of those who exchanged money (a necessary service, unless you wanted people carrying the emperor's image into the temple on coins, which was clearly inappropriate) and sold doves (again, a service necessary to continuing the Temple's sacrificial system as the priestly writings in scripture command) while quoting from, among other things Jeremiah, who prophesied the destruction of the Temple.
That was what happened on Jesus' last visit to the Temple. So on this his next visit, the question the Temple authorities ask him was a natural one: just who do you think you are? What gives you the right to come barreling in to cause something that looks an awful lot like a civil disturbance -- and at Passovertide, when the Roman authorities are jumpiest as they watch pilgrims streaming into Jerusalem to celebrate God's liberation of Israel from foreign oppressors. By what authority do you prophesy against the very things -- money changers and dove sellers -- that allow poor people to offer sacrifices in the Temple?
Matthew presents Jesus as giving a two-part answer. The first part isn't in our readings for this Sunday. It's where Jesus turns the tables on his questioners by asking them a difficult question: who do you think gave John the Baptizer the authority to do what he did (which, after all, included promising forgiveness of sins to those who were baptized -- in other words, John claimed that his own ministry apart from the Temple could do for people what Temple sacrifices were supposed to do). The chief priests and the elders can't say that John's authority came from God without undermining the Temple system they serve, and they can't say that John's ministry wasn't of God without losing the support of the people, so they shut up.
This Sunday's gospel has Jesus following up that argument with a story. It's a parable of two sons and a father. The father asks the sons to go work in the family vineyard. One says "I won't." Remember, this is a village culture, in which there's not really any such thing as privacy, and the son's mouthing off to his father will shame the father publicly, making him the object of gossip and derision in the village square. The other son says, "I go sir," as a good son should. The surprising thing, though, is that the son who mouths off actually goes to work in the vineyard, while the son who at first seems to be the good and dutiful one turns out to be disobedient, as Jesus' questioners are forced to admit. To say that they were probably not very happy with Jesus at this point would be a major understatement.
Jesus then tells the chief priests and the elders of the people that the prostitutes and tax collectors would enter God's before they would.
At this point I envisage clouds of steam pouring forth from their ears.
It's easy to paint these folks as one-dimensional villains, but I'm somewhat sympathetic to their difficulty receiving what Jesus has to say here -- not least because it's Jesus who's saying it. Jesus has acquired quite a reputation as a troublemaker, and not just because of his behavior over the twenty-four hours previous. He's been known for breaking bread -- accepting food prepared by God-knows-who in a kitchen that looks like God-knows-what, and eating it passed from hands that were God-knows-where just hours before. This is not how a respectable person behaves; just think about what getting caught having dinner with a crowd of prostitutes would do to the nomination of a potential Supreme Court justice and you'll have some idea of how the gossip went about Jesus. And that's not even taking into account that men and women who weren't in the same family did NOT sit at the same table in Jesus' culture, or people would assume that their social intercourse was just one dimension of the various kinds of intercourse they were having.
It would be one thing if Jesus were just saying, "hey, I'm a guy who loves to party -- why don't you leave me alone and go back to your holy huddle?" He's not saying that, though -- he's saying that it was the God of Israel who authorized his behavior. He's saying that the God of Israel behaves this way, and that, folks, is the basis for a charge of blasphemy.
But where does John come into all of this? Why does Jesus bring up John's ministry here? I think it's because of a similarity between their ministries, especially as Matthew portrays them, and why those thought of as most righteous and respectable found it hardest to accept them. John's ministry centered around baptism, traditionally something that Gentiles did to convert to Judaism. John said that God can raise up children of Abraham from stones -- that anyone who's baptized can be a child of Abraham. If you don't currently think of yourself as an heir of Abraham, that will come as good news. If you already thought of yourself as a child of Abraham, you might find yourself looking across that vast crowd gathered from regions all around the Jordan and asking yourself whether it was really all that great to be part of a club that will accept these kinds of people on such easy terms. And furthermore, saying that God will accept as Abraham's heir anyone who will be baptized implies, in the eyes of those who reject John, that generations of faithful obedience to God's commands -- circumcision and sacrifice as well as purity -- don't count for anything.
I know a great many people who have a hard time with that today, whose first questions when we talk about offering any kind of blessing, service, or support are about whether the people to whom they're offered will be deserving. Often, the second set of questions are about what others will think if they see what we're doing. The third set of questions all too often are about whether there's some way we can serve people while still making sure they know how unacceptable they are, and that others know how unacceptable we find them to be.
But like John's invitation to baptism, Jesus' invitation to experience God's forgiveness at table doesn't give anyone the opportunity to separate themselves from others who have RSVP'd with a 'yes.' All have sinned, and all are in exodus from the power of sin to enjoy the freedom to be God's people, one people. That's one of the sticking-points these chief priests and elders have with Jesus. They want God to play by the rules, and they insist that God's prophets must make the distinctions they make. But like John, Jesus thinks that God's freedom includes the freedom to forgive people who are not children by blood of the Covenant, who haven't offered sacrifice, even the poor person's sacrifice of a dove, in the Temple, who haven't done anything to deserve forgiveness. In that truth there's an invitation: to enjoy the freedom that Christ experienced and offers. Yes, God is calling us to give up our judge's seats. Our edicts never saved anyone anyway (nor did they doom anyone either, though we may have told ourselves and others otherwise). Instead, God invites us to enjoy the freedom for which his people were made -- freedom to take all of that energy the world devotes to issuing and trying to enforce edicts that divide us from one another and devote it instead to celebration of the indiscriminate, boundless mercy that gives us life and makes us one family, God's children.
Thanks be to God!
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