Malankara World

Sermons Based on the Lectionary of the Syrian Orthodox Church

1st Sunday after the Festival of Transfiguration

Side Comments to the Church Crowd

by Prof. Dr. David Zersen
President Emeritus, Concordia University at Austin,
Austin, Texas

Gospel: St. Matthew 21: 23-32

Jesus came back to the temple and as he taught the chief priests and the Jewish elders came to him and asked, “What right do you have to do these things? Who gave you this right?” Jesus answered the, “I will ask you just one question and if you give me an answer I will tell you what right I have to do these things. “Where did John’s right to baptize come from: from God or from men?” They started to argue among themselves. “What shall we say? If we answer, ‘From God,’ he will say to us, ‘Why, then, did you not believe John? But if we say, ‘From men,’ we are afraid of what the people might do, because they are all convinced that John was a prophet.” So they answered Jesus, “We don’t know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you, then, by what right I do these things.”

“Now, what do you think? There was a man who had two sons. He went to the older one and said, ‘Son, go work in the vineyard today.’ ‘I don’t want to,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went to the vineyard. Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. ‘Yes, sir,’ he answered, but he did not go. Which one of the two did what his father wanted?” “The older one,” they answered. “And I tell you this,” Jesus said to them. “The tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the Kingdom of God ahead of you. For John the Baptist came to you showing you the right path to take, and you would not believe him; but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him. Even when you saw this you did not change your minds later on and believe him.” (NIV)


It’s certainly clear that Jesus reserved different remarks for different crowds. The crowd to whom he had the least to say was comprised of the insiders. In Jesus’ world, a rigid system of both religious and political laws structured the daily life of people. Paying careful attention to these laws marked one as an insider. Theoretically, these insiders were the upstanding citizens, the ones whose attention to moral and legal codes showed respect for God and held society together. Although the parallel is not exact, these people were in some senses the “church” crowd. While Jesus makes occasional remarks to them, most of his comments are not intended for them. A physician does not attend to those who are healthy, Jesus tells us, but to those who are not well.

Wellness, of course, is a matter of definition. Some of the sickness among the outsiders was surely immorality, infractions of the commandments that enjoined people to rejoice in God’s love and serve the neighbor. However, in addition to the many Scriptural laws, in the Talmudic era during and after the Exile, Halakah evolved as an application of these laws within daily life. These were laws within laws, a system wherein one’s status in society and before God was determined by how carefully one performed. Even more, it was a setting in which one could be excluded because physical blemishes or deformities made it impossible to be considered healthy or whole. In reality, these people were the average Joes and Sarahs, they were commoners who had a difficult time keeping up with the Weinbergs. They knew that the insiders had no respect for them and in a society in which the Weinbergs regarded themselves as whole and well, the Silbersteins had to feel incomplete and ill. And Jesus said that it was for these, those who knew themselves to be outsiders, that he had come. He had come to seek and to save the lost. The poor. The lepers, lame and blind. The tax collectors and prostitutes. The tenants and servants. The thieves, the farmers, the shepherds.

Given that, it’s interesting that today’s text incorporates some of the material which Jesus reserves for the church crowd. And there is a difference in style between what he says to the outsiders and what he says to the insiders, what he says to the poor and to the rich. The words to the poor lift them up. The words to the rich challenge them and critique them. The poor and the sick and the meek inherit the earth. The rich and whole and arrogant will be the last to enter the kingdom of heaven. Despite Jesus’ hard words for the church crowd, however, there is always good news to be found. For that matter, behind Jesus’ words of challenge and critique, no matter the audience, there is always Gospel for those who know that grace, not pious performance, is the heart of the matter. And this is good news for you and me—for, perhaps with some exceptions, we are the church crowd here today.

Meeting church people on their own turf

The first dialogue that Matthew shares has Jesus involved in a bit of Jewish pilpul with a rabbinical crowd. Let me tell you how I learned to appreciate pilpul and why it is important to understand what it’s about. I used to be a fan of Harry Kemmelman’s mystery stories. I used to be, I say, because once I had read all of them, there were no more to discover. They had titles like Friday the Rabbi Slept Late and Saturday the Rabbi Went Hungry, etc.. There was one for each day of the week. The hero in the mysteries was Rabbi David Small who helped police chief Paul Lanigan solve the murders in Barnard’s Crossing, Massachusetts, by using a form of rabbinical dialectic called pilpul which comes from a Hebrew word meaning to “spice up” or, in a metaphorical sense, to “dispute violently.” Small would take the facts as he knew them from Lanigan, and toss them back and forth, letting them split hairs with each other, until some clarity evolved, or some new, heretofore, unseen fact emerged. It was the same thing the members of the Sanhedrin did in Jesus’ day. While it can be an interesting dialectic device, you can see how it can also lead to splitting hairs. This is why Jesus used the method seldom, much to the surprise of listeners who said, “He doesn’t talk like the teachers of the Law, but he speaks with authority.”

However, in today’s text, he confronts the church people on their own turf. It’s a rare moment when Jesus participates in the traditional rabbinical style of argumentation, and to us he comes off sounding like a smart aleck. The rabbis say to him “where do you get the right to say and do this stuff!” Jesus responds in pilpul fashion, “Where did John get the right to do what he did?” And then, the rabbis begin to argue, as befits the style of pilpul . If we say “from God,” then he’ll say, “why didn’t you believe him?” And if we say, “from men,” the crowd won’t like it (political correctness was important even then) and they’ll attack us.” So they couldn’t come up with an answer. And Jesus tells them, “I won’t give you one either.” It sounds wonderfully smart alecky unless you understand that Jesus was using an acceptable style of debate. He understood his audience. It was a church crowd. So he met them on their turf, using language and strategies they would have considered “in house” talk. One has the impression that Jesus is showing no respect for the insiders or that, as Barclay, the Scottish theologian says, his time hadn’t come yet and he wasn’t ready to tell them who he really was ( Matthew 2, 258). However, I think that is to miss the point. Jesus did respect this particular church crowd; he just sought to meet them on their terms. He talked with them as they talked with each other.

Challenging church people to think

Matthew includes one more segment in today’s text, perhaps originally from a totally different context, but in this setting Matthew has his own purpose for including it. Once again, Jesus is addressing a church crowd, the kind of people who tend to condescend to people outside their circles. Instead of a debate setting, however, we are here confronted with a story setting. Jesus uses not pilpul , but a parable. The function of a parable, somewhat like pilpul , is to contrast two thoughts with each other in order to force the listeners to a conclusion—and it’s usually a conclusion about themselves.

Here’s it’s a story about two bad boys. Boys don’t change much, so the story is wonderfully modern. We can identify with these boys, because we did these things too—and so did our children. The father asks the boys to “mow the lawn.” The one says—he will, but he never does it. The other says he won’t, but he changes his mind and does it. “Which one, “ Jesus asks, “did what the father asks?” Now, you see, we are not comparing one good and one bad boy here. Neither did what the father asked—at least not at first. The one who changed his mind and finally “cut the grass,” however—well, even the spiritual leaders could figure out that he was less bad than the other!

What follows, now, is hard to judge. The charm of a parable, or—to say it in a more forceful way, the hammer-blow of a parable, is that it encourages you to make a judgement about the meaning and to apply it to yourself. Church people might be able to figure out that although they love to critique others who are not as faithful in church attendance or Bible Class or personal piety as they are, even they have reason to confess sins. Nowhere in Scripture was even a super pious person given reason to believe that he/she had achieved perfection.

However, Matthew springs words on us here which would catch any hearer by surprise—leading some to believe that Matthew himself added this hammer-blow to make sure that the religious leaders don’t miss the point: EVEN THE TAX COLLECTORS AND PROSTITUTES WILL GET INTO THE KINGDOM OF HEAVEN BEFORE YOU!! It’s not that Jesus could not have added these remarks in a fit of pique, but if one remains true to the character of a parable, it’s good to let the parable do its own thing, something it’s very good at. Either way, the church people had something to think about that day, and perhaps we do as well.

Listening to Jesus’ comments to us

In both of these side comments to the church crowd, perhaps after a long day of teaching and healing with the truly poor and sick, Matthew wants us to be fascinated that Jesus could really talk turkey with the insiders, address them on their own turf, understand his audience completely. One wonders, even though we can learn a lot from these same words, how Jesus might address us today, were he to have the chance to use communication techniques appropriate to our world. Would he use power point presentations and sci fi allegories in film? Would he use clever approaches gleaned from non-directive therapy or recommend frontal lobotomies to perform radical change? Would he consider hypnosis or primal scream therapy to bring us face to face with our most basic needs? Of course, you know I’m coming off the wall here, but I do think it’s valuable to note that Jesus understood his audiences, their needs as either outsiders or insiders, and was a master at communicating what various types of crowds needed to understand.

And here we might stop to ask ourselves what message you and I really need to take from this text today, what we ourselves need to understand. If we are indeed those who feel alienated from any kind of loving community, or separated from God himself—and perhaps some of you do—then there are words of love and support, which Jesus would intend specifically for you. In today’s world, there are many on the Southern Coast of our country who feel lost and abandoned, and still others in Florida or Galveston who are now afraid. In Sudan there are many that hunger for food and fear for their lives. In Iraq there are families that worry that a bomb may forever destroy the life they have known. In a hospital or a prison nearby, there are some that have a “sickness unto death” that gives them no cause for hope. To such people Jesus, in his personal way, understands their needs and has words of comfort, touches of healing, and assurances of forgiveness.

Finally, for those of us who know ourselves to be loved and affirmed by God, forgiven because Jesus cancelled our burdens and the cross and gave us life at the empty tomb, there are words of challenge and direction in these side comments to the church crowd.

We are reminded that were it not for God’s boundless love and mercy we ourselves would be poor, wretched and blind. We are reminded that only those who have known themselves to be impoverished without Christ can understand deep gratitude. And most, of all, we are reminded that God’s love for us assures that we cannot promise to help our neighbor and never go, for we who once were poor have been made rich. We who have been forgiven much have much to share.

See Also:

Sermons and Bible Commentaries for the 1st Sunday after the Feast of Transfiguration

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