by John Jewell, Sermonhelp.Com
Gospel: St. Matthew 21: 23-32
Do any of you remember the now world famous routine which was done by Abbott and Costello on NBC radio? It was called, "Who's on first?" Bud Abbott is trying to tell Lou Costello the names of the baseball players and it so happens that the name of the first baseman is a Mr. Who. Round and round poor Costello goes as he keeps trying to find out, "Who's on first?" -- and Abbott keeps trying to tell him, "Who's on first!"
There is a delightful encounter between Jesus and the religious officials in our text this morning that reminds me a little bit of Abbott and Costello's "Who's on First" routine. Jesus' detractors are thrown into perplexity as he asks a kind of a "Who's on first with God?" question. The question translates to, "Was John from God -- or was he simply a human phenomenon?"
The chief priests go into a caucus where they debate Jesus question. They are between a rock and a hard place. If they say John's baptism was just another temporary human fad, they will be in trouble with the crowd who considers John a prophet. Yet, if they say the whole movement is from God, Jesus will ask why they didn't believe John.
This is another wonderful coup d'état Jesus accomplishes against the religious leaders of the day who were always trying to back him into a corner. Listen to their answer. "We do not know." What is remarkable about this is that we are not talking about the ordinary man on the street here. These are the chief priests and elders of Israel. These are the ones who hold sway and give direction about things religious in the nation. Jesus is an itinerant teacher from a town whose inhabitants get little respect in Jerusalem and environs. ("Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" - John 1:46)
Don't you just love it? The officials who came to Jesus questioning his authority to teach publically state they don't know whether John was of God or not. Then they essentially confirm Jesus' teaching that they -- and not the "tax collectors and prostitutes" are the ones who reject that which comes from God.
Who's on first?
Tax collectors and prostitutes!
There are some essential lessons about the gospel -- the "Good News" of Christ in our gospel reading for today. There are teachings about, 1. False Assumptions, 2. False Presumptions and 3. The Meaning of Authentic Faith.
1. False Assumptions
Alice was an alcoholism counselor trainee at the alcoholism treatment center of the hospital where I was a CPE resident. She was a recovering alcoholic, a single woman and a grandmother. Her husband had left her with their three children years before I met her. Though she was a grandmother, she did not see much of her grandchildren or her children.
Alice was a warm, caring, sensitive woman who was highly recommended by her supervisors as an excellent future counselor. She was someone I found very easy to talk with about myself. I would choose her as a counselor without hesitation.
Yet, there was a trail of pain and anguish in her history. Enough pain and anguish that her children still did not have much of a relationship with her. When I told her I found that hard to believe, she said, "You didn't know me when..." I understood. Yet, I found her to be such a nourishing and warm person.
I invited her to come to church with me and my family. She acknowledged that she was a person of faith. [She talked frequently about her "HP" -- Higher Power] She declined saying, "Maybe some day I will be able to go to church with you. But, for now, I still find it hard to think about going. I've caused so much pain and grief for my family and friends that I can't go right now. Perhaps when I've been able to get my act together and keep it together for a few years, I will be able to go to church again."
What a horrible assumption! You can't go to church until you have your "act together." It's the pharisaic assumption. The unacceptable people are just that -- unacceptable. This is a "chief priests and elders of the people" thing. The assumption is that "we religious and pious folk" are the chosen ones of God.
In the gospel reading the officials assume that Jesus has no authority to come to the temple environs and teach people about God and the kingdom of God. For one thing, he has associated with all the wrong people -- the people these leaders assume are not acceptable to God. From one end of Matthew's gospel to the other you hear the dehumanizing assumptions of those who thought of themselves as closest to God.
* "And as he sat at dinner in the house, many tax collectors and sinners came and were sitting with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, "Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?" Matt. 9:10-11
* "the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, 'Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!" Matt. 11:19
It is rather easy to judge all of this 2000 years after it took place. We're part of the "good guys" -- right? We side with Jesus here and delight in his subtle - or maybe not so subtle put down of the arrogant assumptions of the "holier than thou."
But, there is cause for pause here. An opportunity -- no responsibility -- to take a closer look at ourselves. Do you ever engage in assumptions about people by virtue of their looks, background, ethnicity culture or politics? Is there ever a hint of self-righteousness in an observation shared with someone else about a person who does not share your attitudes or perceptions?
I have to confess that I catch myself in making assumptions concerning people I have no real personal knowledge of. I wonder -- if somehow, I wound up in the crowd at the temple that day without any knowledge of the situation or of Jesus himself -- how might my reaction to this situation be different? What would I think of this teacher who was so cavalier with social graces and careless in his associations?
"Who's on first -- with God?"
2. False Presumptions
As the religious folk of Jesus' day made false assumptions about others, they made false presumptions about their own relationship with God. There was a definite, "We're the good guys" mentality that presumed they were "tight" with God.
The problem with these people is that they don't so much see themselves in relationship with God because of who they are -- but because of who others are not. They are the "faithful" because they see others as "unfaithful." They are "righteous" because others are "sinners." They are those who pray, as in Luke, "The Pharisee stood and was praying thus to himself, 'God, I thank Thee that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax-gatherer.' " (18:11)
The real danger with false presumption is that of presuming upon the grace of God. Presuming I am "in" with God makes grace no grace at all. It is no longer the "gift" of God, but a reward for "work done".
There's a very simple reality check for presumptions. Finish the sentence... "I am okay with God because _________________________ ."
If you answer something along the line of, "... because I'm not such a bad person." -- that's depending on behavior or the Pharisaic way. The presumption is that God is somehow grading on a bell curve and I have confidence that I will come out on the good part of the curve. (After all -- look at all those tax collectors and sinners!)
On the other hand if the answer is something like, "... because I practice the 'right' religion -- or -- believe in the right 'belief system' " -- that's depending on the correct religion or the chief priests and elders way.
A colleague told of calling on an older couple who had not attended church in years, but considered themselves "an integral" part of the church. During the visit, the husband remarked, "I don't know if you are aware of this pastor, but my grandfather was one of the sixteen founding members of our church." Somehow, this covered all the bases. They would be okay with God because the grandfather helped begin the church.
Who's on first? Grandfather and all his descendants!
And so also, the Pharisees and chief priests of Jesus' day presumed upon the grace of God because they were ancestors of Abraham. The fact is -- if our grandfather's actions could secure a spot for us in the kingdom of God... there would never have been a need for the cross and Messiah would never have had to suffer. Abraham's faithfulness would have secured the destiny of all his children and their children's children.
But of course, there's more to it than that.
3. The Meaning of Authentic Faith.
Who's on first?
Jesus tells a story that turns all the assumptions and presumptions inside out. It is not the one who says but the one who does. It is our walk and not our talk that counts with God. All those rejects -- the tax collectors and sinners -- who turned their hearts to God were the ones who got on first with God.
Paul says it this way, "For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous in God's sight, but the doers of the law who will be justified." (Rom. 2:13) The letter of James says, "But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves." (James 1:22)
Jesus told his hearers that John had come in the way of righteousness and that those who believed him and acted on his words gained a place in the kingdom of God. John's call (way of righteousness) was relatively simple. "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near." (Matt. 3:2) John called people to turn away from self to God. They were to line their lives and their actions up with what God made known to them. John particularly warned them that they should not start talking about how it was that their great-great-great (etc.) grandfather Abraham had begun the whole Jewish nation. "Do not presume to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our ancestor'; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham." (Matt. 3:9)
"It is your heart God wants -- not your grandfathers' heart!" That was the core of John's message and it is the core of Jesus' continuing message to us today. Authentic faith is a relationship of trust and love between you and God. The old saying is indeed true. "God has no grandchildren -- only children."
Who's on first?"
Anyone (hear this clearly people) Anyone who chooses to trust in God and will make the commitment to live according to the light God gives.
Discussion and Reflection on the Texts
An examination of the questions Jesus asks his critics throughout the gospels makes a wonderful study of his ability to penetrate superficial argument and get to the heart of an issue. His detractors are frequently left with nothing but a public display of their petty prejudices.
Some of Jesus great questions:
* "Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save life or to
kill?" [Mark 3:4]
* "And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? [Matt. 15:3]
* "Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax." [Matt. 22:18-19]
* "Why do you raise such questions in your hearts?" [Mk. 2:8]
* "Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need of food?" [ Mk. 2:25]
In this text, Jesus applies the teaching of the parable directly to his questioners. "...into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you..." This begins a series of three parables (the text for this week and the next two weeks) where Jesus points the finger at the religious officials of Israel. The final conflict is fully engaged with these parables. It is significant that the beginning words of today's text are, "When he entered the temple..." signifying the final days and hours of his ministry. It is the officials of the temple that will finally reject the One who comes to save -- the One who came to give his life as a "...ransom for many."
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