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Unexpected Gospel

A sermon on Matthew 21:23-32 and Philippians 2:1-13

[for an audio recording of this sermon, click here. Photo by Denis Oliveira on Unsplash].

It’s hard to predict the changes our future might hold. As a case in point, at this time last year I never would have expected I would now be spending roughly 30 hours a week in 5th grade! That wasn’t my plan! Nevertheless, I’m grateful for the flexibility to be able to support my son in remote learning. And I deeply appreciate the hard work and energy of our teachers who are doing a nearly impossible job with commitment and care.

I can’t say that google classroom is always the most stimulating learning environment, but I am getting something out of it. For example, in Language Arts this week, my son and I learned about a strategy for getting the most out of a story: “Explore your questions." When you read a story, pay attention to the things that make you curious, and see if you can find any more information that will fill out the story for you.

Well, I applied this lesson in my exploration of our scripture texts this week, and I did discover questions I had never considered before, but which have reshaped my whole understanding of today’s gospel. I have always read this interaction as a bit of a snarky exchange…the leaders laying traps for Jesus and Jesus turning things around to catch them instead.

There have been times that I have delighted in this reading… but not this week. Not this year. I am sick of self-righteous zingers and political point scoring. That kind of exchange never accomplishes anything other than shoving us deeper into our corners. That’s not gospel to me!

But when I came to this story with an attitude of curiosity, I started to wonder Why didn’t Jesus just answer the question of the temple authorities?

They asked who gave him his authority, and Jesus, had he decided to, could have given a compelling answer. God gave him the authority!

Now, earlier in the gospel, Jesus was more reticent about claiming his identity as God’s son and the Messiah. He did not want to accelerate the final confrontation before his mission was completed.

But this scene takes place during Holy Week. He has already entered Jerusalem in the Palm Sunday processional, being praised and honored by the crowd. There is no messianic secret anymore.

So why didn’t Jesus just answer the question?

As I dug into the details of the story, I came to the conclusion that Jesus did not answer directly because he knew the temple leaders didn’t actually care about his source of authority. They were not asking to learn. They were not prepared to believe that he had any authority for his actions.

And, if we suspend our judgement, we can understand why. From their perspective, his actions in the prior few days were lawless, blasphemous, and violent. He had appropriated a donkey that didn’t belong to him, and also a prophecy about a coming king. He had accepted the messianic praise and adulation of the crowds. And he had conducted a one-man riot in the temple, violently breaking up businesses and assaulting merchants and customers alike. In the eyes of those whose job it was to conduct the business of the temple and maintain the integrity of their faith, there was no possible authority that could legitimize such actions. And even if there were, they were feeling too threatened and defensive to consider it.

So, no, their question was not genuine. They were only asking in order to expose Jesus’s treason and heresy, so that they could take action against him and reestablish their own authority. I point this out not as a shallow judgement, but rather as a recognition of how easy it is to be deceived about one’s own perspective. To be unaware of the way that bias and assumptions lie behind what we believe is an honest question. The temple leaders may have even felt self-righteous about the civility and restraint of their approach to this disruptive troublemaker. After all, they were giving him a chance to explain himself. Weren’t they?

Well, no. They weren’t. But Jesus could have told them anyway. He was already heading for the cross and he knew it. There was no otherwise avoidable danger in speaking the truth for all to hear. Why not get in a little gratifying intimidation and let his self-righteous accusers know exactly who they were messing with?

Why not? Because of who Jesus is. Not that he had any problems calling out authority figures, but when he did his purpose was not to aggrandize himself. Jesus was not there for the power struggle.

Paul makes this clear in the reading we heard today from Philippians. Jesus was equal with God but did not exploit this power and glory. Rather, he emptied himself. He poured himself out to embrace our weakness, even our death. He could have exalted himself anytime he chose, but instead he chose the opposite. He chose to identify with us. He chose to limit himself, rather than trying to increase his power. Even when dealing with temple leaders who were doing the exact opposite.

So, if Jesus deflected the question because he wasn’t interested in the power struggle … because he came to share our weakness rather than lording his authority over us… then that elicits my second question: How does his story about the two sons serve this purpose?

Unlike many of Jesus’s parables, this story is straight forward and easy to understand. Even the temple leaders who are trying to pick a fight with him can come up with the right answer and are willing to give it!

Actions matter more than words! That’s obvious.

So, what is the point of engaging his opponents with this story? He had earlier asked them one question – about John the Baptist - that caught them in their own “authority” trap. But instead of pressing his advantage, he lobs them a softball. Why?

The simple answer is: he wanted them to get the question right!

It’s a simple answer, but it’s unexpected. We are so used to thinking in binary, adversarial terms that we have a hard time hearing an account of an adversarial situation, where Jesus is being confronted by hostile opponents, and then recognizing that he is not responding in kind.

We expect a “gotcha” moment. We expect Jesus to catch them in their own scheme. Especially in the Gospel of Matthew we expect some warning of the coming judgment, something about “weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

But, even in his challenge to them, Jesus’s rebuke is not a sentence of judgment. He only says that those whom the leaders look down on are entering God’s kingdom “ahead of them.”

But the leaders can still enter. If the son who refused his father, could later change his mind, then so can they. So far, they’ve been claiming the identity of obedience while seeking their own power, but they can still change. Jesus tells them a simple story, with a simple question and answer, because he wants them to get it right. He wants to break through their self-delusion.

In their challenge to him they had revealed their obsession with their own power and authority, and also their blindness. They thought their authority was unquestionable. They thought they were doing God’s will … but Jesus shows them how they have failed to follow the leaders God has sent to them. The story of the two sons shows a revealing picture of the leaders themselves – they are the son who says the right thing, but then doesn’t do what God commands of God’s people. It’s a striking contrast in the context of the confrontation. The temple leaders are trying to bait Jesus, but he is trying to reach them. Holding up a mirror for them to see where they have gone wrong.

It’s a mirror I imagine we all need in our own context of conflict. It’s so easy to buy our own lies about ourselves and what we believe, especially when we isolate ourselves in echo chambers that reinforce what we want to hear. It so painfully easy to believe what we say about ourselves, rather than examining how we actually live.

In her commentary on this passage Debie Thomas calls us to identify with the temple leaders. She writes “we know the correct answer to Jesus’s question – and yet we struggle to bridge the gap between what we say we believe, and what we actually go out and do in the light of those beliefs. Sometimes, we don’t even struggle; we fall back into complacency, or laziness, or a self-protective defeatism. We tell ourselves that our words (or our intentions, or our aspirations, or our vague future plans) are enough to keep God off our backs. We convince ourselves that action is just plain too hard and disruptive – and therefore unnecessary.”[1]

Like the temple leaders, we know what to say…but by giving the right answer to a simple question, we and the temple leaders are called to take an honest look at the difference between saying and doing. It’s easy to say the right thing, but what are we doing?

Are we, as the apostle Paul exhorts “being of the same mind (as Christ), having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Doing nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regarding others as better than ourselves… looking not to our own interests, but to the interests of others” (Phil. 2:2-4)?

It’s a sobering question, because none of us can say yes, not all the time. Of course we can’t. Jesus emptied himself to become like us because we cannot, in our own wills, become like him.

But despite the painful reflection in the mirror this story holds up for us, it’s a hopeful story. It’s hopeful because it’s not a gotcha story. It’s not a story of Jesus delighting to catch his accusers with their own words, because he’s not there for the power struggle.

He’s there to save them, and to save us. To refuse to defend his authority so that we can let go of the desire for ours. To remind us that whatever we have said to this point, and whoever we have believed ourselves to be, we can now hear and respond to the call to have the same mind as was in Christ Jesus.

For, as Paul reminds us, “it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for God’s good pleasure.” (Phil. 2:13).

Sometimes it’s the changes we couldn’t predict that are the best news of all.

Thanks be to God.


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