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Hard Questions

Hard Questions
October 1, 2017
Passage: Ezekiel 18:1-4; Philippians 2:1-13, Matthew 21:23-32
Service Type:

Jesus is cranky. I’m not sure I’d go so far as to say that Our Lord is having a Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, but it’s important to understand the events that have come just before today’s gospel. He has just overturned the money-changing tables in the outer court of the Jerusalem temple, challenging the practices of the status quo. Then, on his way back to the temple the next day, curses a fig tree because he is hungry and it has no fruit. So maybe he’s just hungry. But by the time we get to the scene in the gospel we just heard, Jesus is in the mood to challenge the temple aristocracy.
And are in the mood to challenge Jesus. “Whatever gave you the idea you could do these things?” they ask. “Who said you could?” The “things” to which they refer are Jesus’ actions of the previous day, destroying the symbols of corruption and economic injustice that surround the temple. The chief priests and elders are trying to figure Jesus out. He’s clearly not one of them; who is he?
The Jerusalem temple is the perfect place for a conversation about authority; it was the seat of established, hierarchical, and wealthy Judaism, whose leaders were committed to maintaining a system imbalanced in their favor. It’s important to mention, especially in a time when we’re reminded every day that anti-Semitism is alive and well, that Jesus’ argument against the temple leaders is never with all Jews, or with the practices of everyday Judaism. His conflict is with the entrenched religious aristocracy. In Matthew’s gospel, these are the Sadducees. The Sadducees attached themselves to the Jerusalem temple and at the same time were supported financially by the corrupt and oppressive Roman regime. They perceived Jesus as a threat to the temple and to Roman rule. It is always the Sadducees who want to trick Jesus into saying something blasphemous.
But Jesus is having none of it. He seems not even to answer their question. If you can answer my question, he says, I’ll answer yours. My question is about John the Baptist; where did he get his authority? The chief priests are flummoxed.
By pointing to John the Baptist, Jesus is, in fact, answering the question. His authority comes from the same place as John the Baptist’s. John was an edgy prophet, sent by God, to the margins of polite society. The God of Israel who gave John authority is the same God who forgives sinners, who welcomes them and gives them a voice and a place at the table. This is the radical good news that John the Baptist proclaimed, that Jesus proclaimed and embodied, and that we make real in how we live our baptismal lives in the world.
Some in Jesus’ audience may have a first-hand acquaintance with John. They may have been among those who ventured out to the countryside to see John, those whom John called hypocrites and vipers.
In the parable, Jesus wonders aloud whether they are the first son, who says they won’t do something, but does, or the second son. What do you think? He’s pretty clear about this: the second son who says the right words, “I go, sir,” but doesn’t go, is like many of the temple authorities, more concerned with rules and appearances than with overturning business as usual in favor of justice and love.
What do you think? Jesus wants his hearers to think when they hear this parable of the man with two sons, and to think hard about themselves. This parable asks us some hard questions, especially we who are attached, with good reason, certainly, to doing things the right way, the way we’ve always done them, to sticking with our routines, sticking with what works. The hard question that this cranky Jesus asks us, really, is this: are we doing what we said we were going to do? Are we like tax collectors and prostitutes who respond right away to John’s edgy authority and repent, changing our minds for the Kingdom of God? Or are we like the religious establishment, suspicious of new voices and deeply attached to our own way of doing things, and to our own authority? Are we doing what we said we would do in our baptismal vows? Gathering faithfully for prayer and Eucharist, seeking and serving Christ in all persons, proclaiming good news of God in Christ? Are we respecting the dignity of every human being, including those outside of our own religious structure?
The other day I was at the gym and I eavesdropped on a conversation between a trainer and his client. The client asked how she was doing. He said: “Your balance looks really bad. You’ve got a long way to go.” (Not something I would’ve said, but there you have it.) Then he said: “I know you don’t like that answer, but I don’t care whether you like it or not.” (I know. Not a great marketing strategy.) But he did make me think about Jesus and his questions, and the hard answers we might come up with if we’re brutally honest with ourselves. We might not like our own answers, and that liking or not liking would be beside the point.
What do you think? I think it would be nice if you and I never had to hear hard questions about how we’re doing, and never had to answer them with anything but “great!” But we miss the mark all the time. At least I do. I don’t practice the kind of hospitality we read about in the gospel. I don’t give of my time and treasure as much as I want to. I don’t challenge others with hard truths the way Jesus modeled for his disciples. I feel like a hypocrite in some of my attachments. Don’t worry, I’m not going to list them here!
The good news is that being faithful to our baptism includes the promise to repent and return to the Lord whenever we fall into sin. Even if the honest soul-searching called for in today’s gospel brings us face to face with a self who has missed the mark, we can always change. Anyone in a 12-step program with a daily inventory knows this is part of moving through the community of humans we call the world. This is not about being guilty or bad, it is about Jesus’ continual invitation to go deeper, and to continually open ourselves to renewal and transformation. At any moment, we can become the other son. We can always respond to Jesus’ invitation to head out into the field after all, to do the work God has given us to do.
What do you think?