Philippians 2:1-13; Matthew 21:23-32
Ordinary 26A; Proper 21
The sense of urgency is ramped up at this point in Matthew’s Gospel.
Jesus is in Jerusalem. He has cleansed the Temple, the crowds are swelling and the religious authorities are growing ever more eager to silence this rogue prophet. The chief priests and the elders of the people who pose this trick question to Jesus are the very ones who, just a few chapters later, will condemn him to death. They will conspire to arrest him. They will enlist Judas to betray him. They will confer together to bring about his death. The stakes of this exchange could not be higher, nor could the outcome be more predictable.
The chief priests and elders of the people do not come to Jesus out of a sense of holy curiosity. This is a setup, a trap that will be sprung when the moment is right and the crowd of Jesus’ supporters is not in such close proximity. They don’t care about the source of Jesus’ authority. They care only about maintaining their own power at any cost.
Jesus knows this, too. His face is, after all, set. The triumphant entry is into the town that kills its prophets and Jesus has told the disciples where the journey ends: “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified; and on the third day he will be raised.” (Matthew 20:18)
Given the reality of his imminent death, why bother dialoguing with the very ones who will confer and conspire in order to condemn him? And why bring John the Baptist into the conversation? Why take the time to tell a parable, knowing that nothing will change their minds or alter their intentions to kill him?
Perhaps for the sake of the crowd and the disciples then, and most certainly for the disciples that came after, including us, Jesus engaged those hostile to him, pronounced judgment on the ones opposed to the will of God, and continued to teach with authority, even in Jerusalem, even from the cross. I dare to hope that those chief priests and elders of the people might have remembered this tense exchange and recognized in troubling hindsight the true source of Jesus’ authority and his identity. Maybe then they changed their minds. I believe Jesus poured himself out, looked to the interest of others, was obedient unto death for the tax collectors and prostitutes who repented in response to John’s ministry and then followed Jesus, as well as for the ones who murdered him, and everyone in between. I believe that even the second son may well obey the father and go to work eventually.
Every knee will bend and every tongue confess. First and second sons – some surprisingly fast, some stubbornly slow – through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, all will have the opportunity to enter the kingdom of heaven. The chief priests and elders of the people couldn’t see God at work in John and refused to see the authority of heaven exercised in the Son of Man; and yet Jesus died for them and all the recalcitrant, disobedient sons and daughters who came after them.
The questions posed in this week’s Gospel text are perennial. Who has power? What is its source? Who will heed it? Who benefits from it? Who is hurt as a result of it?
The answers we discover in this week’s Gospel text are perennial, too. There are those in official leadership roles who have power that affords them privilege, perks and status and they are loath to give it up. There are the crowds whose source of power comes from their numbers and presence, both of which engender fear in those currently holding the reins and resources. Then there is God’s power, always present and disruptive, questioned or ignored by most, recognized and embraced by a few, but never ultimately thwarted by those who want to contain it, control it or manipulate it for their benefit.
The question these verses present to followers of Jesus Christ is this: Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin? In other words, do we recognize the power of God in our midst or not? And if we do see it, do we change our minds about nearly all we’ve ever been certain about in our lives? Do we respond to the power of God in John, the power that points to Jesus, and repent? Do we search our hearts and ask with sincerity: What should we do? Do our lives bear fruit worthy of repentance or are we, like the chief priests and elders of the people, those who say, “I go, sir,” but do nothing?
Scripture is filled with stories of the first son and the second, stories of those who say, “Lord, Lord,” but refuse to do God’s will and those who fear God more than Pharaoh. Our stories (or at least mine) have chapters that resemble the first son and far more that look eerily like that of the second. The good news is that our stories have not yet ended and we know the end of the Gospel story. “Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death — even death on a cross.”
God’s only Son, the Son of Man, the one in Jerusalem, creates the space in the kingdom of heaven for first sons and second sons, crowds, disciples — Judas and Peter and the other ten, you and me. And yes, even creates space for those chief priests and elders of the people who, whenever they see God, change their minds, repent, believe and follow the way of righteousness, are welcomed, by Jesus and the tax collectors and prostitutes who came before them.
- Read the Matthew text and pay attention to the power dynamics. Who has power and why? How do they use it?
- When have you changed your mind as a result of seeing, hearing or otherwise experiencing the gospel?
- The chief priests and elders of the people are fearful of the crowd and therefore refuse to answer Jesus’ question. Have you ever feared people more than God? How about feared God more than others’ opinions or reactions?
- When (or how) do we challenge Jesus authority in our lives?
- Have there been times in your faith journey when you have been the first son? How about the second?
- What are “these things” to which the chief priests and elders are referring to in verse 23?
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