Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost — October 1, 2023

You can't argue anyone out of their fear. You have to love them out of it. That's what we are reminded of in Matthew 21, writes Teri McDowell Ott.

Teri McDowell Ott's lectionary reflections are sent to the Outlook's email list every Monday.

Matthew 21:23-32
Year A 

Years ago, while attending the Festival of Homiletics, I heard former Princeton Theological Seminary President Craig Barnes describe the congregation he was serving as people full of anxiety and fear. They were anxious about their children, he said, anxious about their jobs, anxious about losing the lives they had worked hard to build.

Barnes wisely advised the pastors present to love our people out of their fear. “Think about it,” he said. “You can’t argue anyone out of their fear. You can’t rationalize them out of it. The only way to get rid of fear is to be loved out of it. When your child wakes up in the middle of the night terrified and screaming, you don’t go to his door and say, ‘Now son, we’ve talked about this … there’s no such thing as monsters and they certainly don’t live under your bed.’ No! You rush into the room and pull your child into your arms, and you love him until he’s no longer thinking about monsters but about those loving arms around him.”

While reading this Sunday’s text from Matthew, one verse stood out. After Jesus turned the chief priests’ challenge of his authority back on them, asking them whether John’s baptism came from heaven or was of human origin, the chief priests would not answer because, as they whispered to themselves, “We are afraid of the crowd.”

Imagine that — the religious leaders, the ones with the most social power in this scene, were afraid of the regular folk gathered to hear Jesus.

But “fear of the crowd” is a universal, time-transcending fear. Pastors or church leaders who climb into the pulpit to preach Jesus’ message feel it every Sunday. Post-pandemic, our churches are anxious and fragile. The pandemic revealed our vulnerabilities, our divisions, and the ways we turn on one another when our world is turned upside down.

As I write this lectionary reflection, a blog post by a pastor describing why they resigned from their position and from parish ministry altogether has gone viral. The pastor highlighted what they believed were stressors unique to parish ministry, and their loss of faith in the institutional church. Thousands of pastors and church leaders have commented and shared the post, some resonating with compassion, others responding with criticism and condemnation. Clearly, the post touched a nerve. Knowing that any public word of ours can go viral can persuade us to play it safe. The crowd, and our fear of it, holds its own power to direct how we will respond to Jesus.

Fortunately, our lectionary passage does not end there. The parable Jesus shares after this scene with the chief priests reminds us of God’s life-giving grace. We learn that the son who does the “will of the Father” is the one who, at first, refused to answer his parent’s call. Later, the son changes his mind and is praised for doing so.

We all fall short in responding to Jesus’ call. But grace abounds. We can change our minds and change our course. We can make amends and be welcomed into the loving arms of our father. The crowd that follows Jesus is proof of this grace — full of tax collectors and prostitutes, full of anxious, exhausted, fearful people looking for a second (or third) chance. Jesus does not exclude them, nor us.

We are living in anxious, fearful times. But the call of Christ’s body, the church, is clear. We must wrap our arms around each other, around the vulnerable, around those cast out and condemned, around our anxious religious leaders, and love each other until we’re no longer thinking about monsters, but about those loving arms and the One from whom grace abounds.

Questions for reflection:

  1. What thoughts, ideas or images came to mind as you read this passage?
  2. How does “fear of the crowd” play out in your congregation? In your leadership? In your life?
  3. In what ways have you experienced God’s grace? In what ways have you shown God’s grace to others?