October 1, 2017

17th Sunday after Pentecost Year A

When is the last time you’ve had a dangerous conversation? I don’t mean that you were physically threatened or verbally abused, but challenged in a way that made you re-evaluate your life and how you are living it. 

As the religious leaders of Jesus’ day found out in today’s Gospel reading, conversations with Jesus are dangerous. Your world rarely remains the same after an encounter with him. The questions we come with become litmus tests for our own faithfulness and the twists and turns come so fast that we are left with our heads spinning and our lives on the line. We are confronted and claimed all at the same time.

Our gospel reading this morning is part of an intense and growing controversy between Jesus and the temple leadership. Just the day before Jesus had entered Jerusalem to shouts of “Son of David.” His first act after entering the religious center of his Jewish faith was to expel the money changers in the temple, turning over their tables and disrupting their profiting from pilgrims who were coming to worship God.

He returns to the temple the next day, where he is confronted by the chief priests and elders who demand to know, “By what authority are you doing these things?” It is a fair question. But the religious leaders are at least duplicitous in their asking, wanting to trap Jesus in a dangerous situation. If Jesus claims his own authority, he admits to being an outsider with no formal basis to his authority and may be judged to be acting against God’s instituted structure. But if Jesus claims to be acting on God’s authority, he blasphemes against God and violates his tradition.

So Jesus avoids the trap and turns the tables on the religious leaders with a question of his own - saying he would answer their question if they answered his: “ Did the baptism of John come from heaven or was it of human origin?” It is a particularly thorny question because the answer concerns not only John, but Jesus himself. In recognizing John’s authority, the religious leaders would also be making a statement about John’s witness to Jesus – and thus to Jesus authority.

In this exchange the one questioned, Jesus, becomes the questioner; the interviewee becomes the inquisitor. Jesus not only avoids the religious leaders’ trap, but he places the question of his authority back on them.  And, to add insult to injury, Jesus’ question unmasks their deepest priorities and motivations.

They are not primarily interested in Jesus’ identity or where Jesus’ authority really comes from or in discerning how God would have them respond to Jesus. Rather, they are simply concerned about how to maintain their own privilege and power. They are concerned about keeping the current structure intact; putting Jesus in their tidy little box of control.

After Jesus question, the religious leaders are left speechless. The interview seems to be at an end, but Jesus does not let up. Like a boxer who has his opponent off balance, Jesus jabs with rapid succession of a parable and another question, quickly dispensing with these scribes and elders for their lack of belief and asserting that the least among them will enter the kingdom of heaven before they do. I imagine the religious leaders standing there wondering what just happened and reminding each other to be more careful before they initiate another dangerous conversation with this Jesus.

But I think there is more going on here than a verbal sparring match between Jesus and the religious leaders of his day. Jesus’ question about John the Baptist highlights the refusal of the chief priests and elders to recognize the messengers and their messages sent by God to call the nation of Israel back to faithfulness to God rather than a religious institution or structure.

This question also implicitly calls the religious leaders to examine what the prophets said about the messianic hope as embodied in Jesus. In addition, the brilliance of Jesus’ question actually answers the religious leaders question about Jesus’ authority, because John the Baptist asserted that Jesus had come from God.

The second part of Jesus’ response begins with a parable about two sons. Their father asks each in turn to go and work in the vineyard. The first says he won’t go, but then decides to go and works in the vineyard as his father has asked. The second son says he will obey his father’s wish for him to go work in the vineyard, but then does not go.

The surprising thing about this parable is that it seems to lack Jesus’ usual twist. But it is in Jesus’ application of the parable that the discomfort comes. When Jesus asked the chief priests and elders, “Which of the two did the will of his father?” They give the obvious answer, “the first.” The meaning is clear, what matters to God is not what you say you’ll do, but what you actually do.

Then Jesus makes the outrageous claim that those on the bottom of the social and religious ladder will be the first to enter the kingdom of heaven, ahead of the religious leaders who have confronted him and who most would consider to be far superior in their righteousness. So how could this be? The key is in the last line of this story:

“For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you (religious leaders) did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him, and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.”

John, thereby becomes the standard for righteousness and the measure by whom others are judged. If you receive John the Baptist’s baptism of repentance and his affirmation of Jesus as the Messiah, then you have begun the path that leads to righteousness and the kingdom of heaven. By following Jesus, no matter your social or religious status prior, you will join the tax collector’s and prostitutes as first to enter the kingdom of heaven. So be doers of the word and not hearers only.