Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth…
By the time the apostle Paul wrote these words some twenty years after the events described in Matthew’s gospel, it is pretty clear on whose authority Jesus acted. But when he was confronted by the chief priests and elders in the temple, it was anything but clear.
Let’s back up for a moment. Those of you who have heard me preach a time or two know my annoyance with the compilers of the lectionary when they plop us down in the middle of a story, leaving us with no context for the events at hand. Perhaps I should be grateful since in doing so, it means that I will always have a job providing said context for you.
You may have noticed that the chief priests, not to be confused with ordinary priests, but the high priest and the former high priests, confront Jesus with a question: “By what authority are you doing these things?” (21:23). What things? When last we encountered Jesus, we were back at the beginning of chapter 20, and here we are halfway through chapter 21, and Jesus has clearly been doing something to upset the authorities.
Let’s say for the sake of argument that today is Monday. Yesterday was Palm Sunday, when Jesus entered Jerusalem riding on the back of a donkey. And when he got there, he took a whip to the moneychangers and dove sellers who were extorting the poor coming to make sacrifices in the temple. And the blind and the lame came to him for healing and the children cried out “Hosanna to the Son of David” (21:15), and the chief priests did not like any of this not one little bit.
Jesus and his companions spent Sunday night out in Bethany, crashing on a sofa at Mary and Martha’s house, returning to the temple the next morning, and it is here that the chief priests and elders try to set their trap.
Now, our tendency is to want to make Jesus into some crafty debater, outsmarting the religious authorities at every turn. But what he was was a teacher, a rabbi, and the way rabbis teach is to ask questions, to answer questions with questions. He was engaging them with their own methods. I doubt that went over very well with them since he was just an itinerant preacher from the backwater of Galilee. And it isn’t just any question he asks. Rather than answering that his authority comes from God which they can prove to be scripturally wrong since the priests were given that authority in the time of Moses, he asks a question about John the Baptist. Dead John the Baptist, who lived out in the desert calling people to repent. Like a prophet of old, John knew that religion had gone way off course, and those God expressly loved – the poor, the oppressed, the widow, the orphan – their lives were going downhill fast while the so-called authorities placed more and more unattainable expectations on them.
It is this John with whom Jesus aligns himself – outside the temple structure, outside the authority of the priests and scribes.
Jesus then tells the parable of the two sons, and you can practically see the color draining from the faces of his questioners. It is pretty clear that he is accusing them of saying that they were doing God’s work but that, in fact, they were not, while tax collectors and prostitutes – the lowest of the low - may not be all pious and regular church-goers, but they repented and followed Jesus. And their reward is a place at the front of the line for entrance into the kingdom of God.
I have told you before and I will tell you again now that the chief priests and Pharisees with whom Jesus seems to battle constantly, they were not bad people. They went to church every Sunday and gave ten-percent of all they had; they were faithful to their spouses and devoted to their kids. In fact, they were just like us.
But they missed the point. They commodified God’s love as something to be earned by following the rules, rules that they interpreted. They walked through the temple courtyard with their heads held high while the tax collectors fell on their knees and beat their chests asking for God’s mercy and the poor widows gave their last coin for the treasury. The chief priests saw only what they chose to see.
Jesus does not say that they will be excluded from God’s kingdom. That’s not how God’s love works. It’s just that they will lose their position of privilege. They won’t be first. They will be last.
Like many of you, I’ve spent a considerable amount of time over the last two weeks engrossed in Ken Burns’ latest masterpiece, The Vietnam War. For someone who follows the Prince of Peace, I have an awful fascination with war, and this war in particular provided the soundtrack for my childhood. It seemed always to be there.
In the last episode, we relived the final dénouement with the chaotic evacuation of the American embassy in Saigon. When it became clear that time was running out and the military helicopters were restricted to just evacuating Americans, it fell to the Marine Security Guard to keep the Vietnamese outside the gates. Ultimately, the last American personnel made their way to the rooftop helipad. Every ten minutes or so, the choppers had arrived until there were only eleven marines left. Ten minutes passed. Then another ten. The radios were dead, so there was no way to reach anyone outside. A bottle of whiskey got passed around, silently, from marine to marine. Ten more minutes, then an hour, then another hour. The tension and fear are palpable, even now.
Finally, the faint sound of chopper rotors grew louder until it landed on the roof of the embassy. Ten marines scrambled in. The eleventh, Master Sgt. Juan Valdez, commander of embassy security, had slipped and was hanging on to the back of the helicopter. Thankfully, his fellow marines noticed and hauled him in. He had wanted to make sure that everyone made it in before he climbed aboard.
In those final hours in Saigon where everyone with any civil or military authority had already left, marine commander Valdez exercised an authority that came from somewhere else; an authority that told him that he had to be last, even at the risk of not making it out before Saigon fell. It wasn’t about rules and regulations and who deserved special treatment. It was about taking care of those who were his to take care of.
We may never be called upon to so dramatically demonstrate such selfless love for another human being. But I am sure that every single day we encounter those who don’t do all the right things, those who don’t go to church or give money to charity or take a shower every day or follow all the rules. And if we aren’t paying attention to them and their needs, then we need to repent. We need to turn around.
Would you rather be someone who says you’re going to follow Jesus and then doesn’t follow through, or would you rather be the one who wasn’t so sure of this Jesus thing, but did those things that Jesus did? Feed the hungry. Heal the sick. Release the prisoners. Bring Good News to those desperate to hear it.
Jesus had no time for the powers and principalities of the world or the privilege and prestige of the temple authorities. No, he was so filled with love for us, that “he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:8). It is out of this love that Jesus’s authority is exercised. As our presiding bishop has said over and over again, if it isn’t about love, it isn’t about God. Worry less about what rules you are following or whether you are doing this faith thing right. If what you are about in the world is about love, that’s really all you need to know.
|8:00 a.m.||Holy Communion|
|10:00 a.m.||Holy Communion|
|5:30 p.m.||Holy Communion|