October 1, 2017 “Seeking the Kingdom” – Matthew 21:23-32
“Seeking the Kingdom”
October 1, 2017 – Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
“By what authority are you doing these things?” By what authority, by what right do NFL football players kneel or make themselves absent during the national anthem? One could say they have that right bestowed on them by the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. It’s a human authority based in the way this country was set up to operate. Or, one could say they have a divine right, a God-given moral authority to act in that way in order to protest racism, injustice and a President who calls people he doesn’t like by a filthy name.
If authority is merely human, a right granted because human beings adopted a set of guidelines or agreed to follow some rules, then it can be taken away. Maybe those who want those players to stop their protests can get what they want, force the NFL to fire them if they keep doing it. On the other hand, if authority comes from God, then it cannot be taken away, no matter how fervently it is denied by those who won’t accept it.
“By what authority are you doing these things?” was the question the chief priests and elders of Jerusalem put to Jesus in the Temple in verse 23. “Who gave you this authority?” Their implication was that Jesus had no authority, no right to do what He had done back up in verse 12 of this chapter, when He overturned the tables of the moneychangers and chased off those who were selling and buying sacrificial animals in the Temple. Jesus had no right, they were saying, to protest and disrespect the operation of the Temple.
Jesus refused to engage directly their questioning of His authority. He could have shown them a miracle like He had done just before in verse 19, making a tree wither and die instantly. Or He could have even done a more spectacular miracle like He told the disciples in verse 21 was possible, tell a mountain to get up and land in the sea. That would have proved His authority, shown them beyond doubt He was God or at least a prophet and had every right to do what He was doing. But in verses 24 and 25 Jesus just asked those leaders His own question, promising to answer theirs if they answered His.
“Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” It was a simple either/or sort of question, like the one about the NFL with which I began. I’m guessing that some of you may not like the way I framed that question about the football player protests. The chief priests and elders definitely did not like the way Jesus framed His question about John the Baptist.
John the Baptist was a popular hero. Crowds of people of all sorts, from sinners to soldiers, came out to listen to him and get baptized. But he had fierce words for people in power. He called them a bunch of vipers and called them to repent. He questioned the morality of the highest authority in his country. That king had him put to death for it. Jesus asked a group of the same sort of people John criticized so harshly what they thought of John’s authority. He gave them those options I used. Was it human or divine?
As soon as they heard it, those priests and elders knew they were in trouble. Their own authority was in danger. Jesus was using that sweet and powerful debating tool known as a “dilemma.” A dilemma is often pictured as two “horns” and its aim is to make you grab one of them, to force an opponent to choose between two unpleasant alternatives.
The rest of verse 25 and verse 26 give us the leaders’ internal dialogue. “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.” They did not want to get impaled on either horn of that authority dilemma.
Other than grasping one horn or other of a dilemma, the only other way out is to “slip between the horns.” There are various ways to do that. Finding a third alternative is one. But those ancient politicians used the time-honored method of politicians to this day. They simply pretended they didn’t know the answer. “We do not know,” they say in verse 27. Jesus echoed their refusal to answer His question by refusing to answer theirs.
The real issue in all this is not just John the Baptist’s authority. John was dead. His authority was pretty moot at that point. No, as those two-bit authorities understood very well at the outset, this was about Jesus’ authority. They weren’t just refusing to believe John. They were refusing to believe Jesus.
Rather than force that issue of authority, Jesus simply told them a story. It’s a story that beautifully captures the situation of Christianity right now in the 21st century, a story about lip service versus real obedience. It’s a story, Jesus ultimately concludes in verses 31 and 32, about the kingdom of God and who is headed there and who is not.
Like the rest of the country, Christians in America are seriously divided. At least some of that division is about what the kingdom of God looks like. Does it look like what white American Christians have been comfortable with for a long time? Or is it something different? Perhaps what we all agree on is that the kingdom of God is about obeying Jesus. We just find ourselves with very different visions of what obeying Him looks like.
This parable is here to get us to question what we think obeying Jesus is all about and to push us to look at people we might not have expected to show us the way. It’s a simple family story that has deep implications for what we want to be, according to our church vision statement, the family of God.
Let me put this in uncomfortable terms. As Jesus told it in verse 28, this man with two sons went to one of them and asked him for a hand in the vineyard that day. That son took a knee, turned away and said no. He wasn’t going to pledge any help to his dad. In the end, though, he changed his mind and went and got to work. The second son, on the other hand, stood and put his hand over his heart and pledged his undying allegiance to his father, but then didn’t lift a finger to help. “Which,” says Jesus in verse 31, “did the will of his father?” Who was the loyal member of the family?
Jesus audience of Jewish leaders could not sidestep that question. It was the first guy, the one who actually did what his dad asked, even after protesting, who was the good son, the real son, the one who made his father happy.
One of the morals of Jesus’ story is that those who are really doing God’s will, who are actually living as citizens of the kingdom of God, may not be the people we expect. They may not be the folks who loudly and dramatically affirm how committed they are. They may be people with all sorts of doubts, people who make public protests, people who look like the last people on earth we would call Christian.
Jesus’ examples of people like I’m talking about are there at the end of verse 31, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.” If we want to seek the kingdom of God like we say in our vision statement, then we may need to look in that direction, at people like prostitutes and tax collectors.
What does it mean in 2017? Jesus was talking to people who probably thought they had the inside track to God’s kingdom. He told them that people they were sure were far outside the kingdom were actually getting there first. Tax collectors were corrupt officials who worked with an enemy government to defraud their own people. Prostitutes were, well prostitutes, not the sort of folks you normally invite to dinner. These were people well beyond the fringes of polite society and of faithful religion.
For us, those people out there on the fringes or beyond may also be people whose sexual morals we don’t approve. They may be people whose politics we don’t like. They may be people whose right to be in this country is dubious. They may be people who are flat out dishonest. They are certainly all the people who get little to no respect, the poor and the prisoners. As Robert Farrar Capon and others put it, they are “the least, the last and the lost.” Those are exactly the ones who are going to lead us into God’s kingdom. We should be looking for them and going where they are if we want to get there.
Let’s bring it home right into the church. Many years ago I conducted two weddings in the space of a couple weeks. One was for a young woman whose parents were pillars in our church. Her father was on the church council. Her fiancé was also a Christian. Yet the rehearsal was a pastoral nightmare. They came late. The groom’s fraternity friends were rude and rowdy. They laughed and joked while I gave directions. They lounged and put their feet up on the pews. They did not care that they were in a church. They were people who supposedly had said “Yes” to Jesus, but everything they did said “No.”
A second couple had no connection to our church. They were not Christians, though they went through my pre-marital counseling and started attending worship. Our organist whispered to me one Sunday that the groom was in fact the most notorious bookie in town.
Yet that wedding party came to rehearsal on time. They carefully put out their cigarettes at the door. Most had not been inside a church since the last wedding they attended. But they sat quietly and listened carefully. They addressed me as “Pastor” or “Reverend” or “Father” (they weren’t quite sure which). They were awed by their surroundings. They seemed to feel the presence of God. They were people who seemed to have said “No” to Jesus but everything they did that evening said, “Yes.” And I felt that Jesus got more honor from that bunch of sinners than He did from the sons and daughters of the church.
I never saw the first couple in church again. But the bookie and his wife kept coming. What Jesus said in verses 31 and 32 was true. Obvious sinners and outcasts are getting into the kingdom of heaven ahead of supposedly righteous people. They are accepting the authority of Jesus and doing what He says. If we want to join them in the kingdom of God, we’re going to have to seek them out and do as they do.
We can ask again, what does that mean? I honestly don’t know the whole answer to that. But it means at least this, that you and I probably have to quit thinking of ourselves as the leaders, as the head of the procession into God’s kingdom. We will have to stop imagining that we know how black people ought to behave in order to be respectful or how undocumented people should fix their legal status. Instead, we will have do more listening to folks like that, and follow their lead sometimes in order to do what God wants.
Last week I read on Facebook an essay by someone I think was a Covenant pastor, I’m not sure. It was an eloquent diatribe against racism and a call for Christians to step up and let God’s kingdom come in all its beautiful diversity of race and nationality. It was quite moving, but then the author wrote a line that I found quite wrong. He said, “the white church will need to take the lead” in making this true, in righting the wrongs that have been done and bringing reconciliation with other races. No, I thought to myself, if we are ever going to get this right, then we may have to learn not to lead but to follow our sisters and brothers who don’t have the status we do or enjoy the privileges we have.
We have already discovered here at Valley Covenant how much we have to learn from our friends who worship in Spanish here in Manantial de Vida. Dan and Kay are going to go to India soon and meet some of the poorest and most downtrodden Christians in the world. I hope they will bring us back stories that don’t just make us feel good about how much we helped them, but that will speak to us of how far we must go to be like them in faith and devotion to Jesus.
Our vision statement says that we want to do what we recited in Jesus’s words at the beginning of worship, to seek the kingdom of God, to seek it before and above everything else. Now we’ve heard that we may have to seek in places we didn’t expect, following people with whom we’re not always comfortable. Yet that’s where the kingdom is, because that’s where Jesus is.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2017 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj