A couple of weeks ago, a priest friend of mine posted on Facebook saying that Christ does not conquer by overpowering or shouting at our enemies, but by sabotaging them with love. That’s a very nice sentiment and kind of reassuring; who amongst us wouldn’t rather be sabotaged by love (even though that sounds like a bad ’80 hair band song) than run over by force. That’s a lovely sentiment, and it’s almost true.
Today’s Gospel lesson captures a moment in time but the lectionary does a terrible job of telling us when that moment occurred. We find Jesus standing against the Pharisees, something He did quite often, but He was in a new situation. He had a bit of a swagger, which we don’t always associate with our gentle Lord. In His new situation, He was headed toward both His biggest victory and His gruesome death. And He knew it.
What we have here today is the Hurry Up Jesus. The Two Minute Offense Jesus. His earthly ministry was coming to a close; what the lectionary skipped was what we call the Triumphal Entry, when Jesus rode a donkey into Jerusalem while the people sang and through palms at His feet. Jesus wasn’t in the city for much longer than His lunch-break before He went from being a nuisance to the religious authorities to being Public Enemy Number One. It was His own fault. Like in The Lord of the Rings when they say “One does not simply walk into Mordor,” one does not simply walk into the Temple and overturn not only the tables of the moneychangers but the whole religious system. The Pharisees would have probably arrested Jesus right then and there, but the Pharisees were nothing if not a pack of self-preservationists. They saw that the people, the common folk, were rather fond of this troublemaker, and besides, hadn’t He said He was the Son of God? Didn’t He once bring a dead guy back to life? Turn the king into a newt? Jesus strolled back out of the city, out of the clutches of the Pharisees, with maybe a little more english in His step. This was not the gentle saboteur, this was the warrior God the little Jewish kids always read about.
The next day, Jesus made His way back into the city, right back to the Temple, where any normal person would realize He was not welcome. A group of Pharisees were alerted to Jesus’ presence and they confronted Him, probably from a little bit of distance, and they asked Him the same question they had longed to ask John the Baptist. “Who gives you the power, the authority, to do the things you are doing?” In other words, “Who the hell do you think you are?” Jesus answered that question with a question. They must have understood; it’s like that old Jewish joke “in which someone asks his rabbi, “Why do rabbis always answer a question with another question?” to which the rabbi replied, “Why shouldn’t a rabbi answer a question with another question?”1
Jesus wasn’t done. “Whatcha think,” He asked the Pharisees, “about a son who does what his father asks him to do even though he puts up a stink about it, and a son who acts like he does everything right but doesn’t actually do squat?” Who’s better? Who did what he was asked? “Well,” said the Pharisees, “the son who did what his father told him to do.” For their efforts (they were right, by the way), Jesus tells them they are more or less out of luck. This parable was against you, He said without actually saying it, and the tax collectors (those cheats) and the harlots (yes, hookers), are the good sons in this story. You, on the other hand, you look real good and talk a good game, but you, well, you’re in more trouble than you realize.
Jesus told that parable against the Pharisees, but Matthew wrote it down for us. Both Jesus and Matthew knew that the Pharisees didn’t invent Pharisaical behavior (even if they perfected it), and that there would always be good religious people who would forget themselves. These well-meaning Christians would dress nice and go through all the prescribed motions with great attention to detail, they would say Yes every time God called their name, but something would always go missing. Something would get lost in translation; the great religious leaders would miss the still small voice under all their shouting and the actual will of God would fall on ears too plugged with pride to hear it. That could be us; maybe it is us. I hope it isn’t us. Maybe this is just a good time to sit back a minute, take a look at ourselves and what we are doing, and ask ourselves a question: If we knew our lives, our earthly ministries, were coming to a close, if we knew that we only had so much time to teach, to give, to sacrifice, to live in such a way that others benefited from our existence, what is it that we would be doing? Who would we be, or who could we be? What could this church be? Would we be the son who says yes to his father but doesn’t do squat, or would we be the son who, though at times reluctant and maybe even petulant, does what is required of him? Our Father sends us out into His fields every day. Who will we be today?
1Scott Hoezee, This Week.