Sermon 20 Pentecost Yr A
September 26, 2008 Leave a comment
20 Pentecost Yr A, 28/09/2008
Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson
Pastor of Grace Lutheran Church, &
Chaplain of The Good Samaritan Society’s
South Ridge Village, Medicine Hat, Alberta
“Questioning authority and doing God’s will”
In Arabia, shortly after colts are born, they are entrusted to a trainer who uses only a bugle to lead them to water, food, and back to the corral. Never a word is spoken. All training is done with the bugle. After several months, the test is made. The horses are locked in the corral. They are kept there for four days without food and water. By the fourth day, they claw the fence and the sides of the walls, inflicting wounds on themselves, as they smell a freshwater breeze blowing in their direction from a nearby stream. After four days, the bars are let down and the horses stampede toward the stream. Just then, the bugler sounds the retreat. Those horses, which, despite their terrific thirst, turn back into the corral are used for breeding purposes. They only are deemed worthy of perpetuating the final strain of Arabian horses.1
In today’s gospel, Jesus’ authority is questioned by some of the Jewish leaders at the Jerusalem temple. In a way, Jesus’ authority is like the bugler and its sound of retreat. For those who recognise Jesus as the Messiah and listen to his voice, there is life abundant now thanks to his authoritative teachings and acts of grace; and a wonderful future in God’s eternal realm. Those who do not accept Jesus’ authority and teachings; according to Matthew’s account of this incident; are headed for a collision course with Jesus. According to these religious folks, Jesus was likely an unorthodox, unqualified fanatic, trying to wow the people by leading them away from the traditional teachings and authority of these Jewish leaders. They felt threatened by Jesus, his authority and teachings, which were drawing crowds and influencing them. Who was this Jesus to challenge and threaten their security, authority and teachings?!
In many respects, these Jewish leaders are not all that different than professional, qualified, credentialed leaders today. Leaders with impressive credentials gain authority and their teaching is respected by virtue of that hard-earned authority. The general public, when they turn to leaders and professionals, want to know that those they are confiding in and trusting have proper training and credentials giving them legitimate authority—whether it’s a medical doctor, a psychiatrist, psychologist, a dentist, a lawyer or a clergyperson.
Yet, Jesus in today’s gospel turns this kind of authority upside down. Here is, as far as we know, this fellow named Jesus who hasn’t even studied at rabbinical school; doesn’t even have an undergraduate degree; never underwent a colloquy examination; refused to take a clinical pastoral education unit; totally alienated the committee for theological education and leadership; and to the best of our knowledge hasn’t even written one single theological paper let alone an academic book; this Jesus, this itinerant teacher-preacher-miracle-worker-upstart-rabble-rouser invading our turf; threatening to turf out us respectable religious leaders! Moreover, what makes him even more unorthodox and obnoxious is that he is even able to beat the religious elite at their theological word games of putting him on the spot and trapping him with a fool-proof question that not even Solomon in his wisdom could weasel out of! Now that really got their goat! Pushing the envelope, he tells them, “I’ll answer your skill-testing trick question only on the condition that you answer my question first: “Was John’s baptism of human or divine origin?”
Well now, they hadn’t thought about that kind of situation—they were supposed to be the ones in control, asking all of the questions. Now this Jesus surprised them and took control with this, even more fool-proof question. What were they to do? They were literally damned if they said “yes, it was from God,” or damned if they said “no, it was from humans.” In their huddle they decided to evade the question, even in their hearts they did not believe John’s baptism was from God. So, they said, “We don’t have a clue what the answer is to that question.” Strange, is it not, that these defenders of the Jewish faith and traditions evade the question by saying that they’re stumped. Well, no, not really. Why? Because they knew they’d lose their authority and teaching influence if they said yes to the question—then Jesus would ask them why they had failed to believe John and accept his authority and baptism. And if they said no to the question—then they’d be in for it from their own people, the crowd would be insulted, because many of them had been influenced by John’s ministry. So, to preserve their power and security, the best answer was the politically expedient answer “we don’t know.”
Jesus then tells them that because they’ve failed to answer his question, he will not answer their question about his authority.
The irony of these Jewish leaders answering as they did is that the educated elite come across as the fools, not Jesus whom they were trying to humiliate. This is an important lesson for us too, is it not? It is a reminder of the truth of what Paul said in his first letter to the Corinthians that the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom; the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.
No sooner had these Jewish leaders lost round one of this encounter with Jesus, than now, the tables are turned on them for a second round—this time Jesus takes complete control of the situation and tells them the story of a man with two sons. He tells the first son to go and work in the vineyard. The first son says “no,” only a little while later he changes his mind, repents, and goes to work. The father told the second son to go and work in the vineyard too. The second son provides the correct words, the right answer, however, his actions, make his words out to be false. He promised the father, ‘I go, sir,’ but fails to follow through and ends up not going to work in the vineyard. Then Jesus asks the Jewish leaders which son did the will of the father? The Jewish leaders answer correctly, by saying “The first,” however, their answer and lack of acceptance of both John and Jesus ironically makes them like the second son in the story—they have all the correct words, yet they fall short on actions. Least we point our fingers at those Jewish leaders, it is instructive that we take this story to heart and look at ourselves. Who are we in the story? Are we too at times not like that second son? Do we too not fail at times to follow through on our actions so that our words, though correct, and full of promises, convict us of our sins and failures? Moreover, do we too not fall into the trap that Jesus is teaching us to avoid? Do we judge others by their surface appearances rather than what’s inside? Are we blind to the faithful acts that they do in obedience to the LORD? Do we condemn the modern-day tax-collectors and prostitutes when, according to Jesus, they may very well be going into the kingdom of God ahead of us?
Tough questions, I know, and I admit that I’m just as guilty and sinful as the worst offender here today. The yes and no of the two sons is happening everyday. You and I have likely been both the first son and the second son on occasion—we’ve said no, then changed our mind, repented, and did what our parents told us to do. And we’ve spoken the right words, given our parents the correct answer, yet failed to follow through by doing what they told us to do. Plus, we who are parents likely can identify with the father—our children may have done as these two sons did when we asked them to cut the lawn or clean up their room or take out the garbage or wash the clothes. Then, maybe to our surprise when they flatly refused and answered with a firm ‘no,’ we were sorry for having judged them too harshly when we discovered that they had actually gone out and done the very thing they said that they would not do.
Or perhaps we’ve had the experience of prematurely judging a social outcast like a tax-collector or prostitute, thinking that they were incapable of being faithful to Christ and outside the realm of God’s grace, only to discover that we are the ones being judged by our premature judgement—since they actually were more faithful and obedient than we were. We all know from our own experience that it is foolish to judge prematurely and by outward appearances. We all know that outward appearances can be deceiving—after all, that old adage, “You cannot judge a book by its cover” is very true.
There is a beautiful story about this very important lesson, and it goes like this: The name of the Rev. W. Colvin Williams was probably known to few people outside the small American town where he was minister. Williams was blinded by an exploding land-mine during the Last War, but he did not allow this to stop him from fulfilling his cherished ambition to train as a minister for the church he loved.
When he was ordained he said, “I feel my blindness may actually be an asset in my work. I can never judge by appearances and be prejudiced. My blindness keeps me from cutting myself off from a person because of the way he (or she) looks. I want to be the kind of person to whom anyone can come and feel secure to express (herself or) himself.”2
That kind of judgemental blindness is what we all need to be blessed with—for Jesus is Friend and Saviour of even the most rejected and despised of outcasts and, as his followers, he gives us the ministry of loving and caring for such people too. Amen.
1 Cited from: Emphasis, Vol. 26, No. 3, September-October 1996 (Lima, OH: CSS Publishing Co., Inc.), p.37.
2 F. Gay, The Friendship Book 1987, meditation for November 27.