16th Sunday after Pentecost | September 28, 2014 | Matthew 21: 23-32
Does it seem as if the Temple priests are pretty riled up? Well, they have good reason. In the stories just before this, Jesus has ridden in to town on a donkey to the cheers of people who lined the way into the city waving palm branches and throwing their wraps on the ground for him to ride over. It must have been quite a parade, and you can be sure that it didn’t go unnoticed by the authorities.
Then to top things off, Jesus came into the temple and created havoc, overturning tables of the moneychangers and people selling doves for sacrifices. “My house will be called a house of prayer, but you are making it a den of robbers!” He shouted.
Blind and lame people came for healing and the children kept shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David.” The religious authorities were horrified and indignant.
Then the next morning, Jesus cursed a fig tree and it withered on the spot. His disciples were amazed, but it only added to his reputation as a troublemaker, as fig trees, like vineyards were often regarded as symbols of God’s people, and their nation.
So now when we meet them, Jesus is confronted by the outraged Temple authorities, and maybe other religious leaders. They want to know how he thinks he has the authority to do these things. “Who said you could do this?” is their question. After all, they’d be the ones conferring such authority, right? This is their chance to trap him and expose him for how they see him, out of line, overturning their authority, leading people astray.
Jesus is not so easy to trap, and answers their question with a question they can’t answer without incriminating themselves. So we hear one of Jesus’ stories. This one is a tough one. It’s easy to see that Jesus is trying to show these authorities that they have failed to follow God’s decrees in spite of their scrupulous attention to following the rules of the law to the letter. Jesus has accused them over and over again of being so caught up in their rules that they have become hard-hearted and mean-spirited. They have portrayed God as harsh and judgmental, and made following God’s directions for sweetness in life a burdensome task. “Who did the will of the Father,” is his question, “the one who promised to go and work and failed to do it, or the one who changed his mind and followed his father’s request?” In this story, Jesus uses their correct answer to accuse them of failing to heed God’s call to repent, to turn their lives around and accept forgiveness for their stubbornness. I’m afraid that this story is not only a wake-up call to the Pharisees, the religious authorities of Jesus’ day. It is also a wake-up for us, who sit here thinking that church is just to make us comfortable. Who cling to our tradition so tightly that it can cut us off from the real needs of the world around us.
“I have laid before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life, so that you and your descendants may live.” Moses says to the Children of Israel in the desert, just as they are about to enter the promised land. Choose life. Matthew’s Gospel continues to emphasize what it is that makes for righteousness. And he continues to show us that it is not scrupulous attention to the rules and iron-clad judgments about people’s behavior. Righteousness for Matthew is about listening closely for God’s call to live out God’s love and share it. Righteousness is opening your eyes to the world that God sees, lonely and struggling for a sense of purpose, stuck in envy and jealousy that divide people and destroy community. Righteousness is about reaching out with a message of forgiveness and healing, building a community of care for all people and all the earth. That is the community Jesus wants to bring in, and those who are the most marginalized and the most desperate are the ones who hear his message with joy and accept it, gaining in it the strength to change and live anew. We need to ask for forgiveness when we have not been able to be that community.
Jesus’ call offers the religious authorities the same open future that outsiders have accepted with such joy. They are invited, as we are invited to leave behind the past that has made their lives so pinched and narrow and mean. They are invited into a world in which God doesn’t keep score about the life you’ve lived, but offers healing and forgiveness to all who answer the invitation. Jesus authority comes from God, who wants all to live and thrive and come into a future in which the sun comes out to cut the gloom of failure and despair. We get to choose how to respond to God’s invitation of such a future. We get to accept God’s authority to free us from sin and all that haunts our lives and come out into the joy of God’s love. Jesus won that for us in his death and God guaranteed it in Jesus’ resurrection.
Has there been a time in your life in which you gave authority to anything that was not life-giving? Has your past failure or your past fear kept you from living in the freedom of God’s forgiveness. What would your future look like if you were open to God’s invitation to start again, to trust God’s love and God’s call to new life? God does not define us by who we are, but by whose we are. We are God’s own Beloved. We are called and blessed and forgiven and strengthened to live beyond fear and failure.
Every week, we begin our worship with this confession: Generous and faithful God, we confess to you all the ways, known and unknown, that we reject and undermine your steadfast love. And then we hear these words of forgiveness: Through the living Word, + Jesus Christ, God forgives your every debt, your every sin, and gives you a new heart and a new spirit. You are free to live in the joy of that forgiveness, this day and all days. Amen.