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Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 28, 2014

When I was a child, a trip to the Valley Bell was a treat. The Valley Bell was our local ice cream store. Sometimes Dad would take us after dinner to get a yummy ice cream cone. But for some inexplicable reason, I sometimes wanted the candy the store stocked. I remember once when Mom had specifically told me I could not have the candy, and I said OK, but I got it anyway. I flaunted her authority. Just recently, I have been told to eat earlier because I have acid reflux. On Tuesday, I could have done that, but I just didn’t. The habit of eating late is too much a part of my life. I flaunted the authority of the doctor.

On the other hand, I have changed my mind sometimes and done what I said I was not going to do. I did not want to go to the march against gun violence on the mall, but I changed my mind and went – and was glad for the experience. Earlier this week, someone wanting help came to my door. I had given him much more than I usually hand out just a few months before and had said I would not give him more money for at least a year, but I did. On Monday morning I had planned to ride the bike, but my ankle hurt and my intuition told me it would not be good for me to exercise. In my Christian discipleship, I want to serve the cause of justice, help the poor and take care of myself. I did all those things and I believe I was accepting Jesus’ authority.

Not everyone accepted Jesus’ authority in his time. The elders and chief priests certainly did not. They are alarmed and angry because Jesus has cleansed the temple by overturning the money changers’ tables and getting rid of all the animal sellers, calling them thieves. He has healed the blind and the lame in the temple, and what might be the scariest of all, he has children echoing the cheer they had heard in the streets, “Hosanna to the Son of David”. They want to hold on to their power and authority, and they wonder who this supposed prophet is. It is not an unreasonable question. They know themselves to have been given authority by God to say what was right and what was wrong, who was in and who was out, and what the law said about almost everything a Jew did. They feel they have done a good job of it, and are interested in maintaining the status quo because everything seems to be working well, at least from their point of view. So they plan a question to trap Jesus. They ask him where he got his authority and who gave it to him. Well of course God gave it to him, but he couldn’t say that or they would tell him just how God gave authority and his way did not fit. He could not say he acted on his own authority because that would deny God’s power in his life (Emmanuel Larty). He was stuck. So he did what many in a rabbinical argument would do. He asked them a question designed to put the issue of his authority back on them to answer.

He didn’t ask about himself, but about John the Baptist – was his baptism from God or from human authorities. And now the religious leaders were stuck, and they were scared. They knew if they said from God, Jesus would challenge them about not following John. They knew if they said human authority, the crowd would react badly because they saw John as a prophet. The men in power responded they did not know, which was not good either. If they were supposed to be the authorities, their answer certainly would undermine confidence in their ability to say what was right for Israel and what was not (Rebecca Wright).

Jesus of course is identifying himself with John the Baptist, who preached his coming as the Messiah. The message that he and John preached was the same; the promise that they gave of being part of the kingdom was the same. But this answer, instead of a direct one, is designed to shake up the religious authorities and really make them think.

Then Jesus tells them a straightforward parable about two sons, one who refused to work in the fields when his father asked and then went, and one who said he would go but didn’t. The answer to Jesus’ question, which one did the will of the father, was obvious, and the elders rush to answer it. In doing so, they condemn themselves. Jesus, who has the authority from God to say who got into the kingdom and who didn’t, draws the parallel between the tax collectors and prostitutes, who changed their minds and repented, and the authorities, who did not repent because they didn’t think they needed to. They followed the letter of the law meticulously. Jesus does not say the religious leaders will never get in – all the people were still God’s children – but they will get in when they choose to change their minds and repent.

The tax collectors and the prostitutes knew they were doing wrong. Their past was sordid, and they wanted to be free of it. So recognizing John’s authority from God, they repented and were forgiven. They were able to let go of the past and be open to the future (David Lose), a future of loving, serving and giving to God and to their neighbors. The religious leaders are not ready to do that yet. They are the keepers of the past, of the tradition, and they do not want it to be changed because it might force them to change, to be transformed, and that was too scary to contemplate.

Changing one’s mind is always possible, but it is always a challenge because old ways become entrenched. Ezekiel is speaking to God’s people in exile who are claiming that God is unfair because God has condemned them to suffer for the sins of their parents (a sentiment that God had actually expressed in the Decalogue – that children to the third and fourth generation of those who sinned would be punished). Ezekiel declares that edict to be no more. Now everyone was responsible for their own sins – they could not blame their actions on anyone else. They would be judged by God for their own behavior. Changing their minds and turning to righteousness would give them life, and turning to evil would bring them death. Here as in Matthew, God wants everyone in Israel to choose righteousness and life. Jesus does not tell the parable and argue with the Pharisees just to show them up; he wants them to save their lives by changing their minds and being open to God’s future.

Jesus’ questions always have a purpose. They are designed to challenge, to call for reflection and hopefully to transform. They are designed to elicit belief in him and more than that, to call us to new action and the new life that comes with it. His questions invite us to let go of the burdens of the past – of our sin, our unrighteousness, our apathy in the face of appalling social conditions – and take on a new heart and a new spirit.

Jesus’ parable is not told to make the Jews look bad and Christians look good. It is a confrontation between change and the status quo. Today, the question Jesus asks is for us. Sometimes we are unwilling to judge ourselves but very willing to judge others. Conflicts about doctrine, about women in leadership positions, about gays, about biblical inerrancy are good examples. We must all look inside ourselves to see where we are in Jesus’ confrontation with the elders and chief priests. How do we respond to the challenges and upheaval in our communities? Do we have that new heart and new spirit or are our hearts hardened. What about our own lives? When we are invited by God to change our minds about something, are we willing to let go of our sin, including trying to have authority over ourselves, and invite God to point us toward God’s future? Transformation is a part of our Christian journey, and we are called to it over and over again. It is time for us to change our minds, to look toward the future, to walk in the way of righteousness, so that we can truly love and serve and show ourselves an example of the kingdom life.

AMEN

Works Cited:
Emmanuel Y. Larty, Feasting on the Gospels; Matthew, vol. 2, chapters 14-28 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013), p. 164
Rebecca Wright, Tuesday Morning, vol. 16, no. 3, p. 30
David J. Lose, “In the Meantime”, blog post, September 22, 2014