Proper 21, Year A
October 1, 2017
Today’s Gospel lesson jumps us quite a ways forward in the narrative of Jesus’s ministry. For the last several weeks, the readings from Matthew have taken us on a slow but steady journey from Jesus’s home base near the Sea of Galilee toward Jerusalem. Since last week’s events, Jesus has fielded a request by James and John’s mother to seat them at his right and left in the Kingdom, healed two blind men, entered Jerusalem on a donkey to the cheers of an adoring crowd, overturned the tables of the money changers in the Temple and cursed a fig tree. It’s been a busy week for Jesus!
And suspicion of Jesus’s motives on the part of the religious authorities has reached a fever pitch. He’s been on their radar for a long time, and they’ve been looking for ways to get rid of him. Now, with the mayhem which he caused with the money changers, they may have found their best chance yet.
Today’s reading from Matthew finds Jesus back in the temple; presumably the mess he had made the day before has been cleaned up. But the chief priests and elders are in no mood to make nice. They demand to know what authority he has to do the things that he’s been doing. And as he so often does, Jesus answers the question with a question of his own; knowing that the authorities are laying a trap for him, he flips the script and sets the trap for them instead. He promises to answer their questions about his authority if they will answer a question of his first – did John the Baptist baptize on God’s authority, or on his own?
The chief priests and elders can’t answer the question; they don’t think that John had authority from God, but if they say that, they’ll have a riot on their hands. William Barclay writes that they gave the “lamest of all lame answers” – “We don’t know.”
Then Jesus asks them another question; at first it seems offhand, almost a throwaway comment. But when I read this passage a second time, it jumped out at me, and I believe that it’s the most important part of the whole passage. He asked them, “What do you think?”
That simple question – “What do you think?” – said volumes. The strict rules of Jewish life left little room for independent thought, at least in the minds of the chief priest and elders. To be a Jew in good standing, you had to follow the Law – end of story. But what if you couldn’t keep the Law? What if you were so busy trying to stay alive, trying to feed your family and keep a roof over your head, that you literally didn’t have the time or wherewithal to keep true to the Law as the authorities dictated? Well, then, you were part of that huge crowd of riff-raff – the “tax collectors and sinners” that Jesus was accused of communing with, and who were not allowed to participate in Temple worship. How does that long list of laws help you to be a better Jew when you can’t possibly keep true to them – when the circumstances of your life are so desperate that keeping Kosher simply isn’t an option? “What do you think?” Which is more important – rules or people? Jesus’s comment to the religious leaders at the end of the passage is telling – “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.” Jesus claimed that he had been anointed to “bring good news to the poor” – and a part of that good news was that you didn’t have to be able to follow the letter of the law to be welcomed into the Kingdom of God.
We still see this in the church today; so many of our fellow Christians who identify as Evangelicals are so conditioned to thinking that the only way into Heaven is to follow every rule, to believe a certain way within a certain time frame, and to recite certain words before one’s Earthly life ends that they miss the whole point of Jesus’s ministry. They miss the real Good News – the part about bringing good news to the poor; the part about proclaiming release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind and letting the oppressed go free.
I tend to be a rule follower; when I was growing up, my father was the Assistant Superintendent of schools in the district where I attended; before that he had been the Junior High principal. Everyone knew Mr. Hiatt, and I was mortified by the thought of getting in trouble and embarrassing my dad. It wasn’t that he would lose his temper or yell and scream – that would have never happened. It was that he would just be so disappointed. It would almost be too much to bear. I’ve been a rule follower ever since, and for the most part it’s served me well. But there are times in life when the rules don’t make sense. In this part of the country, there used to be rules which said that people with a certain color of skin couldn’t drink out of the same water fountain, or sit in the same waiting room, or attend the same school as everyone else. The rules didn’t make sense; they were purely and simply evil. They were about preserving dominance of one type of people over another; and rules like that still exist in less egregious forms. Those rules needed to go away, onto the ash heap of history, as do the ones which still cause pain and grief and injustice.
Other times the rules aren’t evil; they simply aren’t right. I spend a lot of time in traffic on my commute to Dallas; there are a lot of rules in driving, and most of them get broken on a regular basis. One of the broken rules that gets me most upset while driving is when you see a sign which says “Lane Ends Ahead – Merge Right (or Left)”.. I dutifully get in the continuing lane, then, when someone zips ahead in the ending lane and tries to budge in ahead of me, I fume. I’m in the right. I deserve to be ahead of that guy. Often someone, usually driving an extra-large pickup truck, appoints themselves to be the lane monitor, and straddles the center line, not letting anyone by on either side until he gets to the merge point.
But it turns out that maybe that rule isn’t right after all. In Europe, and now in places in the US, the common practice for merging traffic is called the Zipper Merge. The way it works is that all available lane space is used – both lanes fill up right to the merge point, then everyone takes turns merging together – like teeth on a zipper. Numerous traffic studies have shown that the zipper merge moves traffic more efficiently and results if fewer delays than everyone moving early to the continuing lane.. So it turns out that cooperation works better than dominance. Who would’ve guessed?
Jesus asks us, “What do you think?” And with those words, Jesus is tipping us off to the correct answer – He expects us to think! Jesus doesn’t want a church full of automatons who merely learn the rules, fill in the blanks, and never stray outside the lines. Jesus wants followers who think. Jesus expects us, as 21st century Christians, to take his words from 2000 years ago and apply them to our context today – not as prescription, but as inspiration; to inspire us as his hands and feet in a world desperate for Good News.