When Jesus entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” Jesus said to them, “I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” And they argued with one another, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.” So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.”
“What do you think? There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work today in the vineyard.’ ‘I will not,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went. Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but he did not go. Which of the two did what his father wanted?” “The first,” they answered. Jesus answered,” Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him.” –Matthew 21:23-32
One of the ongoing political debates during this uncommon time pertains to who has the authority to make ultimate decisions and policy. Is it the Federal government or the state governments? It has been more than a hypothetical argument recently; in many cases it has been a matter of life-or-death.
Our parable for the day deals with a similar question of authority. The passage is rather unique, one of those rare passages in Matthew’s gospel which is distinctly Matthew. That is, this story is found in Matthew, and Matthew alone. The other Gospel writers didn’t pick up on this parable, or if they did, they simply chose to avoid it. Whatever, this is a consequential story from Jesus, and we should be attentive to what is being said.
The story that Jesus tells is short and to the point. Nevertheless, there is one place in the story where you might want to notice Jesus using dialogical language in a dramatic and contrasting way. Listen for the word “sir” used by the younger brother, which seems so complimentary and polite, but which is really hypocritical and, in a way, obscene. Also, make note of the fact that when Jesus directs his teaching to the chief priests and elders, saying that even the harlots and tax collectors are going into heaven before them, Jesus uses the present tense. In one sense, it is another reminder that the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand, but in a theological sense, this statement is charged with the reality that Jesus is equating himself with God and God’s Kingdom. In Jesus the Kingdom has come, and the fact that he uses the present tense with his verb would have made heads turn. Jesus brings the Kingdom current, and he brings it current by talking about repentance, not so much as a philosophical exercise, but as a dynamic action. In this parable Jesus points out that faith is not so much thinking the right way, but acting the right way.
Think about it for a minute. Will you agree with me when I say that there are some things in this life that you cannot really know except by doing them? Take, for instance, dancing. You can’t really know how to dance just by hearing a lecture, even a very descriptive lecture, on dance. You must join the dance, feel the moves, let the rhythm take over your body. Or theater… At some point most of us had the school assignment of reading Shakespeare, say King Lear, for example. However, you can’t fully encounter King Lear by just reading the words. It’s a play. It’s meant to be acted, performed. As a preacher I am in the business of words. But as a pastor I am also aware, painfully aware, of all the things words cannot do. Or how about baseball? I can describe for you the best game of the season, but if you’ve never played, I don’t think you’ll fully understand. (When I was in Oxford, I had several people try to explain to me the game of cricket. However, it wasn’t until I actually went out and played with a group that I began to really grasp the game.)
The Christian faith is just that way. You’ve seen all kinds of books on what it means to be a Christian. The implication is that Christianity is mostly a matter of believing, that Christianity is some sort of philosophy of life, a set of intellectual propositions. However, the truth is that Jesus was not a philosopher laying out a new system of disembodied beliefs. Jesus was a teacher whose life taught what he preached. We love and follow Jesus not simply because of what he said, but because of the way he lived. Put it this way… Jesus didn’t ask his listeners to agree with him; Jesus asked them to follow him. His most famous injunctive is “Follow me.”
It seems to me that a good sermon or a good lesson is not something that we ruminate on, but rather something that inspires us to go and do. C.S. Lewis’ delightful satire, The Screwtape Letters, portrays a senior demon, Screwtape, advising his apprentice demon, Wormwood, that moderation, thinking, caution, are some of Satan’s best devices to keep people away from faith. In one particular letter, Screwtape tells his young devil that it is possible to win the recent Christian convert back from Christ, if that convert can be made to content himself with halfway virtues. “Your job is to make him acquiesce in the present low temperature of his spirit and gradually become content with it, persuading himself that it is not so low after all. In a week or two you will be making him doubt whether the first days of his Christianity were not, perhaps, a little excessive. Talk to him about ‘moderation in all things.’ If you can once get him to the point of thinking that ‘religion is all very well up to a point,’ you can feel quite happy about his soul,” says the devil. Then Screwtape adds, “A moderated religion is as good for us as no religion at all — and more amusing.”
To follow Jesus is a dynamic enterprise, one that calls us to get up and go. The Great Commission doesn’t say, “Sit here and consider these matters”; it says “Go ye therefore . . .”
I remember Ken Medema, the gifted Christian musician, who is also blind, sharing about one of his creative ballads, “She Asked Me To Dance.” The song recalls a time when Medema, after performing at a youth camp worship service, stuck around for the after-worship fellowship, which that evening was a dance. He said that he liked listening to the music and trying to imagine what was going on out on the dance floor. As he sat there, he asked a couple of people to describe it for him, but he said that changed when a young teenage girl came over and said, “Mr. Medema, would you like to dance?” And Medema said, “Most certainly, but I don’t know how.” She said, “That’s okay.” And then, taking him by the hand, she said, “Just follow me. I’ll teach you.”
The call today, as strange as it might seem, is to invite people to dance to the Spiritual music of God . . .
A Time of Reflection and Prayer
Can you remember a time when you learned something by doing it? How does your faith relate to that?
In thinking about evangelism, could it be that we would be much more evangelistic by asking folks to join us in the doing rather than trying to convince them with our arguments?
Can you be still and let God bring to mind something that needs to be done by you to illustrate the Kingdom?
A Poetic Guide for Prayer: Billy Collins “Questions About Angels”
Of all the questions you might want to ask about angels, the only one you ever hear is how many can dance on the head of a pin.
No curiosity about how they pass the eternal time besides circling the Throne chanting in Latin or delivering a crust of bread to a hermit on earth or guiding a boy and girl across a rickety wooden bridge.
Do they fly through God’s body and come out singing? Do they swing like children from the hinges of the spirit world saying their names backwards and forwards? Do they sit alone in little gardens changing colors?
What about their sleeping habits, the fabric of their robes, their diet of unfiltered divine light? What goes on inside their luminous heads? Is there a wall these tall presences can look over and see hell?
If an angel fell off a cloud, would he leave a hole in a river and would the hole float along endlessly filled with the silent letters of every angelic word?
If an angel delivered the mail, would he arrive in a blinding rush of wings or would he just assume the appearance of the regular mailman and whistle up the driveway reading the postcards?
No, the medieval theologians control the court. The only question you ever hear is about the little dance floor on the head of a pin where halos are meant to converge and drift invisibly.
It is designed to make us think in millions, billions, to make us run out of numbers and collapse into infinity, but perhaps the answer is simply one: one female angel dancing alone in her stocking feet, a small jazz combo working in the background.
She sways like a branch in the wind, her beautiful eyes closed, and the tall thin bassist leans over to glance at his watch because she has been dancing forever, and now it is very late, even for musicians.