Seward United Methodist Church
Sunday, October 21, 2018
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Humility and Obedience

Philippians 2:1-11 and Matthew 21:23-32

 The events in today’s Gospel text happen the day after Jesus’ Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.  The first thing he did in Jerusalem was to go to the Temple and “clear it,” throwing out the merchants and money changers who were taking advantage of religious pilgrims.  

 When Jesus returns to the Temple, he is challenged by the chief priests and elders.  These men are members of the Sanhedrin, the high council of 70 men that was the highest civil and religious authority in Jerusalem and Judea.  Part of their job was to evaluate teachers and prophets to be sure they were “of God.”  At the moment, perhaps they are simply upset with Jesus because he has cut into their gravy train.

 “By whose authority did you do that?  Who gave you that authority?”  Now these men have the outward trappings of authority.  They have the titles and positions and, certainly in the case of the priests, they wear the clothing of authority.  Who is Jesus to challenge them?  

 In truth, they want to trap Jesus in his answer.  If Jesus says his authority comes from God, then they can accuse him of blasphemy.  If Jesus says his authority is his own, then he can be discredited and ignored as just another man.  The one possibility they can’t see is that Jesus’ authority IS God’s authority.  

 Jesus turns the question around on them.  “Who gave John the Baptist his authority?  Tell me that, and I’ll answer your question.”  

 They are unable to answer.  They know that if they say John’s authority came from God, then they will be accountable for not following John’s words.  Not to mention, John endorsed Jesus as the Messiah.  They were both part of the same work of God’s revelation.  To accept John is to accept Jesus, by extension.  

 On the other hand, if they say John only acted with human authority, then they are afraid of the reaction of the crowd.  John was very popular, and probably especially so since his death.  People are almost always remembered more fondly after they’re gone.  The chief priests and elders had to “play politics.”  They were chosen by the people, but they were kept in office by the Romans.  They had to keep both sides happy, and they were used to the games of politics.  They weren’t like the Pharisees.  The Pharisees had no political connections, so they were free to say what they wanted.  

 Now we know that the chief priests and elders rejected both John and Jesus as messengers from God.  But they can’t say that publicly.  Instead they say, “We don’t know.”  

 “I don’t know” can be a legitimate answer about questions of faith.  Sometimes we don’t know, and the honest and humble thing to do is to admit it.  But in this case, “We don’t know” is simply a safe answer, “an ignorance of cowardice.”  They’re afraid to answer honestly because of what others will think.  And truly, it’s a dereliction of duty.  They are supposed to evaluate teachers to see if they are of God, and they refuse to answer in this case.

 So Jesus won’t answer their question.  Instead he tells a story of a man with two sons.  One son has a good profession, but a poor practice.  The other son had a poor profession, but a good practice.  Probably all of us know people who fall into each of these categories:  Those who promise much and deliver little, and those who promise little and deliver much.  

 Which one obeyed?  The answer is the one who said no but did it anyway.  Neither son is perfect, but as someone has pointed out, “Fine words are no substitute for fine actions.”  

 The story is reminiscent of Ezekiel 18, where God says, “If the wicked turn away from their sins and begin to obey my laws and do what is just and right, they will surely live.  Their past sins will be forgotten…  However, if the righteous people turn to sinful ways, should they be allowed to live?  Of course not.  Their previous goodness will be forgotten, and they will die for their sins.”  

 Jesus goes on, “The tax collectors and prostitutes are going into the Kingdom before you.”  This is a purposely offensive comparison.  Tax collectors and prostitutes were the worst of the worst.  They were outside of polite society, and certainly outside of the covenant community.  They were traitors to the nation and the worst kind of sinners.  The chief priests and elders would deeply resent this comparison.  But the truth was that many of the tax collectors and prostitutes responded to Jesus’ message of good news, and the religious elites, for the most part, did not.  

 The religious elites refused to acknowledge both Jesus and John as messengers from God.  In spite of them having very different styles, both were rejected.  A discerning person recognizes messengers from God, even if they don’t suit our style or

preferences.  Over the years, I’ve heard a number of people say at some point, “I don’t like listening to so-and-so.  I don’t like how he or she preaches.”  The truth is that God can speak to us through someone, even if we don’t like their style.  

  I want to finish up this morning by tying this back to our other text, from Philippians 2.  Philippians 2 exalts the humility of Jesus, who, though he was God, humbled himself and became obedient even unto death.  

 The real issue with the religious elites of Jesus’ day is that they were proud.  They refused to acknowledge or submit to Jesus because they would have to humble themselves and admit they didn’t have all the answers.  The mark of true humility is obedience.  If we are humble, we obey.  We don’t presume to know it all ourselves.

 If we truly believe God is real and Jesus is Lord, then we should obey God’s word.  We should not presume to know better than God.  The mark of humility before God is our willingness to obey his word.  

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