Seward United Methodist Church
Saturday, January 22, 2022
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Ending Well

Philippians 2:1-13 and Matthew 21:23-32

Context is often such an important part of understanding Scripture, and that is the case here. This exchange between Jesus and the “chief priests” happens the day after he cleared the Temple courts of the merchants and money-changers. Visitors to the Temple were forced to exchange their foreign currency, with its pagan imagery, for “Temple money.” And then they would have to buy approved animals and items for sacrifices and offerings inside the court, where the prices were about 10 times more than outside the Temple. Needless to say, it was basically religious extortion, and you can be sure that the Temple received a healthy kickback from all this. It wasn’t covered with gold plating for nothing. Jesus has cut into their bottom line, and they are not happy.

Who were the “chief priests?” If you look in the Old Testament, you find requirements for being a priest and for being the high priest, but nothing about “chief priests.” Well, the chief priests were basically the members of the most prominent priestly families. They were members of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish high council of 70 members which was the highest civil and religious authority they had under Roman rule. At this time, the Roman governor would choose the high priest, and the high priest would be chosen out of these “chief priests.” Most priests were just average people, but these guys were the elites, the “one-percenters,” if you will.

They had all the trappings of authority: Title, position, political power, education, and the respect of the masses. Jesus, by comparison, really had none of these. So they resented him. People in power will fight to hold onto power, and that’s basically what they’re doing here.

“Who gave you this authority?” Do they really want to know? I don’t think so. They’re trying to trap Jesus. If he says he is acting on his own authority, they will say, “We are the chief priests, and you are no one. No one should listen to you.” But if he says he’s acting on God’s authority, they’ll accuse him of blasphemy for claiming God’s authority.

Instead, Jesus responds with a counter-question, which was a typical technique in first century Jewish debate. Jesus doesn’t want to answer the question because it would hasten the matter of his death if he answered honestly, and Jesus still has more to do before that time comes. So he asks, “Where did John the Baptist get his authority? Was he acting on God’s authority or only on human authority?”

John was considered by the masses to be a genuine prophet. And he was rather popular, maybe especially since he had been martyred by an unpopular ruler, Herod Antipas. People are often more popular after they’re dead. May be a reason for that…

But John endorsed Jesus. He called Jesus the Messiah. So if they accept John’s authority, then by extension, they must also accept Jesus’ authority.

They are stuck. They are political figures. They’re not like the Pharisees. The Pharisees, by and large, had no political power. They were basically just a religious group; not a political group. They were free to speak as they pleased. But the chief priests had to keep the people happy and they had to keep the Roman authorities happy. No matter how they answer this question, they’re going to get themselves in some trouble. So they dodge the question: “We don’t know.”

“I don’t know” is often a really good answer. I say it from time to time when people ask me questions. I should probably say it more often! But in this case, it’s just a cop out, just a way to get out of the situation. As members of the Sanhedrin, they should have been able to recognize a true prophet from a false one. But instead they gave a “safe answer,” a politician’s answer!

If they were being honest, I’m pretty sure they would say John was acting on his own authority. After all, they rejected both John and Jesus. But they can’t give an honest answer, which is a frequent problem for politicians!

Where does authority come from? It comes from God. Since an authorized representative or messenger speaks with the authority of the one who sends him or her, then Jesus speaks with God’s authority. And we speak with Jesus’ authority, because he sends us to the world.

The trappings of authority, things like title, position, and prestige, don’t give authority. Martin Luther, the great 16th century reformer, who was no fan of the Pope, of course, said something like “a farm boy with a Bible has more authority than the Pope.” And he had a point there.

Then Jesus tells a little parable about two sons. One of them had a good profession, but he wasn’t so good on the follow through. The other said no to his father, which was a serious offense in that culture. But later, he “repented,” he changed his mind, and was obedient.

Which one was obedient? Neither of them were perfect. Ideally a good profession is matched with a good practice. But in the end, actions speak louder than words. And it is better to end well than just to start well.

Jesus makes a comparison here. He says that the chief priests and other religious elites are worse off than tax collectors and prostitutes. That was a pretty offensive thing to say! Tax collectors were seen as traitors to their own people for helping the foreign, pagan Romans. Prostitutes were seen as the most notorious of sinners. Both groups were considered to be no longer truly Jewish people for their sins. But Jesus says, “They are going into the Kingdom of God ahead of you because they responded to John!” The religious elites, at least for the most part, did not.

We had better take pause here. In which group are we? Are we the outwardly religious people who don’t follow through? Or are we the outwardly scandalous people who respond to God’s word?

It’s best not to assume that we are on the right side of that equation! Having a good appearance can make us complacent! Do we truly love God above all else? Do we really love our neighbors as ourselves? Are we committed to loving our enemies? Doing good? Seeking justice? Practicing mercy? Living in righteousness?

Let me end with a reflection from a devotional that I like. This is from “My Utmost for His Highest,” by Oswald Chambers. And I thought of it because he uses Philippians 2, our other text for today:

“God saves people by his sovereign grace through the atonement of Jesus, and ‘it is God who works in you both to will and to do for his good pleasure.’ But we have to ‘work out’ that salvation in our everyday, practical living… If we are going to live as disciples of Jesus, we have to remember that all efforts of worth and excellence are difficult. The Christian life is gloriously difficult, but its difficulty does not make us faint and cave in – it stirs us up to overcome. Do we appreciate the miraculous salvation of Jesus Christ enough to be our utmost for his highest – our best for his glory?... Thank God he does give us difficult things to do! His salvation is a joyous thing, but it is also something that requires bravery, courage, and holiness…. It takes a tremendous amount of discipline to live the worthy and excellent life of a disciple of Jesus in the realities of life.”

God’s salvation is his gift to you. But how we respond to God’s salvation is our gift to him. Is our response worthy of his gift? That is the question we must ask ourselves daily.

Verse of the Day...