Seward United Methodist Church
Wednesday, November 14, 2018

A Life That Honors God

Matthew 21:23-32

 The context of our Scripture lesson this morning is the last week of Jesus’ earthly life.  Jesus is in Jerusalem on Monday morning of the week leading up to his crucifixion on Friday.  The day before, Jesus had entered the city, riding on a donkey, to the praise of the crowds.  Immediately, after entering the city, Jesus had gone to the Temple and cleared the courtyards of the merchants and the moneychangers, who were using that space to cheat travelers with exchange rates and prices that were nothing less than extortion.  Then he healed and taught there in the Temple courtyards, on the home turf of the priests.  He had challenged their authority on their home turf, and they are mad!

 The next day, Jesus returns to the Temple and the priests are fixing for a fight.  Matthew mentions two groups that come after Jesus:  the chief priests and the elders.  The chief priests were the elite of the priests.  Now there were hundreds of priests, and most of them were probably pretty good, salt-of-the-earth folks.  But these men were the chief priests, the nobility of the priesthood, members of the most prestigious priestly families.  The visible symbol of their status is that they are members of the Sanhedrin.

 The Sanhedrin was the high council of Judea in the first century.  It was made up of 70 men, and they were the leaders of the nation.  Since they were under the rule of the Roman Empire, the Sanhedrin did not have much civil authority, but they held all the religious authority in Judea.  In particular, they were in charge of deciding who was teaching the right things and who was not.  They were supposed to determine the will of God.  They could condemn false teachers.  Since they didn’t have the power to condemn men to death, they could not execute for heresy, but they could imprison people they determined to be heretics.  

 The Sanhedrin was made up of both priests and lay men.  The elders were the lay members of the Sanhedrin.

 They come to Jesus and challenge him, “By what authority are you doing these things?”  Their goal is not to learn the truth but to trap Jesus in his words.  If Jesus answered that he was doing it by the authority of God, they would condemn him as a blasphemer.  After all, they were the authority on all things religious.  And if Jesus answered that he was acting on his own authority, then he could be ignored.  The one possibility that the chief priests and elders could not see is that Jesus was acting on his

own authority and on God’s authority at the same time, since he is the son of God.  But they were unable to see that.

 Jesus knew they were out to trap him in his own words, so he turned the tables on them and trapped them in their own words.  He asked them about the authority of John the Baptist.  Did it come from God or was John just a man acting on his own?  

 Now, basically, Jesus is asking them to answer their own question.  Jesus and John the Baptist were both part of the same revelation of God.  And John specifically pointed to Jesus as the fulfillment of his prophecies and the one God instructed him to point out.  John’s authority and Jesus’ authority were basically one and the same.  

 But the chief priests and elders were unable to answer Jesus’ question.  They are, after all, politicians.  As members of the Sanhedrin, the highest authority in the land, they had to try to keep the people happy, but also to keep the Roman authorities happy.  They were not like the Pharisees, who had no political power to keep and didn’t have to worry what the crowds thought of them.  The chief priests and elders knew that if they condemned John the Baptist, the crowds would turn on them.  But if they endorsed John, they would also be endorsing Jesus and condemning their own authority.  

 So they gave the only answer they could come up with:  We don’t know.  Sometimes, “I don’t know” is the best answer we can give to some questions of faith.  Sometimes we just don’t know the answer, so we can only be honest and say so.  But in this case, they weren’t being honest.  They were hiding from a truth that they did not want to acknowledge.  

 They wanted to trap Jesus in his words, but instead Jesus exposed their incompetence.  They were the ones in charge of knowing and recognizing the will of God in Judea.  Instead, they revealed to the crowds that they were either unable to recognize the truth or unwilling to acknowledge it when it came their way.  

 Is it any wonder that they wanted to condemn Jesus to death?  No one, but no one, likes to be shown up for their own incompetence, especially not on their own home turf in front of the people who were supposed to respect them.  

 But Jesus wasn’t done yet:  He went on to tell the parable of the two sons.  A father tells his two sons to do the same task.  One refuses, but later repents and goes to

do his father’s will.  The other agrees but doesn’t follow through.  Which one is more obedient?  

 Well, obviously, both were lacking something.  Neither was perfectly obedient.  And I do believe that the most excellent way is a life of integrity.  A life where we profess what we practice and practice what we profess is the most excellent way. But at the end of the day, we know that actions speak louder than words, so the one who was obedient in practice was more obedient.  

 Then Jesus explains:  The priests and elders were like the second son who promised obedience but did not follow through.  In word, they were everything God wanted, but not so in deed.  They professed to belong to God, but when God revealed his will through the prophecy of John, they rejected him.  But the “scum of society,” the prostitutes and tax collectors, heard God speaking to them through John.  And while they had earlier said no to God, they responded with obedience now.  

 So Jesus is saying that the tax collectors and prostitutes who responded to John were children of God, and the chief priests and elders were not.  That was as offensive a comparison as Jesus could have used!  Now the chief priests and elders were really going to want to condemn Jesus.

 The point of Jesus’ parable is that all the outward trappings of religion are meaningless unless they are accompanied by real obedience.  That’s not to say that the outward elements of religion are meaningless.   Only that they are without obedience.  

 The chief priests and elders were seen as the very epitome of religion.  They had the highest status and positions of privilege in the faith community.  But they lacked what really mattered.  They might have professed all the right things, but they did not obey the will of God when it was revealed to them.  

 We too should beware of the trappings of religion.  Not that there is anything wrong with them in themselves.  It’s just that they can tempt us to trust in them instead of in Christ.  We should beware of trusting in a position of status in the church:  lay leader, pastor, teacher, patriarch, etc.  We should beware of seeing our “membership” in Christ’s church as a substitute for obedience to Christ.  We should beware of thinking that it is our service to God that makes us his children rather than his grace.  There is nothing wrong with these things except that we might trust them instead of God.

 Actions always speak louder than words.  It is very easy for us to profess our faith.  But it is very difficult for us to live our faith.  It’s easy to acknowledge Christ with our mouths.  It’s not so easy to acknowledge him with our lives.  

 And we should not presume that the “tax collectors and prostitutes” of our society have no place in the Kingdom of God.  We have a tendency to get “hung up” on things.  Maybe we think that those who don’t look like us or act like us don’t have any place in the Kingdom.  Beware of the thought process that when we walk past the bar, we hold our heads high and say, “I belong to God and those people don’t.”  Maybe those folks are closer to God than we think.  God is working on them just as he is working on us.  People who lack the external trappings of religion may be much closer to God than we think.

 Instead of thinking about others and their lack of obedience to God’s will, our focus should be on our own obedience.  Are we living a life that honors God?  Such a life is not a matter of external things, but a matter of obedience and a sincere desire to do the will of God.  

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