Proper 21, Sept. 25, 2011
Today we will hear the gospel story from the imagined viewpoint of one of Jesus’ disciples.
Almost as soon as we entered the temple that morning, I knew Jesus was in trouble. The chief priests and the elders spotted us as soon as we walked in. As soon as Jesus started teaching people who’d gathered, they surrounded us. Frankly, I wasn’t surprised. The day before, Jesus had entered one of Jerusalem’s city gates riding a colt and a donkey. The crowd cheered and shouted “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord1 Hosanna in the highest!” The next day, we followed Jesus into the temple.
Almost before we knew what was happening, Jesus started overturning the temple money changers’ tables. You couldn’t bring your own money into the temple. You had to buy the temple’s special currency for offerings—and they made a fat profit off that money exchange, believe me. I guess Jesus had had enough of that extortion going on right there in God’s house. So he started overturning tables. Then he started overturning the chairs of the men who sold sacrificial turtle doves. I must admit that it was kind of funny at the time. All those rich, fat guys scrambling to get out of Jesus’ way. The cages of the doves tumbled. Turned. Burst open. Doves flew out and up into the rafters, where they cooed in freedom. Some children ran over to see what was going on. Recognizing Jesus from the day before, they started yelling, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” Then after Jesus healed some blind and lame people, we left the temple.
But there was no way the chief priests and elders could miss—or ignore—such defiant acts in the face of their power and authority. The next morning, when we came back from Bethany, we entered the temple. When Jesus began teaching, they confronted him with arms crossed. Lips tight. Faces stern. “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” In other words, who gave you a parade permit? Who said you had the right to destroy moneychangers’ and dove sellers’ incomes? Who made you God that you could teach or heal people?
The air was thick with tension. But Jesus was calm and sure. Like a good rabbi, he answered their question with a question. “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?” The elders exchanged uneasy looks, then moved away to huddle together and talk. I knew that no matter how they answered Jesus, they would look bad. Like other Old Testament prophets, John the Baptist had stood on society’s margins and challenged all of God’s people to repent. To turn away from evil. To return to God’s ways. But Herod—Rome’s Jewish puppet king—had John beheaded for his insolence and prophetic words. Now, if the elders answered Jesus that John’s baptism came from heaven, Jesus could reply, “You say you believe in God. So if John’s baptism was from God, why did you not believe what he said?” So they could not say that.
On the other hand, if they answered “John’s baptism was of human origin,” that would spell trouble with the crowds who had gathered around to hear this confrontation. The people had understood John for who he was: a true prophet sent from God. In fact, John’s words and John’s baptism had changed many of these folks’ lives. So the church leaders couldn’t afford to say what they really thought about John, for fear of the crowd’s reaction—especially during Passover week. The thousands of people streaming from the provinces into Jerusalem for Passover always made the Romans nervous. We always saw more armed soldiers in the city streets during Passover week. There must be no trouble from or among the Jews. Not now. Not this week. So the elders gave Jesus an answer that was no answer. “We don’t know.” In turn, Jesus refused to tell them who had given him authority to teach, to heal, to turn over tables of corrupt money changers, to drive dove sellers out of God’s house of prayer. Instead, he told them a story about a man who had two sons.
The man asked one son to go work in the vineyard and he said he would not. But later, the son changed his mind and did go to work. The man asked his other son to go work and that son said he would. But that son never acted. He did not do what he had said he would do. At the end of his story, Jesus posed another question to the chief priests and elders. “Which of the two did the will of his father?” We could see their faces relax a little. Oh, that’s easy to answer and it won’t get us in trouble. The first son. Because his actions—not his words—spoke the truth. The first son’s actions proved his change of heart and mind.
Jesus nodded. They had answered correctly. Now he made his final move. He told the elders that tax collectors and prostitutes were going into God’s kingdom ahead of them. Why? Because John the Baptist had told the official church folks the truth about themselves and they refused to believe it. They refused to allow their hearts and minds to be changed about what God’s kingdom looks like. How they should act towards their brothers and sisters. But the people on the margins of society—the deaf, the blind, the lame, the leper, the tax collectors, the women who roamed the streets late at night—those folks had heard John’s message and believed its truth. They had left their old ways of life to follow God’s law of loving God and loving their neighbor. Their hearts were changed. Their minds were changed. Their lives were changed. And I knew some of those folks, because now they traveled with us. In fact, some stood there with us that day in the temple.
As soon as Jesus said that society’s riff-raff would be first in God’s world and the privileged, powerful leaders of the institutional church would be last, I knew how this trip to Jerusalem would probably end. The church leaders stiffened and stalked away. Unless Jesus toned down his rhetoric and behaved himself in public, things were going to get ugly. In fact, if he didn’t start to talk the party line and act the party way, he was pretty much a dead man walking. It was just a matter of time. How they would execute him, and exactly when, I didn’t know. But they would. Corrupt people in positions of power and privilege cannot bear being called to accountability by people who speak truth. Not yesterday. Not today. Not tomorrow.
What they did not know, though, was that killing Jesus would not silence the truth. You see, they didn’t understand—nor did we at the time—about resurrection and its power. Jesus’ actions during his life—and God’s actions through Jesus in the resurrection—transformed people’s hearts and minds through love in my time, then through the millennia to yours. Love changes the world. Law may keep the world in line, but love changes people’s hearts and lives. We who were blessed to follow Jesus learned this in real time.
We have passed that power of love on to you, through accounts in sacred scripture. Through words spoken, through bread broken. You can’t just say you believe in Jesus. You have to follow Jesus. That does not mean that you just say words that sound religious or right. It means you allow Jesus’ love to change you enough to act. It means that you follow Jesus to the margins of society, to stand with the powerless who have the courage to speak truth to power. Even when—and especially when—that truth is offensive—even dangerous.
We who first followed the Lord were willing to do this. How about you? Today, in the twenty-first century, will your words speak God’s truth? Will your actions speak God’s truth? The world awaits your answer.
© The Rev. Sheila N. McJilton
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