Sunday October 1, 2023

Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

“Answers and Questions” Rev. Brent Gundlah

Is there anything more frustrating than asking someone a question and having them respond to you with a question of their own?

I don’t know. Is there?

The chief priests and the elders of the people seem pretty frustrated with Jesus when he does this to them in our reading from Matthew’s Gospel.

Let’s just acknowledge at the start that this is kind of a strange text to be contemplating here as fall gets underway — I say this because the story actually takes place right after Palm Sunday, at the beginning of Holy Week.

Right before it starts, Jesus arrives in Jerusalem on the back of a donkey as the large crowd spreads branches on the road before him. The “whole city,” as Matthew tells us, “was in turmoil” as Jesus showed up, and things didn’t get any less stressful once he got there; to be fair, he isn’t exactly making an effort to be inconspicuous or to go with the flow.

Soon after he rides in to town, Jesus enters the temple and proceeds to throw out all who were defiling the house of prayer by doing business there — chastising the money changers and the sellers of doves in front of everyone, and flipping over their tables and chairs in order to emphasize his point.

The blind and the lame hear that Jesus is at the temple and, since Jesus has established a reputation for healing people, they show up in droves to ask Jesus to cure them of what ails them, which Jesus, of course, does, because that’s the sort of thing that Jesus would do.

And then the trouble starts.

The chief priests, who are the religious authority in that place and time, and the elders of the people, who are the civil authority, see all of the amazing things that Jesus is doing there in the temple. They hear even the children crying out to him in praise; “Hosanna to the Son of David,” is what the kids shout at Jesus. “Save us, Son of David,” is what it means. It probably goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: the chief priests and the elders are not very happy about this because if there was any saving to be done around here, they definitely would have been in on it.

So when Jesus returns to the temple the next day, the priests and elders interrupt him as he is teaching and confront him with the following question: “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?”

As questions go, this one is pretty loaded. There simply is no good answer, no response that’s not going to cause a whole lot of trouble for Jesus.

On the one hand, if he were to say that God gave him this authority, then the chief priests would accuse him of blasphemy; and truth be told, they’d have a pretty good case. After all, the Hebrew Scriptures unequivocally state that the priests’ authority was granted to them by God way back in Moses’s day, and it’s been passed down from generation to generation ever since. 

On the other hand, if Jesus were to try to duck a blasphemy charge by saying that his authority has been granted by humans, than he’d not only be undermining his own divine status in front of the crowds that had come to see him, he’d also be lying, which is not something that Jesus does. Oh, he’d also be calling into question the status of the elders, who were understood to be the human authority.

So Jesus, being quick on his feet, does the only thing he really can do at this point; he deflects the question from the priests and elders by asking them a question of his own, telling them that he will only answer their question if and when they answer his: “Did the baptism of John come from heaven or was it of human origin?” is what he asks them.

It may not seem like a terribly provocative question on the surface, but it doesn’t take the chief priests and elders too long to figure out that Jesus has just hung them out to dry. You see, since John, who was a real fan favorite, was the one who came to “prepare the way of the Lord,” whatever statement they make regarding John’s authority to proclaim “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” is effectively a statement about Jesus’s own authority.

Realizing they’ve just been had, the panicked priests and elders gather in order to come up with some sort of response, and Matthew brings us right into the huddle with them. “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.”

If their reply to the question regarding whence John the Baptist’s authority comes is “From heaven” (or “From God”), then they are acknowledging that the God-given authority of the priests has been supplanted by the God-given authority of John and, ultimately, of Jesus.

If their reply is that the source of John’s authority is “human,” then they risk either undermining the power of the elders, or provoking the ire of the devoted followers of John and Jesus, upon whom the elders rely to maintain their power. And this is a big deal.

You see, the elders and priests serve a necessary function in this particular society, one that is governed from afar by imperial Rome: they operate right there on the ground under the banner of heaven with law in hand to help keep the people in check. And a full-scale revolt by the followers of John and Jesus would make it look like they weren’t doing a very good job — which the Emperor wouldn’t too thrilled to hear.

So, as the priests and elders emerge from the huddle, they know that their options are seriously limited. Neither “God” nor “humans” would be an acceptable answer to Jesus’s question about the source of John’s (and Jesus’s) authority — albeit for different reasons.

And they can’t really respond to Jesus’s question with a question because if answering a question with a question is frustrating, then answering someone who answers a question with a question with yet another question is downright infuriating.

So they end up doing the only thing they really can do in this rhetorical fourth and long situation — they drop back ten and punt. “We do not know,” is what the chief priests and elders say to Jesus here. From a strategic standpoint it’s kind of a clever play, but let’s call it what it is: a copout.

In the realm of theology, where we seek to understand and speak about God, “We do not know” is a perfectly acceptable answer to all sorts of questions. It is an acknowledgment of the fact that we see through a glass darkly, a declaration of our vulnerability before the great and unfathomable mystery of God. What does God look like? How old will I be in heaven? Why did Jesus have to die? I don’t know. Do you?

But the “We do not know” that the priests and elders come back at Jesus with here is something entirely different. It isn’t a humble admission of their own limitations and inadequacies; it’s merely an attempt to assert and preserve their own tenuous authority. They are so concerned with maintaining their worldly power that they remain completely unable to sense God’s power, even though God’s son is standing right there in front of them.

Think about how absurd this really is: God is there in the temple tending to actual people in need; God is doing exactly what God has always called us to do too — and these guys, instead of joining in (or, at the very least staying the heck out of the way) turn the whole thing into an argument over his license and registration.

The priests and elders don’t answer Jesus question so he doesn’t answer theirs, but there’s really no doubt about who’s won this argument. And then, Jesus, who’s never been one to let things go, regales his opponents with a parable about two brothers — one who puts up a stink about doing the right thing but does it anyway, and one who talks a good game about doing the right thing but doesn’t actually do it.

I’ll leave you to figure out which brother is meant to represent the priests and elders in this story (I’m pretty sure they figured it out). If the powers that be weren’t already feeling vulnerable then they definitely are now, and we all know where this escalating confrontation is ultimately headed from here.

But this parable invites us to consider another question: Which brother are we? I mean, don’t you think that Jesus might be calling us to ask ourselves that too?

As people who claim to be followers and disciples of Christ, are we truly living by the principles and priorities he taught us? Or are we merely pledging allegiance to God without actually doing what God calls us to do? 

Are we loving God and loving our neighbors as ourselves?

Are we caring for the poor and the vulnerable in our midst?

Are we seeking justice for all God’s people?

Are we ensuring that everyone receives what they need?

Are we showing more concern for the needs of our fellow humans and the world than we do for our own wants?

Because these are the things that Jesus calls us to do.

Just how willing are we to listen to the one we all profess to follow?

I don’t know? Do you?