The Good People at the Back of the Line [Proper 21A]

The Rev. Jeremiah Williamson
Matthew 21:23-32

The Good People at the Back of the Line

By what authority?  Who gave him this authority?  Who asks those questions?  Who would dare question Jesus' authority?  He's Jesus.  He doesn't need permission.  He doesn't need some random dude to sign off on his actions no matter how wild or crazy those actions may be.  He's Jesus the Messiah God Incarnate.  How dare anyone challenge his authority?  I mean, can you imagine?

Actually, let's imagine.  Let's imagine a church a large church a successful church a nice, big, money-making church with influential pastors.  A job-creating, economic hub of a church.  Maybe it's one of those well-marketed mega-churches.  And let's imagine a charismatic drifter strolls in on a busy Sunday and starts overturning the merch tables, starts chucking the fancy coffee, sets the food court on fire, and pours water all over the sound board.  And then proceeds to verbally and confidently cut those influential pastors down to size.  All in the name of God, of course.  And what if that same drifter pulled the same stunt in Vatican City in a crowd of bishops during a high mass?  Or, even closer to home, showed up here and shattered our glass doors and dumped our coffee hour donation basket right on the floor? 

That would be a pretty weird Sunday.  Such a shocking display would raise some questions.  Like: Who is this guy?  Who does he think he is?  And what gives him the right to mess with our stuff, with our way of doing things?  By what authority is he doing these things?

Those are perfectly natural, legitimate questions.  See, not long before the chief priests and the elders of the people ask Jesus these same questions, he had stormed the Temple and overthrown the tables.  Jesus came into Jerusalem basically as an unknown; he was from out of town a charismatic peasant from the hill country.  He enters the big city and pretty much immediately wrecks the Temple, accuses the religious leadership of corruption, and disrupts a pretty lucrative economic system the ever-valuable tourism industry.  So the questions the chief priests and the elders ask Jesus in today's Gospel passage might not be mean-spirited or even accusatory; they might just be reasonable questions that one might ask of a charismatic drifter, a self-proclaimed prophet.

I hope you can see why these religious leaders might question, challenge, even dislike, Jesus.  After making a mess of the Temple, he comes back the next day to teach there, to mount the pulpit.  That's right: Jesus has chutzpah to go back and return in an authoritative role knowing, of course, that those in power would not be excited to see him. 

Jesus is the hero of all our Gospel stories.  He is the center of our Christian faith.  We pledge to him our allegiance when we are baptized.  We've grown up with a larger-than-life Jesus a Jesus more like the cosmic picture we see in the Philippians reading today.  The Jesus we worship feels light-years removed from the wandering small-town  prophet that the chief priests encountered.  We know from where his authority comes.  And we don't question it. 

But, and I'll speak for myself here, I feel for the religious authorities in today's story.  I understand something of their dilemma.  Like them, I have been entrusted, by God and many faithful people, with the care of a religious institution.  And if some self-proclaimed prophet, some wandering Messiah, some charismatic stranger, showed up here my first instinct would be suspicion too.  I would feel a responsibility to protect those in my spiritual charge from potential danger.  And I would be defensive of my decisions and our ways if that person challenged them. 

It was a difficult situation.  God was moving through Jesus' ministry.  Jesus was ushering in God's Reign.  But the chief priests and the elders had not read the Gospels.  The resurrection had not yet happened.  And they had a Temple to support and protect and run.  And the things Jesus was saying and doing were in many ways contrary to the way in which they were running their institution.

What do we do when we find ourselves at odds with God?  It's a devastating question to consider mostly because the better we are, the more likely we are to find ourselves clashing with Jesus.  Good people are more likely to be offended by God's mercy.  Nice people are more likely to be offended by God's justice.  Religious people are more likely to be offended by the promise of new life, of resurrection.  I guarantee you those chief priests who challenged Jesus were good, religious people.  They were dedicated to the Temple.  They read their Bibles.  They said prayers and observed Holy Days.

Truth be told: I'm probably more like the chief priests and the elders than I am like Jesus.  Maybe you are too.

In today's passage, Jesus criticizes, challenges, the religious people; And then he praises the dregs of that society: the tax collectors and the prostitutes.  I'm not sure if tax collectors or prostitutes have ever been the most celebrated members of a society.  But in Jesus' context there are additional layers.  The tax collectors were not disliked because the Tea Party was strong in 1st century Palestine.  It wasn't just about the taxes.  Extortion and exploitation were certainly issues.  But so were their employers: tax collectors collected Jewish money for the Roman oppressors, for the occupying Empire.  They forced their fellow Jews to pay their oppressors, to support their own suffering.  Tax collectors benefited from the pain of their Jewish brothers and sisters.  Tax collectors were, I think understandably, despised.

Prostitutes were not just disliked because they offered sexual services outside of the family structure, for reasons that had nothing to do with procreation.  It wasn't just about the sex.  Again, the profession was tangled up in the oppressive system under which the Jews lived.  The prostitutes sold their services to Roman soldiers; they pleasured the same soldiers who treated their Jewish brothers and sisters like garbage.  And so they too were despised.

These tax collectors and prostitutes should really not even be mentioned in the same breath as the chief priests.  Of course the religious leaders are offended.  While they are defending and preserving Jewish religion and identity, these people, who Jesus is praising, are selling out their own people to make a buck. 

Jesus is up to something something uncomfortable.  Jesus is opening the gates too wide.  And the good people are offended by the excessive mercy.  The nice people are offended by God's confusing justice.  The religious people are offended by the promise of new life.  And everyone is offended because the dregs of the society are walking into the Kingdom first. 

It's certainly not fair.  And it's hard.  Because like so many Gospel passages Jesus makes it uncomfortably clear that his values are not our values, his ways are not our ways.  While we in the Church worry about our rules and traditions, while we argue over the criteria who's in and who is out Jesus is just ushering folks into the kingdom.   

And it seems that those who are most aware of their deep need for God's mercy, those who need it the most, walk in first.  And those of us who have spent a lifetime trying to earn that which can only be received, take a little longer to get there.  In Jesus' parable the chief priests and elders still get in, they just trail some pretty questionable characters. 

Jesus is still messing with our stuff and challenging our ways.  And some of us, even though we love Jesus, wish he would keep his hands off the stuff we love like our Church, our religion, and our piety.   The challenge is to love Jesus more than that stuff.  And to trust him with our stuff.  And to trust our lives to his mercy.  The ultimate goal is not the stuff; the goal is the kingdom of God.  And the way into Kingdom of God is to follow Jesus.  And if we walk into that Kingdom at the very end of the line: so what?