29/9/02 Trinity 18/Proper 21 Matthew 21:23-32
23Jesus entered the temple courts, and, while he was teaching, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him. "By what authority are you doing these things?" they asked. "And who gave you this authority?" 24Jesus replied, "I will also ask you one question. If you answer me, I will tell you by what authority I am doing these things. 25John's baptism--where did it come from? Was it from heaven, or from men?" They discussed it among themselves and said, "If we say, `From heaven,' he will ask, `Then why didn't you believe him?' 26But if we say, `From men'--we are afraid of the people, for they all hold that John was a prophet." 27So they answered Jesus, "We don't know." Then he said, "Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things. 28"What do you think? There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, `Son, go and work today in the vineyard.' 29" `I will not,' he answered, but later he changed his mind and went. 30"Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, `I will, sir,' but he did not go. 31"Which of the two did what his father wanted?" "The first," they answered. Jesus said to them, "I tell you the truth, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. 32For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him.
Napoleon said, "Everything in Christ astonishes me. His spirit overawes me, and His will confounds me. His ideas and His sentiments, the truth which He announces, His manner of convincing are not explained either by human observation or the nature of things. His birth and the history of His life; the profundity of His doctrine, which grapples the mightiest difficulties, and which is of those difficulties the most admirable solution; His Gospel; His apparition; His empire; His march across the ages and the realms-everything is for me a prodigy, a mystery insoluble, which plunges me into a reverie from which I cannot escape-a mystery which is there before my eyes, a mystery which I can neither deny nor explain. Here I see nothing human. The nearer I approach, the more carefully I examine. Everything is above me. Everything remains grand-of a grandeur which overpowers. His religion is a revelation from an Intelligence which certainly is not that of man."
In today's gospel we are now in the final week of Jesus' earthly life. In the story of the fig tree, he demonstrated to his disciples the importance of faith verses 18-22. Now, as he teaches in the Temple, representatives of the Sanhedrin ("chief priests and elders") ask who has given him the power and "authority" to do all that he has done in his ministry. i.e teaching, healing and cleansing of the temple. They know he is not a Levite, or a priest or a Rabbi. Their question is about who Jesus is. Behind this question is the issue of following man made rules or the revelation of God, which can defy human expectations and regulations.
But Jesus will only answer them if they first answer his question (v. 24f). This shows we do not have to answer every question thrown at us. We live in a culture where people think they can demand an answer from anyone about any matter that they want an answer to. Even if it is none of their business! Perhaps we might want to ask a question in return. Perhaps, 'How do you think it will help you if you know the answer to that question?'
The answer to Jesus' question will answer their original question. Either Jesus authority comes from heaven i.e. God, or it comes from man. His questioners are skilled in the Law, but they are not prepared to believe that this points to John the Baptist & Jesus . They have closed their minds to the revelation of God.
Jesus has put them in a difficult position. If they say that John was from God, they should have repented as he urged; they would also have to acknowledge his role as a forerunner to Jesus and, therefore, believe that he is the Christ. If they say John was from men, they will lose face and status with the many who have believed John was a prophet (v. 26).
The Sanhedrin judged such issues, so their answer (v. 27) shows the difficult position that Jesus has put them in. They thought they knew the answer but did not have the courage to say it publicly.
Jesus tells them a parable about admission to the kingdom (vs. 28-30). You could summarise this with the phrase, 'actions speak louder than words'.
The first son refused to work but changed his mind, metanoia, he repented. He represents the tax collectors and prostitutes who were regarded by the religious elite as scum. They started off by rebelling against God, yet they responded to the message of John and Jesus and repented. Made a new start with God. Turned their back on their old way of life and followed God's ways. Jesus was criticised by the religious leaders on a number of occasions for mixing with these people. Indeed, the author of this gospel had been a tax collector.
Verse 32: John showed "the way of righteousness": i.e. reconciliation with God by faith as evidenced by a changed life. Repentance leads to God which leads to holiness.
The second son represents the religious authorities. They acknowledged and studied the rules but did not act upon them. They may have appeared respectable, polite and agreeable, but they did not put God first. They were too concerned about their own position and popularity. Even when they see the radical transformation of the tax collectors and prostitutes they remain unaffected, and outside the kingdom, rule of God. Soon they would add murder to their sins when they conspired to crucify Jesus.
C.H.Spurgeon said, ' I would not give much for your religion unless it can be seen. Lamps do not talk, but they do shine. '
This transformation requires a lifetime of commitment illustrated by John Bunyan : 'The happy man was born in the city of Regeneration, in the parish of Repentance unto Life. He was educated in the School of Obedience; he works at the trade of Diligence and does many jobs of self-denial. He owns a large estate in the country of Christian Contentment and wears the plain garments of humility. He breakfasts every morning on spiritual prayer and sups every evening on the same. He also has "meat to eat that the world knows not of." He has gospel submission in his conduct, due order in his affection, sound peace in his conscience, sanctifying love in his soul, real divinity in his breast, true humility in his heart, the Redeemer's yoke on his neck, the world under his feet, and a crown of glory over his head. In order to obtain this, he prays fervently, works abundantly, redeems his time, guards his sense, loves Christ, and longs for glory.'
The repentance that God requires is a continuing process. There may be a time when we first repent of our sins but this has to continue as we walk with God. This passage shows us that Jesus' authority comes from God. Therefore, we are to submit to that authority, and receive his forgiveness over and over again. This will affect every part of our lives. A pear tree produces pears, a strawberry plant produces strawberries, and so on. Christians should produce fruit that shows what they truly are. Our thoughts, our worship, our words and our deeds should bear testimony to the grace of God in our own lives, not our own goodness. As we go on in our discipleship we should become more like Jesus, but we are also likely to become more aware of our sins and turn from them. This is the work of God the Holy Spirit as he infiltrates our lives more and more.
A young girl wanted to be admitted into membership of a Scottish church. She was interviewed by the elders who wanted to be sure that she was a true believer because she was so young.
First she was asked, 'Did you ever find out that you were a sinner ?'
'Yes', she replied without hesitation, ' I did indeed.'
'Do you think, my girl that you have undergone a change ?'
' I know I have' the girl replied.
'And do you think that you are a sinner still ?'
'Yes, she said, ' I know that I am a sinner.''
'Well, what change has come over you ?'
'Well', she said,' it's like this. Before I was running after sin. Now I am running away from it.'
Metanoia involves a change of attitude and a change of direction.