Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
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When he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, ‘By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?’ Jesus said to them, ‘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?’ And they argued with one another, ‘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.’ So they answered Jesus, ‘We do not know.’ And he said to them, ‘Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.
‘What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, “Son, go and work in the vineyard today.” He answered, “I will not”; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, “I go, sir”; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?’ They said, ‘The first.’ Jesus said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, the tax-collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax-collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.
At Work: Philippians 2:1-13, Matthew 21:23-32
Sometimes, in popular culture, changing one's mind is painted as the worst possible kind of moral failing. Do you remember that national election a couple years ago when one of the candidates admitted to changing his mind about something? He was raked over the coals. His opponents never described him as someone who simply got new information, considered it, and changed his mind. According to their thinking, he didn't change his mind... he flip-flopped because he's a big giant weenie who doesn't deserve your vote. They used his change as an opportunity to declare him morally deficient, unable to commit, even cowardly. This was such an emotionally convincing argument that the negative idea of changing one's mind being flip-flopping stuck. In that particular election, many people called him a flip-flopper. He ended up losing the election, probably for many reasons beyond the fact that he once changed his mind on a political position. But, the idea of the cowardly flip-flopper continued to have power after that election.
A whole host of politicians got elected over the next couple years precisely because they promised to never change their minds, to never waiver. Their intractability became a selling point on the campaign trail. They would walk into Congress with opinions fully formed and thoroughly unchangeable. They would never dream of compromise because they were right and they would make sure to fix up everything that was wrong. I read an article this week that talked about why changing one's mind can be labeled as problematic. The author, Maggie Koerth-Baker, said that certain beliefs and values can become central to our group identity, be it our church identity, our family identity, our town, or our national identity. Whether or not we have a certain opinion becomes a mode by which we verify our allegiances and construct our identities: It's like we say, "I am this kind of person, therefore I believe this set of things." But, if you change your mind, if you don't believe quite the thing that your group thinks you should be believing, you risk being seeing as disloyal... as untrustworthy. Your difference becomes disconcerting and disconnecting.
The first part of our reading from Matthew today has a fair amount of waffling opinions, mostly opinions from the religious elite regarding the appropriateness of Jesus' actions upon entering Jerusalem during before Passover. Given that we haven't visited this portion of Matthew since sometime between Palm Sunday and Good Friday, it is probably wise to take a moment to remind ourselves what has been happening in the lead up to this conversation between the chief priest and elders and Jesus. First, this happens the day after Jesus rode into town and the crowd called out to him "Hosanna," that is, "save us now!" The city is described as being "in turmoil," maybe something close to a riot, and Jesus did nothing to quieten the crowds. In fact, he seems to rile them up more.
He flew into the temple and turned over the tables of the money changers and dove salespeople. Even though the dove salespeople and money changers served an important function at the temple by making sure people had the correct types of money and correct animals for sacrifice, Jesus called them a "den of robbers" who were desecrating the temple. After that, mobs of sick and broken people crowded around him and he healed them. The scene only calmed down when Jesus left town and spent the night out in Bethany.
If you ask me, after a disruptive display like that, it seems pretty fair for the chief priest and elders to ask him just what exactly he thinks he's doing. Given the ruckus of the previous day, we should probably expect people in authority to ask Jesus by whose authority has he caused such a disturbance. Remember, its Passover. Roman troops were watching them carefully, ready to crack heads at any hint of seditious behavior. Knocking over tables and stirring up a crowd would have intensified the scrutiny. The chief priest and elders said "What gives you the right to stir up such a scene? Who gave you the authority to make such a mess and turn all the soldiers' attention our way?" This could end up being an intimidating line of questioning for anyone. It would have been especially tense at that moment for all the political reasons I have described. But Jesus doesn't sound one bit intimidated. If you are familiar with his interactions with the religious and political elite, that is probably not a surprise to you.
First, Jesus doesn't even really answer their question. He asks his own, saying if they answer, then he will say where is his authority is from. Here's where the waffling comes in... they don't know what to say. It's not like they are confused or simply have doubts. They are having a hard time sorting out what would be the most politically expedient response. You see, Jesus asks them about John the Baptist, and his call to repentance and baptism. One scholar I read this week, Noelle Damico, noted that this is both a political and theological question. Their response may place them in a precarious place both in the eyes of Rome and in the eyes of their religious community. They say, "If we say that we believe this baptism is from heaven, he's going to take us to task for not believing John. If we say it was simply something he made up, the crowd will come after us because they believe." Rather than risk admitting they were wrong or risk annoying the crowd, they just said they didn't know. I think they did know what they believed. They were just afraid of saying it.
When they refuse to answer, Jesus also refuses to answer, not out of fear, but to draw attention to their non-answer. This is an important conversation. Even though Jesus never tells his critics where his authority comes from, he does demonstrate his authority in this conversation. He does not back down in the face of their questions. He asks his own question, thereby reorienting the entire conversation. And, he presumes he has the right to not answer them. According to scholar Stanley Saunders, these contests were not simply verbal games. Had Jesus been bested faithfully or intellectually even once, as the person with less official authority in the situation, all of the credibility he had built with the people would be in shambles. He would have lost the right to occupy the place of respect that he had assumed in the temple. He would have lost the place from which he challenged local officials. His triumphal entry and passionate actions in the temple would have been forgotten. He would have just been one more loudmouth who was outsmarted by the elite.
It is also worth noting, had he lost, he might have been able to avoid the wrath of the powerful. Had he lost, he might never had been crucified, because who crucifies someone who isn't a threat? But, he didn't lose. He outsmarted them, demonstrated his authority, and help put a target squarely on his own chest. At this moment, he reminds us that being faithful has rarely meant being safe. The next thing he did was remind them that changing one's mind is actually a good and righteous thing. He asked them a question in the form of a short parable. Who has honored the wishes of the father in the parable, the son who refused initially but eventually did what the father asked or the one who said yes first, but did nothing? This question they answer. Obviously the first son. Jesus said you're right. And, you are not the first son. You have seen the evidence and ignored it. All the people whom you look down upon but have found their way to John, they changed. They got it right. You need to do better. You need to risk being changed.
I read a poem by Wilbur Rees a couple weeks ago that continues to sit with me:
I would like to buy $3 worth of God, please.
Not enough to explode my soul or disturb my sleep,
but just enough to equal a cup of warm milk
or a snooze in the sunshine.
I don’t want enough of God to make me love a black man
or pick beets with a migrant.
I want ecstasy, not transformation.
I want warmth of the womb, not a new birth.
I want a pound of the Eternal in a paper sack.
I would like to buy $3 worth of God, please.
What Jesus is saying in our reading today is that we shouldn't follow God and connect with our neighbors in order to remain unchanged. We follow Christ to risk being changed. Jesus calls us into the most divine of flip-flops- towards reconciliation, redemption, and justice for the oppressed. We aren't here for just enough God to feel warm and fuzzy. We are here for a God who shifts our hearts and the world beneath our feet so that we fall closer to God and closer to our neighbors. It won't necessarily keep us safe (I mean look at Paul... he wrote Philippians from inside a jail cell... look at Jesus who ended up on the cross). But, it can transform us, if we let it. We would do well to remember these words from Paul: "for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for God's good pleasure." God is still at work and so are we. Feel God's work in your life and be changed by it. Then act on that change.
Resources Pastor Chrissy consulted when writing this sermon:
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.