Philippians 2:1-13; Matthew 21:23-32
The other day I ran across a video on YouTube that made me incredibly uncomfortable. The scene was of the famous conductor Leonard Bernstein rehearsing Sir Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations with the BBC Orchestra. In the video, the famous maestro singles out the trumpet section on a particular passage of music and tries to instruct them on what he would like to hear. Confused, one of the trumpeters asks for clarification on the sound Mr. Bernstein is looking for. The maestro answers: well, not a brassy ‘waaah’, indicating how he thought they had just played it. With an agitated expression on his face and obviously disagreeing with the maestro’s assessment of their performance, the second trumpet player responds to Mr. Bernstein, taking a tone that is both ungracious and confrontational. The air in the room is tense as you would expect when a brilliant musician with a bruised ego pushes back against one of the most renowned conductors of that era. At the end of the brief two minute video Mr. Bernstein summons the rest of the orchestra to move on and the camera catches the principal clarinetist smiling nervously, almost disbelieving what he just witnessed.[i] I don’t know about you, but my reaction would probably be like that of the clarinetist. Even though conflict and confrontation are sometimes inevitable in life, I have to admit, I certainly do not go looking for it.
When praying with today’s gospel lesson from Matthew, I imagined I was a bystander in the temple watching the exchange between the temple authorities and Jesus. It gave me the same uncomfortable feeling because the confrontation is intense. Jesus had just the previous day entered Jerusalem on a donkey, attracting a great amount of attention. He then went to the temple and caused a scene by flipping over the tables of the money changers while loudly invoking words from the prophet Jeremiah.[ii] And now, still exasperated by the spectacle, the chief priests and elders observe this itinerant peasant teaching a group of his followers in the temple. Concerned that a repeat of the previous day might occur, they quickly approach him with the intention to castigate him for his behavior and then get rid of him by whatever means possible. When they forcefully ask him, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority,” I imagine the oxygen being sucked out of the room with all eyes nervously surveying the scene.
Now, it is easy for us to judge the chief priests and elders because they get so much ‘bad press’ in the gospels. But I’d like to suggest these men were doing their jobs as they saw fit. They came from prominent families, were men of means with impeccable educations, and had earned their positions in the temple. Kathryn Blanchard, in her commentary on this passage writes: “The chief priests’ question is reasonable enough. Their own authority in Israel, after all, had been given to them by God in the time of Moses and passed down for generations.” Their question was an attempt to preserve all they held sacred by diffusing this ticking time bomb before it exploded. She continues, “Thus, for Jesus to say, “By God’s authority,” would be to offer an answer easily refuted on biblical and traditional terms….for Jesus to claim divine status openly would be entirely unacceptable to most of his audience.”[iii]
But, like the chief priests and elders, Jesus came to the temple that day ready to spar and he stuns them by using a tactic out of the old rabbinical ‘playbook.’ He answers their question with a question: “Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” Jesus knew that either of the answers would in a sense expose their shoddy certitude and expose their vulnerability for all to see. Jesus had them backed into a corner and it was then they realized that they had underestimated this seeming peasant.
And like a good lawyer, who continues to use his remaining time in front of a jury to assure there is no doubt about his argument, he then tells a parable about a landowner and his two sons: one who initially denies his father’s request to work in the vineyard but later changes his mind; and one who says, “I go sir,” and then does not show up. When Jesus asks the temple authorities which one of the sons did the will of his father, they answer emphatically, “the first.” Here is where Jesus rests his case and convicts them: “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.” Jesus’ reproof of the religious authorities claimed that their devotion to God through lip service fell way short compared to this caste of socially and morally aberrant people who were showing repentance by actually doing God’s will. His argument claims that the religious authorities are in effect abdicating their authority by inaction. If you give up your authority, how can you be angry when someone else claims it? And it is with this that Jesus goes from being regarded a nuisance to being a force to be reckoned with.
So what can we here this morning glean from our gospel lesson? Well first, never underestimate Jesus! Don’t judge an encounter with Jesus as easy or insignificant. Theologian Charles Campbell writes: “As the chief priests and elders discover, conversations with Jesus are dangerous. The world rarely remains the same at the end of the conversation. We end up both confounded and claimed all at the same time.”[iv] And this is not necessarily a bad thing; difficult conversations can be the fertile soil of transformation and growth. While the exchange may provide obstacles and make us face certain truths that are hidden or we would rather not confront, the result will be life changing. I imagine that Maestro Bernstein and the BBC Orchestra trumpet section did not count on a difficult exchange that day in rehearsal. And while we cannot listen to the concert that followed, I imagine the collaboration between these musicians resulted in a performance that was a joy for all who participated, both the performers and the audience.
Second, I would say that Jesus seeming reproof was more of an urgent invitation. I remember that when I was young, I would be outside during the summer playing with my friends in the neighborhood and we would hear this distinctively familiar bell ringing in the distance. We instantly knew that this was the ice cream truck filled with bomb pops, orange creamcicles, ice cream sandwiches, nutty buddies, and other frozen sweet treats. And we would each head to our homes as fast as we could to get money from our parents, and then run like hell to catch the truck before it was too late and it was too far away. The process was difficult, exciting, and hair-raising all at the same time. Jesus alarming conclusion was an urgent invitation that if these religious leaders wanted to be on the bus, they had best follow the example of others who were already well on their way.
You may recall the story in Luke where Jesus is keeping company with people of questionable professions and motives and the Pharisees and scribes ask his disciples, ““Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” Jesus answered, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance.”[v] Jesus’ reply was an invitation. If you recognize your sin; if you recognize your need; if you recognize that your life is missing the joy and abundance that Jesus is offering, then take a seat at the table and eat, drink, and have fellowship with him and others who have sat down before you. The pain you are experiencing is most likely caused by your resistance to live into your vocation you have been called to as a child of God.
And last I would say that if you accept Jesus’ invitation, it will be the beginning of a long but rewarding journey. Jesus will go to work and begin the process of healing, encouraging, building up, and strengthening your spirit, giving you nourishment and fortitude to face into the challenges, conflicts, and confrontations that will eventually lead to transformation. Paul writes in his letter to the church at Philippi: “For it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” Sometimes the work will be complex, and at other times all that will be required is to put your hands together and receive a piece of bread. But to accept Jesus’ invitation we have to say yes and come forward, backing up our intentions with action. This is what Jesus was saying to all who were listening to that difficult conversation in the temple. This is what Jesus saying to us today. Amen.
[ii] Jeremiah 7:11
[iii] Bartlett, David Lyon, and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors. Feasting on the Word. First ed., vol. A4, Westminster John Knox Press, 2011.
[iv] Bartlett, David Lyon, and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors. Feasting on the Word. First ed., vol. A4, Westminster John Knox Press, 2011.
[v] Luke 5:30-32
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