Who gave you the right?

This is the sermon I preached Sunday at St. Timothy Lutheran Church. The text was Matthew 21:23-32.

I would like you to join me in listening to an exchange between Jesus and the religious leaders in Jerusalem. Jesus was in the middle of teaching in the temple and the chief priests and elders of the people interrupted him, saying, “Who do you think you are, Jesus? You’ve caused so much trouble lately.” 


Talking among themselves, we hear, “Why didn’t he just stay put in Galilee?” while another chimes in, “He comes marching in here like he belongs here!” Then an elder says, “And the crowd! Not one bit of decorum among them! They kept crying out, 

‘Hosanna!’”


“And if that weren’t enough, did you hear about the incident with the money changers? Jesus confronted them, tipping over their tables and making a huge scene.” “Then he said something about making it a house of prayer. What did he mean by that? This is God’s house. Of course, it’s a house of prayer.”“He called our money changers thieves.”


“And if that wasn’t enough, he started healing people here in the temple.” 

“Yes, and that crowd again! Did you hear what they said? ‘Hosanna to the Son of David.’” “Did Jesus stop them? No! He just quoted some scripture about the mouths of infants and babes.” “Now he’s back here again; and he is teaching!” 


“Jesus, by what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” “Yeah, who does he think he is and who said he could do this?” “What gives him the right?” 


“What? You won’t answer our questions until we answer one from you?” “John the Baptist? You want to know if we thought his baptism was from God or of human origin?” “Guys, we’re in trouble now.” “That’s right. If we say John was from God, then Jesus will want to know why we didn’t believe him.” “Yeah, and if we say his work was of human origin, the crowd will tear us apart. They all thought he was a prophet.”


So, they answered, “We do not know.” “What was that Jesus said? ‘Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.’” “Are we never to get an answer from Jesus?”


“What do you think?” asks Jesus. 

“Oh no, not one of his parables. I just wish he would give us a clear answer for once.”


Jesus tells the story of a man who had two sons. He asked Son One to go out into the vineyard to work. Son One said he wouldn’t work in the vineyard, but then he had a change of heart. He regretted how he spoke to his father. It was shameful to behave that way, so he did what his father asked.


Son two acts very deferentially toward his father. Yes, of course, he would go, but did he? No. He was all talk, but where the rubber meets the road, he fell flat. 


However, in this culture of honor and shame, the son who obeys his father to his face is the righteous son, the son who has kept his place, the son who has kept the relationship, the son who has not shamed the father. 


Then comes the surprising turn in the parable. Jesus doesn't ask, "Which of the sons honored their father?" but "Which of the two followed his instructions?" shifting the focus from shame and respect to obedience.


“The first!” can be the only correct answer to his question, which ironically shames the assembled authorities. Jesus spells out the metaphor: the place of honor on the way into the kingdom of God will be given to those who presently occupy places of shame but who do God's will, while the religiously righteous will bring up the rear. (Cynthia A. Jarvis, Feasting on the Gospels: Matthew, Volume 2).


“Did you hear what Jesus said? He said that those prostitutes and tax collectors would go into the kingdom ahead of us, us with our theological training, us who are the heads of the elite families of Jerusalem. They would go before us? Shocking!”


Jesus did not directly answer their question, but they got the message. He was claiming that the cries of “Hosanna” of the crowd were justified. He had every right to be in the temple, healing and teaching and overturning tables. Not only had he overturned the money changers’ tables, but he turned the tables on the religious elite.


A pastor in San Diego was called into the sanctuary early one morning and saw a strange offering that had been left on the altar. Hanging on the altar was a bloody white T-shirt, and a note. The note consisted of only three words, “Please listen, God.” It was signed and included a phone number.

The pastor dialed the number. A young man answered and told his story. He had run away from home and had been wandering the streets, doing drugs, drifting from one place to another, and getting into all kinds of trouble. There had been a fight and an almost fatal beating. After making sure the victim of his assault was taken to a hospital, this young man came to the church, found an unlocked door, and went into the sanctuary. He stayed there all night, crying, and praying. He asked God to forgive him and show him the way to go. All at once, the presence of God became real to him. He knew God was there. He felt God's forgiveness. A wonderful peace came over him. He committed himself to Jesus Christ, and said that he was determined to make right the things he had messed up.

I wonder if the religious officials ever got the point of Jesus' parable? I hope you and I do – for the message of repentance is for us as well. Sometimes we are blind to God's actions in our life. Sometimes, we are all talk and no action. Sometimes we refuse to let God break into our lives and help us make a new start. If so, listen to this parable, a father had two sons ………

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