WHO’S IN CHARGE HERE?

WHO’S IN CHARGE HERE?
A sermon based on Matthew 21:23-32
First Baptist Church of Lynchburg
September 27, 2020
By Paul Dakin
May the words of my mouth and the mediations of our hearts be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord our Strength and our Redeemer. Amen.
AUTHORITY—it is a word that is heard a lot in the media these days, isn’t it? Authority seems to be a vital issue for many people, but it seems to be especially true as the general election draws near on November 3. Does the President have the authority to mandate this or that? Does the Congress have the authority to make laws as it sees fit concerning particular issues? Does the governor have the authority to direct that we follow stricter or looser regulations as Virginia continues to wrestle with the consequences of the COVID pandemic? Who’s in charge here? It is a vital question with important implications. Where does the responsibility for making decisions lie? Where does the authority to make those decisions come from? And who gave this authority to the person or group deciding what course of action to take? Is it right? Is it legal? Is the authority that is being assumed valid or not?
And it’s not just in the political arena that authority is questioned or assumed. Churches are also wrapped up in questions of authority. Church councils, synods, conventions, conferences, vestries, cardinals, bishops, deacon boards, and lots more decision making groups all claim to have authority over what individual churches can do or believe, depending on which denomination is being considered. You’ve probably heard this old joke before, but there’s more than a little truth in it: Protestants do not recognize the authority of the Pope; Catholics do not recognize the authority of the presbytery; and Baptists don’t recognize each other in the liquor store… (Or at least it used to be that way once upon a time…)
In today’s gospel reading from Matthew, Jesus has an encounter with the religious leaders in Jerusalem. The question of authority comes up, and in response to their questions, our Lord engages in a bit of verbal give-and-take, following it with a parable that shows up these people for who they are…
The setting for today’s story is the day after Palm Sunday. As you may recall, on that day, Jesus entered Jerusalem while riding on a donkey as the crowd celebrated his entrance into the city. Then Matthew tells us that Jesus went straight into the Temple. What he saw there made him furious. He saw people sitting in the Temple courtyard buying and selling merchandise. He overturned their tables and ran them out of the Temple—with a whip, no less—exclaiming, “My house will be called a house of prayer, but you have turned it into a den of thieves.”
Following the expulsion of the moneychangers and merchants, the blind and the lame came up to Jesus in the Temple, seeking to be healed from their afflictions. And Jesus healed them…to the acclaim of those who witnessed what was going on. (Well mostly…the chief priests and teachers of the law were none too pleased about what they saw and heard from the people…)
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Then, after spending the night outside of the city, Jesus and his disciples showed up back at the
Temple the next day. This is where today’s text picks up…
Jesus went into the Temple and taught, as was his custom. (You’ve got to admit—that was a
bold move by Jesus to show up in the Temple the very next day after he had caused such a commotion
the day before. If I had been one of the disciples, I would have expected Jesus to have been met by the
soldiers of the Temple guard and maybe none-too-gently escorted out of the building. But he wasn’t—
the Temple guard would not come for him until later on in the week in the Garden of Gethsemane…)
The same folks who were critical of Jesus the day before—the chief priests and the teachers of the law—
also showed up. They had two questions that they demanded that Jesus answer. They asked, “By what
authority are you doing these things? And who gave you this authority?”
[Side bar here: I find it interesting that the chief priests and the teachers of the law did not
question whether or not Jesus had any authority. That was self-evident. Only someone with authority
could have said the things he said, taught the things he taught, and performed miracle after miracle as
he did. So they did not question IF he had authority. They questioned where it came from…]
Our Lord discerned that they did not have the best of motives in asking these questions. He
knew that they wished to trip him up or make him look foolish to discredit him in the eyes of his
followers. So rather than giving them a straight up answer, Jesus asks them a question of his own. He
says, “I’ll answer your questions if you first answer one of mine. Was John’s baptism from heaven or was
it of human origin?”
The chief priests and teachers of the law knew right away that Jesus’ question had them caught
between a rock and a hard place. They were in a tight spot. They figured that if they answered “From
heaven,” then Jesus would ask them why they didn’t believe John and do what he said. But if they
answered, “Of human origin,” then they would run afoul of popular opinion, which held that John had
been a prophet sent from God. There was no way for them to win. So they took the coward’s way out.
They answered, “We don’t know.” Since they would not answer his question, Jesus refused to give a
straight answer to their questions.
Instead Jesus told a parable about a man who had two sons. He told them both to go into the
vineyard to work. The first son answered, “Nope”… but then later changed his mind and went to the
vineyard to work as his father had asked him to do. The second one immediately replied “Yessir”…but
then he never showed up. Jesus then asked which one of the sons was truly obedient to his father. The
chief priests and teachers of the law correctly answered, “The first one.” Then Jesus proceeded to give
them the meaning of the parable. He said that traitorous, low-life tax collectors and prostitutes—the
two groups of people considered to be the most vile and ungodly people of Jesus’ day—would be the
ones to get into the Kingdom of God before they would…They no doubt rocked back on their heels.
Ouch!…That hurt…
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As I was reading, and studying and reflecting on the passage and writing the sermon, something
occurred to me that has never really occurred to me in quite this same fashion before. You know, Jesus
often saved his harshest words for those who were considered to be good, moral, upright religious
people. Religious people tend to come out badly in much of our Lord’s teaching and especially in many
of his parables. Consider these three parables that our Lord told the people—
Jesus told this story known that has become known as the “Parable of the Evil Tenants.” In this
parable, a man planted a vineyard and rented it out to some tenants. They were to work the
land in exchange for a share of the produce. When the harvest time came, the land owner sent
first one servant, and then another, to collect what was rightfully his. The tenants, however, has
other ideas. They treated his servants shamefully, beating some of them and killing others. So
finally, the landowner decided to send his son, thinking that they would respect him. But no.
When the son arrived, the tenants conspired to kill him as well, reasoning that then they would
receive the inheritance. When Jesus asked what the landowner will do when he finds out what
the evil tenants had done to his son, the Pharisees replied that he would destroy them and then
rent the land out to others that would give the landowner his due…The chief priests and
Pharisees did not take long to figure out that Jesus was talking about them—and that they were
the evil tenants in the story…They were good and moral people being called out by our Lord…
Another parable that Jesus told was about two men who went up into the Temple to pray. One
was a Pharisee and the other was a low-life tax collector—someone who was on the bottom
rung of society. The Pharisee got up and proceeded to tell God about how good he had been
and of all the righteous acts and good deeds that he did in obedience to what the law required.
The tax collector, however, stood afar off. He would not even lift his eyes up toward heaven, but
instead uttered this simple prayer: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” And with words that no
doubt turned more than a few heads, Jesus said that it was not the obviously religious person
who went home justified before God. No—it was the disreputable tax collector’s prayer that
God heard and honored. Once again, it is the obviously religious person who is shamed in this
parable…
A third parable—one that is so well-known that everyone here could tell it—the Parable of the
Good Samaritan. You all remember how it was the priest and the Levite—two Godly religious
people—who were the ones who did not help the half-dead robbery victim as he lay in the ditch.
No—they just passed by on the other side of the road. It was the religious people who failed to
be the neighbor that Jesus was calling them to be. Again, it is the religious folk who are the bad
guys in the story…1
The teaching of these parables, along with the teaching of the parable in today’s text, ought to
serve as a sober warning to us. Most all of us here this morning would to be pretty religious people.
(After all, you make the effort to come to worship even in the midst of the pandemic…) We have been
baptized believers in Jesus for years—many of us for decades. And we continue to show our faith
1 Matthew 21:33-41, Luke 18:9-14, and Luke 10:25-37.
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through our good works. Those are good things. You should be commended for them. And I am grateful
to you all for your faithfulness…
But there is a danger inherent in our situation. A danger that we will become complacent. A
danger that we will be satisfied with our spiritual progress, A danger that we will fall into the trap of
believing that we know all there is to know about the spiritual life, the church, and the faith that we
profess.
I think that was at least part of the error of the Pharisees. They figured that, since they
scrupulously followed what they knew of the Old Testament law and of the traditions of their people, as
they had for a very long time, they figured that such was all the righteousness that they needed.
Consequently, they became smug and comfortable in their faith…and it showed to those around them.
And they missed the opportunities that presented themselves when God came knocking…
And today’s parable brings us some good news for those who try to live moral and righteous
lives. The good news is that you can ALWAYS change your mind.
In today’s parable, the father told one of his sons to go work in the vineyard. The son initially
said, “No.” But then he thought better about it, and worked in the vineyard as his father had asked him
to do. Jesus told this parable as a critique of the actions of religious people like the chief priests and
Pharisees. In truth, the gospels record that the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the Pharisees
fought Jesus almost every step of the way during his earthly ministry. Even though they were religious,
good, moral people to all outward appearances, they did not recognize God’s son when he came to live
and teach among them. They were not open to a new and unexpected word from God. And they
opposed our Lord Jesus at every turn…
But here’s some hopeful news…Some of the Pharisees, priests, and teachers of the law
eventually changed their minds and they became followers of Jesus. We know that both Nicodemus and
Joseph of Arimethea were Pharisees that followed Jesus—at least to some extent. Acts 15:5 indicates
that there were a number of ex-Pharisees that were members of the early church in Jerusalem. Maybe
they were even leaders. And of course, Christianity’s greatest interpreter of the faith, the Apostle Paul,
was an ex-Pharisee who became converted and spearheaded the early church’s first missionary
endeavors.
And Acts 6:7 indicates that “a large number of the priests became obedient to the faith.” I have
to wonder if some of these priests mentioned in Acts 6 were present among the chief priests whom
Jesus dealt with in today’s passage…Did our Lord’s words make such an impression on them that they
eventually became followers?…If so, then they surely got the message that it is not too late to change
your mind…
The point is that you can change your mind—even if you are a good religious person like a
Pharisee or a priest. The love of God is so broad, and so deep, and so all-sufficient that it can even
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embrace good religious people who need a fresh start with God. That includes everybody wherever they
are on their faith journey.
What about you this morning? Do you need a fresh start with the Lord? Sometimes even good
religious people need to do that. Do you need to rekindle your faith into a vibrant, living part of your
life? You can, you know. Because as Jesus taught in the parable this morning, you can always change
your mind…
To God alone be the glory! Amen.