9/27/2020 Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost The text is Matthew 21: 23-32.
23 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?” 24 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. 25 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?’ 26 But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.” 27 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.
28 “What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ 29 He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. 30 The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. 31 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. 32 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.
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to You, O Lord, my rock and my Redeemer.
Grace, mercy, and peace are yours from God the Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
The Revised Common Lectionary is the index of Scripture readings that are provided for each Sunday of the church year. A great majority of Christian churches, including Lutherans use these suggested lessons each week to read in worship and preach on. They follow a three-year cycle and one or more of the four Gospels is highlighted each year.
The focus this year, as you may have noticed is the Gospel of Matthew. So, preachers mostly follow the Lectionary; we don’t just pick Scripture readings at random. Now, while this Lectionary layout tends to be more or less sequential, often we find that we are dealing with a portion of a gospel that seems a bit isolated. For the last few Sundays, Jesus has been teaching in parables; he has told Peter to forgive “seven times seventy” times; and last week the lesson taught that all laborers in the vineyard were entitled to equal wages. This morning we read that Jesus was approached by the chief priests when he was teaching in the temple. Perhaps more has transpired between the parable teaching and his arrival in the temple, which just happens to be in the Holy City, Jerusalem. They questioned his authority to teach, preach, and act as he had been doing. How did we get to this point in the story?
What has been omitted in the Lectionary is what took place just before this morning’s reading. Jesus has made his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, greeted with palms spread before him and shouts of “Hosanna!”. He then entered the temple, enraged and offended by what he saw. He drove the moneychangers from the temple and overturned their tables. These two events, and especially his actions in the temple caused the chief priests and elders of the community to question Jesus. While the Scripture takes a rather mild approach when recounting the questions posed to him, I’m more inclined to think that those who accosted Jesus were dumbfounded and infuriated by his actions. Their words may have been more like, “Just what do you think you’re doing, and who gave you the right to be here doing this?” After all, it was the job of the chief priests to oversee all worship, sacrifices, and the adherence to purity laws within the temple. So, you can imagine how incensed they would have been to find Jesus there in the temple, chasing out others and holding Torah-study classes.
And as he often does, Jesus poses a question back to them when they ask where his authority comes from. And it’s the type of question that they aren’t able to answer; either way they respond, they will find themselves in a bind.
And since they dodge the question, Jesus refuses to tell them from whence comes his authority. But then he proceeds to tell them yet another parable; this time about the two hypocritical sons and their father’s request for them to labor in his vineyard. And he serves up a not-so-subtle allegory in this parable about hypocrisy; the “tax-collectors and the prostitutes” will be judged by their actions regarding John the Baptist and will be rewarded for their belief, while the priests and elders he is addressing didn’t believe that John’s authority came from God; thus, their salvation will not be secured. By comparing these two opposite factions, Jesus is accusing the supposedly pious ones of “talking the talk, but not walking the walk”. Those who profess to be the “good guys” who act in sinful ways. On the other hand, those who are shunned by society yet have faith and trust in the will of God for the ministries of John, and ultimately Jesus; these are the ones whose changed minds will gain them their heavenly reward.
I found this definition of hypocrisy: it is the contrivance of a false appearance of virtue or goodness, while concealing real character traits or inclinations, especially with respect to religious and moral beliefs; hence, in a general sense, hypocrisy may involve dissimulation, pretense, or a sham.
All well and good, if we’re aiming for a purely academic understanding. Paul details a rather complex few verses explaining his own struggle with this in his letter to the Romans. We can hear the anguish that Paul feels as he attempts to come to grips with his knowing what his right, yet his compulsion to act counter to it. In “The Message” bible version, Paul writes the following verses: “but I need something more! For if I know the law but still can’t keep it, and if the power of sin within me keeps sabotaging my best intentions, I obviously need help! I realize that I don’t have what it takes. I can will it, but I can’t do it. I decide to do good, but I don’t really do it, I decide not to do bad, but then I do it anyway. My decisions, such as they are, don’t result in actions. Something has gone wrong deep within me and gets the better of me every time.” I’m certain that we all face this dilemma, probably more often than we like to admit.
It’s truly part of the human condition, a part of what makes us what we are; broken, sinful people. We’re hypocrites; not always, but often enough. Jesus points out that there are really two types of hypocritical behavior. We can “talk a good game” and not follow through. Let’s call this, “bad hypocrisy”. Or, we can outwardly display resistance to the plea to embrace faith, belief, servanthood, or the doing of good works in Jesus’ name, letting others think that we’re unwilling to heed the call; and then, actually follow up on these things and act according to God’s will. For the lack of a better term, I’m going to presume this to be “good hypocrisy”. For “actions” do “speak louder than words”.
When I was thirteen, my parents offered me the choice of two things that I desperately wanted; they would put up a swimming pool in the yard, or, we could take the trip to Cape Canaveral, so I could tour the facility that was just about ready for the Moon landing. I could have one or the other; the money wasn’t there for both these expenses. Apparently, I wanted the pool more, so that’s what I asked for, and did in fact get. But, a few weeks before Apollo 11 launched, to my utter surprise and joy, we were loaded up into the non-airconditioned Chevy for the 1,100-mile trek to Florida; which I’m sure was miserable for my parents. They said one thing and did the other; those hypocrites! To this day I still file this episode under “good hypocrisy”.
Jesus and Paul, and parents who plan pleasant surprises, these teachings are there for us to learn from. To be more concerned with the way people ultimately behave, their initial resistance notwithstanding. And if we are to view others through this lens, it’s even more incumbent upon us to follow this same practice. If we must be hypocrites, let us not be as concerned about how others might view what we outwardly project, but with the actions we undertake in spite of what others might hear us say. Our God commands us to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and provide shelter for those in need. If we choose to have others believe that we’re not going to do these things, but do them anyway, especially out of sight of those others, that’s the type of “good hypocrisy” that Jesus would prefer for us to engage in. Let’s not worry about “talking the talk”; let’s “walk the walk”.
Will you pray with me? Good and gracious God, like your servant Paul, we can will that which we ought, but we can’t do it. We decide to do good, but we don’t really do it; we decide not to do bad, but then we do it anyway. Guide us in our struggles to try to do your will, in spite of our sinfulness. Help us to be “good hypocrites”. And we pray these things the name of Jesus Christ, the One who praised the faith and belief of the undesirables in his day. May he bless us today, for the hypocrites we are. Amen.
God is Good, all the time. All the time, God is Good. Amen.