For weeks now in our gospel readings we’ve been hearing and thinking about some of Jesus’ best and most-famous parables; these very-condensed stories that enigmatically point beyond our experience of life-as-we-usually-know-it to how life in the Kingdom of God is experienced.
These stories about God’s Kingdom shock us because the life God prepares for us is different than what we are able to imagine or expect on our own.
And today we hear another one of these mysterious stories, except that something is different with this latest parable because of what has happened off-camera from our Lectionary. The gospel writer Matthew tells us that between the story that we heard from Jesus last week and the events we hear about today something monumental has happened.
We have come to know it as: “Jesus Cleanses the Temple.”
Not at all a work-day at the church to beautify the grounds, Jesus literally ransacks the place.
If you think there was an uproar from the little kids a couple weeks ago when we didn’t have donuts in the Commons, you can begin to image the total chaos of Jesus throwing chairs and flipping tables off their feet in this Holiest House of Worship.
Merchants, you see, set up shop around the vicinity of the Temple to sell animals and birds needed for sacrifices in the Temple. And that could be all fine and good, but Jesus sees that some of these merchants are taking advantage of pilgrims coming to Jerusalem from far-away distances and unable to bring their own animals, and they are price-gouging them in their hour of need, and Jesus is hot.
If we could see him up close we could probably see the blood vessels in his neck popping out, as he shouts that his Father’s house is to be revered and respected. And indeed, part of his anger is that God’s traveling-people-far-from-home are to be revered and respected, because Matthew tells us that Jesus, after cleansing the Temple heals those who can’t see and who can’t walk.
You better believe, as vehemently as people are speculating over whether NFL players should take a knee or stand up straight at the singing of the National Anthem, there were as many opinions, and as strong of opinions about whether this Rabbi Jesus had the authority to say anything at all about this taken-for-granted practice, much less the authority to throw tables on their sides and send gold coins flying!
And so, these chief priests and the elders of the people – the people who are supposed to be in charge – come to question Jesus’ authority.
“Who do you think you are Jesus? Let’s see your credentials,” they say. And perhaps they have some genuine curiosity, but they’re also jealous of Jesus and the way the crowd loves him.
And in response, Jesus says, “I’ll ask YOU a question: Did the baptism of John come from heaven or was it from human origin?”
Because you see, there are two kinds of authority, s we know it well in our own life.
The first kind of authority we experience is human authority: it comes in the form of bosses or supervisors; in the form of governments and institutions; and we see it playing out every day in the news as leaders of the nations of the world bluster at one another, showing us they believe that if they have the most fire power, or that if they are brazen enough to use what they have, they will be able to take power by force.
The other of authority is God’s authority. We see God’s authority around us in a world that has been created as God imagined it. We see God’s authority revealed to us in God’s truth and in God’s life and in God’s word, which tells us who we are, what we are created for, and how God sees us.
In the short run, human authority looks good, or at least powerful. In the short run, human authority CAN look like it is stronger than God’s authority. Because in the short run, human authority can appear to overwhelm divine authority – even to crucify it – but ultimately, God’s truth prevails.
And JESUS’ authority comes to HIM because he submits to God’s authority.
Even his question to the chief priest and the elders illuminates Jesus understanding of what he and John and the prophets have been all about.
He doesn’t ask the chief priests “where did John’s authority come from,” he asks “where did the authority of John’s BAPTISM come from?”
Clearly, for Jesus, John had authority because he did God’s work, and submitted to God’s desires.
For Jesus, it all comes down to this: are we doing what God would have us do with our lives? Are we submitting to God’s desires? Are we seeking what we want or what God wants with our life?
And to further this point, Jesus tells… what else? Another parable!
So, there’s a man that owns a convenience store and he has two boys and on Friday afternoon as the boys are coming home from school the older son comes into the house and his Dad say, “Son, I’m going to need you to work the store tomorrow.”
“Are you serious?!” the older brother shouts. “It’s Saturday!! I had plans to go to the movies with my friends!” “You don’t care about me. You just had me so you’d have somebody to work at your store and you wouldn’t have to do it!” And he goes to his room and slams the door.
Next thing you know, the younger brother comes in to the house and his Dad say, “Son, I’m going to need you to work the store tomorrow.”
The younger brother is on his phone, texting his friends and playing “Love You to Bits,” and he’s not even half-listening. He says, “Yeah, yeah, sure thing.” But he isn’t really paying attention and he doesn’t even hear what his Dad says.”
When the alarm clock goes off the next morning, the older brother who yelled at his Dad wakes up with a pit in his stomach. He feels guilty for blowing up at his Dad and, even more, he feels like if he doesn’t just go in and work his shift, it’s just gonna make life more miserable for everybody.
Meanwhile, the younger brother who never even really heard his Dad and said “yeah, yeah, whatever you say,” just to get him to stop nagging him rolls over and goes back to sleep. He never even heard his Dad’s request; he never makes in, and never punches the clock.
Which brother has done what his Father hoped he would do?
The first people who heard this story understood that on some level the story is about how Israel, God’s beloved people, at first said they would be faithful to God but changed their minds and went and did their own thing, while many of the tax collectors and prostitutes who were seen by everyone as a lost cause were meeting John and Jesus and turning their lives around to follow God.
So some people say, “The first son did the what the Father hoped he would do.”
But Jesus doesn’t really explicitly answer the question. Jesus doesn’t say what answer HE had in mind, and it could be that the answer to the question “which brother has done what his Father hoped he would do?” is “neither son.”
Because neither brother really did what their Father hoped they would do. One was sort of polite in that he didn’t yell at his Dad, but didn’t do what his Father asked. And the one that DID work was a total jerk about it, and that’s not really what the Father wanted either.
Both sons had changes that they needed to make. Neither son in the story really did the will of their Father.
And that would be a pretty unsatisfying end to the story except that JESUS is the son who does the will of his Father.
The one TELLING the story is the Son who lives up to his Father’s hope:
He was equal with God, but emptied himself, took the form of a slave, humbled himself, and became obedient to the will of his Father – even to the point of death – even death on a cross,
So that at the name of Jesus, every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
This past week we’ve heard a lot about bending knees. And perhaps it is right and good to have respectful conversation about the national anthem and our response to is, but how good would it be if we as Christians were AS concerned about whether at the name of Jesus, every knee is bending and every tongue confessing that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
How good would it be for the whole church to be asking: what more can I do? What more can we do to share and live the love of Christ so that people kneel before him, stand to praise him, and know the joy of life with him?
The good news of his parable is that we have the chance to change.
Like the sons in his story, we have all disappointed our Father, fallen short of God’s hopes for us, hurt one another and failed to grasp the radical hospitality, forgiveness, and inclusion of God’s Kingdom, but like those sons, we still have a Father.
God calls us sons and daughters and always will.
Like Gus, baptized today, we have been joined to God forever in Christ and we have a place in the Kingdom that we’re asking God to help us understand and live and share.
God our Father welcomes us home; invites us to sit at his Table, forgives us and gives us second chances.
May his Spirit empower us to follow and serve for the sake of the Kingdom that is breaking into the world to shine God’s lovingkindess, forgiveness, and grace.