Eighteenth Sunday After Pentecost
S. Pentecost 18.23 Matt. 21:23-32
Jesus said to them, ‘I will ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will tell you by what authority I do these things’…
Questions, questions! The chief priests and elders of the day had a lot of ‘em for Jesus. Probably, we have a lot of questions for Jesus, too? But this Gospel today is kind of a warning about asking Jesus questions. It gives a lot of food for thought, but, to me, no clear answers…
I’ve really struggled with this seemingly straightforward episode and accompanying parable. Jesus has been forgiving sins, healing the sick, drawing a motley crew of sinners, hedge fund managers, and hookers.
Jesus has just entered Jerusalem (on a donkey!) and been hailed as King and Lord by a large crowd of pilgrims in Jerusalem for the annual Passover Feast (which all Jews were supposed to attend). He’s just driven out the money changers—all those who bought and sold in the temple—denouncing them as having made his house a den of robbers… (!)
So, the question the chief priests, elders, et. al. ask: “By what authority are you doing these things? Who gave you this authority?” while it seems benign and sincere, conceals deep opposition. As he is wont to do, Jesus answers the question with “I’ll ask you one question. Answer it, and I’ll answer yours: did the baptism of John come from heaven or from man?”
And instead of giving an honest answer, the leaders of Israel huddle up and argue (like NFL officials who know they’ve blown an un-reviewable call): “If we say ‘from heaven’, he will say ‘Why, then, did you not believe him?!’ But if we say, ‘From man’ [which is clearly what they really believe] we are afraid of the crowd, for all regard John as a prophet.”
So, they go: “We do not know”. And Jesus says “Neither will I answer your question.” I translate that passage more dynamic equivalent, but mine could offend literalist, pious sensibilities. Russell knows how I translate it. You can ask him, but he’ll probably just ask you another question in return, Jesus-style. Russell likes Jesus a lot. I do, too 😉
Anywho, instead of a direct answer, Jesus tells a little story about two sons. Their father says to the 1st: “Son, go and work in the vineyard today”. He answers: “I will not!” but later changed his mind and went. The father went to the 2nd son, and said the same; and he answered, “I go, sir!” (which is how I always respond to the official summons to attend pastors’ conferences 😉 but he did not go. So which of the two, Jesus asks the religious elite of Israel (since they like questions so much 😉 did the will of his father?
They say, “The 1st”. And Jesus replies not “go and do likewise” as I would expect, but rather tells them that hedge fund managers and hookers going together, like ice cream and apple pie, are entering heaven before you—the prelates, popes, and pastors of Israel. Because John came to them in the way of righteousness, and they did not believe him (but the hedge fund managers and hookers believed him!) and even after they saw it, they did not change their minds and believe him.
Now, what do we make of this, exactly? It seems to me the vineyard probably represents Israel, (the church?) which is what vineyards usually seem to be in all Jesus’ vineyard parables. But… in most of those parables, Jesus denounces the tenants for having made his vineyard a snake pit and wolves’ den—a real deathtrap (!)
Now, since there’s an argument as to whose house or vineyard the temple of Israel really is, it seems we must ask the question: “Does the vineyard, (the church?) belong to Jesus or to corrupt prelates?” And the answer, to me, seems a rather puzzling “Yes!” The church belongs both to God and to a group of rather shady prelates, pontiffs, and hustlers who have generally turned it into a cesspool.
So, the hedge fund managers and hookers (not the best people) are the 1st son who say “I’m not going into your vineyard!” But they change their minds and go, while the 2nd son—the Pharisees, prelates, and pontiffs of Israel—say “I go, sir!” but they do not go. So, should we be part of the institutional church?—dominated as it has historically been by shady prelates, pontiffs, hustlers, wolves in sheep’s clothing? Or… should we stay away from what Jesus calls “a den of robbers?”
This is not a theoretical question for me. I was much offended, especially in my early adolescence (which some consider ongoing 😉 by the shenanigans of organized Christianity. For many years, I did not go. I ended up coming in as a pastor only because my div school tutor told me if I didn’t become a pastor, I’d never find a church to go to, and I’d end up in hell. (!)
Much like my cat, facing an open door to the porch, wondering: “In or out or… into this vineyard?”—filled with hedge fund managers, hypocrites, whores, and hustlers—seems a tough call! It was a tough call for Dr. Luther. And this is where my sermon had stalled, until Pastor Stoppenhagen (our esteemed former vicar) sent me this little article by Alan Jacobs who writes:
“Sometimes the removal of constraints creates a kind of resistance. Jazz legend Miles Davis was famous for leading his ensembles by withholding the kinds of direction that musicians were accustomed to receiving. As pianist Bill Evans explains in his liner notes to the 1959 album Kind of Blue, Miles gave his musicians only the most general indications of what he wanted them to play, and gave those just hours before recording: “Therefore, you will hear something close to pure spontaneity in these performances. The group had never played these pieces prior to the recordings and I think without exception the first complete performance of each was a ‘take.’”
“But this method didn’t mean that Miles didn’t have a clear sense of what he wanted from his musicians. Writing in his autobiography about the recording of a later masterpiece album, he said, “What we did on Bitches Brew you couldn’t ever write down for an orchestra to play. That’s why I didn’t write it all out, not because I didn’t know what I wanted; I knew that what I wanted would come out of a process and not some prearranged sh[tuff]”… The freedom was the constraint, and the freedom was imposed by a leader whose authority was unquestionable.”
My takeaway (Pr. Stoppenhagen thinks it’s all about death) is that Jesus’ authority (more than Miles’) is unquestionable. It isn’t something you think about, then decide: “Well, on balance, the evidence that this guy is God, or God-like, is pretty strong, so I think I’ll probably, generally, do as he says unless it’s obviously dangerous or weird…” Uhm… NO!
My teacher Hans Frei grew up nominally Lutheran (though he had Jewish ancestry). I remember him telling how he had no real conviction, one way or the other, about Jesus until, at age 15, as a refugee from Nazi Germany, he saw Holman Hunt’s “Light of the World” painting (hidden now in some London vault)—Jesus knocking at our door—and: “I just knew, it’s all true—everything scriptures say of him. And I’ve never questioned it since…” It’s not like Christ’s commands are something you think about. If Jesus says: “here’s how it is”, you don’t say: “I go” or: “I won’t go”. You just go…
I saw Miles Davis perform, up close, 3rd row, opera house, Boston, 1988. The sheer charisma, the man’s presence was… amazing. I could see his band wouldn’t need instructions; they’d just follow Miles, anywhere. How much more true that is of Jesus! When he knocks at your door, when he says: “Follow me.” you just… go; a going which is pure gift. In the Name of Jesus. Amen.