When the Bible talks about scribes, Pharisees, and chief priests, we pretty much know what to expect. They were religious leaders, but we know them as Jesus’ enemies. This is because they were constantly scheming against Jesus–trying to trick him–trying to trap him–trying to trip him up.
Sometimes it’s fun to read the stories about them because they often find themselves caught in the trap they had set for Jesus. Reading about the scribes and Pharisees is a little like watching a Roadrunner cartoon. You remember Roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote.
The scene would open with Wile E. Coyote standing at the lip of a cliff, struggling to push a huge boulder to fall on Roadrunner as he comes by on the road below. Then we would see Roadrunner running along the road at warp speed and Wile E. Coyote struggling to push the boulder in time to squash him. Roadrunner would zip by–beep, beep–before the rock ever posed any danger, and Wile E. Coyote, in his panic, would trip and fall over the cliff. We would see him falling through the air and being squashed flat as he hit the road. He would then pick himself up and begin to pull himself together–and then he would look up–and there the rock would be, right above him–and Wile E. would find himself squashed flat one more time by the rock that he had intended for Roadrunner. And then we would see Roadrunner again, still moving at warp speed–beep, beep! I love Roadrunner cartoons.
When the scribes and Pharisees try to trap Jesus, they often fall into their own trap. It’s fun to watch–especially if you’re a Roadrunner fan!
But sometimes, it seems like the Jewish religious leaders get a bum rap. Like today, for instance! In our Gospel lesson today, the chief priests and elders ask Jesus where he gets his authority. That was a legitimate question! The chief priests and elders were responsible for the religious life of Israel, and Jesus was doing some provocative things.
For one thing, just before today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey. Yet, at the same time, the people shouted, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” And Jesus did nothing to correct them.
Then Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, where people were buying and selling animals for temple sacrifice, and others were serving as moneychangers. These sellers of animals and moneychangers were well within their rights to do what they were doing. Nothing happened in the temple without the priests’ permission, so the sellers and moneychangers must have asked for and received permission to do what they were doing. In other words, they were authorised !
If you have ever served in the military, you know that word–authorised! If you are authorized, you can do it. If you are not authorized, you cannot. It’s that simple!
Well, these animal sellers and moneychangers were AUTHORIZED! They had permission to sell animals and to change money on the temple grounds. The priests had given them permission, or they could not have done what they were doing.
And there was a good purpose behind their activity. People came from afar to make sacrifices at the temple, and it wouldn’t work to require them to bring their own animals. Sacrificial animals had to be outstanding specimens–perfect–no blemishes. Just imagine trying to bring a lamb from Nazareth or some other faraway place–having picked out the best of the flock–and seeing the animal injured on the long journey. Then you wouldn’t be able to make your sacrifice. And then you would have to take the injured animal home again.
No, that wasn’t practical–not practical at all. So it was the priests who had authorised these sellers of animals and the money changers in the temple. It was a public service–and it also brought in some money to the temple. It made sense, and so it was authorised!
But Jesus walked into the temple and drove out the buyers and the sellers. He went to the moneychangers, turned over their tables and scattered their money all over the floor. He accused the merchants of making God’s house into a den of thieves. Can you imagine! These people were well within their rights! They were authorised!
And then Jesus set up shop inside the temple, as if he owned the place, and began to teach. Now, to teach in the temple, one needed to be a rabbi. To be a rabbi, one had to go through the proper training–and the laying on of hands–in other words, ordination. Jesus was not adequately trained, and no one had ordained him. What right did he have, then, to teach in the temple? None! But there he was, teaching the people, and the people were acting as if Jesus were someone extraordinary. But Jesus was NOT authorised!
So the chief priests and the elders asked Jesus, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” (v. 23) Good question! Exactly the right question for them to be asking!
“By what authority do you do these things,
and who gave you this authority?”
In other words, they were asking Jesus if he was AUTHORIZED–and, if so, who authorised him. There was only one correct answer because only the priests could authorize a person to do what Jesus was doing–and they had not authorised Jesus.
If Jesus were not authorised, he was clearly wrong to do what he did to the animal sellers and the moneychangers. Perhaps even criminals that made his teaching in the temple questionable. So the priests and elders asked, “By what authority do you do these things, and who gave you this authority?” Good question! It was their job to ask such questions!
But Jesus responded by asking them a question. He told them that if they answered his question, he would answer theirs. So he asked, “The baptism of John, where was it from? From heaven or from men?” (v. 25). He talked about John the Baptist, the great prophet–greatly respected by the people–dearly beloved by nearly everyone–but not dearly beloved by the chief priests and elders. So Jesus asked, “The baptism of John, where was it from? From heaven or from men?”
That was a good question, too, because Jesus was asking who authorised John the Baptist to be a prophet. As a prophet, John’s authorization came straight from God. Everyone knew that–everyone except the chief priests and elders. The chief priests and elders would not admit that John was authorised because they had not authorised him. It was a power thing! The chief priests and the elders were in charge. They didn’t like people like John and Jesus coming out of the blue–claiming authority from God–challenging the authority of the priests and elders.
By this time, John was already dead–killed by King Herod. The chief priests and elders must have breathed a sigh of relief when they heard the news of John’s death. One down and one to go!
But now Jesus was asking, “The baptism of John, where was it from? From heaven or from men?” That put the chief priests and the elders in a bind. If they said that John’s authority came from heaven, then Jesus would ask why they had not obeyed John. If they said that John’s authority did NOT come from heaven, then the people would rise up against them because they knew that John’s authority DID come from God. That was very clear to the people. They would not tolerate anyone–even these powerful priests–saying anything wrong about John.
So the chief priests and elders said, “We don’t know!” (v. 27). But it was their JOB to know! It was their job to protect the people from false prophets. It was their job to make decisions about prophets! But they said, “We don’t know!” So Jesus said, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things” (v. 27). Round one for Jesus!
And now, if you look up, you will see that big rock just beginning to fall!
The big rock comes in the form of a story. Jesus told a story about a father who had two sons. He asked the first son to work in the vineyard, but the first son said, “No way!” But then, later, the son realized that he had been wrong, so he went into the vineyard and did what the father had asked him to do. In the meantime, the father asked his second son to work in the vineyard, and the second son said, “Sure, pop!” But then the second son wandered off, doing his own thing, and never did get to the vineyard.
Jesus asked the chief priests and the elders, “Which of the two did the will of his father?” (v. 31).
Now the chief priests and the elders indeed realized, at this point, that they were in deep trouble, but they couldn’t say, “We don’t know!” again. Everyone was watching, and they already looked pretty foolish. To say, “We don’t know!” one more time would have confirmed that they were, indeed, incompetent. So they answered that the first song, the one who initially looked disobedient but turned out to be obedient–that first son was the one who had done the will of the father.
So Jesus said to the chief priests and elders–and I want you to hear this–keep in mind that Jesus is talking to the best of the best–the holiest of the holy–and Jesus said to these holy men:
“Most certainly I tell you that the tax collectors and the prostitutes
are entering into the Kingdom of God before you.
For John came to you in the way of righteousness,
and you didn’t believe him,
but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him.
When you saw it, you didn’t even repent afterwards,
that you might believe him” (vs 31-32).
Beep, beep! KABOOM!
That was harsh language for Jesus to use on these holy men, but we’re glad that he did. We’ve seen people who seemed to be something that they were not–in other words, phonies–and we’re glad to see them exposed!
We’ve seen influential people who use their power to keep themselves in power rather than using their power to help people.
But there are a couple of problems with Jesus’ story. One is the problem of today’s tax collectors and prostitutes–in other words, today’s unrepentant sinners. It’s easy for sinners today to read this story and think, “I am terrible, but at least I am honestly terrible–and so I am better than these holier-than-thou hypocrites who go to church every Sunday!”
We have to be careful not to take that attitude. Jesus calls us to holiness–absolute holiness–, not to a life of judging the other person.
The other problem with this story is that we might think that it concerns people who lived two thousand years ago–and has nothing to do with us today. That, too, would be wrong. This story has everything to do with us today. It speaks with extraordinary power to preachers and deacons and Sunday school teachers and–well, it speaks to all of us who try to be true Christians. It warns us that if we’re not careful, we’ll become smug and self-satisfied. It warns us that if we’re not careful, we’ll wake up someday to find that we good guys are really the bad guys–and the bad guys are the good guys. Sometimes that happens, you know.
In her book, Amazing Grace, Kathleen Norris tells about a Methodist pastor from Montana.
This pastor told Kathleen about a woman who had become a member of their little church. She had been a drunk–a terrible drunk! She had been a cocaine addict! Some people referred to her as a “cocaine whore!” because she was sleeping with whomever!
she sobered up and she started going to AA meetings! then some of her AA friends took her to church! So now I want you to stop thinking about how much courage it took that woman to step inside that little church in that little Montana town! But she went–and she kept going back–and then she joined the church.
And then she started volunteering for things! If you have ever been to a small church, you know how hard it is to get anyone to volunteer. Some church members are like Army recruits–Never Volunteer–that’s their motto! But this woman began to volunteer. She volunteered for everything that came along. She started studying–and teaching–and visiting. Kathleen Norris sums her up this way:
“It was as if she had tasted salvation and couldn’t get enough of it,
or of the new relationships which these activities had led her to.
Salvation took such hold in her that, as the pastor put it,
he began to wonder if Christians don’t underrate promiscuity.
Because she was still a promiscuous person,
still loving without much discrimination.
The difference was that she was no longer self-destructive
but a bearer of new life to others.”
In other words, the woman was no longer promiscuous with her sex, giving it to men who didn’t deserve it. But, still, she was now Jesus asked the chief priests and the elders–loving them as Christ would have her to love them.
And the pastor was saying, “Oh, wow! I wish I had more promiscuous Christians like that!” So sometimes, the sinners turn out to be the saints.
Going back to Jesus’ story, which kind of son or daughter are you? Are you like the first son, who didn’t want to obey the father–but finally did? Or are you like the second son, who said that he would obey but did not?
Are you a renegade–a rebel–but a person who finally decides to do the right thing? Or are you one of those people whose name is on the church rolls but who never does anything for Jesus?
Or are you one of those people who obeys Christ when it feels right but who feels free to disobey the rest of the time?
Or are you one of those people who says, ” I just don’t want to get involved!”
Or are you one of those people who just doesn’t care!
Jesus says, Careful! Get busy going where God has called you to go, lest you find the tax collectors and prostitutes going into heaven while you watch from the sidelines.
Get busy doing what Christ has called you to do, lest you find yourself watching the drunks and junkies at heaven’s gate while you ask, “When will it be my turn?” So get busy, and be the person that God has called you to be–because, with God, obedience counts!
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