Proper 21, A
I spent a number of my formative years in Tullahoma, TN. To this day, if I travel south of the Mason/Dixon line my vowels get a little longer, more yessirs and yessums sneak into my speech, and everything slows down, just the tiniest bit. Momma and Daddy were New England born and bred. They were Yankees in a foreign land down Tullahoma. Now and again the expressions of the South caught their fancy. In the Tennessean – that was the Nashville paper – in the Tennessean one day Daddy read a story in the police beat. It was a perfectly ordinary story. Several people had been arrested for drunk and disorderly behavior. Asked to clarify how he knew that the suspects in question were over the legal limit, the law enforcement officer responded, “They acted in such a manner as to draw attention upon theirselfs.”
There are vast tracts of the Gospel of Matthew dedicated to parables and pastoral teachings. This is not among them. As we join the story in progress today, Jesus has acted in such a manner as to draw attention upon hisself. It has not escaped the notice of first century law enforcement (known to Jesus as chief priests and elders). Jesus is not preaching peacefully on a remote mountainside or plain anymore. He’s not healing unspeakable illnesses or handing out bread and fish amongst the dregs of society in some wretched backwater anymore. Jesus is in Jerusalem. The Holy City. He didn’t just slip quietly in either – he came riding a colt to the waving of palms and the shouts of the crowd. “Hosanna in the highest. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna!” In the temple – far from being awed into silence by the tradition, the history, the majesty, the splendor – he’s been flinging over tables, tossing aside chairs, demanding radical changes. He’s been yelling and angry.
And now he’s teaching. Teaching in the temple. Their temple. Who does he think that he is? “By whose authority do you do these things?” This is your basic no-right-answer sort question. It’s the “Honey, do these pants make me look fat?” question of the temple world. Jesus cannot cite any human authority – the chief priests and elders ARE the final authority – they are law enforcement. They know very well they did not authorize his behavior. Jesus also cannot claim divine authority – true or not it would get him killed for blasphemy forthwith. In true rabbinical fashion, Jesus instead answers their question with question. “Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?”
My ever-inquisitive husband asked, as I muttered my way through this lection, “What did the chief priests and elders really think of John’s baptism?” The text reveals their thought process only in terms of the answer most likely to further their goals, not their true opinions. I suspect the text doesn’t share that detail because they didn’t much care. It just didn’t matter. They were concerned with maintaining correctness, not with finding truth, with their own authority in the temple, not their relationship with the Creator. They prioritized perpetuating their current lifestyle over living life. And the tricky bit – the bit that makes me just a bit sorry for them? They never, ever knew it.
Why do I say with such confidence they didn’t know it? They answered the question. They didn’t answer questions that they perceived as potentially threatening in some way. The answer is so obvious – the first son did the will of his father. They do not see in themselves the second son.
Oscar Romero said, “It is very easy to be servants of the word without disturbing the world: a very spiritualized word, a word without any commitment to history, a word that can sound in any part of the world because it belongs to no part of the world. A word like that creates no problems, starts no conflicts. What starts conflicts and persecutions, what marks the genuine Church, is the word that, burning like the word of the prophets, proclaims and accuses: proclaims to the people God’s wonders to be believed and venerated, and accuses of sin those who oppose God’s reign, so that they may tear that sin out of their hearts, out of their societies, out of their laws – out of the structures that oppress, that imprison, that violate the rights of God and of humanity.”
Week by week we confess together that we have sinned against God, “by what we have done, and by what we have left undone”. It is so hard sometimes, so very hard, to fathom the undone – compassion withheld, charity not offered, welcome not given, inequity unmarked, injustice not rectified.This is the point of the confession each week. We do not confess in order to fill in the blank – sins confessed, check – good for another week there. We do not confess in order to make us feel ashamed or humiliated – that helps no one. We confess to protect us from walking merrily along in our own bubbles of denial or ignorance – to acknowledge that we are imperfect, that God’s work is still there to be done, in ourselves and in the world.
Political comedian Stephen Colbert said, “If this is gonna be a Christian nation that doesn’t help the poor, either we’ve got to pretend that Jesus was just as selfish as we are, or we’ve got to acknowledge that he commanded us to love the poor and serve the needy without condition — and then admit that we just don’t want to do it.”
We could be that person. We could hide behind words and propriety and self-justification – it worked for the chief priests and the elders. Week by week, day by day, we ask to walk in the way of Jesus. Author Irma Zaleski says “repentance (turning the path around) is a uniquely Christian path of liberation from self… We feel “conditioned”: bound by the chains of our habits and compulsions, our likes and dislikes, our fears and guilt, our inability to love. Our great tragedy is that we so often mistake these habits and compulsions for our true self. … Our false self must die, so that we can find our true self, the self which God meant us to be and which he created in his image and likeness.” It means choosing truth over correctness, relationship with God over dedication to orthodoxy. It means choosing life, choosing love. It means turning back to God, again and again and again. Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed against God, and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! Turn then, and live. Amen.