Matthew 21: 23-32
When I was in my first year in seminary, I took a course in biblical wisdom literature. This would include books such as Job, Proverbs, the Song of Solomon and some of the Psalms. Harrell Beck, my professor, gave us an assignment of visiting a facility, such as a nursing home, a critical care unit in a hospital or even a mental ward. Our assignment was then to write a response to what we had seen using something from the wisdom literature we had studied. He wanted us to make connections between real life and scripture. Well, I was in Boston, so I decided to go to Children’s Hospital. My idea was to walk around and observe; I really did not want to do much talking, since I was afraid someone, caught in the snare of terrible suffering, would ask me a question I simply could not answer. So I walked around the wards, observing some pretty hard realities, including a four year old girl, dying of leukemia. I was about to leave her room, when suddenly her mother appeared. “Who are you, another medical student,” she demanded to know? “No,” I said, I’m in seminary. Sighing, she responded, “Well, I am not very religious.” And then immediately, without thinking, I said, “Oh, that’s o.k., neither am I.” Her expression was one of shock. Then why are you in seminary? Deeply embarrassed, I stuttered out some words, “Well, I’m interested in the big questions.” Suddenly, she got right up to my face and with anger written all over hers and a voice full of rage, she practically yelled, “You mean like WHY,” pointing to her sick child. I was reduced to complete silence. “Well, when you get your answer, let me know, because there are a lot of us around her, who are dying to know why.”
Big questions, important questions, and yet so often those big and important questions have no real answers, at least none that we as limited human beings can know or grasp, which is perhaps why the
French Enlightenment philosopher, Voltaire, once quipped that it would be far better to judge a person by her questions rather than her answers. And indeed, learning to ask the important and right questions does matter. My husband, who is a professor of molecular biology, has always said, he can judge the quality of his students by the questions they ask.
And if we apply this maxim about questions to Matthew’s gospel, we see a lot of different people asking a lot of different questions of Jesus. For example, both John the Baptist and Pilate ask Jesus who he is. John asked Jesus if he were the one they have been waiting for, and Pilate wanted to know if he is the king of the Jews. And then there are the questions put to Jesus by the religious leaders about why he and his disciples break the law--- why they pick grain and heal on the Sabbath. They also ask him about divorce and taxes and the afterlife---which husband a woman will have in heaven if she has been married multiple times.
And the disciples too asked questions: Who is the greatest among us and what good deed is necessary to gain eternal life, and how often do we have to forgive. Now all these questions (from the disciples as well as from the religious leaders) are very revealing, because with the exception of John the Baptist and ironically, Pilate, the questions are all self serving. That is, they are either designed to impress Jesus, or get something from him or entrap him. And entrapment is exactly what the chief priests and elders were trying to when they asked Jesus, “By what authority are you doing these things?” But they really did not care about his authority. Like a good DA, they were interested in winning a conviction. They were tired of him undermining their authority. They did not like him throwing the moneychangers out of the Temple, and so they were hoping to trap him, to gain more evidence in order to bring a charge of blasphemy against him, which, according to Jewish religious law, could carry the death penalty.
But what did Jesus do? In true rabbinic fashion he answered their question with another question: “Was John’s baptism from heaven or from human origin?” It was a brilliant response to their question, because no matter how the question was answered, the leaders would be trapped. If they said John’s baptism came from God, Jesus would ask, “Then why did you not believe John,” and if they said, it was of human origin, the people, who loved and honored John, would be furious and their trust for the religious leaders would be compromised. So the leaders pleaded the 5th, answering, “I don’t know.” So Jesus in turn, did not answer their query about his authority, but instead he told them a parable about two sons---one who verbally refused to do what his father asked, but then later, thought better of it and went into the vineyard to do the work, and the other son, who told his father he would be glad to do the work, but never entered the vineyard. Jesus then asked the leaders which son did the will of the father, and they answered correctly, the first son.
Now Jesus could have stopped there; he could have left the leaders with a question to ponder: which of those two sons are they more like? But that is not what he did. Instead, he directly insulted them by saying that the tax collectors and prostitutes would go into the kingdom of God before them. Now in saying this Jesus is not so much criticizing particular individuals. Rather he is offering by his actions (having thrown the money changers out of the Temple) and his words a critique of the entire Temple system, which made buying birds and cattle and then offering them as a sacrifice a means of buying God’s forgiveness. And this is why the religious leaders wanted Jesus dead. He was a threat to the established way of being religious, which put the Temple with its sacrificial system at the center of Jewish religious life.
Now that is the historical context of the text, but we are also challenged to consider what the text means now, what it says to us in our day and time? Who are we in the story? Are we like the religious leaders, more interested in defending ourselves than in considering what faithfulness means? Or are we like the disciples, who ask questions of Jesus in order to get something in return. Just a few chapters before this one, Peter had said to Jesus, “You know we left everything for you; now what do we get? Is that the important question: what do we get? And which of the two sons are we more like? The first one who refused his father’s request, but then went into the field and worked, or the second son, who pledged obedience, but then did nothing? And finally what is at the center of our religious life? As Christians we say, Jesus Christ is the center. But then how do we show our fidelity to Christ?
Recently, when I was in St. Petersburg, visiting the Russian Orthodox Cathedral, St. Isaac’s, with its stunning frescoes and opulent malachite columns, the guide told us that beauty is central to the Russian Orthodox tradition. She then quoted the great Russian writer, Dostoevsky, who said, “Beauty will save the world.” Is that what fidelity to Christ is all about---beauty? Certainly our Puritan foreparents did not think so, because they went out of their way to keep the conventional marks of religious beauty (including stained glass and choirs) out of their churches. Some will say that fidelity to Christ is primarily about tending to the least of these, because these are the people with whom Jesus spent most of his time, and he reminded us, “Whatever you do the least of these, you do to me.” Others might insist that fidelity to Christ is about daring to ask big questions concerning the meaning and purpose of life, about the nature of God and Christ and the centrality of forgiveness and generosity. And still others might say it is not so complicated. Fidelity is about being here, together, worshipping God, helping each other, doing what we can in small and sometimes even big ways.
On this Sunday, when we are asked to make our pledge to the church, we are also asked to consider what fidelity to Christ for us means. Perhaps there are times we are not so sure, but then (like that first son) we show up---worshipping at church, helping at the Harvest Fair, cleaning the social hall, making a pledge. Is that what fidelity to Christ really looks like? Not knowing for sure may not be a comfortable place to be, but unlike the religious leaders who questioned Jesus without any hint of humility, being together as humble believers, just might lead us to discover that there are times the questions can be more important to the growth of deep faith than the answers. One of my heroes, Elie Wiesel, Holocaust survivor and Noble Peace Prize winner, once said, “God loves a good question as much as God loves a good story.”
About Our Pastor:
I am very happy to be here at the First Church of Christ, Congregational in Unionville, CT. I arrived here in July, 2017, and have been warmly received. This is a wonderful church community. I have been an ordained minister for over three decades now, and I consider it a great privilege and challenge to be called to serve. Before coming to Unionville I served churches on Long Island, Middletown, CT and then ten years in New Haven, Center Church on the Green. My home is in Middletown, where I live with my husband, Donald Oliver, who is a professor of molecular biology at Wesleyan University. We have four grown children, two boys and two girls and three granddaughters, the youngest born on October 3, 2017!