Message for October 1, 2017
Based on Matthew 21. 23-32
Our gospel story for today starts with Jesus in the great temple of Jerusalem, where he was teaching. And the chief priests and the elders of the people ask him by what authority is he doing all these things. All what things? Well, just the day before, the people were celebrating Jesus’ coming to Jerusalem. He came into the city on a donkey, and an impromptu parade breaks out — almost like a flash mob–as people put down their coats along the path, wave palm branches and they hail him as the Son of David. We now call this day Palm Sunday. And then Jesus comes to the Temple and sees the marketplace that has become such a big part of temple life. This marketplace did support the peoples and the Temple needs to some degree, as animals for sacrifices were sold, Roman and other foreign coin was exchanged for Temple currency. Other sideline businesses sprang up as well, and the Temple got a percentage of all the business proceeds, so business was not just tolerated by the Temple authorities, but encouraged. What does Jesus do? Remember this story? He overturns the sellers’ tables. The house of God was no longer a place of worship but of business, and dishonest business at that. He was very clearly making a statement! You can imagine that wasn’t a popular move among the business people or the temple leadership! Then Jesus spends the rest of that day at the temple healing people. And the next day he returns and is now actually teaching in the Jerusalem Temple. First he’s paraded into town, hailed as a hero, as the Son of the great King David, next he turns the Temple market to shambles, then he’s healing people, and now he’s teaching people about God in the Great Temple of Jerusalem!? So the temple authorities, the chief priests and elders of the congregation come to him and say “By what authority are you doing all these things, and who gave you the authority to even do them?” And you know, given the situation of the previous day, it’s not such a ridiculous question. After all, they were within their rights to ask. They had the authority, given them through their long held religious laws passed down since the time of Moses. It might be a bit like if Billy Graham decided to come into this church, completely rearrange things in the church as he saw fit, hold a healing service and then decided do some preaching right here in the church! And you can bet that the wardens and I would have some questions for him too! So here was this was country bumpkin upstart of a rabbi, questioning long held traditions and ways of doing things, he was creating a ruckus, disrupting many lives, disrupting the business of the temple, teaching and healing, drawing people to his message, and he was challenging the recognized authorities. Who does he think he is anyway? But — they had to tread carefully, he had many followers, he was getting to be popular among the people, they couldn’t afford to start a riot nor did they need to start what could be a dangerous split among the people. And Jesus, being Jesus knows darn well what they’re asking, where they’re coming from and will not be drawn into their argument. So he responds to them in classic rabbinical style, answering their question with a question1 that challenges them. “Did John’s authority to baptize come from heaven, or was it merely human?” Don’t you just hate it when people answer your question with a question? The leaders discuss it among themselves: “If we say it was from heaven, he will ask us why we didn’t believe John. But if we say it was merely human, we’ll be mobbed because the people believe John was a prophet.” (Matt 21.25-16 NLT)
So they refuse to answer his question, and Jesus refuses to answer theirs. Why would Jesus respond to their question with a reference to John the Baptist? He was aligning himself with John’s message. John came in the style of the prophets of old, the prophets of their Hebrew Scriptures. John came to the people with a message of repentance — turn back to God and ask for forgiveness of your sins. John’s calling was to baptize Jesus, and in that baptism he announced the Messiah, the saviour of the people of Israel. John and his message was what tied Jesus to the history of the Hebrew people, through their scriptures, to their God, the God of Abraham and Jacob and Moses. And these religious leaders would have none of it! To agree with any of this would disrupt the way of life of Temple, question their authority as the ones in charge, and question how things had been done for generations.2
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