The Rev. Kerry Rhoads Mansir
Christ Church Gardiner
I love a good story. And I really love a story set in places that I have lived with characters that sound like people I have known—stories where I can find myself in them. But too often, the Gospels, I find, just don’t read that way for me. They were written two thousand years ago in a country halfway across the world, where people lived lives with particular cultural and social norms that are hard for us to grasp now. I can sometimes struggle to find my place in them.
But as these stories of Jesus were told and retold in the early years of the Jesus Movement, the followers of Jesus, and even those opposed to his preaching, would have found themselves in those stories. Sometimes we need help hearing the story as they would have heard them. So I want to just take a few minutes to elaborate on this morning’s Gospel which just gives us 15 verses of what was a much larger story.
Right before this event in the Temple, Jesus had just made his triumphal entry into Jerusalem. People in the crowd cheered, threw down their cloaks, waved palms, and proclaimed that this was the Son of David, coming in the name of the Lord. The Son of David is the one the Jews have been waiting for to save them from yet another occupier, this time Rome. So to use this title for Jesus was a big deal. Now, we can assume that not everyone in that crowd gathered for Passover in Jerusalem would have known who Jesus was. But Jews were coming from all over Israel and beyond. And present, were many who lived in Galilee and other places of Jesus’ ministry, and who had experienced his miraculous healing and feeding and preaching for themselves, or they had, at least, heard the stories from their neighbors. They knew that it was a big deal that he was now riding into the city on this donkey. He was there to stir things up.
And stir things up, he did. He first made his way to the Temple, and when he entered the outer court—the court of the Gentiles—where men from all nations could approach God, he discovered, in his words, that it had become a “den of robbers” where money changers and those selling animals for sacrifice were making money off of the Passover pilgrims. So Jesus angrily turned over their tables and called them out, and that’s when he attracted the attention of the Temple leaders—the chief priests and scribes. They saw his actions and heard the people proclaiming, Hosanna, son of David. They had heard about this Jesus. And now they knew they were right to be worried.
After that scene, Jesus left for the night, but returned to the Temple the next morning. And the chief priests were ready this time. Ready for a showdown to prove who was in charge. The priests? Or Jesus? That’s where we enter the story today: the priests demanding to know where Jesus gets his authority. What makes him think that he can barge into the Temple and disrupt the commercialization of the money changers and animal sales, and preach against all of them? These chief priests and scribes and elders believe they have the authority of God—that it has been handed down to them throughout the generations. But their power, under Roman occupation, is only worth what they can deliver to their Roman occupiers in the way of money, influence, and keeping the people from fighting back against their oppression.
Jesus is there to challenge all of that. He begins by turning their questions around on them to ask about John the Baptist. But rather than give a straight answer, they refuse to take a stand. They’re trying to play both sides. They don’t want to admit John’s authority from God to call Israel to repentance because that undermines their own authority. But neither do they want to anger the crowds who had believed in John. And Jesus responds to their equivocation in a typical Jesus way…by telling a parable.
That parable begins, “What do you think? A man had two sons…”
The Temple priests and the crowds would have recognized this traditional parable narrative of the two sons. A modern day parallel is like when you hear someone start a story or joke with “So three men walk into a bar.” You know something good is coming. (Or maybe something inappropriate and offensive.) But either way, you lean in to hear what comes next. That’s how the crowds are responding to Jesus as he begins this parable. Leaning in…waiting to hear. Expecting him to really give it to the chief priests.
And he does. Remember when I said at the beginning that the best stories are the ones where we find ourselves in them? Well, I guess that’s not always true. Sometimes we don’t want to find ourselves in a story because it may not make us look very good. The priests know that Jesus is talking about them in this parable, and they don’t like it very much. They are the son who says the right thing, but then doesn’t follow through.
With this parable, Jesus is saying to these priests and elders that actions mean more than words, and they can’t continue to play both sides. John the Baptist and now Jesus have come into the world sharing God’s message of repentance and love and reconciliation. They have announced the coming of God’s kingdom that looks nothing like the Roman Empire or any other earthly powers. People are going to have to make a choice. Either you are with the Empire or you are with God.
Jesus ends that parable by making the chief priests admit that by denying John, they have chosen the Empire over God. That choice means that they are going to the back of the line when it comes to the Kingdom. Even the tax collectors and prostitutes—true outcasts in the world they inhabited, but willing to embrace the message of John and Jesus—would enter the kingdom ahead of the priests.
Jesus came to shine a light on who God is by showing where God’s power and authority come from. Our Collect for today declares that God’s power is shown in mercy and pity. How is there power in mercy? Our former Presiding Bishop, Katharine Jefferts Schori, once preached that “mercy recognizes a hurting human being and shares in that suffering enough to do something about it.”
That’s powerful. And mercy—that’s the power of Jesus…sharing in the suffering of humanity all the way to the cross and beyond. The power of Jesus is manifested in such a way that it requires us to change our minds about everything we think we know about power—where it comes from, it’s nature, even what it can and should achieve. The world promises us all kinds of power, but the power that we grasp for here and now, is usually the very opposite of the power manifested in Jesus.
Jesus asked the priests to choose God over the Empire and the false power and authority that the Empire offered. Jesus asks the same of us. To take a stand. To call a thing what it is. To not worry so much about pleasing the crowds. To speak out against evil when we see it. To stir things up, even if it means a false peace is disturbed. To proclaim that true power comes in the form of mercy and justice and compassion. May it be so. Amen.