Each Wednesday at 12:10, a small group of us gather in the chancel for the Eucharist. There’s a core group of four regulars in addition to myself, and each week we’re usually joined by anywhere from 2 to 10 others. Some Wednesdays, I follow the church calendar as it commemorates a saint or other notable Christian from the past. Other weeks, I take the opportunity to begin thinking and reflecting about the readings for the coming Sunday.
This past Wednesday, I focused my comments on the rich passage from Philippians 2. The heart of it was probably a hymn that was used by Christians in worship and adapted by Paul for his purposes in this letter. It has been a key text in the understanding of the nature of Jesus Christ, providing imagery and food for thought that has preoccupied theologians for centuries and found its way into our own liturgy and worship. I was going to go all Christology: kenosis, adoptionism, all the rest.
But as I read the gospel at the Wednesday Eucharist, I found myself full of questions about what was going on in this brief and apparently disjointed passage. Later that afternoon, I received an email from one of the regulars asking me to help her understand what Jesus was going on about here. So instead, I’ve been thinking about this puzzling passage and how it connects with our lives.
Key to making sense of Jesus’ teachings here is the context. The lectionary tells us where Jesus was when he said these things—the Temple. What’s less obvious is when he said them. This comes after Palm Sunday, when Jesus entered Jerusalem to shouts of Hosanna. Matthew is quite explicit in his chronology (following Mark closely) and says that after the Triumphal Entry, Jesus and his disciples went to the temple, where he drove out the money-changers, and healed some people. Then they left the city and spent the night in Bethany.
They returned to the temple the very next day and as Matthew tells it, this question from the chief priests and elders is the first of several encounters between Jesus and representatives of the religious establishment. They ask him, “By what authority do you do these things, and who gave you this authority?” We might infer that they are referring to Jesus’ teachings and to the healings he has performed, but undoubtedly, Matthew also wants us to conclude that they are asking about Jesus’ authority to drive out the moneychangers. In short, the religious establishment wants to know why Jesus is stirring things up. They may be worried about their own position; they are probably worried about the institution—the temple—with which they, their authority, their power, status and wealth, are bound up. And undoubtedly, they are looking over their shoulders at the Romans, who are ready to quash any sign of rebellion or unrest.
Jesus had done a number of things that asserted his authority. His triumphal entry, riding on a donkey, accompanied by palms and the singing of Hosanna to the Son of David was a proclamation of his messiah-ship. Immediately following that, he entered the temple and disrupted the business of the moneychangers. Now, the next day, he is again in the temple, teaching. All of this is a direct challenge to the religious establishment and to the status quo. Jesus is stirring things up. When the chief priests and elders come to him and ask him by what authority he has done these things, is an attempt to put him in his place, to catch him out, so that they might have him arrested.
But, as is so often the case in Matthew, when asked a question, Jesus replies with a question of his own. His question is a trap for them that they immediately recognize. By asking about the authority of John the Baptist, Jesus is associating himself with the popular, martyred prophet and demanding the chief priests take a public stance on John’s ministry and message. They refuse to respond, but silence itself was an answer.
Jesus follows up his question with a simple parable about a man who asks his two sons to go work in the vineyard. When refuses, but then goes to work later, anyway. The other says he’ll go, but doesn’t. It’s an odd parable, but also compelling, for we can all put ourselves in the place of any of the three characters. We’ve probably experienced something very much like that—being asked by a parent to do something, saying yes, and not doing it; or as a parent asking a child to do something. But what does the parable have to do with the question of authority, of the nature of John’s prophetic ministry (and by extension, Jesus’ own)?
Consider this. In the parable, the father has authority over his sons. He tells them to go work in the vineyard. The two respond differently to the request, but later, the one goes to work, even though he had initially refused. We don’t know why; no reason is given. Yet we could imagine any number of reasons, some of them legitimate, for his initial refusal. A single example—he had too many other things to do. What’s interesting is that he, the son, didn’t take his initial no for his final answer. He revisited it later, changed his mind, and got to work. He imagined an alternative, a new, a different future that wasn’t limited by his past experience and his past answers.
After the parable, Jesus comments about the effects of John’s ministry. He was rejected by the religious establishment but the tax collectors and prostitutes believed him and even after seeing that, the chief priests and elders refused to accept him or listen to him.
All this helps us understand what Jesus is getting at here. The chief priests and elders came to him, trying to trap him. They were secure in their power, secure in their understanding of Jewish law and what it meant to be faithful to God. John, and Jesus, were offering different interpretations, offering transformation to the worst of sinners and social outcasts. They heard John’s and Jesus’ words of hope and promise, and imagined a different, new future in which they were no longer limited by the pasts they had lived. By contrast, the chief priests and elders couldn’t imagine an alternative future, an alternative world in which God accepted and loved tax collectors and prostitutes. They could only imagine a future like the present in which they lived.
Our pasts can often limit our imaginations. The burden of history, personal or institutional, can be onerous indeed. For us at Grace, we can sometimes feel weighed down by the thick walls that surround this building. Its space, its legacy can narrow our perspective and make it difficult to imagine new ways of being church and being community here. Our history, the conflict we have experienced over the years can frighten us and make us timid. But we are imagining a new future in this season as we embark on our capital campaign and plan for renovations that will adapt our space to our current context.
We are all burdened by our pasts. We struggle with decisions we have made that we have come to regret. We live with the pain of broken relationships and other things that shape our present lives close off our futures. But God is beckoning to us, offering us a new future with new possibilities, a future in which God invites us to leave the hurts and regrets of the past behind, say yes to God, that we are God’s beloved children.