The gospel passage focuses on authority: by what authority do you do these things, the leaders asked Jesus. In response they got a question: Did the baptism of John come from heaven or was it of human origin. This stumped the leaders because they saw the trap of the question. Why did the temple custodians challenge Jesus’s authority?
In earlier verses in Matthew we are told that Jesus rebuked the moneychangers, healed some people the leaders of the temple declared unclean and so he acted contrary to the prescribed rules. We too may see changes in the church about which we ask if the direction taken is of human or divine origin. The amazing thing about Jesus is that he sees clearly the distinction between human and divine direction. That insight gives him courage to do the will of the Father, even to the extreme end of a cross.
In answer, Jesus asked about John’s baptism. Why this question? By aligning himself with John the Baptizer, Jesus chose a marginal figure, a character in the tradition of the prophets, one who was killed by Herod the ruling authority in the land. Is Jesus admitting that his authority may be subject to imperial challenge? Does he wish to align himself with the prophet? Is he saying that the real challenge to all people is to turn away from evil and toward God? How do we know when we do the will of the father?
The question of authority is salient today as then as we examine our attitudes about others in our faith community. As new people come to this community, do we share our leadership, invite them to help with our projects? Do we think, well now that they are here, we can retire, and take our well-earned rest? What happens when they do something different? Jesus interrupts and disrupts the ways righteousness and privilege, piety and power can become confused. Jesus confounds and claims us at the same time.
Jesus then told a parable about two sons, one who said he would do a task asked of him by his father and did not do it and the other son who said he would not do it and then changed his mind and went. Which did the will of the father? The children of God are not necessarily those born as sons of Abraham. Thus Jesus asks the chief priests: what do you think? Is the child who does the will of his father the one who says he will do what his father asks, or the one who actually does what the father asks, even if he might have said no in the first place? The chief priests easily answer and it is clear to us that the repentance of the later is better than the hypocrisy of the former. True righteousness is in the doing, not the saying.
We have no trouble understanding the parable because we have either been the rebellious child or reluctant adult who says no to a request for service or work, or we say yes and then find ourselves unwilling to follow through. When do we say yes and not do what we promise? Every parent knows how to hedge an answer to a child’s question. Mom, Dad, can I go with my friends to the zoo, dance, football game? Mom can I have a new outfit for the party? Dad can I have the car for a date? Well, maybe, we’ll see is often our reply. Maybe means I’ll think about it. We’ll see means there are things to consider. What does the child hear? You’ll think about it means the answer may be no, so most of the time the child begins to petition all the more strongly giving reasons they must go, have what they want, because others will have it or go and I’ll be left out. We are sympathetic and yet, sometimes, we just can’t find money or time or peace of mind that will allow us to give permission. Weary with insistent argument, we may find ourselves giving in and saying yes.
We have good reasons to say no. We are busy with other things equally good and worthy of our time and energy. We have families that need us. We have jobs that demand overtime and travel. We simply don’t want to do it. Then we experience a change of heart and rearrange our priorities in such a way that we do the task. Few of us have a bright light insight into discerning what is of God and what is contrived by human interests. We may find it hard to change our mind and do something after saying no. We may find it hard to follow through on something we agreed to do at a calmer time in our life. So how do we discern what to do?
Paul offers an answer in his letter to the church in Philippi, the first place Paul preached in the Roman Empire. In Philippi, Paul met Lydia (merchant of purple) and it was here that he was first imprisoned and freed by an earthquake. After Paul left the region, the community began to have problems both external and internal. They suffered persecution from powers of empire. They suffered conflict within: a fight between two women who are dividing the community. Paul writes that they should set aside their differences and take on an attitude of humility and love by putting on the mind of Christ.
Verses 6-11 is called the Christological hymn. In it we are reminded that Jesus joined the ranks of humanity, lived and died and was raised to the embrace of the Father. Paul encouraged the community to adopt Christ’s pattern of thinking and acting. Paul’s vision was that he and they now lived in Christ and every aspect of his life was to conform to the life Christ led. Paul advised the community to live in a manner worthy of the Gospel
We are church when we exist for others. The community café is an act of service to the neighborhood, a gift of food for those who are hungry, and an opportunity for inclusive fellowship for those who are lonely. When the chief chef became sick this week, the café was cancelled. When neighbors saw the sign modified to say the café was not being held, they stepped up and offered to empty their freezer to feed their neighbors. I cannot think of a more affirming gesture toward the members here who labor in the fields to provide food and fellowship in this neighborhood through the community café.
Living lives worthy of the Gospel!