Matthew 21:23-27 (Pentecost 18A)
St. John, Galveston 10/1/23
Rev. Alan Taylor

+ In Nomine Jesu +

Grace to you and peace, from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

In the Gospel reading for this morning, tax collectors and prostitutes are held up as role models in the Kingdom of God. Jesus said, “truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you.” How does that happen? I mean, how were the Pharisees left to envy tax collectors and prostitutes who were entering the Kingdom of God ahead of them?

It all started when the Pharisees refused to answer Jesus’ question about where John the Baptist’s authority came from. As you know, that question was posed by Jesus when the Pharisees questioned His authority. He said, “I also will ask you one question, and if you tell me the answer, then I also will tell you by what authority I do these things. The baptism of John, from where did it come? From heaven or from man?”

The Pharisees were afraid to answer His question, because if they said John’s authority came from God, Jesus would say, “then why didn’t you believe Him?” But if they said his authority came from men, they were afraid of the Jews, because the Jews held that Johns authority came from God. And so, finding themselves in a bit of a bind, they told Jesus they were unable to answer His question about the source of John’s authority. And so, as to the Kingdom of God, they took their place behind the tax collectors and prostitutes.

There was nothing unique about the way the Pharisees answered Jesus’ question. Evading tough questions has been a common tactic of people down through the ages. In fact, as the presidential election approaches, we see candidates calculate how they answer questions all the time. “What is your position on BLM?” The question is simple and yet the process of answering it is complex. Opinion polls have given a demographic picture of how certain answers will affect voting. So, the candidates are very careful and calculating in how they respond to such questions.

The phenomenon doesn’t just play-out in politics though. It happens in our daily lives as well. In a toxic social media environment, personal profiles are carefully crafted. In a tense social situation, conversation is carefully monitored. “If I say this or that, then people are going to think a certain way about me.” We live in a land of calculated responses which can be dangerous to our faith. We become so concerned that we might offend someone when we confess our faith that it becomes very difficult to have a true conversation with anyone about what we actually believe.

Which is why this morning’s Gospel reading is so pertinent to us today. Jesus invites us to practice a faith that is bold. He invites us to trust in Him, without calculations. You see, there is a difference between believing something because it brings about a particular result in your life, and believing something regardless of the results it will bring. Jesus invites you to believe in Him, regardless of the results that will follow. Indeed, “If anyone would come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me.”

The events in this account from Matthew 21 take place on the Monday before Jesus’s crucifixion. The context of the passage is important, especially since the text includes the first in a series of challenges by Jewish leaders in regarding Jesus’s authority. A day earlier, Jesus had entered the city amid great celebration. He had cleansed the temple and then healed the blind and lame in the temple courts while children proclaimed, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” Already at this point, the chief priests and the scribes were forming their opinion of Jesus, and they were becoming more and more angry with Him.

The next day Jesus returned to the temple courts to teach. Again the chief priests—this time with the people’s elders—came up to Him, they interrupted His teaching, and they asked by what authority He did these things and who gave Him this authority. Likely they were still upset by Jesus’s disruption of the temple business the day before. Perhaps they were trying to exert their own authority in the temple courts. More likely though, their question was a trap. Clearly, Jesus had no authorization from the temple leaders to drive out the moneychangers, to heal the sick, or to teach. If, in his answer to their question, Jesus claimed a human authority, the chief priests could say He had no such authority and accuse him of subversion; if he claimed divine authority, he was guilty, at least in their minds, of blasphemy. Whatever the reason for their question, the chief priests and elders revealed their lack of faith and their unwillingness to stand on what they believed. And so, tax collectors and prostitutes would enter into the Kingdom of God ahead of them.

Now, there’s nothing particularly virtuous about tax collectors and prostitutes.  But then again, Jesus didn’t choose these two groups of people to make His point about His authority in the Kingdom of God by accident. In the mind of the 1st century Jew, there were no more pointed examples of sinners than these two. And yet, they were entering the Kingdom of God ahead of the Pharisees.

The point being, Jesus’ authority to rule over the Kingdom is most wonderfully exhibited, not in His majesty and in His power, but in His grace and mercy to forgive sins. In the parable that Jesus told about the two sons, one said he wouldn’t go and do the will of his Father, but later, he thought better of it and went. The other said he would do what his Father asked, but he never did. “Which of the two did the will of his Father, Jesus asked?” The first one, said the Pharisees.

To enter the Kingdom of God, it’s not so much what we do as what we say. Now, lest that statement be confused with a plea for a hollow faith, let me unwrap it a little bit. Again, to enter the Kingdom of God, it’s not so much what we do as what we say.

Consider the two sons in the parable that Jesus told. The one son said he wouldn’t do what his father asked of him, but later, he thought better of it and he went and did his father’s will. The other son, as you know, said he would do his father’s will, but then he didn’t. The Pharisees were right when they said it was the first son who did his father’s will. What they never did see though was that it wasn’t the first sons doing of the deed that got him into the Kingdom of God. Rather, it was his repentance and His Father’s forgiveness. “Lord, be merciful to me, the sinner.”

Let me see if I can illustrate this point a little better from another incident in the Scriptures. There were two men who went into the Temple one day to pray. Perhaps you remember the incident. One of them, a Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed in this way: “God (he said), I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.” By his own words, the Pharisees demonstrated the error of his ways. The thing is, since if a person is guilty of one part of the Law, he is guilty of all of it, the Pharisee was just like other men. He was an extortioner, He was unjust, He was an adulterer, He was just like the tax collector. Of him, Jesus said, “everyone who exalts himself will be humbled.”  

The second man, the tax collector, “standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” He claimed nothing from God. He didn’t even see himself as worthy of God’s Kingdom. He simply threw himself on the mercy of God. To enter the Kingdom of God, it’s not so much what we do as what we say. “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

The peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus unto life everlasting. Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +