When [Jesus] entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” Jesus said to them, “I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” And they argued with one another, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.” So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.
“What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.Matthew 21:23-32
My sermon from the Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost (October 1, 2023) on Matthew 21:23-32.
A few days ago, I stood on a skateboard and I’ll admit it was a little terrifying. In a past life, I regularly rode one around my college campus but I’ve since traded my Vans skate shoes for ones that primarily step on a gas pedal. Standing on a thin board a few inches off the ground shouldn’t be so difficult. But my balance isn’t what it used to be and I kept leaning forward and backward and side to side. Everytime I moved, my toes tried in vain to grip the side of the board while I made a million tiny bodily adjustments to keep it from sliding out from under me. I pretended as if I knew exactly what I was doing but the old skills I built up when I was younger no longer apply. Maintaining any kind of balance, whether physically, emotionally, financially, or spirituality is a rather difficult thing to do since it doesn’t take much for something to throw off our attempt at equilibrium. Tilting from one side to another is, on the surface, a type of balance that exists within a binary that knows we can never quite grab hold of that middle way that’s right in front of us. It would be awesome if we could step outside this way of being and find something a little more peaceful and holy. And I wonder if seeking, finding, and living with that type of balance is something Jesus hinted at in today’s reading from the gospel according to Matthew.
Now Jesus spoke these words during a rather busy week in the city of Jerusalem as it prepared to celebrate the festival of Passover. He had, the day before, entered the city at the head of a small procession riding a donkey while others waved palm branches in the air. Some in the crowd recognized that Jesus was presenting himself as a kind of humble king. Yet others were a bit suspicious that this carpenter from Galilee seemed to be copying a different kind of procession that was occurring on the opposite side of the city. Pontius Pilate, the governor of Judea appointed by the Roman Emperor himself, was, at nearly the same time, leading his own procession into Jerusalem surrounded by a legion of Roman soldiers. They were there to police the city and intervene if anyone decided to use the Passover story as a pretext to upset the delicate political balance the Romans had worked hard to create. The soldiers were on high alert to respond if anyone, for example, entered the Holy Temple and disrupted the economic system allowing Jews from all over the empire to make specific kinds of offerings to God. Jesus, in Matthew’s version of His story, did exactly that after arriving on Palm Sunday. He flipped a few tables, drove out the moneychangers, and then took care of those within the Temple who needed help. The next day, Jesus returned to the Temple and the local leaders wanted some kind of explanation. They wanted to know why Jesus was trying to upset the balance that existed between the community and Roman solidres who had the capacity to burn the entire city to the ground. Jesus, in response, asked a question of his own and then followed up with a story involving a vineyard, a father, and a handful of kids.
This story, compared to the other parables Jesus told, doesn’t appear to be too complicated. Within its structure, we find a kind of binary with a kid who refused to work but later changed his mind on one side and a kid who refused to fulfill the promise they made on the other. Both of the kids messed up and it’s pretty easy to place ourselves within the story. I wouldn’t be surprised if we’re thinking about one specific experience – even one from today – that shows how we are the one who said no and then yes or the one who said yes and did no. Oscillating between these two experiences is, in one sense, a kind of balance since, on most days, we’re often doing one – and then the other – in rather quick succession. This way of being in the world is very human but it’s also pretty exhausting. What would be better is if there was another character, maybe even another son connected to this story that would invite us to notice a different kind of balance we can live into in our world.
Now seeing ourselves within Jesus’ stories is, I think, one of the reasons why Jesus told them. When we see ourselves within Jesus’ words, we discover how normal we are while, at the same time, witness the absurd generosity that makes up the kingdom of God. Every story, though, includes more than simply the characters within the words. There’s also those listening to it which includes those who saw Jesus face to face and us, gathered together, nearly 2,000 years later. But a story without a storyteller is one that cannot be told. And Jesus, I imagine, knew we didn’t have to settle into this kind of binary choice to find our balance with God. Rather than merely being the kid who says no and does it anyways or the kid who says yes and does nothing, there’s also a third way where our response matches the life God calls us to. To get to that point, we need to empty ourselves of the either/ors that define what we imagine balance might look like. We can, instead, look outside ourselves and towards the One who bore witness to what our humanity could be. Jesus, who was there when the universe was made, had the power to do anything and yet he chose to show how being human is always enough. Rather than tilting from one side to the other while seeking a balance that never quite gets there, we could focus on the third way Paul described in his letter to the Phillippians. Instead of acting as if we are the only ones who can bring balance into our own lives, we could look to Jesus who used His power to bring healing and hope to all. The balance Jesus modeled was less about trying to feel balanced since he, like all of us, wept, laughed, got angry, and rolled his eyes everytime his disciples failed to grasp what God was up to. Instead of being balanced, he lived out God’s holy balance by inviting those who were exploited, pushed aside, or up on their high horses, to discover the love God already had for them. This kind of balance admits the ways we are accountable to one another while, at the same time, have needs that are valid and real. It’s a balance we often won’t feel since an illness, an accident, a change in our employment or just life itself, can easily upend what we hoped this whole thing would be. The balance we need, then, can’t be created only by ourselves. What we need is a community – people around and outside of us – who can help us live balanced even when we’re feeling anything but. That’s why, when we were baptized, the promises uttered over us included more than a declaration of God’s love. We also heard how we were now part of something bigger than ourselves. We were brought into the body of Christ – a community bound to Jesus himself to make real God’s harmony of grace and peace. To do that well, we need to do more than simply tilt from one extreme to another. We have to choose to care. We do that kind of care by recognizing each other’s needs and our own. We practice care by noticing all the different gifts God has given us to share. We live this care out by not letting ourselves get in our own way while serving those God has united us to. We care by asking for help and doing our best at being a community that people trust will answer their call when help is needed. None of us can do that kind of care on our own since there are times when we need the care we’ve often given to others. Offering care or needing care is not a sign that our life has become, somehow, unbalanced, out of whack, or that life is about to zoom out from under us. It is, instead, a reminder that Jesus knows we need each other. We, together, are invited to care so that we can bring balance into the lives of those around us. And we do that not because we are perfect or awesome but rather because, through the Cross, Jesus has shown that God will always seek a new way where love and hope are found.