Sometimes our actions far exceed anything we could say.
Last Saturday my wife Carrie packed up some things and went to help out at a bake sale. She is a part of an Advisory Board at Duke that works with the staff of the Pediatric Intensive Care Units to support families whose children end up there. Families come rushing in, on their own or on the helicopter, from all parts of the state, because they need the remarkable care offered here in our backyard. This board works to support them as they get settled in, as they find their way around, as they negotiate jobs and homes hours away. The board, and friends of the board, and even a couple of you all, chipped in so there was an amazing collection of breads and cakes, cookies and pies. It was about visibility, as you get off the elevators on the 5th floor, but also about making a little money for a fund to pay for meals and gas, for those who don’t have the support networks you and I have, to help them manage the strain. As they were setting up, someone mentioned they were going down to pick up a donation from a nurse who had called and was going to pull in the circle below. A call came a few moments later asking for a few people to help, and they went down and saw some twenty items – pies and tubs of cupcakes and trays of brownies. It turns out she had been on the unit the day before, that she had finished her shift at 5 and then gone home, cooking all of these items all through the night, so she could deliver them to help out in the morning.
Jesus’ actions had thus far gotten him into a heap of trouble. The chief priests and the elders had known he had been preaching and teaching nearby, working his way towards the city. And when it was time, Jesus rode down the hill on the donkey, then slowly back up through the gates. In Matthew’s depiction of this Palm Sunday he juxtaposes the adoring crowds with the turmoil of the city, with the waving of palms and the plotting of the politicians. And while the temple leadership knew he would cause trouble, they didn’t have any idea what a mess he would make as he rides into the temple, hurling tables, kicking over chairs. My house shall be called a house of prayer, they heard him shout as moneychangers scurried for cover, but you are making it a den of robbers. And in an instant he was gone, outside the walls to spend the night in Bethany.
And the next morning he strolls right back into town. He curses a fig tree, waltzes into the temple. They were still picking up the broken furniture, and Jesus walks in like he owns the place. And in a huff, they straighten their robes to meet him. "By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?" Who do you think you are? They are setting a trap, of course, and in traditional rabbinic fashion he responds with a question of his own:1 "Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?" Matthew lets us peer into their internal priestly negotiations for a moment, for they understand that with either answer, from God or from humanity, they are boxed in. "We do not know," they must admit. Jesus dashes their hopes, humiliating them, calling all earthly authority into question. And they stand there, facing each other, in silence.
But he doesn’t give up. "What do you think?" Jesus asks, inviting them to wonder about how authority functions. In the political arena it begins as a legal question – what authority do certain laws give? Who gets to make decisions about budget priorities, about whose interests are being looked out for in City Hall, or Raleigh, or Washington? But even with those duly elected, we know their authority is about something more, something moral, beneath charisma to integrity. Jesus prompts their thinking by telling a story of a man with two sons. He goes to one and tells him to go to work in the vineyard. The son says he will not, but later changes his mind and goes. It is the opposite with the second, who says he will go and does not. Jesus asks the chief priests and elders which one did the will of his father. They say, and I would guess most of us agree with him, that it is the first, the one who, regardless of what he said, DID what he was supposed to do. And Jesus presses back on them again, harshly: "Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you." Even after you saw what he could do, Jesus says, you did not change your minds and believe him.
Matthew’s early readers, scholars remind us, would undoubtedly have heard this is the context of the tension within their own community. His community, largely folks who had been nurtured in the temple, found themselves in the throes of a conflict about who Jesus was with those who raised them. It led to a painful split. Matthew’s early readers would see Israel as the second son, saying, "Yes, Lord," but rejecting Jesus as the Messiah. The church would have seen themselves as those who once said, ‘no,’ but changed their minds and joined the community gathered around Jesus Christ.2
But, Tom Long points out, Jesus does something tricky. He is always on the lookout for religious people getting a bit self-righteous, and so he adds a bit of circular logic. What do you think? He asks. Matthew’s community would jump to the interpretation I just mention, as the ones who truly understood who Jesus was, and they might be tempted to think they had it all figured out. That is the fear with us good religious people, that we think we have it covered, at least enough to let us sleep at night. We are on the inside, part of a nice church, which we often assume to mean that we are doing what we need to be doing, living faithfully…enough. But Jesus’ logic catches us as He caught the chief priests a moment ago. The moment you THINK you are the first son, who might not say the right thing at first but them follows up, then you begin to become more like the second son, who shows his hypocrisy, who gives lip-service to faith and then walks out the door on Sunday morning as if nothing is really different.
So this finally becomes a deep call to a make sure our actions improve upon our words. It is easy to speak. Us preachers and politicians and others do it all the time. It is easy to argue and complain about the way the world is. It is much harder to listen, to get your hands dirty, to take extra time for someone else even when your own list is long, not only in our neighborhoods – though it starts there – but as we serve meals, as the youth head down to spend time with homeless children at Genesis home tonight, as we quietly write an extra check. Because, as Jesus tells us, it’s about authority. Any authority we have in this life comes from Him, from the Christ who turns over tables and challenges those who seem on top, who hangs out with the tax collectors and the prostitutes, and who empowers us, regardless of what we say, to LIVE, deeply and fully, a life of compassion and generosity and joy.
I had the privilege of preaching three nights in a row at a church in the northern part of Orange County about a six weeks ago. It was their equivalent of Spiritual Renewal Weekend and an anniversary all wrapped together, and in place of Walter Brueggemann or Will Willimon or Rodger Nishioka, they got me. It was an occasion to reflect some on their heritage, and pose some questions going forward. Monday night, the second night, was the night I had decided I was going to push them a little, challenge them to move beyond their comfort and engage the messy problems of the world in Christ’s name. I got fired up, perhaps a little self-righteous. They were polite, a couple of folks telling me how I had stepped on their toes a little bit, but they knew it was good for them. In the fellowship hall afterwards a man introduced himself and sat down. He said, "I am trying to do what you said." I was intrigued. He said, "Nine years ago I had to have a couple of valves replaced, and I had to check into Duke the night before. I won’t say I was afraid," he said with a smile, "but I was anxious. And that night, a couple of men came by, who had that same surgery, and talked with me. They told me how it went, what to expect, that I’d be okay. And it helped. So," he said, "once I got well I went back. I go each week, every week except for a few these nine years since, to go visit with people before surgery, maybe provide a little comfort. Was that what you were looking for us to do, Chris? Is that right?"
Soren Kierkegaard wrote "Jesus wants followers, not admirers." The world is full of people who will say, believe, and stand for all the right things. What God needs is people who will go where God calls them and do what God tells them to do.3 That’s where authority comes from, Jesus says to the chief priests there in the courtyard of the temple. True authority comes from Spirit-filled lives that do much so more than any of our words might hope, seeking, serving, in the quiet, broken places, like waiting rooms, like kitchens in the middle of the night, where God’s people get to work. I wonder what Christ might call us to next? I wonder what that might look like for you?
All praise be to God. Amen.
- Tom Long, WBC: Matthew, (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1997), 240.
- Long, 243.
- Kierkegaard quote from Barbara Brown Taylor, Home by Another Way, (Cambridge: Cowley Publications, 1999), p 199. Also from SJK’s paper.