Year A Proper 21 Matthew 21 2011
When the Best People Were Left Out
The generals looked at each other, somewhat stupefied. Finally one of them submits a second request to the computer: YES WHAT? Instantly the computer responded: YES, SIR.
The Pharisees, like these generals, were accustomed to people saying "Yes, sir" to them. They were the religious authorities. They were used to being treated as such. But there was a new teacher in town, a teacher who was threatening their authority. The Pharisees were alarmed. They feared Jesus' popularity, his ability to heal and to perform miracles. In their eyes, Jesus was preaching heresy and leading people away from the religious traditions that defined the Jews. The Pharisees wanted to expose him as a fraud.
It was in this context that Jesus told a story about a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, "Son, go and work today in the vineyard."
The boy immediately said, "No." Later he changed his mind and went. Then the father went to his other son and said the same thing. This one answered, "O.K." but he never got out to the vineyard. Then Jesus asked a simple question: "Which of the two did what his father wanted?"
"The first," they answered.
Then Jesus delivered the punch line, "I tell you the truth, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him." (NIV)
That really was a punch line, and the Pharisees were the ones who were punched. I imagine Jesus heard some gasps and "How dare he!" from the crowd that day. It was unthinkable to compare the righteous Pharisees to blatant sinners like the tax-collectors and prostitutes. Didn't he know that the Pharisees were too good to be lumped together with the likes of them? Didn't he know that only those people with the right "credentials," so to speak, would make it into the Kingdom of God? What was Jesus talking about and why was he excoriating the best people in town?
There is an old Japanese legend that tells of a man who died and went to heaven. Heaven was beautiful--full of lush gardens and glittering mansions. But then the man came to a room lined with shelves. On the shelves were stacked piles of human ears! A heavenly guide explained that these ears belonged to all the people on earth who listened each week to the word of God, but never acted on God's teachings. Their worship never resulted in action. When these people died, therefore, only their ears ended up in heaven.
Jesus is dealing with a bunch of "earless" religious folk in this passage, and it would be to our benefit to listen in on the conversation. It's so easy to mistake self-righteous attitudes for true belief in Jesus as Savior. Any one of us can be guilty of it. This passage packs a powerful message, telling us...
- How God's grace is shocking.
- How we are to live our lives.
- And how, no one is excluded from the Kingdom of God, not even a Pharisee.
"Love Your Enemies" Doesn't Mean Don't Make Any
Mike Rowe has made a career out of doing disgusting stuff. As the host of the Discovery Channel series "Dirty Jobs," Rowe has mucked-out, dug under, flushed, slogged, and slid through some of the most filthy and foul places on the planet.
But whether he has been hanging from rafters or slipping through sewers, Rowe has consistently shown his viewers how even the most grungy, grimy, gross job still has its own dirty dignity. Rowe always offers respect to those who are "showing him the ropes," whether they are demonstrating how to scrape up penguin poop or harvest worms. The underlying message of "Dirty Jobs" is that no matter how nasty, a job is a job and doing it well gives a sense of well-being and worth to humanity.
Except . . . . and it's the exceptions that prove the rule . . . some jobs have always been just too "dirty" to redeem. Jesus honed in on the performers of these most despicable jobs throughout his ministry. Jesus spoke with and reached out to exactly those who were supposed to be shunted off and shoved aside for the unredeemable "dirty jobs."
Jesus touched and healed the untouchable and unhealable — lepers, Gentiles, crazies.
Jesus comforted a Roman centurion grieving for his daughter. Jesus extended his hand to those out of their minds, "possessed" by demons.
But perhaps the most wretched refuse Jesus consoled and companioned were the tax collectors and prostitutes. Neither disease, nor demons, nor DNA made these people outcasts. They had professions that they knew would make them outcasts among their own people and despised by the people they served.
In Jesus' day both tax collectors and prostitutes were viewed as "collaborators." They profited from the despised existence and detested ruling authority of the Roman Empire.
Tax collectors brought the reality of Roman rule into the pocket of every Jewish citizen. Every action taken, every aspect of life, was scrutinized and taxed by the Roman authorities. Every sheckel paid was a cruel reminder of Israel's defeat, of the loss of identity and the fear of no future that haunted the "chosen people" of God. Every time the tax collector dumped coins into Rome's coffers, Israel's hopes became emptier.
Prostitutes violated their own sexual purity, to be sure. But their existence also threatened the purity of Israel itself. According to Mosaic law any child born of a Jewish mother was considered Jewish. But what happens when the "chosen people" are being created by Roman soldiers?
The tax collectors were instruments used against Israel's political identity. The prostitutes were instruments used against Israel's genetic identity.
Yet it is precisely these two groups, one the most dangerous and the other the most despicable, that Jesus singled out and elevated above "the chief priests and elders of the people." It was the ultimate insult...