Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Good Boy

Matthew 21:23-32

by Daniel Harrell

Just found a new house to buy after looking at what seemed like hundreds on line and on foot. It’s a nice first world problem to have. The seller was telling his next door neighbor how a family from Boston was going to be moving in. “That’s funny,” the neighbor replied, “our church just welcomed a new minister from Boston.” Not knowing which one of you is our new neighbor, my relaying this story did evoke varying shades of concern—even worry, perhaps, about being a minister with a member of the congregation next door. But really, what’s worse?: To be a minister living next to a member of his congregation? Or being a member of a congregation and living next to the minister? I can already see it. You’ve got your Sunday morning coffee and you walk out to the driveway for the paper, and there’s the Reverend: “Hey you better hurry up or you’re going to be late for church!”

For Jesus it was always worse to be next to the ministers—which for him meant the Pharisees, chief priests and scribes, whom along with John the Baptist he labeled “a brood of vipers.” Of course John called just about everybody a snake too, including King Herod himself, which cost him his head last Sunday. Someone remarked this past week how once you’ve lost your head, there isn’t much left to say, and thus I wrap up my summer long series on John the Baptist today. And yet even though this is the last sermon, it’s hardly the last word. John lived as the one whom Isaiah prophesied would “prepare the way for the Lord.” But John’s death prepared the way for Jesus too. Like John, Jesus antagonized the ruling authorities by exposing their evil cloaked behind veils of piety and pride. Like John, Jesus enraged those lustful for power and position. Like John, Jesus was arrested on trumped up charges. Like John, Jesus’ enemies wanted him dead. But due to his popularity, as with John, Jesus’ enemies had to await a more opportune time.

Passover week in Jerusalem provided the opportunity. Today’s passage is typically rolled out on Palm Sunday. Jesus enters Jerusalem astride a prophesied colt to shouts of “Hosanna!” Jesus then enters the Temple Courts—the House of God—significant for those who know his true identity. God had not been so tangibly present in his house since the book of Ezekiel. He now steps back inside—incognito save for the children who sing out “Hosanna to the Son of David!” In the gospels children are always tuned in to divine realities. The religious professionals—the chief priests and the Pharisees who were supposed to be tuned in too—instead take offense. It’s reminiscent of Jesus’ parable a couple weeks back about children playing wedding and funeral games in the streets that the grown-ups refused to join in. Same thing here. The kids cheer Jesus as the coming King but the adults can only scowl. Granted, Jesus had done some remarkable things, but nothing to warrant such exalted praise. Such only was reserved for the promised and pedigreed Messiah, not for some scandalously born, homeless, wandering Galilean carpenter. In response to their insistence that he silence the singing children, Jesus cited Psalm 8—one with blatant Messianic overtones: “Out of the mouths of infants and nursing babies you have prepared praise for yourself.”

As we saw a couple of weeks back, believing in Jesus does take childlike faith. But rather than such qualities like simplicity, innocence and trust; childlike faith in Jesus is more about desperation, dependency and powerlessness. It’s why the gospel always portrays despised tax collectors and desperate sinners as the truly faithful rather than the externally religious. By citing Psalm 8, however, Jesus gets in another dig at his detractors. Not only do the kids get it right, but the kids get even. Jesus only used the first part of the Psalm. The rest goes like this: “Out of the mouths of babes and infants you have built a fortress to silence your enemies and leave speechless your adversaries.”

However what really angered the Pharisees in Mathew 21 was Jesus’ going all John the Baptist on them in the Temple courts. Upon his arrival he chased out those who bought and sold there and turned over their tables. We usually interpret Jesus’ clearing the Temple as his condemning the commercialization of faith, as an indictment against Christian investment schemes or health and wealth preaching. But in fact, buying and selling were necessary parts of proper Temple business. The Temple was where animal sacrifices to God occurred. The Temple system was all about having a right relationship with the holy God. In accordance with Torah, sacrificial animals had to be perfect. Rightly relating to God cost you the best of your herds, flocks and crops—animals without any spot or blemish. But if you lived any distance from Jerusalem, getting your bull or goat to the Temple without dinging it up was pretty difficult. Therefore as a service to the faithful, the religious authorities arranged it so you could buy a blemish-free bull or bird at the door. You’d bring your cash, change it into Temple currency, buy your bird and give it to a priest to sacrifice. Sort of like parking an ATM in the Commons in case you forgot your offering. It was all very convenient and very kosher. So what was the problem?

The problem was not the sacrificial system, but how the people treated it. Rather than see it as God’s mercy for their mistakes, they treated as license to live as they pleased. They cheated and stole, they murdered and committed adultery, they lied, swore falsely and chased after shiny idols made of metal and stone—and then used the Temple system to cover their backside. They’d sin and sacrifice only to go out and sin again. The prophet Jeremiah stood in Temple centuries prior and conveyed God’s displeasure. Jeremiah hollered, “Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to idols, and go after other gods that you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, ‘We are saved!’—only to go on doing all these abominations? Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your eyes?”

Jesus quoted this last line in his own Temple tirade, intentionally reenacting Jeremiah. He sternly said, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’; but you are making it a den of robbers.” If you read “den of robbers” as “hideout for evil,” then you understand how the people mistreated the Temple as a safe-house for their sin. No wonder Jesus got so mad. By turning the tables and blocking traffic, Jesus effectively brought a halt to the sacrificial charade. Jesus also quotes Isaiah, saying that the Temple was supposed to be a “house of prayer for all nations.” The idea from the beginning was that outsiders would always be welcome inside. The Lord is the Lord of all people. God did choose Israel alright, but they were to be an example of his grace, not sole beneficiaries. Somehow they let it all go to their heads, so that by the time we get to Jeremiah, the Temple had become like some exclusive country club. God’s people, rather than putting out the welcome mat for their unbelieving neighbors, treated the Temple as a sanctuary from their unbelieving neighbors. Like ministers who shut their shades so that their next door neighbors can’t see the life they really live inside.

The religious leaders would have gotten the message. They understood what Jeremiah and Isaiah condemned. How dare Jesus apply it to them! They demanded to know: “By what authority are you doing these things—teaching, healing, taking over the Temple? Who gave you this sanction? What are your credentials?” Which finally brings us to our John the Baptist moment.

Never being one to give a straight answer, Jesus decided to play a game. You answer my question and I’ll answer yours. Here it is: John’s baptism, where did it come from? From heaven or humans? Was John truly the returning Elijah, or just an imposter? Was his water really akin to Noah’s flood and the Red Sea, or merely a publicity stunt? Was John’s purpose to prepare the way for the Lord? If so, that would mean Jesus is Lord. There’s no way that the Pharisees could admit that because they didn’t believe that. They couldn’t believe that. But they also couldn’t say that John’s authority was merely human either. The crowd would crucify them. To them John was a prophet made into a martyr once his head got put on that platter. So they said, “We don’t know.”

I mentioned a book at the beginning of this sermon series entitled Being Wrong by Kathryn Schultz. In it she describes how part of the problem in being wrong is that there is no associated feeling of being wrong while being wrong. The whole reason that it’s possible to be wrong is that while it is happening, you are oblivious to it. Ironically, the only thing that being wrong feels like is being right. And it’s because we love that feeling so much that we fail so often at relationships and at ever knowing the truth. She remarks how throughout human history, no one has yet to master the basic skill of saying “I was wrong.” “This is a startling deficiency, given the simplicity of the phrase, the ubiquity of error, and the tremendous public service that acknowledging it can provide.”

Instead, we get stuck playing stupid and caught in ridiculous arguments like the one Kathryn Schultz overheard one day in New York:

Man: You said pound cake.

Woman: I didn’t say pound cake, I said crumb cake.

Man: You said pound cake.

Woman: Don’t tell me what I said.

Man: You said pound cake.

Woman: I said crumb cake.

Man: I actually saw the crumb cake but didn’t get it because you said pound cake.

Woman: I said crumb cake.

Man: Well I heard pound cake.

Woman: Then you obviously weren’t listening. Crumb cake doesn’t even sound like pound cake.

Man: Well, maybe you accidentally said pound cake.

Woman: I said crumb cake.

Silly when what’s at stake is crumb cake (or pound cake). Serious when what’s at stake is our souls. And yet each of us instinctively puts forward a stalwart defense against the awareness of our wrongness. It’s a defense so strong, so supple, mysterious and private that even veteran sinners cannot track its ways. Theologian Cornelius Plantinga calls it self-deception, a “shadowy phenomenon whereby we pull the wool over our own consciences. We put a move on ourselves. We deny, suppress or minimize what we know to be true. We assert, adorn and elevate what we know to be false. We become our own dupes, playing the role of both perpetrator and victim. We know the truth—and yet we do not know it, because we persuade ourselves of its opposite. We actually forget that certain things are wrong and that we have done them. To the extent that we are self-deceived, we occupy a twilight zone in which we make up reality as we go along, a twilight zone in which the shortest distance between two points is a labyrinth.”

The only cure for self-deception is the discipline of self-suspicion. Heeding your inner John the Baptist. Allowing the possibility that some days you are a snake—that you may need a trip to the river for a douse of repentance. That maybe you are wrong and need to change and do right rather than stay stuck in the righteousness you make for yourself.

Jesus pulls out another parable. “A farmer had two sons” which to the Pharisees would have immediately brought to mind all the places in Scripture where there was a chance to choose the right thing. Cain and Abel. Esau and Jacob. The older brother and the Prodigal Son. “The farmer went to his first son and said, ‘Son, go and work today in the fields.’ The son said, ‘No!’ But later, he changed his mind; he repented and went. The father approached his other son and said the same thing. The second son said, ‘Yes sir!’ but he did not go. Now, which of the two sons did what his father wanted?” The answer is obvious for those who can say “I was wrong.” But self-deception is a very powerful defense. We know the truth—and yet we do not know it, because we persuade ourselves of its opposite. We put a move on ourselves.

And therefore, “The tax collectors and prostitutes will get into the Kingdom of God ahead of you,” Jesus says to the Pharisees. “John the Baptist came and showed you the right way, but you wouldn’t take it. The tax collectors and the prostitutes did, but even when you saw this happening, you did not change your minds and join in.” But why would they? “Tax collectors” and “prostitutes” was Biblical code for degenerates, outcasts and losers. To see such people go for Jesus’ Kingdom wrongly verified for the religious folks that Jesus’ so-called kingdom was not the Kingdom of God.

In what I’m sure was an unintentional riff on Jesus’ teaching about the necessity of childlike faith and the lost being found, author Kathryn Schultz compares being wrong to being a toddler lost in New York. “There is a sudden awareness of the immensity of the world and of our own extreme smallness, vulnerability and confusion within it. The panic, the anguish, the absolute fear that we don’t have the ability or the resources to find our way again. And yet as painful as that sounds, it can also be redemptive. Like a toddler lost in New York, drastic error it makes us young again in both the hardest and best of ways. Lose a kid in the middle of Times Square and sooner or later he’ll look up in awe. Likewise, most of us eventually manage to look up from the despair of wrongness and feel something of a child’s wonder at the vastness and the mystery of life. This is the thing about fully experiencing our wrongness—it makes possible that rarest of occurrences: real change. At the same time this also explains why we can’t realize we’re wrong: we don’t want to change. It’s why pure wrongness is so hard, so heated and full of emotion.” And yet it is the place where John the Baptist draws us. To what is, in essence, a spiritual construction site, “all pits and wrecking balls and cranes: the place where we are destroyed in order to be rebuilt, where all the ground gives way” and, by grace, “all the ladders start.”

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