Sermon for Proper 21, Year A, September 27, 2020

Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32, Psalm 25:1-8, Philippians 2:1-13, Matthew 21:23-32

“By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?”  There are lots of reasons people questions the authority of others and there are many different forms of authority.  In organizations and government, there are lines of authority which can be shown on an organizational chart.  But then there are the people others turn to for help or answers.  Often the person “in charge” is not the one who others turn to for assistance. 

We turn to people who have demonstrated they possess the knowledge we need to do whatever it is we are trying to accomplish.  We turn to people who have earned our trust.  In some organizations, the official leader is that person, but many times it is their advisors or simply someone who has been a part of the organization long enough to know how things work.

Jesus enters the Jerusalem; he teaches and he heals and he throws the money changers out of the temple.  There is no question the people are listening to him and trusting what he is saying – and those in charge, the elders are afraid of him and his influence over the members of their faith.

So, they ask him, “on whose authority are you doing these things?”  They are publicly challenging his authority.  Here’s where it gets fun.  Jesus asks them a question about John the Baptist and the baptisms he performed.  Jesus says he will answer their question IF they answer his.  They are afraid and decline to answer because of how the crowd might respond to their answer. 

This demonstrates what we see all too often.  People do not seek truth; they seek political power.  The Chief Priest and the scribes are seeking to regain their power from Jesus.  Jesus responds with the parable about two sons asked by their father to work in the vineyard.   One refuses, but changes his mind and does what his father asks.  The other agrees, but does not do the work.  Jesus asks which has done his father’s will and they say the first.

Jesus then says, “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.”  We know, of course, that the elders this angers the elders and they secretly plot against Jesus.  Within a short while, they will have Jesus executed. 

It is not wise to challenge those in authority, but it is sometimes necessary to do so for truth to come to light.  Why we challenge anyone is of the upmost importance.  Are we seeking truth, justice, or power?  When we seek truth and justice, we must listen to other person’s point of view.  Often; however, we listen for the purpose of preparing our rebuttal.  We do not listen to understand.  If we truly listen, we may realize we have the same goals, just different ideas in mind as to how to best achieve them.  Listening just enough to argue our position, suggests that we are enmeshed in a struggle for power. 

Did Jesus enter the temple to challenge the elders?  Perhaps, or maybe not them so much as what they have been teachings.  Jesus challenges their beliefs and practices that put tradition ahead of people and places the church and politics ahead of understanding the truth of God’s love for us. 

Jesus teaches us to love God and one another.  Jesus teaches us to love our enemy and care for our neighbors.  Jesus teaches us to turn the other cheek and go the extra mile.  The church teaches obedience to the law and which the leaders of the church interpret as they see fit and this is what Jesus is challenging.  Jesus does not initiate the confrontation that takes place, but his presence, his actions, and his teaching makes it inevitable.  Jesus comes to change the lives of people who have been rejected by others and this cost him his life.     

 In our reading from Philippians, the Apostle Paul writes: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.”  Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,” He then quotes an early Christian Hymn:

[Jesus], though he was in the form of God,
  did not regard equality with God
  as something to be exploited,

but emptied himself,
  taking the form of a slave,
  being born in human likeness.

And being found in human form,
  he humbled himself
  and became obedient to the point of death–
  even death on a cross.

Paul concludes this passage by urging us to work out our own salvation and by noting it is God who is at work in us. 

          The gospel lesson and this passage from Philippians, taken together, call upon us to seek the truth with humility and compassion and respect for others – whether or not we agree.  It calls upon us to empty ourselves of selfish ambition and seek to do God’s will.  And, it calls upon us to take risks – not to run from disagreements, but to model Christ’s teachings of love. 

          The son who refuses to do his father’s will, but changes his mind, is a lot like many of us who are reluctant to answer God’s call.  We need some time to accept what has been asked of us before we do what we know it right.  What does God ask of us?  In the book of the prophet Micah we are told what the Lord requires of us: “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.”

Let us pray.

          Loving God, help us not to judge others, but to truly listen and seek understanding and truth.  And, we pray, teach us all to answer your call to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with you.  We offer our prayers in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.