September 28, 2014: Matthew 21:23-32

September 28, 2014

Facing the truth

Year A Pentecost 15                                                

            I have talked to several rectors about what we miss most about being an assistant.  Most of us miss knowing that if there was a tricky question that we did not know the answer to or did not want to answer, we could always say, “I need to ask the rector.”  Of course the reason that most assistants are called to be rectors eventually is that more often than not, we would rather be the ones answering the questions.  Most assistants get a little sick of asking the rector about everything.  Occasionally we just want to make the decision ourselves.  But like the Hebrew people who longed for the food of Egypt, we remember those experiences through rose colored glasses, especially when we are stressed and frantic about what we are experiencing right now.

            The people that Jesus is talking to in this Gospel reading are the chief priests and the elders, also known as the Sanhedrin.  The Sanhedrin was essentially the Supreme Court of the Jewish people.  In some ways, they had even more power than the Supreme Court because they were involved with legislation, administration, and justice.   One of their jobs was to ferret out the false messiahs.  You would think that there would not be too many of those, but there were often several false messiahs lurking in parts of Israel.  We don’t know about them now because they were false.  

            The chief priests and elders are never portrayed very kindly in the gospels.  They were after all, at least partially responsible for the death of Jesus.  We often hear them questioning Jesus, often rather condescendingly.  When Jesus tells parables (like the one we hear today) religious leaders usually look pretty bad.  So it is understandable that we might have bad opinions of the chief priests and elders. 

But they weren’t all bad.  They were committed to their faith and to God.  Perhaps not all had the best of intentions, but many did.  The reason that they questioned Jesus was because that was their job.  They needed to prove that these messiahs were false.  Otherwise the false messiahs would lead the people astray and possibly cause huge problems between the Jews and the empire that controlled them, Rome.  The chief priests and elders were trying to keep the peace and ease the tensions that these false messiahs created.

            What they did not anticipate was that not all of these men were false.  John the Baptist was neither false nor the messiah.  He was the person pointing to the true messiah.  One would have hoped the priests and elders would have learned something from John the Baptist, but they never really gave him a chance.  And if he was false, well then Jesus must be false as well.  While it was their job to judge these potential messiahs, they were supposed to allow for the possibility that this person could be the real deal.  However, as we know it’s a lot easier to be cynical than hopeful…a lot easier to be negative than positive. It also did not help that Jesus did not fit the messiah mold.  He was a peasant with no formal education.   The educated and well-bred religious leaders of the day could not have a  messiah like that as their king.

            Instead of giving Jesus a fair hearing, they tried to trap him with questions.  Being the teacher that he was, Jesus would always turn those questions on them.  Many people believe that this technique of Jesus was a bit of a mind game, but I think it was a teaching technique.  I believe he hoped to open their minds, even if he knew it was almost impossible.  Jesus was not the kind to give up on lost causes.  Unlike their typical questions, this question we heard today was a pretty clear cut question.  They asked him where he got his authority. 

            There were a couple of recent events that concerned the Jewish leadership and led them to ask this question.  Right before this interaction, Jesus had paraded into Jerusalem while people shouted “Hosanna to the Son of David!”  This was a pretty magnificent claim and not one he denied.  It would appear that he even encouraged this representation.  He then went into the temple, the very seat of the power of God and in many ways, the power of the Jewish leadership.  He drove out the people who were buying and selling goods saying, “My house shall be called a house of prayer.”  Can you imagine the response of the elders and chief priests?  “Did he just say: ‘my house’?”  Of course they had to confront the man who made such claims. 

            So they did.  Instead of answering their question, Jesus asked them, “Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?”  That question put them in a bit of a bind.  They were in the midst of people who were followers of John, who had just been killed.  The elders and priests knew that if they said that the baptism of John was of human origin they would offend all these people…and that offense would potentially end in violence.  They also knew if they said that the baptism was from heaven, then they would be admitting that Jesus was potentially the messiah because that was what John had said all along.  How could someone who baptized on behalf of God be so wrong when it came to the coming messiah? 

            What I find rather interesting is that we never hear what they really believe.  Perhaps they did believe that John’s baptism came from heaven. Maybe there was disagreement among them.  However, the text indicates that they really believed that the baptism was of human origin and they were just afraid to say that. This is where I lose a little respect for them.  They took the easy way out.  Instead of just telling the truth, they answered, “I don’t know.” 

In general I have no problem with that answer.  I would much rather people admit they do not know than bluster through an answer that is not even correct.  But they did know.  They had a very definite opinion and they didn’t give it because they were afraid of how it would affect them.  They were not answering on the basis of truth, but on what was safe to say.  It wasn’t what was safe for anyone else. They were not protecting the feelings of others. They were only protecting themselves.  Because they were unwilling to answer honestly, Jesus refused to answer their question.  It’s not because he was being evasive, he just knew that they were not interested in the truth.  They only wanted to protect their beliefs and their lives.  If Jesus’s answer did not comply with that, they did not want to hear it. 

            While I lose a little respect for them in this interaction, I can also sympathize.  There were many times when I was an assistant when I knew the answer and it was absolutely in my power to give it, but I took the easy way out.  I used my lack of authority to avoid the harder questions.  While I know it was a little cowardly, I miss it sometimes!  Haven’t most of us done that at one time or another?  Either we have avoided answering or provided the answer we just knew the person wanted to hear because that was the safe way to go.  While it is the safe way; it’s not the true way.  Because in avoiding the hard questions and the even harder answers we are avoiding conversations that can open up new possibilities and futures that we can’t even imagine. 
            We all have some truth in our life that we are fighting.  It could be something that we are afraid to acknowledge or something we are just not sure of.  Let us all take some time in the next week, month or year to consider what truth it is that we are avoiding.   God will help us answer the hard questions of life, but only if we are willing to provide honest and authentic answers.  We get frustrated when God doesn’t answer our prayers and our questions.  But maybe it would be easier to hear those answers if we weren’t working so hard to avoid the truth in our own lives.