After driving the moneychangers out of the temple (21:12), Jesus begins teaching there. His authority is questioned by the religious leaders, who are supposed to be in charge of the temple.
23When he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” 24Jesus said to them, “I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. 25Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” And they argued with one another, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ 26But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.” 27So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.
28What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ 29He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. 30The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. 31Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. 32For 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.
Grace to you and peace, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
What an interesting journey we’ve taken the last few weeks. Last week, we heard about God’s generosity and that God’s economics aren’t the economics of the world. The landowner paid all people equally, regardless of how much they worked, and that’s very generous. The few weeks before, we heard about God’s forgiveness and how forgiveness comes not just seven times, but 77 times. The 77 times, or 70×7, is really a metaphorical number. What it really means is God isn’t keeping track of our sins, even though we tend to do that to ourselves and others. And then, just as we are starting to get comfortable, (BAM!) we hear about service. Suddenly, it’s not all sunshine and rainbows. Suddenly, we can’t pretend it’s all about us anymore. We can’t assume that we know the whole story because the story isn’t always about us. And this process of relearning things involves correction. Correction of our lives that sometimes, we’d rather avoid. Correction that shows us that we don’t have it all together yet. Correction that holds up a mirror to us, showing us that, although we are forgiven, we are far from perfect. Sometimes, it’s through encouraging people to be more Christ-like in their interactions with others (like Paul in Philippians 2.1-13). Sometimes, it’s through overt threats (in Ezekial 18:1–4, 25–32), threats of being disowned and of death. This is not what we want to hear, is it? We don’t really like being told that it’s not always about us, that we need to change our actions, or we’ve been doing things and looking at things the wrong way. Plus, there’s that added, squeamish feeling we can get from thinking that God only loves us when we do the right thing. If you feel this way, don’t worry, you’re not the only one. I, and maybe some of you here, have a difficult time with this idea. Being told that we’re loved? Awesome! Being told that we’re forgiven and so we should forgive? Great! Being told that we have some directions to follow? And we have to serve others? Uh…what?
When we look at our lives in light of these texts, it would be very easy to turn our Christian lives into one of legalistic ladder. If you’re new to this term, legalism is a kind of morality that says in order to earn salvation and eternal life, we must act a certain way, speak a certain way, and think a certain way in order to get into heaven. If you don’t, then you’re not climbing the ladder to be closer to Christ. This line of thought says that your heart, your soul, is saved by climbing that ladder, by following the rules, and by doing right in order to be right. So, your soul is governed by your actions and if you sin, you have to do something to make up for it. There’s a penance of some kind that you must do in order to make it up to God. And, for the record, if you get anything from this message, know that this is not right.
The church at the time of Martin Luther was cashing in big time on this moralistic, legalistic theology by selling indulgences, for money, so people could be forgiven of the sins they committed. Apparently, you could buy your way to salvation, provided that you or your family had enough money. This, as well as a number of other things, outraged Luther. In “Freedom of a Christian”, Luther tackles this whole idea of legalism. In it, he claims that, contrary to legalism, the External actions of a person are guided by the Internal heart of a person. “Love and passion for God,” Luther writes, “flows from faith, and from love a free, willing, happy life of serving one’s neighbor gratuitously.” That is to say that our actions are not to earn salvation. Salvation has already been given to us through faith and so, from there, we can serve others in freedom, not through enslavement to a God who demands that we be perfect. Because, here’s the big news, it’s God who does the work in us! Did you hear that in the Philippians reading? I’ll read it again: “for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” We don’t properly change our lives, or even really want to change our lives, without God first changing our hearts. No matter how many things we do, not matter how much money we give to charity or energy we give to worthwhile volunteer work, we cannot earn salvation. We have been given it, freely, before we could even try to earn it. And, because of that, we are free to act differently without doing it to save ourselves.
In that light, our readings soften a bit, don’t they? They lose their hard, unyielding edges and, instead, ask us to let them soak in. Instead of these readings being a blunt object to beat us into submission, we can see these lessons as an invitation to dig deeper into our faith because faith is what leads to being in the same mind as Christ. But being in the same mind of Christ doesn’t always look the same as the moralistic legalism we talked about earlier. Jesus told a story to the Pharisees about 2 sons, one who obeyed his father and one who didn’t. They eventually realize, later in chapter 21, that Jesus is describing them in relation to the rest of the world. However, they are not on the side they thought they would be.
You see, the Pharisees were a group of people who followed all the rules very, VERY thoroughly. When it came to giving an offering, they gave 10% of everything, even the spices in their kitchen. Can you imagine coming to church with a dozen little bags of basil, nutmeg, coriander, and whatever you have in your cupboards? These guys were dedicated. They were the varsity starters of the religious scene. You may think that showing up on a Sunday morning, taking part in a few Bible studies, and volunteering makes you a pretty good person, but you’ve got nothing on the Pharisees. They said things the right way. They looked the right way. They acted the right way. And people noticed them and they liked that. They said “Yes!” to God’s commands, while other people, prostitutes, tax collectors, and just sinners in general said “No.” But, while they said “yes”, Jesus is telling them that they’re missing the point. They didn’t see that God desires changed hearts over changed actions. They couldn’t figure out that God was not calling for behavior modification, but soul modification. They didn’t understand that God doesn’t operate the same as human beings do, that rules should not be followed as a means to earn God’s favor, but as a response to God’s forgiveness. Let me say that again: rules should not be followed as a means, or a way, to earn God’s favor, but as a response to God’s forgiveness.
So why are we still talking about this? Why is this still an issue worth talking about? Because legalism has this little habit of getting caught up in our everyday lives, like mud that gets stuck to the soles of our shoes. And it leaves its stains all over our lives. Sometimes we can’t help it. It’s easy to watch the news and hear of killings, scandals, and poor choices and judge a person based on their actions. It’s so easy to think we should be repaid for a good deed. And it’s natural for us to think that if our own ideas of fairness, justice, or rightness are violated that there must be some kind of revenge. But the thing is, Jesus didn’t die to make bad people good. He died to make dead people alive. God doesn’t give us action steps to give us good morality, or to make others have better morality, but to make us alive!
And now that we’ve established that our actions are not really what’s at stake here, let’s talk about those actions a bit. The fact of the matter is that our world is a pretty broken place. We are a people who hurt, we are a people who yearn for love, justice, and mercy all at the same time. And we, as God’s people, get to be a part of that! In our Philippians reading, we are instructed to be of the same mind as Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ who, just before our gospel reading for today, drove out moneychangers from the Temple. Jesus who brought comfort to the sick, who forgave sinners, and who taught that the Kingdom of God belongs to the poor, the meek, the hungry, and the brokenhearted. God desires that we be God’s agents, God’s hands and feet in this world. But more than that, he desires to first see people changed from the inside out. The Kingdom of God, as Jesus describes it, is not filled with perfect people, people who do the right things, say the right things, think the right things, and have perfect morals. The Kingdom of God is not a kingdom based on our own ideas of fairness or action, but on changed hearts. The Kingdom of God is experienced when God’s people gather, being in the same mind as Jesus, to do incredible things. But Kingdom of God starts not up here (in our heads), but here (in our changed hearts).
This Kingdom of God, like the kingdom of legalism, has a ladder. But, here’s the good news, our salvation doesn’t mean we have to climb up that ladder. Instead, Jesus climbed down this ladder. Jesus climbed down this ladder because there’s nothing we can possibly do to get to the top ourselves. Any advancement we make on this ladder is only done because of the one who came down the ladder, lived the life we couldn’t, died, and rose again. So now, it’s not a mad dash to the top. We have no competition with other people, afraid we will lose some race in which there are no winners. Now, we are free to climb while helping others climb on the way. We climb together, we serve together, we live together, and we are all in this life together. So we are and always are becoming Christ’s Church, together.