Read Matthew 21:23-32
I remember the day my boss fired me. I asked why. He said, “You always question authority.” I said, “How do I question authority?”
Have you ever questioned authority? Has anyone ever questioned your authority?
In our scripture reading for today, the chief priests and elders question Jesus’ authority. They demand to know, “Who authorized you to do these things?” (Matt. 21:23) It would be sort of like our presbytery leaders coming into the church and asking me, “Who told you you could teach this?” To be authorized to preach here, I had to show transcripts of my college and seminary education, pass several ordination exams, and be examined by several committees. I had to pass a psychiatric exam and a background check. I imagine if all of that had been available in Jesus’ time, those chief priests and elders would have demanded to have all that on Jesus, too.
It’s not surprising that these leaders would challenge Jesus. This is happening right after Jesus has ridden into the city on a donkey with crowds cheering and waving palm branches, yelling, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” (Matt. 21:1-11). Jesus then went to the temple and chased out the moneychangers, tossing out the people buying and selling animals for sacrifices. He accused them all of turning the house of prayer into a den of thieves (Matt. 22:12-3). Jesus challenged the authorities, and now they are challenging him back.
But they’re doing this carefully because they’re afraid of the crowds. So they don’t know how to answer the question that Jesus asks them. Who authorized John the Baptist? Was his authority from heaven or was it human? These leaders didn’t believe John’s teaching, so they couldn’t say it was from heaven, but the crowds might turn on them if they said John’s authority was only human. Such a quandary.
So they said, “We don’t know.” Maybe that was their honest answer. But maybe they didn’t know because fear was clouding their judgment.
These passages we read today are part of an ongoing conversation between Jesus and these leaders that we’re going to be looking at over the next few weeks. Today’s section points out the importance of authentic faith and integrity. Do we really believe what we say we believe? Do we really follow Jesus? Or do we say Jesus is Lord, but then follow other authorities? Are we afraid of the crowds and what other people think?
Are we willing to change our minds when confronted with new ideas? That can be hard to do. Take, for example, Ignaz Semmelweis. Do you know who he was? His name is kind of a fun. Not as fun to say as Zerubbabel or Fernando, but still fun. (Try it!) Ignaz Semmelweis would probably be dismayed that it’s taken a pandemic for us to learn how important it is to wash our hands. He is the German doctor who lived in the 1800’s who first discovered that infection can be spread by germs on our hands. He was concerned about women coming to the hospital to have babies and dying of infection, and so he instituted hand-washing practices in his clinic that reduced the incidence of death from infection from 12% to almost zero.
But Semmelweis had a hard time getting other doctors to believe him, because his colleagues refused to accept the possibility that they might be the cause of their patients’ deaths. Handwashing went against the current practice and (believe it or not) offended these doctors so much that they mocked Semmelweis, and Semmelweis was shunned. He might have given up, but his students and some of his colleagues convinced him to persist and write about his findings. Thankfully, Semmelweis did, and gradually his ideas were accepted and implemented. But Semmelweis never fully recovered from the mental anguish of pushing for change, and he died in a mental asylum at the age of 47.
Here in the United States, a German-born Franciscan nurse, Saint Marianne Cope, read what Semmelweis wrote and began implementing handwashing and other sanitation practices in the hospitals she supervised in upstate New York. Louis Pasteur had not proven the existence of germs yet, so it wasn’t clear to them why these sanitizing practices worked, but the reduced death rates at the hospitals that used them helped Saint Cope to convince doctors to follow them.
Fighting germs despite opposition wasn’t the only reason nurse Cope was made a saint. She had other ideas that were radical for her time. Following the model of St. Francis of Assisi, the sisters of her order were committed to providing education and health care to those who needed it most. They built a hospital in the middle of an economically disadvantaged neighborhood in Syracuse where people weren’t getting care. The hospital’s charter of incorporation said they were “to care for every person equally, no matter race, religion, economic means or illness.” This included people with mental illness, those living with drug or alcohol addiction, unwed mothers and other groups who were refused care in most hospitals at the time. It was the city’s first public hospital. Not everyone thought those people deserved to be cared for, but Marianne and her sisters refused to give up on them.
Sometimes we’re afraid of new ideas. Sometimes we need help to see things differently. That’s what Jesus was offering these priests and elders when he told them the parable of the two sons.
Jesus says a man asks his two sons to go work in the vineyard. One says he won’t go but then he does. The other says he’ll go but then doesn’t. Then Jesus asks, “Which one obeyed his father?”
What do you think? The one who refused but then changed his mind and did go? Or the one who said he’d go but didn’t? The priests and elders said it was the one who went. Were they right?
They are, but Jesus doesn’t tell them that directly. Instead he says (in vs. 31-32),
“I tell you the truth, corrupt tax collectors and prostitutes will get into the Kingdom of God before you do. For John the Baptist came and showed you the right way to live, but you didn’t believe him, while tax collectors and prostitutes did. And even when you saw this happening, you refused to believe him and repent of your sins.” (Matt. 21:31-32)
This conversation between the chief priests and elders and Jesus reminds me of some of the scenes in the movies about Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the Supreme Court Justice who just died. In her first cases as a civil rights lawyer, she’s trying to help the judges see that a particular law discriminates on the basis of gender. This goes against the 14th amendment to the Constitution which says that no one shall be denied equal protection under the law.
When she argued her first case, she had almost no courtroom experience because no law firm would hire a woman at that time. She said, “I was terribly, terribly nervous. But then, I looked up at the Justices, and I thought, ‘I have a captive audience.’ I knew that I was speaking to men who didn’t think there was any such thing as gender-based discrimination, and my job was to tell them: it really exists.”
She was successful at changing their minds, and thank goodness they were willing to change, even though the one speaking to them was a women who many would have said didn’t have the authority to argue cases in any court of law, let alone the Supreme Court.
Being willing to change is hard, because sometimes it means having to say, “I was wrong,” and “I’m sorry.” This is what John the Baptist was asking people to do when they came to him to be baptized. His message was, “Turn away from your sins and turn to God, for the Kingdom of Heaven is near” (Matt. 3:2). John challenged the Pharisees and Sadducees who came to see what he was doing to “Prove by the way you live that you have repented of your sins and turned to God. Don’t just say it to each other” (Matt. 3:8-9).
Prove by the way you live. Live differently. I’ve been thinking this week about ways that my life and thinking has changed over time. What changed my mind? What about you? What has changed your mind?
One factor is time. Like the first brother in Jesus’ parable, some of my no’s have become yes’s because I had time to ponder and process and wrap my mind around a new idea. The length of time it takes is often directly correlated to the degree of change required. Sometimes it takes at least ten people giving me their two cents. That’s $0.20. Why? Because I need a new paradigm. (paradigms?)
Another factor is experience. As we get to know new people and hear their stories, or read books or watch movies in which people tell their stories, we get a different perspective. Or something happens to us that gives us a different perspective. It’s likely that our perspectives have changed on a variety of things over the past six months because we’re experiencing something we’ve never experienced before. What has changed our minds in the last six months?
Time and experience change us, but the biggest factor is prayer. When we struggle with ideas and situations, we ask God for help. Sometimes we don’t even fully understand what we’re asking for, but looking back we can see that God has changed us. I often ask God to help me to be the person he made me to be, or to show me what he needs me to see. Looking back I can see that I have grown and changed, which is what I was asking for, even though I didn’t know specifically how that would happen.
To turn to God is to take the risk that God will change us and send us down a road we haven’t traveled before. There may be some wrestling involved, as we struggle to let go of fears, preconceived ideas and expectations, insecurities, and control. And we may find we have weaknesses we didn’t want to face. But God’s strength shines through our weaknesses as we admit we have them and ask God for help.
In Matthew 20, we read that on his way into Jerusalem, Jesus was confronted by two blind men calling out, “Son of David, have mercy on us!” The crowd shushed them but they refused to be silenced. “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on us!”
When Jesus heard them, he stopped and asked, “What do you want me to do for you?”
They answered, “We want to see.”
Jesus had compassion on them, so he touched their eyes and instantly they could see, and they followed Jesus. (Matt. 20:29-33)
They could see what the chief priests and elders were afraid to see, that Jesus is God, and that Jesus leads us in the way of compassion and mercy, instead of legalism and fear.
When we ask God for help, what God does is change our hearts. And that’s where the question of authority matters the most. Who rules our hearts? Are we willing to let God help us see and believe? Are we willing to let God fully rule our hearts?
Sometimes I think we don’t trust God to want the things we want, and so we let wishing rule our hearts. For example, with this pandemic. I wish there wasn’t one. I also wish I didn’t get migraines. But if I live as if nothing I eat or do matters, as if I there is no such thing as a migraine, it doesn’t make the migraines disappear. It actually makes me have more migraines. So I do the things I know I need to do to prevent them. Similarly with the pandemic, if we live as if there isn’t one, it doesn’t make it disappear, it just means that more people get it.
There are a lot of things in this world we can wish were different. I wish there was no racism, no poverty, no depression and suicide . . . we could keep adding to the list, I’m sure. If we live as if they don’t exist, it doesn’t make them go away, it makes them worse.
We might not be wishing Jesus would go away, but how much of our daily lives do we live as if Jesus doesn’t exist or doesn’t have the power and authority to change our world and to change our hearts?
After Jesus told the parable of the two sons, he said to those chief priests and elders, “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” (Matt. 21:32)
What is Jesus showing us now? What is the way of righteousness we are being called to follow?
May he not say to us, “Even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe.”
“Even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe.”