September 28, 2014 - Matthew 21.23-32

“Here Come the Haters”

Matthew 21.23-32

September 28, 2014


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.

28“What 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.


Jesus is popular. Perhaps he is popular in great part because he speaks of God as a God of love, a God who reaches out to suffering, hurting humanity and embraces us in love. But as Matthew moves along, the crowd seems to get smaller. Jesus stops attracting adoring multitudes and instead attracts the rebuke, rejection, and criticism of the religious authorities. And that is where our scripture brings us today.

Matthew says that, “all the city was stirred” by Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem. Wherever he goes, by this time in Matthew's Gospel, Jesus does seem to stir up things. The opponents to Jesus consist of "the chief priests and the elders of the people.” That is, his opponents are the religious leaders, those who are “insiders.”

Jesus responds to his opponents with a question for them about John the Baptist, and his opponents answer, “We do not know.” Their response is revealing because, as the religious authorities, they are to be the ones, “in the know.” Then Jesus tells them a series of parables. Jesus is under assault by the keepers of tradition, the religious authorities, the biblically knowledgeable authorities. In response he tells them a couple of parables. And then he says to them some of the most scathing words that he speaks in this entire Gospel. He says to his critics, “I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God before you."

Jesus interprets the parables for them in the most offensive way – tax collectors and prostitutes go into the kingdom before these religious authorities. The insiders refused to repent, that is, they refused to turn around.   

Can you imagine how this rebuke must’ve stung them? The religious authorities are at the center of the nation’s religious life. They are the ones who the people come to for correct biblical interpretation. And yet, Jesus tells them that tax collectors – those hated collaborators with the Roman overlords who are fleecing their own people to pay for the Roman occupation forces – and prostitutes – women of ill repute who sell themselves for the pleasure of others – get to enter God’s kingdom before these knowledgeable, powerful, good people who consider themselves at the front of the line!

Jesus is confronted by those at the center of religious life – religious authorities, insiders, people like us. And he responds by sadly observing that those whom the insiders regard as on the margins, outside the scope of God’s grace, are the first to repent and enter the kingdom.

There is a message here for those of us who consider ourselves to be at the center of the kingdom. Jesus shows us that the kingdom of God has more expansive borders than we assume!

I realize this morning that I am the quintessential insider addressing those who are on the inside. After all, you wouldn’t be here on this September morning if you were not one of the extraordinarily committed members of the church. And yet, once again (doesn’t this remind you a bit of last Sunday's Gospel?), we find Jesus subverting our expectations about God. Those whom we regard as outsiders, alienated, cast to the margins because of their disreputable behavior, Jesus claims go into the kingdom of God before us good ones!

We say that Jesus Christ is Lord. And he is. But I think when we say that we usually mean that he is my Lord, our Lord. How does it feel to be reminded that Jesus Christ is Lord of all, including those we regard as outsiders?

One of the perennial struggles of the people of God has always been what response we should make to the new – new light, new ideas, new challenges, new world. This account of Jesus asks us if we will make the same mistake as the scribes and Pharisees by rejecting the new revelation that God sends, or will we be open to the new summons that God places before us?

I find it somewhat ironic, or providential, that I am using this biblical text this morning immediately after I spent 2 days at the Dakota Baptist Convention.  The religious leaders gathered.  While we had a perfectly wonderful time, with absolutely no conflict that can sometimes characterize such meetings, I wonder if we missed something.  Was Jesus a guest or a messenger?  Hopefully, Jesus was in charge of everything.  Sometimes though, in all our agendas and plans, we miss the chance to make the changes that need to be made.

For instance, the first church I served out a Seminary was a congregation with this beautiful Gothic sanctuary designed by the famous architect Addison Misner.  The building was built for the affluent Caucasian congregation prior to 1930.  Today, that church is all but closed.  Why?  Go there and ask anybody. They will tell you. “That church couldn't find a way to reach out to its changing community. It became more concerned with itself and less concerned with the world around them. And they died.”

There is something about Jesus Christ who reaches out all the way to the margins. He is determined to be Lord not just of me and my friends in the church, but for the whole world. Before he goes to the cross, he engages his critics and infuriates them by telling them that some of the worst people on earth, those whom they regard as morally and spiritually inferior to themselves, will go into the kingdom before them.

If our congregation ever loses this truth, we are in danger of losing our congregation. If we get confused into thinking that Jesus Christ is my Lord, and not their Lord, we will lose the gospel. There does seem to be something about Jesus Christ that makes it impossible to worship him without following him, following him to the margins where he is seeking and saving the lost, finding those we are all too willing to cast aside.

But perhaps I speak too negatively.  Perhaps there are some here among us this morning who could testify, if we had the time, that you were on the margins, you considered yourself outside the reach of God’s love, outside the scope of God’s kingdom. Then, somehow, some way, God managed to reach you. God found you in your lostness and brought you home.  I know we have those in our church family for which this is true.

I think it very important that if you were one of those people, you never forget what it was like not to know the love of God in Jesus Christ, what it was like to consider yourself far from the grace of God, lost and alone. You need to remember that and help our congregation constantly reach out to those on the margins in the name of Christ.

This is the gospel – that Jesus died for EVERYONE’S sins.  Not that he is our Lord, but THE Lord.  Never make the mistake of thinking that Jesus is on your side – we are on his side.  We (the church in North America) have a tendency to get that mixed up.

In his famous sermon from the 1988 SBC in San Antonio, Joel Gregory told the story of the bizarre end of one of the great old castles of Ireland.

It was the ancient home of the Castlereagh family, one of the most princely residences on the Emerald Isle. But the ancient home fell into decay and was no longer inhabited.  The usual happened. When peasants wanted to repair a road, build a chimney or pig-sty, they would scavenge stone from the fine old castle. The stones were already craftily cut, finished and fit. Best of all, they were available without digging and carrying for miles.

One day Lord Londonderry visited his castle. He was the surviving descendant and heir. When he saw the state of his ancestral home, he determined to end immediately the robbery of the building for its stones. The ruin itself reflected the earlier glories of his family and was one of the treasures of Ireland. He sent for his agent and gave orders for the castle to be enclosed with a wall six feet tall and well-coped. This would keep out the trespassers. He went on his way.

"Three or four years later he returned. To his astonishment, the castle was gone, completely disappeared, vanished into the air. In its place there was a huge wall enclosing nothing. He sent for his agent and demanded to know why his orders had not been carried out. The agent insisted they had been. 'But where is the castle?' asked the Lord. The castle, is it? I built the wall with it, my Lord! Is it for me to be going miles for materials with the finest stones in Ireland beside me?'

Lord Londonderry had his wall -- but the castle, without which the wall meant nothing, had disappeared." [1]

If a church, in order to protect itself from all the changes in the world, pulls back from the margins and pulls away from “unseemly” people, then that church is using the stones from its walls to protect the castle, which will soon be gone.  Do not get me wrong – I think our church does a great job of reaching out to the people on the margins.  But we need to be ever vigilant lest we begin to close our open arms.  When Jesus died on the cross, for all sins of all people, his arms were completely open in the most inclusive gesture of all eternity.  Everyone is welcome in Jesus’ church.  If they aren’t, then it is not Jesus’ church – it belongs to someone else.

Is today’s Gospel good news or bad? I suppose much depends on where you happen to be when you hear this news. Here is good news for all of those who find themselves marginalized by the judgments and condemnation, the self-righteousness, and conceit of others. But here is good news for the rest of us as well.

There is something about the God who loves us in Christ who notices those on the margins, who is not content with those who are naturally spiritual. He is the one who seeks and saves the lost sheep, loving them with the same intensity with which he loves those who never wander. He is the Savior who goes to whatever lengths are necessary to reach out to those on the edges, on the margins.

If we are to worship him, we must also imitate him.


[1] Joel Gregory, “The Castle and the Wall”, preached at the 1988 Southern Baptist Convention, San Antonio, TX.

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