Read Matthew 21:23-32
Let’s do a little divine role playing for a minute. That’s right, put yourself in the shoes of Jesus.
This is not during the Sermon on the Mount, or when he walked on water, or even his trek up to Golgotha.
I want you to contemplate the creation of heaven and earth and know that to save that part of creation known as humankind from the choices that will come of free will; you must die an excruciating death. You know that people will not be able to wrestle with sin and overcome it on their own. You know that they will be a servant to death.
You must step out of the heavenly realm, live as a man, and die a gruesome death to save these people.
Bummer. That’s a high price.
The atoning sacrifice for the sin of people who won’t be loving God much at the time will be your blood.
It seems like you will pay and humankind will benefit.
That’s something that you don’t want to do a cost-benefit analysis on. It is sort of depressing from the perspective of Jesus. Die for a bunch of people who don’t really love you.
But as a benefit to entering the world—which will be in a very humble estate–and living as a man—which will come with the normal wear and tear on the human body, you will be able to totally mess with the minds of those self-righteous Pharisees.
The Pharisees won’t be along for many millennia, but when they come into being, they are going to think they are the top of the heap.
They are going to think that the world revolves around them.
They will play God too. They will take what God gave his people as a good gift and make it into a burden.
The Law for all the human drama that led up to it, was still a good gift from God. The law was good. The Pharisees thought they could make it better.
Who better than they to know what the people needed?
They will take what came from God’s heart—you might call them the unforced rhythms of grace—and then turn them into shackles and restraints.
Remember, this is your moment to walk in the shoes of Jesus. Before you go to die for the sins of the world, you can really mess with the minds of the Pharisees. You will have face to face encounters with those who thought it their duty to play God.
Surely that makes you human experience a little more bearable.
And so we see just that. The Pharisees want to know by what authority Jesus is doing all these things and they want to know who gave it to him.
This is a little less direct than when the Pharisees accused Jesus of playing for the Devil’s team. Jesus flipped the script on them then and continued to do so every time they tried to best him.
This time the Pharisees just want the answer to 2 questions.
1. By what authority?
2. Who gave it to you?
They seemed like simple questions. They seemed like logical questions. They even seemed like legitimate questions.
If a man was out collecting taxes, an official might be expected to ask, “By whose authority are you collecting taxes?”
The tax collector would respond, “Caesar’s authority.”
“Who gave it to you?” That would be the normal follow up.
That would likely end the conversation. Perhaps someone would want to see something with Pilate’s seal, but with the 2 questions answered, the tax collector could be about his business.
So the Pharisees ask:
1. By what authority?
2. Who gave it to you?
Jesus could have answered:
1. By God’s authority.
2. Dad gave it to me.
But he didn’t. Jesus won’t even legitimize the questions of the Pharisees. He throws a question back their way. It has a carrot attached to it.
Jesus said, “If you can answer this question, I will answer yours.” This was a bona fide first century two-fer. The Pharisees only had to answer one question and Jesus would answer both of theirs.
Now even these blind Pharisees would remember all the hubbub over John baptizing out at the Jordan River, so Jesus asks:
By what authority did he do this—God’s or man’s?
Was it from heaven or humanity?
They discussed it among themselves and said, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will ask, ‘Then why didn’t you believe him?’ But if we say, ‘Of human origin’—we are afraid of the people, for they all hold that John was a prophet.”
There were probably some of the Pharisees who wanted to phone a friend and others who wanted the question tossed out as biased in some way, but all they could do was say, “We don’t know.”
Then Jesus replied, “Then I am not telling you the answer to your questions.”
Jesus didn’t reply that he didn’t know but that he wasn’t going to tell.
This had to tick off the Pharisees. Remember these are the guys with all the answers and they are the ones who go around asking all the questions.
Stuff like this wasn’t supposed to happen to them; at least it hadn’t happened until this Jesus came on the scene. And this Jesus defied their authority so subtly. They hardly knew they were walking into a trap.
Now Jesus posed some questions of his own to these self-righteous religious leaders. He used an example everyone could understand.
OK, a man had 2 sons. You with me so far?
He went to the first and told him to go work in the vineyard. The son said, “Nope. Not doing it.”
But after a time, he did what his father told him to do.
Dad talked to the other son and told him the same thing. The second son said, “Sure. No problem.”
But the second son blew him off and did his own thing.
So Jesus asks the Pharisees, “Which son did the will of the father?”
The Pharisees don’t even have to huddle on this one, they simply replied: “The first!”
Visualize the Pharisees high-fiving each other. They got one right. Yes! Maybe this Jesus was going to go easy on them for awhile. He got his licks in but maybe he would play by the rules now and things could get back to the status quo.
Maybe this easy question was an olive branch.
And maybe not!
Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him.”
There is a highly technical and theological expression for how the Pharisees felt at that moment.
If you are going around playing God, you had better be really good at it, especially if you run across the Son of God in the flesh.
I want you to visualize a line of people waiting to get into heaven. Saint Peter is giving them all a hug. Loved ones wait just beyond the Pearly Gates. The line is long but is moving incredibly fast.
At the end of the line are the Scribes and Pharisees and others who made a life out of playing God.
Everybody was cutting in front of them. They were the rule makers but nobody paid attention when they shouted, “No cuts.”
This is probably what most people think of when they read this scripture, but we need to give the men and women of God who translated these verses into the English language their proper consideration.
Most of the traditional translations say that the tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the Kingdom of God ahead of you.
It seems as if Jesus is saying that these less than socially acceptable people were entering God’s Kingdom in the present perfect tense—at the present and continuing into the future. It was happening now.
Translating from writings almost 2000 years old is challenging at best and requires the illumination of the Holy Spirit. Some seem to paint the picture of lining up at the Pearly Gates, but many seem to say these outcasts were entering the Kingdom of God in the here and now.
Neither would have been what the Pharisees wanted to hear, but the Pharisees are not an influential group in the 21st Century. You can never seem to find a Pharisee when you need one.
Or can you?
These scriptures should speak to us in at least two ways.
First, we should enjoy reading about these encounters where Jesus bested the religious police once again.
Second, we should examine ourselves to make sure that we don’t become the Pharisees of this post modern time.
Well, I am not going to wear a Phylactery on my forehead if that is what you are worried about. That’s a good thing but not the real thing.
The Pharisees had placed God and his laws and even the precious thing made for man—the Sabbath—into their box. It was as if they were saying: This is the way that God intended for people to live.
And these religious police had a lifetime supply of penalty flags if somebody broke the rules.
In all of this, those who should have known God the best were blind to the message right in front of their faces.
Get ready, the Messiah is right behind me.
Turn away from you godless, self-serving, self-gratifying ways and come to know God through his Son.
Repent and believe the Messiah has come!
John told you he was coming. You ignored him.
The people flocked to John, including many religious leaders. Those leaders should have known that John would precede the Messiah. The Prophet Isaiah told them.
The Pharisees were blind and did everything that they could to continue to operate in their blindness,
Blindness was preferable to the truth because they had grown comfortable in their blindness. The Pharisees had their Standing Operating Procedures and they were not going to give them up for anyone.
And so we come to what this means to us.
Today, we need to look at ourselves for blind spots. Where have we missed the obvious?
What should we have known that we missed time and time again?
It is not something that we wake up every morning thinking, “I’m looking for blind spots.”
In driver education, students are taught to check their blind spots before they change lanes. Mirrors are good but not sufficient. Every vehicle has blind spots.
Drivers are taught to turn their head and check the blind spot before changing lanes, but once that license is in hand, how often does that practice last?
Our mind tells us that we haven’t run anyone off the road yet—and if we had they were in our blind spot so we never saw them—so that blind stop checking is overrated. Soon we not only stop checking on a regular basis, we forget we have blind spots.
Why should we be concerned about blind spots?
We are the people who have been given eyes to see. We have asked God for wisdom and discernment. We have declared to the world that we follow Jesus.
God has heard our prayers and given us wisdom generously. Now we must use it.
We must not be blind. Jesus described the Pharisees as the blind leading the blind. We must use our eyes to see what God has given us.
We must stop framing our lives as we understand the world. We must frame our lives as God has explained the world, and life, and love, and eternity to us.
The world says one thing. God says another. We become Pharisees when we cherry pick from both and call it God’s will.
We need to be on the lookout that what God says is more important to us than our comfort zone.
If we are going to live by our comfort zone then it had better be the way God wants us to live. We need to be comfortable living only the way God has told us to live.
Otherwise, those who we might consider outcasts will be entering God’s Kingdom ahead of us.
Those who have forsaken their own comfort zone and are living as God has called them to live are living in the Kingdom of God.
They are there. They are not asking, “Are we there yet?” They are there in the here and now.
We should be there too, but sometimes we have too much that we value in this kingdom. The world has too much for us. We want our hybrid brand of godliness and worldliness.
We need to be careful that we have not become the Pharisees of the new millennium.
We need to watch out that we don’t like being among those who hold the first place in this world. We need to be very aware of which kingdom we seek first.
We need to be acutely aware of which kingdom we live in.
Jesus asked the Pharisees—those who should have know best the ways of God—a simple question. They used the ways of the world to answer.
If we say that John’s authority came from heaven, we have to answer up for why we didn’t believe him.
If we say it came from man, then we have to contend with the people being disgruntled with us.
Being a politician and disguising yourself as a man or woman of God puts you in some untenable positions. You might get away with playing God for a while, but one day you come up against the Son of God and the gig is up.
Had the Pharisees had eyes to see that John prepared the way for the Messiah; they would have recognized the Messiah as well.
Instead of questioning him and trying to trap him, they would have followed him.
We have eyes to see. In this age and this place, we have ears to hear and eyes to see. We are God’s people, we have received his revelations to us in his word and in answers to our prayers and from the urgings of his own Spirit.
We are without excuse as to what we see all around us and what we are to do about it.
I call it connecting the disconnected. You may have another term, but we are called to live in God’s Kingdom now, in this time and in this place.
We know this kingdom in our relationship with God through Jesus and in our relationship with each other. Our relationship with each other needs to be stronger than ever, for we are those who have chosen to seek God’s Kingdom and his righteousness first—above all else.
And when we reach out to the disconnected, it is not to make their life easier. It is to invite them to live in God’s Kingdom now.
We reach out not to make living in the world easier, but to bring them into God’s Kingdom. We know God’s Kingdom best when we live as a family of faith.
We are the Covenant Community.
We need to be the ones who do the will of the Father, not just say that we will.
Be God’s light.
Be God’s love.
Speak the truth in love.
Love one another as brothers and sisters in Christ.
Invite others into this family.
Stop subsidizing living apart from God’s family.
Consider the lives of the first followers of the resurrected Jesus.
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.
Think about what was going on here. People saw what the believers had and they wanted to live that way too.
Not only did these followers receive favor from God; they received favor from others who did not yet know God. Those on the outside looking in said, “Wow. I want that!”
We must continue to seek God’s Kingdom and his righteousness first. How? We do this in our worship, education, service, sacrifice, offerings, encouragement, counseling, and even in discipline.
In a world of self gratification that can be had on demand, we need a family that keeps us seeking and living in God’s Kingdom.
I don’t know how a disciple can be a disciple without discipline. And maintaining discipline in this self-serving, self-gratifying world takes more than we can muster with self-discipline. It takes a family of faith. It takes the encouraging discipline of a family.
So when we reach out to help someone who does not want to come into the family of faith, anything we give them is of transient value absent inclusion in the family.
We live in God’s Kingdom. The only time we are not in the Kingdom is when we are on a mission from God. That mission is a rescue mission.
God does not send us into the world to help people live apart from him. He sends us to bring them into the Kingdom once again.
People need to be entering the Kingdom of God once again.
If they are not coming, if we are not coming into this kingdom, it is because we have roots in the world. It is because our comfort zone is in the world.
We don’t need to sell all of our stuff and give the proceeds to the poor and take a vow of poverty. We do need to cast off any of our stuff or habits or thinking that gets in the way of God’s Kingdom and his righteousness being first in our lives.
This body where we worship and serve gets involved in so many aspects of the local community. That is exactly as it should be. We do something special on Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter and so many other times.
But we need to be true to who we are. It is not about how spooky we can make the church look. It is not about how big the turkey is. It is not about getting a lot of stuff that parents can say was from Santa. It is not about some bunny and candy eggs.
Do I want to deport Santa and the Easter Bunny as illegal aliens?
Do I want change the traditional Thanksgiving meal to rice and beans?
Do I want all the kids to dress up as Cinderella at the end of October?
That is not it.
We must be true to who we are.
We do not get involved in the festivities and festivals of the world. We invade them.
Because we live in God’s Kingdom and we want to rescue those who live in slavery in the kingdom of the world.
We also invade the kingdom of the world during the other 361 days of the year.
We live in God’s Kingdom. Our mission is not to help people remain in the kingdom of the world.
We must help them cut loose from that world as we did when we moved into God’s Kingdom.
Let’s bring them into the Kingdom of God.
The most tangible way we can do that is to bring them into the family of Faith.
I have used this illustration many times. You are on a ship at sea and see someone drowning. You could throw them a flotation device and move on. If you saw them later on, you could throw them another floater. Pretty soon they will be able to make a raft and stay afloat in the middle of the ocean.
Wouldn’t it make more sense to throw them a lifesaver ring with a lifeline on it? Wouldn’t it make more sense to pull them into the boat where they would not only be safe but enjoy the company of others?
That is what we must do. We must stop throwing flotation devices out that have no lifeline attached.
The downside is that some people won’t take hold if there is a lifeline attached. That is not what they want. They want to stay afloat where they are.
Then somebody else can throw them a flotation device. We must be true to who we are. We are the church.
We do lifesavers with lifelines.
Lifesavers with lifelines!
We live in God’s Kingdom.
Our mission is not to make someone comfortable worshiping the god of this world.
We must be true to who we are.
And just who are we?
We are God’s people.
He called us out of the world.
He set us apart from the world.
And he is sending us back into the world not to apply for citizenship but to rescue those who need to be living in God’s Kingdom with us.
When we connect the disconnected, it is about bringing people into God’s Kingdom, making disciples out of them, and getting them ready to go on their own rescue missions.
This is very much an in or out proposition.
Our missions must move people into the Kingdom of God and not help them find a way to live comfortably in the kingdom of the world.
The Kingdom of God is here. When we finally set aside our double-mindedness and seek only God’s Kingdom and his righteousness, then we are living in the Kingdom.
We are about the business of our Lord and our Master and that business is bringing people into the Kingdom.
We must have eyes to see that every time we help someone and do not bring them into the Kingdom of God, we have helped them take up roots in the kingdom of the world.
Jesus told us that we are either for him or against him. There is no middle ground.
It is for or against!
We serve one Master. He has opened the gates to the Kingdom of God. It is time to lead people in.
It is time to be true to who we are. We are the church. We bring people into God’s Kingdom not help them be comfortable in the kingdom of the world.
We must be faithful to our Lord.