Some Holy Nose Tweaks – September 27

A sermon based on Matthew 21:23-32
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on September 27, 2020
by Rev. Scott Elliott

When we usually consider the Lectionary selection of the Gospel verses Laura just read, most of us probably tend to focus on who Jesus is talking to, how he outsmarts them, and gives them what I’d call some verbal holy nose tweaks. He cleverly challenges their hypocritical questions and conduct.

Because that Lectionary cutting does not cover the events that immediately precede the verses we don’t usually hone in on why Rome’s appointed Temple elite (the chief priest and elders) came to Jesus and started peppering him with questions that day. They ask Jesus “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” And we tend to think they sort of come out of the blue based on all the things Jesus had been doing in general – his ministry throughout Palestine. But if we place the Lectionary cutting back in the context of Matthew’s Gospel it becomes pretty clear that Rome’s elite have a specific concern about the public protests Jesus engaged in the day before as crowds were coming in for Passover and tension was high in Jerusalem. Historically we know the tension was high because the pilgrims in Jerusalem during Passover swelled in numbers and Roman Legions swelled in ranks to hold uprisings at bay.

While Gospel accounts vary on the timing of the Palm Sunday parade and Jesus’ disruption in the Temple, Matthew reports they both occurred in one day, the day before our Lectionary story unfolds. Twenty-four hours earlier Matthew reports that Jesus (who was Jewish and a rabbi), arrived in Jerusalem for Passover and entered town leading a peaceful palm parade protest with chants – we’ve discussed before how this protest countered Pilate’s show of force parading in on the other side of town. Matthew also reports that day, after the palm parade, Jesus went on to protest corruption at the Temple which included driving folks out and overturning tables. After these protests Jesus then went over and cured some who were blind and lame. All of this angered Rome’s elite– and that first day they had a terse exchange with Jesus which ended with Jesus spouting more words of protest before he headed out of town for the night.

Our reading picks up the next day when Jesus walked back into the Temple. With that background, the reason Rome’s elite confronted Jesus becomes pretty clear. It was not a challenge per se to Jesus’ ministry, but to his protests the day before. Just like today a peaceful protest in the street marching and chanting and waving things in the air is one thing, but it is quite another to enter onto the grounds of governing institutions like the Temple to drive people out and turn tables over while spouting words of protest.

No one is said to have been hurt or even property destroyed by Jesus, or for that matter in over 90% of the protests this summer, so they are non-violent in that respect, but if someone left a street protest and entered this church and drove people out and overturned tables, I am pretty sure our church leadership would feel the need to confront them if they returned the next day. And it would not be unfair to ask why they thought they could do it. Such questions would seem a gentle approach given the circumstances. Law enforcement is not called, yet. The perpetrator is provided an opportunity to explain.

We don’t tend to hear this as what is going on at the start of the lesson with Jesus, but knowing the background we can sense that it is. And we side with the protestor and his cause, because we know Rome’s elite turn out to not be gentle at all, that they aid and abet and participate in cruelly hurting and killing Jesus. And we know now too that Jesus was doing good and is righteous and Holy and is the Son of God.
But that’s all hindsight. In the storyline the elite’s exchange seems to begin in a way that’s reasonable and fair, but that is the end of any semblance of reason and fairness by the elite. In fact, the “seems” part is an illusion since Rome and its appointed elite never had a reasonable or fair system, otherwise Jesus would not have been protesting it on the streets and in the Temple and all along the way in his teachings. Nor would John have protested it out in the wilderness. Rome’s elite oppressed the great majority of its population, denying them basic necessities and justice in order to amass and hold onto wealth and power. Since the elite in the Temple were a part of the oppression a part of Jesus’ protest in the Temple was declaring they had made it a “den of robbers.”

In our scripture reading Jesus arrived at the Temple ready to continue his challenges from the day before. He verbally tweaks the elite’s noses in a rather witty debate. He teases that he’ll answer where his authority comes from if they answer where John got his . . . from man or from God? Neither answer is advantageous to Rome’s elite. If they say John got his authority from God, then they should have followed John– which would upset Rome. If they say John’s authority came from men, that would upset the crowd who believed it was from God. They did not answer Jesus.

Giving no answer to Jesus, the elite got no answer from Jesus. But he reaches out and applies another nose tweak asking who in the parable of the two sons did the will of the father? The one who said he would not, but did? Or the one who said he would, but did not? When Rome’s elite choose the son who did the will of the father, Jesus applies the tweak saying

“Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For 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.”

In modern parlance Jesus is saying, “Guess what dudes? the tax collectors and prostitutes who acted like they were not going to do God’s will, did it. You, who said you were going to do God’s will, did not do it.” The crux of Jesus’ beef with the Temple under Rome’s control, indeed all of Rome’s elite, is that they do not do God’s will; they do not believe those who speak in the way of righteousness. The Temple elite say they will do God’s will, but don’t.

That lesson can be heard to sum up the clash that unfolds Holy Week– Rome vs. God. Earthly power vs. heavenly power. The incarnation of God vs. the incarnation of evil. Righteous vs. sin. Right vs. wrong. Good vs. Evil. Any way we name it, the lesson in Jesus’ parable is that good must be done. It is God’s will that we do good. It brings about heaven on earth.

And not doing good, well that, puts us at the end of the line to heaven – whether we do evil or just don’t do good. Only the doing of good brings about heaven. Jesus protested the Temple because the elite who ran it were not doing good. Doing good – not just not doing wrong– is a big part of Judaism, and the reward for doing what is good and right, is doing what is good and right, bringing heaven’s way to earth. Judaism, Jesus’ faith, has long understood life as presenting two choices, two inclinations good and bad. Doing good is Godly. Not doing it is unGodly.1

See, God IS good, all the time! And good is not only God’s will, it is God in action . . . it is heaven on earth. It is required of us. While there seems to often be confusion about how we do that good, Judaism long ago boiled it down to avoid confusion. The words of Micah 6 up on the walls of this sanctuary sum up all the good that God requires to just three things. All three lead to good. All of them are good. Rome’s elite were not doing any of them. Jesus was doing all of them. The question we should leave here every week wondering, in one form or another, is: are we doing these good things that God wills? Or are we just saying we are going to do them?

Every day may choose to do God’s will by seeking Justice, loving Kindness, and walking humbly with God. May choose to do such good as often as we can. So be it. AMEN

1.These ideas on Mitzvot were taught to me by Rabbi Howard Kaplansky in a 2005 Eden Theological Seminary course, “The Impact of Judaism on Christianity.