Sermon for the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost, AD 2020

Matthew 21:23-32

We should fear, love, and trust in God above all things.” (Small Catchecism I.2) This is Luther’s explanation of the First Commandment in the Small Catechism. God says “you shall have no other Gods” (Exodus 20:3) and Luther deftly explains what a false god means in a way much more broad than merely talking about Allah, Shiva, or Zeus. A god is whatever we put our fear, love, and trust in above all things. This could be some false god, made of wood or stone, but more often in our time gods are things like health, money, or even other people.
It is odd that we fear other people so much, or at least what they can do to us. There’s this feeling that a god, even a false god, has to be something big and powerful, greater than us which pushes us into submission. The myth is that when we see that false god is only a man all of his power is taken away. Think of the wizard of Oz, no longer so impressive when we look behind the curtain. Yet what we fear, love, and trust besides God does not need to have an imposing appearance or supernatural powers. How many times do we hold our tongue with family regarding our faith in order to ‘keep the peace’? Or when our schools or businesses we work for push an anti-Christian view of sexuality, do we keep our heads down, or even sign on for fear of losing our opportunities? If we trust on our safety, reputation, status, or wealth because it comes from other men, we allow those things to take God’s place. This is exactly what the Pharisees do, and what Jesus does not do.
Our gospel reading today, at the end of September, actually takes place during Holy Week. Jesus has come into Jerusalem triumphant riding on a donkey and overturned the tables of money-changers in the temple. The number of days until his death on the cross can be counted on one hand. Jesus knows his actions enrage the Pharisees, but he does exactly what his Father desires with no regard for what men may think. Jesus acts from the authority given to Him by God. He perfectly follows his Father’s will so he can live perfectly, take on all our sin, and die for us on the cross, taking God’s judgment on himself on our behalf. He knows God will vindicate him, and he will rise again. There is no need to fear any man.
The Pharisees only live in fear of men. They’ve worked hard to get where they are. They know their authority comes from other rabbis they studied under for years, working hard for their own status. If people were anything then like they are today, no doubt the Pharisees had to do some glad-handing and political maneuvers to get their spots on the ruling council, the Sanhedrin. Jesus has been amassing a crowd of followers throughout his ministry with not even a nod to the system they worked through. For Jesus now to come into the holiest place in the holiest city and start flipping tables and teaching and doing miracles enrages them.
Therefore, the Pharisees come to the point of asking Jesus bluntly where he gets the authority to do these things. Of course, they don’t actually care about his answer. Their minds about Jesus are made up. Remember, they only care what other people think. This is their time to catch Jesus in some kind of confession and get in an argument in front of the crowds in the temple. Lacking any rebuttal to him, they are prepared to silence him with a show of force. Sounds like typical discourse today.
Jesus answers, “I also will ask you one question, and if you tell me the answer, then I also will tell you by what authority I do these things. The baptism of John, from where did it come? From heaven or from man?” And now the Pharisees are trapped. Jesus’ answer pins them in their very weakest spot, their fear of other people. If they answer “from heaven,” they have to answer for not believing in John and will be caught in their lie or shown to be the hypocrites they are. If they answer truthfully and say, “from man,” they will lose all public support and might be killed then and there for disrespecting John, the beloved prophet of the people. Caught in their fear of what people think, they can say nothing. And Jesus refuses to answer as well.
Jesus poses this parable of two sons – a father tells one son to go work in the vineyard, he says no, but then changes his mind and goes anyway. The father tells the other son to go work in the vineyard, he says “yes’ but doesn’t go. “Which of the two did the will of his father?” The Pharisees answer, “the first” – the one who said no but then went and worked. That’s probably what we would answer too. It’s better to say the wrong thing, and then do the right thing. So we would expect Jesus to say, “so why aren’t you like the first son? Or why are you acting like the second son? Maybe a ‘go and do likewise’”
Jesus doesn’t say anything like that, though. In Jesus’ time, both sons would be considered wrong. In our culture, we consider talk cheap, and what you say doesn’t matter as long as you do the right thing. To the people of Jesus’ day, disrespecting one’s father by flatly refusing to do what he said would be equally as bad as not doing it, even if you did it later. The Pharisees’ answer is not a given, they could have answered “the second, because he respected his father.” If Jesus was expecting them to answer “the first,” they could have said “the second” and stumped him if the answer mattered.
Jesus says, “Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before 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 when you saw it, you did not afterward change your minds and believe him.” There was a reason Jesus originally spoke about John the Baptist. He knew that the Pharisees rejected the John the Baptist too. The ministries of Jesus and John the Baptist are inextricably linked. John is not just the good prophet the people admire, but the forerunner to Jesus, who says, “Behold the lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). Jesus isn’t comparing one brother to the other and saying “be like this brother, not like this one.” No matter what the Pharisees answered, he essentially says, “look, you can tell that one of these brothers does better than the other in doing the will of his father. But that doesn’t matter with you because you are not as good as either one!” Prostitutes and tax collectors were not acting as God wanted, but when John came calling everyone to repent – change their mind – and be baptized, they did. The Pharisees were not doing the will of God before and when John called them to repent they didn’t do that either.
The Pharisees wouldn’t listen to John the Baptist when he called all to repent because of their same sinful problem, fearing man above God. They couldn’t be seen as admitting they were wrong. They were in, they were the most religious people around and didn’t need to repent. They feared more what could happen if they were seen by others than fearing God’s judgment for their sins. So the tax collectors and prostitutes, who were truly sinners but saw their need for a savior, were getting into the kingdom of God ahead of the Pharisees.
This can also happen today if we depend on our being “in” to save us. We all still must repent of our sins, even those of us in the church. Every day we put things before God – our safety, our reputation, our jobs, money – and we must realize this and ask for forgiveness. God will forgive us, we need not fear what others may think. Confess your sins. Partake of the Lord’s Supper knowing that by it Christ forgives your sins and strengthens you with his own body and blood. He strengthens you to keep God first, to not be silent when you need to speak or give in when you must stand strong. For our Savior took every temptation to put himself first and followed the Father’s will instead. He died for our sins of idolatry and rose again, defeating everyone in this world who would come against His church. We may suffer for a time, but only Christ is eternal, only he can keep his promises. No other can keep you safe like He can.
The final part of the parable is an invitation. Even the Pharisees are not beyond Christ’s forgiveness. No matter how much we cling to our sins and reputation, our family history, or our status, Christ always calls us to repent, to change our minds and follow him. And He is always willing to forgive. He paid His blood to win us, and gives his blood to strengthen us. Trusting in Him, we will even defeat death and rise on the last day to look on his face, the Only True God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, world without end. Amen.

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