Summary: Jesus says that it isn’t the religious folk who are first in the kingdom of heaven. It is those who are most open to turning their lives around who are first in line, those who take action when Jesus says, “follow me”.
It’s painful to have someone you trust tell you that they are going to do something for you---and they don’t. Many of us can tell stories about people who have let us down by making promises and then not following up on them. For example, there is a story of a young widow whose husband died suddenly and left her to raise their two children. She told her minister that during the wake for her husband, a lot of family and close friends came up to her and told her that they would be there for her. During the following years, some people were there for her when she needed them, including some people who never made that promise, but there were others who were so eager during the wake to offer help and never called or visited.
Life has taught us to be wary of certain people, and it is a lesson I have learned the hard way. These people include not just blatant liars but those who are all talk with no follow-through. There is an old saying that “a promise made is a debt unpaid”. We expect family and friends to keep their word and come through for us when we have a pressing need, but sometimes they don’t. When a friend disappoints us we are not terribly upset. When someone close to us makes a promise and then fails to fulfill it, we are blindsided because often we do not see it coming.
At the same time, we must acknowledge that that there have been times when we have made promises and then not kept them. There might also have been times when, in order to avoid discomfort or confrontation, we’ve given a half-hearted “yes” to someone or something which we never planned to follow up on. Whether we have been on the receiving end of broken promises, or have given a half-hearted investment of ourselves to commitments we have made, we are in need of the healing and the challenge the Word of God offers us today.
The Gospel reading from Matthew 21:23-32 is another discussion between the Pharisees and Jesus. It occurs just after Jesus has chased the moneychangers and animal sellers from the temple. Both types of businesses needed the approval of religious authorities to operate in the temple. They provided a necessary service. Only temple currency could be used in the temple, so foreign currency had to be converted to temple currency, albeit at outrageous rates of exchange. Animals that were offered for sacrifice had to be free of blemishes as determined by the temple authorities. Both of these services evolved into profitable enterprises, so it is not surprising that the chief priests and elders were upset. They wanted to know who gave Jesus the authority to do what he did. They wanted God to play by their rules, and they insisted that God’s prophets must make the distinctions they make. Like John, Jesus thinks that God’s freedom includes the freedom to forgive people who are not children by blood of the Covenant, who haven’t offered sacrifice, even the poor person’s sacrifice of a dove, in the Temple, who haven’t done anything to deserve forgiveness.
Jesus’ actions in the Temple not only broke the powerful connection between money and religion, they also freely heal and forgive those who are perceived as cursed, those who are perceived as under punishment, those who need some serious blood atonement. Jesus sought to redirect the tradition of Israel away from ritual legalism and a dominant priesthood toward a more meaningful trust by the individual in the gracious and forgiving love of God. Jesus’ actions are a bullet in the heart of sacrificial religion, and they challenge the ultimate structuring of relationships proffered by the so-called authorities. Like Jesus, we too may be called by God to engage in acts of conscience, acts that defy authorities and challenge their right to exist as authorities. We may end up paying a price like Jesus did, but we will also have the chance to turn the questions of our accusers back upon themselves in the hopes that they might see and repent.
We know the answer to the Pharisees’ question, but the chief priests and Pharisees did not. God gave Jesus the authority. The Pharisees and chief priests were rabbis, and they could not believe that Jesus’ authority was greater than theirs. They forgot that God is the ultimate authority. He gave the Jews the Ten Commandments. The Pharisees expanded them with all of their rules and regulations because they were obsessed with not breaking any of the Ten Commandments. The Pharisees considered themselves to be so righteous that they thought they were doing God’s work, but Jesus pointed out in the parable of the sons in Matthew 21:28-32 they were sadly mistaken.