Jesus Taught what Jesus Learned:
“Which Did the Will of the Father?”
First Baptist Richmond, October 1, 2023 World Communion Sunday
Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32; Matthew 21:23-32
When 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?”
There’s a word I hear these days that seems to mean something different than it used to. It’s the word agency. When I was a boy my father might say that he needed to talk with someone at the insurance agency. When I was in DC I had a friend who worked for the Environmental Protection Agency. But these days I hear people say, “I felt a sense of agency,” and what they mean is that they felt that they had some power over their situation. Here’s a better definition: “Agency is the sense of control that you feel in your life, your capacity to influence your own thoughts and behavior, and have faith in your ability to handle a wide range of tasks and situations. Your sense of agency helps you to be psychologically stable, yet flexible in the face of conflict or change. Agency is your very own power, your ability, to affect the future.”i
Agency is what God’s people were not feeling when they were in exile in Babylon. They felt that they had no control over their situation. Their parents had been brought there by the Babylonians and now here they were, the next generation, trying to understand why. They eventually came to this conclusion: that it wasn’t them; they weren’t being punished for something they had done; they were being punished for something their parents had done. Their parents
had not kept God’s covenant. They had been unfaithful to him and worshiped other gods. Therefore God had allowed the Babylonians to sack the city of Jerusalem and carry them away into captivity. But now here were their children, languishing in exile, and feeling no agency at all. They began to quote the words of an old proverb: “The parents have eaten sour grapes and the children’s teeth have been set on edge.”
Have you ever done that? Have you ever actually eaten a sour grape? Do you know what it’s like? It’s not only your mouth that puckers up, it’s your whole face. Your eyes squinch shut and, yes, your teeth are set on edge. It’s terrible. But it’s exactly what you get for eating sour grapes. What this proverb means is that you didn’t do it. You didn’t eat the sour grapes. And yet you are having to suffer the consequences of someone else’s bad decision. That’s how the children of Israel felt in exile. It was their parents who had broken the covenant, not them. But now here they were being punished for something they didn’t even do.
It wasn’t fair.
And that’s when the word of the Lord came to Ezekiel. He was one of the first to be taken into exile. He knew the sins of the parents, and he knew their children were right to say, “This is not our fault.” But the Lord said: “What do you mean by repeating this proverb concerning the land of Israel, ‘The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge’? As I live, says the Lord GOD, this proverb shall no more be used by you in Israel. Know that all lives are mine; the life of the parent as well as the life of the child is mine: it is only the person who sins that shall die.’” And then the Lord went on to say that the children weren’t blameless, they had sins of their own, but they also had agency. If they would turn from those sins they would live. If they didn’t they would die.
“Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed against me, and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit!” said the Lord. “Why will you die, O house of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, says the Lord GOD. Turn, then, and live.”
And apparently they did, because when Babylon was conquered by the Persians a few years later Cyrus, the King of Persia, decided to let God’s people go—back to Jerusalem where they could return to their former way of life and rebuild their temple. Their parents may have eaten sour grapes but the children of Israel got to make a fresh start. And for a while things were good. But 400 years later they found themselves once again subject to a foreign empire, this time the Roman one. Some of them may have started using that proverb again, claiming that their parents had eaten sour grapes and now their teeth were set on edge. But that’s when the word of the Lord came to John in the wilderness, and the word was this: Repent. This is not about your parents; this is about you. “Repent,” John said, “for the Kingdom of Heaven has come near.”
Matthew tells us that John was the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” He goes on to explain that “John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey.” He looked like an Old Testament prophet. And perhaps for that reason, “the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance!”
Keep that in mind as we turn to this morning’s Gospel lesson from Matthew 21, where the chief priests and the elders of the people come to Jesus as he is teaching in the temple, and say, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” If you want to know what “things” they are talking about you need only look back to the beginning of this chapter where Jesus enters the city of Jerusalem, humble and riding on a donkey, while a large crowd spreads their cloaks on the road and those who go before and those who follow behind shout, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” The whole city is stirred up. Everyone is asking, “Who is this?” and the crowds reply, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”
When Jesus gets to the temple he begins to drive out all who are selling and buying. He overturns the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sell doves. He says to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’; but you are making it a den of robbers.” When the dust settles the blind and the lame come to him, and he cures them. But when the chief priests and the scribes see the amazing things that he is doing, and when they hear the children crying out in the temple, “Hosanna to the Son of David,” they become angry and say to him, “Do you hear what these are saying?” But he shrugs his shoulders and says, “Out of the mouths of babes!” And then he goes to Bethany to spend the night.
The next day he is confronted by the chief priests and elders who ask, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” And they have a right to ask. These are the people who are responsible for maintaining law and order in the temple precincts. And yet Jesus says, “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. Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?”
Here’s another word you may have heard: chutzpah. It’s a Yiddish word that originally came from the Hebrew. Its meaning is usually defined by a series of synonyms, including nerve, gall, audacity, supreme self-confidence, and conspicuous boldness. It’s the word that comes to mind when I think of how Jesus responded to these religious authorities. “Are you asking me a question?” he says. “Fine. Let me ask you one, and if you answer mine I’ll answer yours.” And then he asks them about the baptism of John. Was it from earth or from heaven? In other words, did John come up with it on his own or did God send him to do it?
Earlier in this Gospel Matthew tells us that all the people of Jerusalem and Judea were going out to be baptized by John. If that’s true then chances are good that most of the people standing there listening to Jesus had been baptized by John. They believed that he had been sent by God. They waited to hear what the chief priests and elders would say, but they only argued among themselves, realizing, “If we say it was of human origin the crowd will turn on us, but if we say it was from heaven he’ll ask us why we didn’t believe him.”
But it was true: they didn’t believe him. They didn’t believe they had any need of repentance or baptism. They were the chief priests and elders of Israel! It would have been embarrassing for them to wade out into the river and tell John all the things they were sorry for. But it wasn’t embarrassing for the tax collectors and prostitutes. Everybody knew they were sinners. Their sin wouldn’t have surprised anyone. What would have surprised them is if they had decided to confess and repent, but apparently that’s what they had done. Tax collectors and
prostitutes had waded out into the water. They had stood before John confessing their sins. The tears had run down their dirty cheeks until John dipped them under the water and they came up clean. The chief priests and elders hadn’t done that. They didn’t believe they needed to. And now they find themselves standing in front of a crowd that is waiting to hear whether they think John’s baptism was from heaven or earth. In the end they mumble, miserably, “We don’t know.” And Jesus says, “Then I won’t tell you by whose authority I do these things,” although it seems clear by this point that John’s authority and Jesus’ authority come from the same place.
And then Jesus asks another question. “What do you think,” he says. “A man had two sons. He went to the first and asked him to go and work in the vineyard. At first he said no but later changed his mind and went. The second said yes but never actually got there. Which of the two did the will of the Father?” And even the chief priests and elders know the answer to that question: it was the first son, the one who actually did what his father asked him to do. God isn’t looking for people whose lips say yes; he’s looking for people whose lives say yes.
And that’s when Jesus mentions the tax collectors and the prostitutes. They didn’t think that they were too good to repent. They didn’t blame their parents for what had happened to them. They knew that they, themselves, could do something about their situation. They took responsibility for their own sin. They felt a sense of agency. They waded out into the Jordan, confessed their sins, and repented. And for this reason, Jesus says, “They 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.”
Jesus taught what Jesus learned. He taught that all people are in need of repentance and that all people are able to do it, even those who think they have no need of it: the children of the exiles in Babylon; the Chief Priests and Elders of Israel; the members and friends of Richmond’s First Baptist Church. In Ezekiel 18 God says, “Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, all of you according to your ways.” In Matthew 21 Jesus implies that each of us will be judged not by what our lips say, but what our lives say. And in 2 Corinthians 5 Paul insists that, “We will all appear before the judgment seat of Christ.” If that’s true then on that day it won’t matter what anyone else did or didn’t do; it will only matter what we did or didn’t do.
So on this day, this World Communion Sunday, I’m wondering what would happen if each of the two billion Christians around the world came to the Lord’s Table as if they were coming to Christ himself. What would happen if they experienced in those elements that represent his body and blood something like his actual, physical presence? What would happen if they found themselves standing before Jesus like those tax collectors and prostitutes found themselves standing before John the Baptist? In that moment could they think of anyone’s sins other than their own? And would they not be moved to confess them, and turn away from them, forever? I’m wondering how the world would change if on this day Christian people around the globe felt a sense of agency, enough to own up to their own sins, to confess them, and repent from them. I’m wondering how this church would change if we did that. I’m wondering how my life would change if I did that.
I’m ready to find out.
In just a moment I’m going to invite you to the Lord’s Table, but before I do
I’m going to give you a moment to sit in his presence, to confess your sins, and repent.
—Jim Somerville © 2023