Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Voltaire quipped that we ought to judge a person by his questions rather than his answers.

September 25, 2011

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Commentary on Matthew 21:23-32

Voltaire quipped that we ought to judge a person by his questions rather than his answers.

There is certainly wisdom in this, and when brought to the narrative arch of the Gospel of Matthew there is revelation as well. 

All sorts of folks ask Jesus questions in Matthew’s Gospel, and both their questions and Jesus’ answers are striking. There are many different kinds of questions asked of Jesus. Both the Baptizer and Pilate ask questions about Jesus’ identity; John asks if he is in fact the one they have been waiting for (11:2-3), and Pilate asks if he is the king of the Jews (27:11). The Pharisees, Scribes, Sadducees, chief priests and elders asked questions to try to trap Jesus; why the disciples break “the traditions of the elders” (15:1-2), for signs or proofs (12:38; 16:1), about divorce (19:2), taxes (22:15-17), resurrection (22:23-28), and the role of the commandments (22:24-26), by whose authority do you do the things you do (21:23).

The disciples asked him questions; who is the greatest among us (18:1), what good deed do we have to do to receive eternal life (19:16), for a sign concerning Jesus’ coming at the end of the age (24:3). And for every other question someone else following Jesus asked, Peter would ask another; “How often must I forgive?” (18:21), “We left everything for you, what do we get?”(19:27).

These questions are all revealing. With the exception of John and perhaps (ironically) Pilate, the questions are all self-serving. Those who ask Jesus questions want to trap him, or impress him, or get something from him. And to every pointed question Jesus offers an equally pointed answer, which reveals truth about the Kingdom, the King, and the Kingdom’s subjects.

Here in Matthew 21 Jesus responds to the question put to him with a question of his own, and a parable to illustrate it. 

The chief priests and elders ask Jesus where his authority comes from. His return-question is about John the Baptizer. He asks them if John’s baptism came from heaven, or from the human mind? His question reverses the trap which the chief priests and elders are trying to set for Jesus. His accusers take the fifth, refusing to answer Jesus lest it incriminate them in the eyes of the crowds. So Jesus, in turn, doesn’t answer their question about his authority either, but he does tell them a parable.

The parable sets up a comparison of two sons. One who says he will do what his father asks, but doesn’t, with one who says he won’t, but does. For every individual who hears this parable the comparison helps them (forces them) to ask the question, Which am I? Am I the son who presents himself as obedient while running around raising havoc, or am I the daughter who to all appearances is the “black sheep” but in the end does what is needed? Which am I? Which are you?

There is an accusation in the parable — some who claim to obey the Father and observe the requirements of the Law fail, in actuality, to do so. Is this who we are, as believers — as pastors, teachers, church council members and Sunday school teachers? Which am I? 

There is also (again) a reversal of expectations in the parable — those who are seen as the antithesis of the “good” believer, some who have failed to live in the right way, will be given entry to the kingdom of heaven first. Which are you?

Jesus returns, after telling this comparative parable, to John. He returns accusation for accusation, “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.” The one whose voice cried out in the wilderness, who was sent to prepare the way of the Lord, preaching repentance; went un-recognized and un-believed. They did not change their mind, Jesus tells us, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. Which am I? Which will you be?

We may not be the chief priests and elders of Jesus’ day, asking the Messiah accusing questions. Still, the parable may speak volumes to us. When heard by the individual, as one tries to make sense of Jesus’ parable for oneself and apply it to one’s own life, it has the ring of Romans 7:19; it may be a question of the good that we would do but don’t (or can’t) and the evil we don’t want to do, but still….

Jesus’ parable is, in the end, a challenge. It asks us how we will respond to the truth of the gospel — will we change our mind and believe, or not? Will we be the daughter who pretends obedience or the son who turns around and changes his mind?

In 2000 the band Sister Hazel has a hit with a song called “Change Your Mind.”1 I don’t know that the song has any overtly religious intent, but it speaks in a real way to the challenge of Jesus’ parable.

Did you ever think
There might be another way
To just feel better,
Just feel better about today

If you never want to have
To turn and go away
You might feel better,
Might feel better if you stay

I bet you haven’t heard
A word I’ve said
If you’ve had enough
Of all your tryin’
Just give up
The state of mind you’re in:

If you want to be somebody else,
If you’re tired of fighting battles with yourself
If you want to be somebody else
Change your mind…

Jesus’ question, and the answer he points us to in the parable of the two sons, pushes us to the point of reflection and decision. Which will we be? Which can we be? Will we change our mind, and believe?

1Fortress.  Universal, 2000. CD.