What Actions Speak Louder Than Words?
Sep 27, 2020
17th Sunday after Pentecost
Text: Matthew 21:23-32
Pastor Jean of Hansen
Context Alert! Context Alert!
Today’s Gospel reading will make much more sense if we put it into context. It takes place on what we would identify as the Monday of Holy Week, the last week of Jesus’ life on earth. On the day before, Sunday, Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, and a large crowd spread their cloaks on the road and cut branches from the trees which they laid before him and waved, ushering Jesus into the Holy City while shouting, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
This caused, according to Matthew, the whole city to be in turmoil as people asked, “Who is this?” Jesus immediately entered the Temple, the holiest of places, and drove out those who were selling and buying there, overturning tables and shouting, “My house shall be called a house of prayer, but you have made it a den of robbers!”, which created more turmoil. He then cured the blind and lame who came to him in the Temple, stirring the already boiling pot even more. The chief priests and scribes were angry and challenged him then and there. But, Jesus did not engage them but left them to stew in their juices. He went to stay with his friends Mary, Martha, and Lazarus in Bethany for the night.
When he returned the next day, the chief priests and elders were ready for him. Given what happened the day before, they intend to challenge him in an indirect, let’s-get-the-people-on-our-side way. So, they ask this question, no doubt smirking as they speak, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you that authority?” They are sure that Jesus will point to a human teacher or leader as the source of his authority and are confident that there is no claim to authority that they cannot trump. They are, after all, temple leaders – remember, we are talking about THE Temple. That is the context: righteous indignation, final days and words for Jesus and anger, jealousy, scheming for the religious leaders, all at play as we hear Jesus’ response.
Did you ever hear the old Jewish witticism in which someone asks his rabbi, “Why do rabbis always answer a question with another question?” to which the rabbi replied, “Why shouldn’t a rabbi answer a question with another question?” (1) So, Jesus answers the question with a question: “Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?”
Jesus knows full well that the answer to both questions – theirs and his – are the same. John’s authority came from God, and so does Jesus’ authority.
We can imagine that the chief priests and elders want to say that John the Baptist was a wild-haired, locust-eating lunatic, but they knew that many in the crowd that had gathered thought John was a prophet of God, and there were others who at least thought the manner of his arrest and execution was appalling. They were in a bind; to acknowledge John’s authority as being from God would make them hypocrites, but to reject it would invite the scorn of the people. So, with a muttered, “We do not know,” they lose this round, which makes them even more determined to win their next attempt to silence him. Can you say crucifixion?
Jesus knows what is coming as the week unfolds and has a point to make, so he tells a parable about two sons asked by their father to go and work in the vineyard. The first says “no” but changes his mind and goes. The second says “yes” but did not go. The chief priests and elders are quick to respond that the first son did the will of his father, not realizing that they have just fallen deeper into Jesus’ trap, which Jesus then explains.
John the Baptist’s authority was from God, and he shared God’s message when he preached a baptism of repentance to prepare for the Messiah’s arrival. The people who looked like sinners and lowlifes, who had by outward appearances, said “no” to God, like the first son in the parable, changed their minds. They admitted their sins and were baptized by John. However, the religious elite in Israel, the very people who had questioned Jesus’ authority, looked like they had said “yes” to God, they said the right things and made the right promises, but even after hearing and seeing what John did and said (and Jesus too, no doubt), their “yes” was undercut by having said “no”, as was true of the second son. Therefore, Jesus says, their unwillingness to change their minds and to believe, will have consequences.
It’s interesting, isn’t it, writes commentator Scott Hoezee, that both John, and then Jesus, reached out those who were considered hopeless and unacceptable, and that, “ignoring them was the equivalent of telling God you would work in his vineyard but then never doing it”. Let me quote him, “…Vineyard work is grace work; it is compassionate and merciful work… When you say “yes” to God the Father, Jesus claims, you are simultaneously saying “yes” to the least, the last, lost and lonely people that God holds dear. So, if you say “yes” to God but then only focus on your own piety or on other people who are already as religious as you are, then you are essentially being like the son who said all the right things when Daddy asked, but who turned right around and did nothing that the father really wanted.” (2)
Those are challenging words; they may cause us to flinch almost as much as the religious leaders did in the Temple that day when Jesus said the tax collectors and prostitutes would be going into the kingdom of God ahead of them. This parable is often summarized with the phrase, “Actions speak louder than words”, which is true, but what actions? Our status as Jesus’ followers is affirmed when we step out into the vineyard – the world – among those who feel hopeless, unacceptable, and rejected and meet their needs.
There are two new ways to do so in process here at Faith Lutheran Church. One is an opportunity to learn and discuss together why a multiethnic church, and relationships, are so important as we strive to make a positive difference in the world. We are forming a small group for adults and older youth in which we’ll be using this book, “Multiethnic Conversations.” The start date is two weeks from today, either in-person or on ZOOM. Details are in your Weekly Beacon, and also on Faith’s Facebook page.
And, we are in the process of developing a laundry ministry which will support the dignity and well-being of people who do not have regular access to laundry facilities. Rob will be sharing the details soon. Your participation WILL be needed, so start praying about that now!
Remember, my friends, we are called by Jesus to work in the vineyard, and there are basically four ways we can respond: we can say “no” and not go; we can say “no” and change our minds and go; we can “yes” and go, and we can say “yes” and not go. In my mind, that last response is the least acceptable. At least if we say “no” and do not go, we are being honest and not stirring up expectations that are unfulfilled. As was noted earlier, vineyard work is grace work; when we say “yes” to God, we are saying yes to the least, the last the lost and the lonely ones. Then, our actions do speak louder than words. AMEN
(1) “The Lectionary Gospel: Matthew 21:23-32” by Scott Hoezee, September 21, 2020, www.cep.calvinseminary.edu
(2) Same as #1