provokingthegospel

A Provocation: Seventeenth Sunday After Pentecost: October 1, 2017: Matthew 21:23-32

Matthew 21:23-32
21:23 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?”

21:24 Jesus said to them, “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.

21:25 Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” And they argued with one another, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’

21:26 But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.”

21:27 So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.

21:28 “What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’

21:29 He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went.

21:30 The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go.

21:31 Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.

21:32 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.

A Question or Two:

Some Longer Reflections:

This is another of the many conflict scenes in the gospels.  This time, Jesus is in a debate with the chief priests and the elders of the people.

Conflict (whether in stories or in regular life) needs to be handled wisely.  It is easy to make things worse.  In a hurry.

So, some general suggestions for handling conflict:

  1. Pay attention to people.
  2. Pay attention to detail.
  3. Work to solve the problem (whatever it might be), and don’t just fight to win the argument.

So, first pay attention to people:

Who are the people in this scene?  Well, Jesus, of course.  This is not a surprise since this is a scene from a gospel, and in a gospel Jesus is in nearly every scene.  But it is worth noticing what happens to Christian interpreters when Jesus walks onstage.  Immediately we defer to him.  We begin with the assumption that our job is to submit to his authority and meekly agree with whatever he says.  It is worth noting that the gospels themselves do not require this of characters who encounter Jesus.  To cite one important instance, the Canaanite mother who met Jesus in chapter 15 challenged him directly, and did so with the approval of the storyteller.  So even though we know how the scene for this Sunday ends, perhaps we ought not drain all the tension from it by submitting too soon.

And in this scene we meet the chief priests and the elders of the people.  By now we have all learned to recognize that the priestly authorities had been made to cooperate with Roman rule, whether out of greed and boorishness (á là Victor Tcherikover), or out of forced collaboration (á là Warren Carter).  This has been a good thing to learn.  It is clear that the gospel storytellers do not approve of the priestly authorities and cast them as unfaithful opponents of Jesus.  It is important to recognize that tendency.  But if we are to take the conflict seriously, we cannot approach it as if all we need are simple heroes (always Jesus) and obvious villains.  Paying attention to the people requires that we ask what is at stake for the chief priests and elders when they ask Jesus about authority.

So, why might they be concerned about authority?  If they have been charged (by Pilate, for Rome) with the task of keeping the peace by reporting troublemakers, then their question has a sharp edge.  They clearly see Jesus as a potential troublemaker.  If he claims the right to make trouble for sociological or political reasons, they have a pragmatic responsibility.  If, however, he claims a theological justification, then they face a more serious problem.  Either way, they may well have to turn him over to the Roman authorities to prevent Pilate from randomly killing Jews in order to remind people that he was in charge.  But the fact that they ask the theological question means that they (at some level, anyhow) share the expectation that God will anoint an agent (sometime, somehow) who will finally turn the world right-side-up.  But they ask because it is foolish to waste this old, passionate hope on someone who will fail at the task.  Such failure would be devastating.

If you pay attention to the people in the scene, you see that they are asking a question that SOMEONE has to ask.  Faith is too important to waste on a fool who can only fail.

Next, pay attention to detail:

Jesus is challenged not just by priests and elders, as serious as that would be.  He is challenged by the CHIEF priests and the elders OF THE PEOPLE.

Because they are the CHIEF priests, it is clear that they are tightly tied to the Temple, the center of the Jewish world that provides focus and stability in a chaotic world.  That is why they are concerned not to undermine the structures that have kept the Jewish people safe.  That is also why Roman carefully suborned the chief priests and forced them to serve as its organ of liaison, its tool of domination.

But of even greater importance is the storyteller’s choice to identify the elders as the elders τοῦ λαοῦ.  The word, λαος, is not a name for an indiscriminate crowd, nor does it name people in general.  The word refers to the congregation of faithful people.  The storyteller did not have to use this word.  It would have been enough to simply mention the elders.  By bringing in the word tied to the people who trusted the promise that made them Jews in the first place, the elders are tied to faithfulness, and this means that we, the audience, are expected to take their question seriously.  Even if they turn out to be incorrect, they offer their challenge on the basis of faith, not unfaith.  

And, finally, work to solve the problem:

This probably lands in our lap (more than in the lap of the storyteller) because we are charged with advancing readings of this scene that connect with our surrounding world.

Conflict has become the most obvious characteristic of our contemporary scene.  We have a president who fires up his base supporters by throwing them stereotyped calls to arms.  “Don’t you just want to watch football without having to think about politics?,” he shouts.  The answer is a resounding, “Yes!”  “Aren’t you sick of the way liberal sissies have wrecked the manly game of football?,” he growls, smashing his fists together to suggest that what we need is more thrilling head-to-head collisions.  The answer is a visceral howl, “Yes!!”  The next call to arms is a dripping mash-up of dog-whistle flag-patriotism, glad racist insult, and “fearless” profanity.  (Somehow it made him feel all good inside to call the protestors “sons of bitches.”)  “Hell, yes!,” screams the crowd, forgetting that they were supposed to be the good Christian people who just want to bring back public morals and good conduct.

It is easy to yell, and howl, and scream in response to their yelling and screaming.

It is even exactly what we were set up to do, because if we scream back, the good-Christians-who-just-screamed-“Hell, yes” will feel justified in having used crude profanity.  After all, “that’s what happens when you push a good man too far.”

Could we just stop for a moment?

It is easy to make things worse at such a moment.  Just ask Kim Jong-Un.

Too often the present moment feels like we are all Slim Pickens in the movie, Dr. Strangelove,” jostling the atomic bomb loose and riding it, whooping, all the way to the ground and nuclear annihilation.

Could we just stop?

In the scene for this Sunday, Jesus asks a question, a question that reveals to his challengers that he understands their quandary.  As a result, what could have turned into a street fight ends in reflection and puzzlement.  The chief priests and the elders of the people really do NOT know what to make of the movements around John the Baptist and Jesus.  And they say so, publicly.

And the scene ends.

Of course, they will act against Jesus a few chapters later, and Pilate will crucify him as a result.  There are no magic words, no silver bullets, no get-out-of-conflict-free cards.  Sometimes everything goes to smash.  It just does.

Sometimes.  BUT NOT EVERY TIME.  Sometimes when conflict is stopped it is also defused.

It seems to me that just now is a good time to try to defuse the situation, just in case it works.

Just in case.