[excerpts from sermon preached at Disciples Christian on September 28, 2014]
Dr. Phil, television’s most well-known celebrity psychologist, was once asked the question: If you could interview anyone in the world, past or present, who would it be? Dr. Phil replied without hesitation, Jesus Christ. I would really like to interview Jesus Christ. I would really like to have a conversation with him about the meaning of life.
I’ve read that Dr. Phil and his wife are devout Christians, so this makes me wonder if Dr. Phil has read this particular passage of scripture. Because in today’s passage, with an entire panel of questioners, made up of the most learned minds of the religious day – it did not go well for the interviewers. Jesus made quick work of the chief priests and elders, refusing to answer their questions by asking his own. Sitting down with Jesus as the esteemed host treating him as the interviewee – with all due respect for your interviewing skills, Dr. Phil. I’m thinking, no, you wouldn’t really want to interview Jesus because such conversations are dangerous. Your world will not be the same at the end of it. More likely your head would be spinning, and your life will be on the line.
And I love this that I read this week: You will be both confounded and claimed.
Of course the Pharisees didn’t exactly catch Jesus at the best time for a sit-down interview. To set the context: Jesus has just ridden through Jerusalem on a donkey to the thrill of the crowds — we call it Palm Sunday –when according to Matthew’s gospel, Jesus entered the temple and became enraged when he saw the goings-on with the money-changers. After driving them out by angrily turning over their tables, Jesus got down to the work he was called to do. Healing. And welcoming children. They were noisy children apparently (are there any other kind?) which further disturbed the temple leaders. So Jesus left and went to Bethany to spend the night with friends. It seem he didn’t wake up in any better mood, because on his way back into the temple in the morning when he saw a fig tree by the side of the road — a tree that didn’t have any figs on it — he cursed it. And the tree withered to its death, right then and there.
So by the time he arrived at the temple, he was in no mood for their questions. They had their chance to redeem themselves, and we know Jesus as our Redeemer, the paragon of forgiveness and giver of second chances. But they gave the wrong answer. They gave a very considered, careful, and political answer. As in: well, I can’t say this or I’ll anger this constituency. I can’t say the other thing because it would set off the other constituency. Maybe our own politicians learned this art from these chief priests. They cannot bring themselves to say what they really think. They cannot express what they really believe, if they even know what that is. They’re certainly hesitant to ask another question. The best they can come up with to Jesus’ question of his identity is: We don’t know.
I’d like to think that if they had given an honest answer. An answer from their hearts. Even if their answer acknowledged their doubts and fears, I think Jesus would have shown compassion to them. But in their doing the safest thing they could think of– giving no answer at all – Jesus could see that they were not really concerned about his authority, they were more concerned with hanging on to their own. Jesus rebuffed them, and it wasn’t gentle.
Remember the context. This is Tuesday of Holy Week and by the weekend, he will be dead. This is his last day in the temple. His last day to teach. His last day to issue warnings or to dispense advice. With understandably little patience for this interview in the final days of his earthly life: he puts before them the question central to his ministry: he has asked it before:
Who do you say that I am?
A life of following Jesus is not about us sitting Jesus down or parsing his words or asking him to tell us the meaning of life. To demand of him some standard of truth by which we can be convinced that he is the one. As theologian Stanley Hauerwas puts it: If one needs a standard of truth to insure that Jesus is the Messiah, then one ought to worship that standard of truth, not Jesus.
Jesus told this story: A man had two sons. He needed their help in working the vineyard. He didn’t ask them to go, he told them to go. The first son refused but he later changed his mind and got to work. The second son said he would go but he didn’t. Unlike other parables, this one isn’t difficult to figure out the answer of which son did the will of his father. The first son, of course.
It may seem a simple answer, but it was a stinging indictment of the panel of questioners. These men who held such knowledge of scripture, who spoke in a religious language unintelligible to Gentiles, who lived most of their lives within the walls of the temple. These men who had said Yes to God yet cannot see Jesus (and John before him) as the embodiment of their God. Standing right there before them.
Which son were these? The ones who said Yes and then stayed right where they were. Jesus said it would have been better for you to have said No.
We’re no longer all men in the temple, and we don’t claim to be religious authorities, but most of have been in church for a long time. Years, maybe even lifetimes. Most of us, with the exception of our younger children and newest visitors, have professed that Jesus as our Lord and Savior. We have promised to follow him. We have said Yes, Father, I will go work in your vineyard.
And sometimes we do. This is not an across the board indictment. I’m not ready to say that we are all of us that second son. But it’s most definitely a question worthy of our consideration. Which son are we? Putting ourselves in the position, not as interviewers of Jesus, but of those anticipating what Jesus’ questions might be to us:
- Are you entrenched within these walls – this church where you love to be – that you’ve lost your curiosity about where else God might be at work in the world?
- Are your eyes so focused on the screen (or at the hymnal) that you don’t see the same world that I see?
- Would you prefer to sit me down to ask him about the meaning of life, rather than to model your lives according to mine?
- Who would you say that I am?
- Did you realize that when you said Yes in the waters of baptism that was not the end of your work, that was the beginning?
We are not evil people. We’re not worthless people. Neither were those men in the temple evil or worthless. They were being careful, and they were reluctant. We are careful and reluctant too, and we have a tendency to self-limit. Those are self-limits, but are not God imposed limits. The good news is, those limits are not irreversible, everlasting, eternal or abiding.
Remember that first son. Reluctant. Not ready. Even disobedient.
Until he wasn’t. Until he was willing to not only say Yes but to get to work.
As Martin Luther once said, a faithful life is not about overcoming God’s reluctance. It is about laying hold of God’s willingness. We are created in God’s image. And God is not reluctant – God is willing to ask us. God is not reluctant, God is willing to send the Holy Spirit to be with us in our toils. And God was not reluctant; God was willing to send us his son Jesus, the paragon of forgiveness and giver of second chances.
May God’s willingness both confound and claim us. YES!
Pastor. Parent. Activist.