A sermon preached October 3, 2021 by the Rev. Justin Clemente at New Creation Church (Anglican), Hagerstown, MD. Part of our “Parables of Jesus” series.
A Parable for Professionals (vs. 23, 30-32)
Our parable today is meant for “professionals”, leaders, and veteran Christians. That is to say, most of us here today. It is a warning against the danger of becoming something we were never intended to be.
Here, the parable can’t be separated from its context. It is occasioned by the Triumphal Entry, the cleansing of the Temple and the cursing of the fig tree – all highly dramatic actions! Imagine this: Jesus, our Lord, appears in his Temple, the house he founded, and he is asked by those who care for it, “Who do you think you are?” Friends, that is the height of blindness and deception. Jesus counters by asking about John’s ministry. If they can’t get him right, how then will they know who he is? Jeffrey Gibbs writes, “When Jesus is able to reach back all the way to the ministry of John and indict his opponents on the basis of their obduracy, this underscores the enormity and consistency of their opposition to the reign of God that was announced and enacted by John in his own role and manifested in power and mercy by Jesus, God’s Son.” (Gibbs, Matthew 21:1-28:10)
Within the chief priests and elders of the people a horrible deformation and devolution had occurred, and it is one which every Christian, the longer they persevere in the Christian life, must guard against. When I first began to seriously consider the call to ordained ministry, my sister-in-law gave me a book. It was Paul Tripp’s, book, titled Dangerous Calling. The one primary insight from that I have never forgotten is this:
The greatest temptation of pastoral leadership (and, perhaps, all Christian leadership and “veteran” Christians) is that we would fall for the lie that we are fundamentally different from other Christians. That our relationship to God is something other than that of a beloved sinner saved by grace.
Like the tax collectors and the prostitutes, some of us need to have our sins destroyed, but like the leadership there that day, some of us need to have our virtues burned away. In the sense of them being what our relationship to God rests upon. The chief priests and elders of the people were, in a sense, too good to be saved. Too settled in their ways to be disrupted by the grace of God.
From author Jeffrey Gibbs again: “Familiarity readily breeds contempt in all areas of the lives of sinful people, and those who deal with the Word of God day in and day out presumably face the same danger – that God’s Word would become something for us that no longer kills us and makes us alive each of our days and every single day.” (Matthew 21:1-28:10, pg. 1083)
Jesus’ Authority (vs. 23, 29, 31)
The chief priests and elders respond to Jesus’ dramatic actions with the question, “By what authority…?” Let’s talk about embracing Jesus’ authority first.
Over the course of Matthew’s Gospel, all sorts of people come to Jesus. Here’s a quick list: Men, women, children, Jews, non-Jews, thieves and robbers, those who make their living by illicit behavior (prostitutes), Magi, and Roman centurions.
By what authority? Oh the irony! By the authority of the One who is above all other authorities. And yet by the authority of the One who will lay down his life for all these and take it up again. Jesus has the authority to receive even these shepherds of Israel. And yet come to him humbly, with an open hand and a meek spirit. As Craig Keener puts it, “The issue is not that the tax collectors and the prostitutes were good; it is that the religious and political elite were [actually] worse.” (Matthew, pg. 319) But they were not beyond the reach of his grace, would they submit to it.
Today, there are entire denominations who are willing to meet Jesus at the doorstep of their building and say to him, Excuse me – by what authority do you and say these things? And yet the most powerful part of this parable is that Jesus has the authority to receive anyone. Anyone who will. Even folks who are religious about anything but him.
Let’s end by talking about living under Jesus’ authority.
N.T. Wright poses the challenge, “What should Jesus’ followers be doing today that would challenge the powers of the present world with the news that he is indeed the rightful Lord? What should we be doing that would make people ask, ‘By what right are you doing that?’, to which the proper answer would be to tell, not now riddles about John the Baptist, but stories about Jesus himself?” (Matthew for Everyone, pg. 77)
Now, I don’t know everything N.T. Wright means by that, but I can agree that our lives, both together and individually, ought to demonstrate that we are in the vineyard. We ought to be made of more than milk and toast. Everything we do and say as a church, for instance, ought to point to Jesus as the true Savior and Lord of the whole world. That’s why we say we exist to “love our neighbor with the Gospel.” We are reminding ourselves that we are in the vineyard.
I want to end with some questions for self-examination:
- Are you pretending to say “yes” to God, when in fact you inwardly saying “no” to his promises?
Sadly, belief in Jesus can be a cover up for all kinds of things: moralism, not rocking the boat with your spouse, promotion and benefits. You can be saying yes, I’ll go in, but over here is your real life. But if you’re in the vineyard, you have one life: and that life is Jesus.
- If someone asked you about your confession of faith, is there anything in it that would startle a person? Set them back on their heels? You believe that about Jesus?
The religious professionals were apparently so confused that they couldn’t even give a straight answer to who John was, let alone the One he came to prepare people to meet.
- Is your life consistent with your confession? Does it bear out the reality that you are in the vineyard and therefore bearing good fruit? Would anything in your life cause someone to say, “Oh my goodness, that person is in an entirely different kingdom than I am?”
If we are in the vineyard, then we will joyfully be at work – God’s kingdom is here called a vineyard after all! Think of the woman at the well in John 4. She was confronted with her sin and comforted by the messiah. What did she do with that? She told everyone she knew. She blessed others. All of the sudden, she was in the vineyard – off and running with the Good News.
Let’s each of us weigh these questions as we consider our parable, the Christian life, and the claims of Jesus. We are all children who have said “no,” in the sense that we have rudely and before his face, refused God. But may we each be found to be “yes” children, content to enter the vineyard with tax collectors and prostitutes by the mercy of God alone. Amen.