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September 27, 2020
Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
With the news cycle as fast as it is, it’s sometimes hard to keep track of the events within the bigger picture. But it’s often critical for us to do that so that we can understand how one event impacts another.
It’s the same when we read about events in the Bible, it’s important to look at what comes before – and sometimes after. Because a lot of the time – especially on Sunday mornings, the readings are removed from their original context. Like the one today.
The day before the confrontation we read about today, Jesus entered Jerusalem on a donkey – on what we now call Palm Sunday; he went from there into the temple and tossed the moneychangers’ tables. And the people praised him for that.
As he was coming back into the city the next morning he cursed a fig tree, went back into the temple to teach people, and then he was confronted by the chief priests and the elders. He had a busy 24 hours.
And make no mistake, this was a confrontation. The way the NRSV tells it almost makes it sound like a polite conversation. But the chief priests and elders didn’t casually walk up to Jesus and say, “Hey, Jesus, by what authority are you doing these things?”
This was more like, “Who do you think you are?!” probably with some colorful language thrown in for emphasis. The chief priests and elders were angry at Jesus for what he was doing. And they were angry because they were afraid.
They were the most powerful people in Jerusalem. They came from a long line of privileged Ancient Jewish families; so they inherited their power and elevated status. And their power would have been further solidified by the Roman Empire, who placed them in charge in Jerusalem to maintain order on behalf of the Empire.
At first, everything would have been above board to maintain Jewish protection and safety, and they’d have been left alone to practice their faith. It was in their best interest to keep that balance. But as things developed, the temptation of greed came into play and they created a system that oppressed their fellow Jewish people and allowed them to reap the benefits of power.
So, as far as they were concerned, Jesus was just some punk upstart trying to stir things up and he needed to be contained.
So they asked, “Who says it’s okay for you to do this?” But instead of answering directly, he said, “I’ll answer your question if you answer mine.”
And what’s interesting here, is that when they had their side conversation to figure out how they were going to answer him, they didn’t focus on Jesus’ question. They focused on what the outcome of their answer would mean for them.
In other words, it was, “If we say this, he’ll say that. But if we say that, some people won’t like us anymore.” So they played it safe and said, “We don’t know.”
And Jesus said, “Okay….” And then he told them a parable that exposed the system they helped build and had become part of. He wasn’t speaking against Judaism or the Jewish faith – I want to be clear about that. What he was speaking against was the practice of requiring people to pay taxes in order to worship God in the temple.
This is a parable that, in this context, Jesus essentially says, “You of all people should have known what God demands of you. You should have been able to recognize who I am. And the fact that you know the answer, but refuse to take a side, speaks volumes about where your priorities lie. So the people who get it, the ones who believe who John was and who I am – the ones you think aren’t worthy? They’re in line ahead of you going into God’s kingdom.”
This situation is about power and control and some people wanting to hold onto it at all costs, and Jesus telling them they didn’t need to.
We know that Jesus was all about upsetting the status quo. So, it’s tempting to want to interpret all this as Jesus saying, “all authority needs to be abolished.” But that isn’t it. Jesus upset the status quo for the sake of making sure people took care of each other so that everyone has enough.
He never told the chief priests and elders, “You need to give up this position of authority.” What he said was, “Your priorities are messed up.” Jesus never said, “You won’t go into God’s kingdom at all.” What he said was, “Other people are going in ahead of you because they understand this stuff now.”
In other words, “those people are already experiencing God’s kingdom; and you can’t, because you’re caught up in trying to maintain this monstrosity of a system that you created. Let go of it; be the leaders God called you to be. So that everyone, including you, can experience now the fullness of who God is.”
What Jesus does here is remind all of us that changing our hearts and our minds is a permanent possibility, he gives us a permanent invitation to do that. No matter what path we’ve take up to this point, God continually calls us to participate in God’s mission.
When we discussed this reading at Bible study last week, the point was raised that we’re taught a lot of “truths” in our lives. For example, that we have to have it all together all the time; that we aren’t allowed to make mistakes; that being at the top and in charge is the goal we should have; that humility is a weakness, especially in leadership.
When we get caught up in these, our priorities follow suit. And it isn’t long before what we think our priorities should be don’t line up with God’s. Our hearts become closed off to the fullness of who God is, and we get locked into power structures that we’re afraid to let go of because we can’t envision another way of living.
And after a point, even the invitation to change that Jesus offers is too much for us to consider. But the invitation is a standing one. Jesus never revokes it, it’s always there for us.
And Jesus’ invitation to change is as much for our society as it is for us as individuals. Probably more so. But it starts with us.
It starts with evaluating the truths we were raised to believe, and looking at them against the truths of God. Remembering God’s commands like love your neighbor as you love yourself, and pray for your enemies, and examining the role that God’s truths play in our lives. And asking ourselves whether we might need to make some changes.
Taking it a step further, in our faith community, accepting Jesus’ invitation to change means going beyond supporting our ministry partners. It means examining the root causes of the needs people have and working to correct them, recognizing the structures and systems that cause their needs and dismantling them – eradicating issues like hunger and poverty and racism in the process. In effect, making it so we don’t have to have donation drives and working ourselves out of a job in that regard.
If that sounds daunting, it is. But it doesn’t mean we don’t accept Jesus’ invitation. It doesn’t mean we don’t listen to what’s going on around us and ask where we can join in and help.
In Jesus, we always – always – have the option of changing our hearts and our minds to follow him. No matter what path we’ve taken up to this point, he gives us a permanent invitation to participate in God’s mission. When we accept it, we may have to make changes we weren’t expecting to – or are even afraid to, and the life we’ve built for ourselves may become something we couldn’t have envisioned.
But in the process, we experience God’s kingdom, and the fullness of who God is. Not tomorrow or at some distant point in the future, but now, today. Thanks be to God! Amen.
 Rev. Martha Spong