“First In Line”

Matthew 21:23-32

October 1, 2017

The Rev. Todd R. Goddard, Pastor

East Rochester & West Walworth: Zion United Methodist Churches


Matthew 21:23-32

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

“What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. 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. 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.




It was as if

The tear gas had thinned

And most of the protesters had left the field.

Only the most hardened, committed remained behind.


Crowds of activists,

Filled with naive hopes and blind ambitions,

Had stormed the gates

And entered the sacred grounds of authority,

Being led by their charismatic leader.

He had turned the tables,

(So to speak)

On the powers and principalities of the man,

Exposing hypocrisy, corruption, greed;

Revealing his unimaginable failures to serve the public good.


The revolution squared off with the establishment,

Each eyeball-to-eyeball

In a high stakes confrontation

In full view of the surging crowds

And the authorities with their minions

Armed to the teeth and sporting riot gear

Holding them back.


Safeties had been taken off.

Bows were stretched.

The pregnant pause

Was silence saturated with sweat.


No, I’m not speaking about protests during the Viet Nam war;

Though the landscape from Ken Burn’s PBS documentary

Looks strikingly similar.

Neither am I speaking about the violent worker strikes and riots

Between labor and management during the Gilded Age of America..



This impending, imminent confrontation that I’m speaking about

Is between Jesus and the Chief Priests (and elders of the people).

Jesus had just stormed the gates

With his triumphal entry,

Bringing the Hosanna shouting, insurrection minded crowds with him into the city.

Jesus had just ascended the Temple mount,

The seat of power and authority,

And upset the money changers,

Disrupting the Temple’s precious cash flow.


Barge right in uninvited

Open the safe and throw the money out the window;

Jesus knows how to attract attention.

Jesus knows how to

Gather a crowd.

And Jesus knows how to stick it to the man.


The man

… in this case …

The Chief Priest of the Temple

Steps forward from his crowd of

Cabinet members, staff members, volunteers, supporters, and soldiers.

He steps forward

In this highly charged, volatile setting,

Closing the gap between him and his antagonist, Jesus Christ,

The country bumpkin from Galilee.

He steps forward and

Puts himself into Jesus’ personal space.


He jabs his index finger right into his sternum:

“By what authority are you doing these things,

and who gave you this authority?” (21:23)


It is as if

We can hear the soldiers taking a deep breath and

See them leaning into a fight.

The rivulets of perspiration can be seen trickling down the foreheads

Of Jesus’ riot minded, blood thirsty, revolutionary crowd.

(Yes, the Gospel can sing!)


By what authority? The Chief Priest asks.

Who gave it to you?

What is its source?


The Chief Priest asks because Jesus is a challenge to his authority.

How Jesus answers

Reveals much about

What Jesus intends to accomplish

With his intentional, high stakes confrontation.


Because the situation was so volatile,

Teetering on the edge of violence and mortal catastrophe

That would prematurely result in his own death

And the death of many others,

Jesus wisely foils the Chief Priest’s thrust

By saying

“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.” (21:24)


“Seems fair,” the crowd probably thought to themselves.

People like the appearance of fairness.

“Let’s slow this down and draw this out,”

The Chief Priest probably thought to himself,

“Less the Romans lose confidence

In my ability to keep the population in order.”  


Fair enough,

Both Jesus and the Chief Priest agree to the terms of the agreement.

The Chief Priest asked his question and laid his cards on the table,

Now it was Jesus’s turn.


Allow me to pause for a moment

To share insider information

That will allow us to make sense of our Lord’s response.


Judaism at the time of Jesus,

As it is today,

Was not monolithic or homogeneous.

All Jews did not share the same world view.

Jewish leaders and followers alike

Disagreed over theology and beliefs about God.

Though there was one Temple,

Located in Jerusalem,

There was a rich diversity of Jewish thought and faith,

Much like there is a rich diversity of

Both Jewish and Christian thought and belief today.   


The fabric of Jewish diversity was quite beautiful.

There were numerous Rabbinical schools,

Each holding instructional classes right on the stairs of the Temple.

Each school was taught how to interpret Hebrew scripture

By a recognized Rabbi.

Students were attracted to a Rabbi who shared their world view,

And the Rabbi taught from his tradition.

Each Rabbi taught from his own beliefs and experience.

There were the ultraorthodox in one corner

And the liberal reformed Rabbis in the other.

There were conservative Rabbis on one side

And progressive Rabbis on the other end of the spectrum.

There was unity on the essentials,

… Creation, Covenants, and Torah …

On everything else, not so much.

Not so much.


There were also differences in first century Judaism

Between sects and orders;

Think Pharisees, Sadducees, Levites.

Think about the End-Time Apocalyptic nut jobs out in Qumran,

in the desert by the Dead Sea.

Think about John the Baptist

Who had taught and, in a new twist of things,

Was baptizing followers in the Jordan River.

There were many and as-sundry Jewish sects, orders, and factions.


Geography also helps define differences of world view

In early, first century Judaism.

Much like today,

Rural people tend to think differently

Than city folks.

Wages were different.

Education was different.

Rural Jews tended to support and defend their local Synagogue and Rabbi,

While resenting the fact that they were pressured to pilgrimage

To the one-and-only Temple in the big city

To make their sacrifice and pay their tax.

Rural Jews chose their Rabbi

Based on the world view they supported.


The Chief Priest of the Temple

Was the elite of the elites.

He was the aristocracy,

Rich, powerful, born of Temple lineage.

He was the steward of Temple theology and teaching.

He was empowered by Rome to keep the peace at all costs.

His world view valued stability;

Bank deposits being made,

People being placated,

Enemies made to disappear,

Friends being rewarded.

The trains had to run on time.


The elders of the Temple,

Of which are mentioned in the Gospel,

Are the Sadducees,

Who were in harmonious political and theological alignment

With their Chief Priest.  


Amid all these diverse, competing Jewish world views,

Conservative vs liberal,

Rural vs urban,

Wealth vs poverty,

Power vs the powerless,

Privilege vs virtual slavery,

Jesus believed the Temple Priest and his elders

Had a short-sighted, selfish world view and belief system.

They neglected their neighbors.

They supported the powerful.

They upheld the status quo;

often at the terrible expense of their own people.


Jesus was a rural bumpkin.

They were the urban elite.

This put Jesus right in their cross-hairs.


One of the raging topics of debate

Between these diverse Jewish points of view

Was the status of John the Baptist.

Everyone had an opinion and most were free to share it,

Especially in hot debate on the Temple staircase.


John had taught, prepared the way for the Messiah, and baptized followers

In the Jordan River for the forgiveness of sin.

But, was he a prophet?

Or was he simply a charismatic leader?

Was his baptism valid,

… did it take away sins … or not?

As Jesus adroitly asked the Chief Priest and his elders,

“Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” (21:25)


They argued among themselves,

Exactly as Jesus expected they would.


They argued among themselves,

Just like Christians argue among ourselves today.

(O yes! The Gospel bleeds RELEVANCE!)


Consider the different world views of Christianity today;

The Pope, Saint Peter, the Vatican … and all of its orthodoxy;

Think about Protestant evangelical movement;

Think about Protestant social gospel movements and mainline churches;

Consider house churches and mega-churches;

Think of country churches and city cathedrals;

Consider T.V. preachers and more Bible schools and seminaries than one can shake a stick at.


Everyone of us, who call ourselves a Christian,

Are being challenged,

“By what authority are you doing these things?” (21:23)


The raging, divisive issue facing the Church today,

Like the place of John the Baptist at the time of Jesus,

From our world view,

Is all about inclusion.

Who is in? and who is out?

Do we allow pastors and priests to marry?

To marry a person of the same gender?

To celebrate the marriage of two, same gender individuals?

Do we reserve the church only for righteous people

Who are righteous according to my standard?

Who look, act, and think like me?

Or did Christ die for everyone and, therefore,

Everyone is accepted and welcome here at the table?


When Jesus brilliantly asked the Chief Priest and his elders,

“Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” (21:25)

It was just like asking our Council of Bishops and General Conference,

“Do you believe clergy can be gay,

Celebrate gay weddings,

And welcome all people,

Regardless of race, gender, and status into the Church?”



The similarities are pretty shocking.

The parallels call us to pay attention to our Lord’s response.


I will not tell you what to believe.

But I will walk with you through the parable Jesus teaches in response.


Here I am,

Deep into the sermon,

And I’m only starting on the parable that Jesus teaches.

“Oy vey,” you’re probably thinking to yourself,

“we’re going to be here until a week from next Thursday!”


No. It’s not that bad.

Jesus starts by saying, “What do you think?” (21:28)

Do you really think he is expecting a divergent response?

Something other than what he knows will be true?

Starting off with “What do you think?”

Is a clue that the parable is easy to understand

And straightforward in its truth.


Who does the will of the father? Jesus asks.

The son who talks the talk, but fails to walk the walk?

Or the son who fails the talk, but does his father’s will and follows through?

Of course, the son whose actions speak louder than words.


In other words,

Don’t tell me.

Show me.

Show me by your Christ transformed faith,

Show me by your being born again, of both water and the spirit,

Show me by your actions and behavior

… that Christ died for everyone,

That Christ rose from the dead for everyone,

And that Christ will come again for everyone.


Show me by your behavior that you understand the Father’s will:

That everyone is called, claimed, and gathered at this table.

When Christ comes again,

There better be no more last, least, and lost.

Jesus is taking a head count!

Everyone better be at the table.



Because if there is one who isn’t at the table?

That’s on us.

That is our failure to fulfill the Father’s will.


The question isn’t about judgment or morality.

The issue isn’t defined by black or white or ethnicity.

For Jesus, there is no differentiation between ability and disability.

Gender, identity, and sexual preference hijack the larger conversation

Jesus is bringing from rural Galilee to the be-all-end-all, stiff shirt elite in Jerusalem.


Jesus brings with him a new teaching about righteousness,

Which is fulfilling the will of the heavenly Father.

The heavenly Father is the source of his authority, and ours.


What is righteous for Jesus?

The Law, yes. Certainly.

He claimed he didn’t come to abolish the Law.

He came to fulfill the Law. (5:17)

This is how Jesus fulfills the Law:

He prioritizes the commandments

And identifies the most important, and the second just like it:

Love the Lord, and love your neighbor.


The righteousness Jesus introduces into the Temple environs,

Tosses over the money changers tables,

Throws the Chief Priest into a tizzy,

And leads to the genesis of their homicidal intentions.


The righteousness Jesus introduces to the Temple

Tosses out the laws about cleanliness and animal sacrifice.

Jesus sought out …

… Reached out …

To the unclean, just as he taught ...

Women, slaves, the diseased, disfigured, and disabled.

He not only reached out, he touched the unclean and made them well.

He taught on the Sabbath.

Jesus, himself, was willing to advance a righteousness

Deeply rooted in grace, justice, and love,

At the expense of a righteousness

Based on sin, punishment, and exclusion.


The sacrifice Jesus seeks is not an animal sacrifice.

Paul would later correctly observe in his letter to the Romans,

This is the sacrifice God desires:

“to present your bodies as a living sacrifice,

Holy and acceptable to God.” (Romans 12:1)

No more atonement by proxy.

No more bleeding a lamb as some sort of warped idea that the slaughter is a substitution for our blood.


Present yourself.

Let Christ forgive you.

Let Christ restore you.

That’s the path to holiness and being acceptable to God.


The righteousness Jesus introduces into the Temple

Exposes hypocrisy for what it is;

Failure to follow through with God’s will,

Especially after which

God has already given us the authority to do so.


Our Gospel today is a call for each of us to

Remove the insincere platitudes and promises in our lives,

And replace them with

Authentic Christian behavior,

Authentic Christian living,

Worthy of our Lord.


Doctrine doesn’t need to be defended

As much as the poor need to be fed that the blind be made to see.

The crusades and the inquisition ended centuries,

Let’s not relive them.

Church law doesn’t need to be enforced

As much as the diseased need to be healed and demons need to be cast out.


Leave the justice up to God.

Let you and me together,

Be about the business of removing barriers that separate us from each other and from our God.

Let’s you and me together invite to this Table

Everyone, leaving no one behind.

Let’s you and me together partner with Jesus

To introduce his righteousness to all,

Even to the loftiest Temples and Courts in the land.


We’ve been given the authority.

Use your authority wisely,

To fulfill the will of our heavenly Father.