An Unanswered Question


A sermon delivered by Randy Hyde, Pastor, Pulaski Heights Baptist Church, Little Rock, Ark., on September 25, 2011.
 Ezekiel 18:25-29; Matthew 21:23-32

Charles Campbell tells of the time he was watching television and channel surfing. He came across an interview with TV pop psychologist Dr. Phil. I’m sure that Campbell informs us he was channel surfing because no one I know will admit to watching Dr. Phil. How about you? I can tell you honestly that I don’t view his program... and with good reason. Not only is he on during the day when I’m working, but he just naturally gets on my nerves. I wouldn’t watch Dr. Phil if I was a 24/7 couch potato.

The interviewer asked Dr. Phil, “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 like to have a conversation with him about the meaning of life.”

Campbell says he sat there for just a moment and then he began to say to himself, “Oh no, you wouldn’t! You would not want to sit down with Jesus, treat him like an interviewee, and ask him about the meaning of life. You would be crazy to do that. He would turn you upside down and inside out. He would confound all your questions and probably end up telling you to sell everything you own, give the money to the poor, and come, follow me. No, Dr. Phil, you do not really want to interview Jesus, and I do not want to either. It would not go welll (my emphasis).

I agree. Dr. Phil may have the ego to think he’s got what it takes to take on anybody, but he would definitely meet his match in Jesus of Nazareth. Plenty of other “Dr. Phils” in Jesus’ day gave it a try, and look at how they fared. Not well. Not well at all.

Take the chief priests and the elders for example...

Jesus’ reputation has preceded him because when he walks into the temple, teaching as he goes, the religious leaders hardly let him get through the door. They approach him and ask, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?”

The issue of authority was big to them because they thought they had sole possession of it, you see... especially when it came to the temple. They knew that in reality it was the Romans who held the upper hand and called all the shots. But when it came to their own people, and to the religious life of the people, they were the ones who determined how things were supposed to be.

The Romans couldn’t have cared less, so they let these religious guardians be in charge of the temple. And since the temple was the seat of all things religious – despite the fact that it had become as much as, if not more than, a place of commerce than a place of worship – nobody held court in the temple, nobody taught in the temple, nobody did anything in the temple without their permission. And they were used to having people get permission from them rather than forgiveness. And we all know, of course, that Jesus was the one person who chose to do neither.

Now, Jesus comes along and he doesn’t curry favor with them or knock on their door to notify them of his arrival. No, he just comes into the temple and cleans house because those who have gotten permission from the temple leaders have turned it into a place of thievery when it was supposed to be a house of prayer.

Jesus doesn’t want or need their permission, and he certainly doesn’t care one whit about seeking their forgiveness. They had turned the religious life of the people into something it was never intended to be, and he, Jesus, had come to confront it and do something about it. This is a very serious issue between the Nazarene and the Jerusalem establishment, and it was one of the reasons they eventually saw him to the cross.

“By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?”

I have mentioned this to you on a number of occasions, but I think it bears repeating. Besides, some of you may not have been present to hear it. Notice how many times, in the New Testament gospels, Jesus is asked a question. Whether it be his disciples, some person who is intrigued by Jesus and who has the chance opportunity to meet him, or by people who carry with them such notable titles as chief priest or elder, Jesus was asked a lot of probing questions.

And how does he answer? Almost always with a question of his own. This is one of those times.

“By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?”

“I will also ask you one question,” he says to the temple leaders. “If you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things.” Okay. Fair enough, or so they thought. Look out, Dr. Phil. This is not going to go well!

“The baptism of John... did it come from heaven (that means, was it a God-thing), or was it of human origin?” Uh oh. See what I mean? What are you going to do with that one, Dr. Phil?

They go off and huddle together, but soon – very soon – they’re arguing with one another. “Let’s say that John’s authority to baptize came from heaven.”

“No, we can’t say that.”

“Why not?”

“Well, if we say that, he’ll want to know why we didn’t believe the Baptist. And we definitely didn’t believe him, now did we?”

“Okay, then, let’s say that John’s authority was human in nature.”

“We can’t say that either.”

“Well, why not?

“Because if we say that, we’ll have everybody else on our case. Remember, the Baptizer was so popular, especially with this crowd.”

“So what are we going to do?

“There’s only one thing we can do: plead the fifth.”

They break from their huddle and come back to where Jesus and his followers are standing. They don’t want to admit it, but they are left with only one response. “We do not know,” they say to Jesus, “we do not know.”

“Then neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.” Their question goes unanswered.

End of story, right? Well, no... not really. Jesus decides to really nail it down with a story of his own. “What do you think?” he says to them. And then he tells them the parable of the father with the two sons. The father wants them to go and work in his vineyard. One says he work in the vineyard and then does not go, the other says he will not but eventually shows up to do a good day’s work.  Jesus finishes his story with another question. “Which of the two did the will of his father?”

Notice that he has put them into the kind of position where they don’t have the luxury of answering his question with their own question. They have no choice but to admit the one who did his father’s will was the one who worked in the vineyard. And when they make this admission, Jesus lowers the boom. “Amen I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes (in other words, the scum of the earth) are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness (which means he did come with the authority of heaven) and you did not believe him. But the scum of the earth – the tax collectors and the prostitutes – came in droves to be dunked by him because they believed his message of repentance. And you were there! You were there to see the whole thing! And what happened in your hearts? Nothing, not a thing. You didn’t let John change your hearts or your minds. You did not believe him. So don’t you dare talk to me about authority, because you’ve given away whatever authority you might have had. You’ve sold out to the Romans, and you are impotent when it comes to knowing anything about heaven or about the will of God.”

And while I hope you realize that this is a paraphrase of what Jesus told them, I also hope you believe that it really is the essence of what Jesus meant when he talked to them. The religious leaders had the opportunity to trade in their stale, broken beliefs for a whole new experience of God, and they blew it.

Okay, that’s not a bad Bible lesson, but what does it mean and what does it have to do with us? That’s what Jesus’ parable is for.

When it comes to our faith, we are too often known for our words and not for our deeds... though I think we all must admit that we don’t even use our words very often. It was the son who said he would go to work in the vineyard and didn’t who failed to do the will of his father. It was the one who said he would not go and then did who fulfilled the wishes of his father.

The Dr. Phils who confronted Jesus in the temple were the purveyors of words... they had words for this, they had words for that. But when it came to backing them up with deeds, they were like whitewashed tombs... clean and bright on the outside and deader than a doornail on the inside. And while it’s easy to point our fingers at them – after all, they’re not here to defend themselves  – it takes a certain amount of courage to admit that we may just be more like them than we care to admit.

I may be the youngest of the three ministers on this church’s staff but I’ve still been around long enough to have some experience with this. Over the years of my childhood and youth, not to mention pastoring churches in five different states, I’ve run into people who really knew how to talk a good game and I’ve known those who simply lived their faith quietly and honestly day after day. Which of those do you think gained their pastor’s greatest appreciation?

My friend Roger Lovette says his son once visited the Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains, Georgia. Ever heard of it? It’s where former president Jimmy Carter attends with his wife Rosalynn. Like many others, he stood in a long line of visitors to listen to Mr. Carter teach Sunday school. He also stayed for the worship service and sent his pastor dad a worship guide. When Roger took a look at it, his eye went to a notice at the bottom of the bulletin... Rosalynn Carter will clean the church next Saturday. Jimmy Carter will cut the grass and trim the shrubbery.2

So here’s the deal... Too often there’s a wide span, a vacuum, between what we believe and what we actually do. The theological word for it is sin. The meaning of the word, using the athletic imagery of a bow and arrow, is to miss the mark.3 It is understandable that we can’t hit a bulls-eye every time we take a shot. We are forgiven when we try and we miss by a country mile. But we should at least try, and that is what the religious leaders of Jesus’ day did not do. And that is why he refused to answer their question.

In Isak Dinesen’s book Out of Africa, she tells the story of a young Kenyan boy named Kitau who appeared one day at her doorstep in Nairobi asking for work. She said yes to his request and he turned out to be a fine servant. But after three months he came to her again and asked for a letter of recommendation so that he might go and work for Sheik Ali bin Salim, a Muslim in Mombasa. Upset at the thought of losing him, she offered to raise Kitau’s pay, but he was firm about leaving.

He had decided, he told her, before he ever came to work for her that he would become either a Christian or a Muslim. His whole purpose in coming was to observe the ways and habits of Christians up close. Next, he would go to live for three months with Sheik Ali to see how Muslims behave, and then he would make up his mind.

Her response to him was, “You might have told me that when you came here.”4

We encounter, every day, people who are watching how we behave. They may not have the same purpose in mind as the young Kenyan, Kitau, but nevertheless, they are watching us. In this encounter with the religious leaders, and in his story of the father with two sons, Jesus is giving us fair warning. It is what we do that matters most, and is far more important than what we say or profess.

So the next time Jesus doesn’t answer one of your questions, it may be because he’s waiting for you to come up with some answers of your own. The question is not, what will you say? It is, what will you do?

Lord, show us how to share you with others, not so much by what we say but by how we live. And as we do so, perhaps you can reveal to us how to do both. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Notes

1Charles Campbell, Feasting On the Word: Year A, Volume 4 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), p. 121.

2Roger Lovette, “Showing Up,” The Christian Century, September 20, 2005, p. 20.

3Barbara Brown Taylor, Home By Another Way (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Cowley Publications, 1999), p. 190.

4Ibid, adapted.

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Tags: Authority, Chief Priests, Elders, John the Baptist, Randy Hyde, Romans, Sermons, Temple