Lutheran pastor Brian Stoffregen tells about receiving a telephone call one day at his office from a woman he’d never met. She was a member of a nearby church and wondered if she could share something with Stoffregen and get his opinion. For years, she’d been active in her church, she explained. Her husband hadn’t. In fact, he’d had little use for Christian faith.
Then, not long before the telephone conversation, the man lost his arm in a work-related accident. His life was actually endangered for a time. While at the hospital, the husband had an encounter with God. God gave him a choice to either remain on the earth, a choice that would impose pain, rehabilitation, relearning basic life skills, and numerous adjustments, or to leave the earth. He decided to stay. His encounter with God changed this man’s ideas about God, about Christ, about the Church, and about having life with God.
Now, this woman explained to Stoffregen, not long before the accident, she had felt led to tell her husband, for reasons she couldn’t explain: “When you see my mother [who was dead], don't go with her." Like her husband, this woman’s life and faith had been, as you can imagine, changed by what God had done and was doing in her husband’s life. But there was a problem.
It turned out that the people at church, even some of her closest friends, didn’t believe that the woman’s husband had really encountered God. They didn’t accept his change of heart. They refused to accept that God had really worked in this man’s life. "God wouldn't do something like that for someone who didn't believe in Jesus," some seemed to tell her. Or, "It must have been the devil speaking to him."
Here were people who regularly confessed that they believed that, in Jesus Christ and the faith in Christ created within them by the power of the Holy Spirit, God had saved them from their sins by His grace alone. Yet now, they refused to believe that God had worked a transformation in someone who, though he had probably heard the Gospel of new and everlasting life for all who turn from sin and believe in Jesus Christ, had always lived apart from God. They refused to accept the evidence of what Christ had accomplished in the man and dismissed it all as a sham.
What can you say about people like these? That they were self-righteous, for sure. And I think that there’s good reason to suspect that they didn’t really believe in the gracious God they claimed had saved them.
Jesus encountered people like this in today’s Gospel lesson, Matthew 21:23-32. They refused to acknowledge what God was doing in Jesus‘ ministry, just as they had refused to acknowledge what had happened in the ministry of John the Baptist. Notorious sinners turned from their sin, leaving their sinful life practices behind--things like sexual intimacy outside of marriage and extorting money from others, and, instead, following God with faith and submission. The religious leaders couldn’t accept that God’s hand was in it.
The Gospel lesson, I think, is an important antidote for Christians to take regularly, for the simple reason that, after awhile, if we’re not careful, the devil, the world, and our sinful selves will snooker us into believing that our faith and our salvation result from our intrinsic goodness.
Jesus says in Matthew 9:13: “...I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners." In truth, saving faith in Christ only comes to those who recognize that they’re sinners in constant and desperate need of the Savior God sent into the world to free them from sin and death for all eternity.
If we ever fall into the trap of thinking God is fortunate to have such good people like us on His side, we need to fall to our knees in repentance and ask God for trust in Christ’s perfect righteousness over against our prideful smugness.
Paul writes in Romans 3:28: “For we maintain that a person is justified [that is made righteous] by faith...” and not by their supposed merits. We need always to remind ourselves and each other of this truth.
Turn to our Gospel lesson, Matthew 21:23-32, please. Just a little background is needed.
Previously in Matthew, chapter 21, Jesus had entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.
He then threw the moneychangers out of the temple for turning God’s house into a place of extortionist commerce.
Jesus also healed the blind and lame in the temple that same day, signs of His being more than just a true man, but also true God. He also upheld the truth of what children were saying about him.
That night, on the way to Bethany where He would sleep, Jesus saw a fig tree that wasn’t producing fruit. And this is an important prelude to today's lesson.
Now, the ancient rabbis had always said that the tree of the knowledge of good and evil from which Adam and Eve at the forbidden fruit was a fig tree, not an apple tree as we often suppose. So, this fruitless fig tree was freighted with symbolism and allusions to human history.
Jesus caused the tree to wither, not because He was having a bad day or was in a bad mood, but because living things should bear evidence of the life within them.
Likewise, people who claim to believe in the God we know in Christ, who claim to be rooted in Him and to “live and move and have their being in” Him, should evidence the presence of God’s life in them by the lives they live, the ways they love.
It’s after all this that our lesson begins. We read:
“And when he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came up to him as he was teaching, and said, ‘By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?’” These were the gatekeepers of first century Judean religious life. They had the authority that goes with human status and human credentials. What they were really saying to Jesus was, “We’re in charge around here. And we didn’t give you the authority to raise the dead, heal the sick, forgive the sins of the repentant, promise life to those who believe in You, or cut into the temple revenue by overturning the tables of thieves who possessed authorized franchises here in the temple mall.”They said this as though they actually possessed the authority to grant such ministries to Jesus. Yet these were things they’d never shown an interest in doing, let alone evidencing a capacity to do them!
Certain of their own goodness and status as godly people, the chief priests and elders refused to see God at work in the lives of those touched by Jesus.
The lesson goes on:
“Jesus answered them, ‘I also will ask you one question, and if you tell me the answer, then I also will tell you by what authority I do these things. The baptism of John, from where did it come? From heaven or from man?’ And they discussed it among themselves, saying, ‘If we say, “From heaven,” he will say to us, “Why then did you not believe him?” But if we say, “From man,” we are afraid of the crowd, for they all hold that John was a prophet.’” So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, ‘Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.’”Jesus really wasn’t trying to trap the leaders. It was common for rabbis to answer questions by asking questions that would, in honest students really seeking the truth, result, with the rabbi’s guidance, in their own seeming discovery of the truth.
Besides, John’s authority for his ministry of preparation for the coming of the Messiah came from the same place that Jesus’ authority came from, God the Father. This the leaders wouldn’t acknowledge for fear that ultimately, they would lose their earthly authority.
I’ve known of some people--some pastors--who have refused to acknowledge that Jesus rose from the dead because they didn’t want to look bad to the sophisticates they knew who saw Jesus as nothing but a nice man. How sincere is our own faith when it crumbles in the face of popular opinion?
Jesus told the leaders that if they were unwilling to acknowledge that God was at work in John’s ministry, they wouldn’t be able to see that God was bringing salvation to the world through Himself. By being closed to what God was showing the world, they would never understand His answer to their question.
Jesus then told a parable to the leaders:
“What do you think? A man had two sons. And he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ And he answered, ‘I will not,’ but afterward he changed his mind and went. And he went to the other son and said the same. And he answered, ‘I go, sir,’ but did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before 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 when you saw it, you did not afterward change your minds and believe him.”Jesus wasn’t being PC in telling this parable. The meaning was clear. All the people who had once said no to God were, through Jesus, now saying yes to Him. It was evidenced in their changed lives.
And the people who had always claimed to speak for God, were saying no to God in human flesh, refusing to accept that, with grace and power, God had broken into the lives of the unlikeliest of people. Faith and eternal life had come to those who laid down their pride.
Cynicism and death were evidenced in those whose pride was in themselves and their own confident self-righteousness.
Jesus‘ words for us today are a call for us to surrender to Him and with repentance and faith, let Him give us what we can never have when we’re turned in on ourselves.
When we turn our eyes to Jesus, we have hope, peace that passes human understanding, purpose for each day, charity for others and for ourselves, a sense that, despite our sins, we belong to God, and a commitment to daily laying our sinful selves on the cross, so that we may be crucified and rise to life with God alongside Jesus.
And, saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone, we find it easy to believe that if Christ can save us, Christ can save anybody. Amen