Monday, September 26, 2011

A Questioning Faith: Matthew 21:23-32

How is electricity made? What are black holes? What is infinity? Why is the sky blue? Why do we have a leap year? How do birds fly? Why does cutting onions make you cry? Where does the wind come from? Why is the sea salty?

Children ask questions. Children, ask these questions. In fact, you have probably been asked some of them. According to a recent poll, these are among the top twenty hardest questions children ask the grownups in their lives. These are the ones that leave us stumbling over our words, and fervently wishing we’d paid better attention in science class.

How big is the world? What happens to us when we die? What is a prime number? What makes thunder? Is God real?

Not all the questions are the stuff of science textbooks, though. Children have a way of asking the big questions, too, questions pertaining to ultimate things, unseen realities, the world that PhD’s won’t necessarily help us to understand, and these questions can stump us just as easily. But questions are beautiful. Questions are good. Questions are one sign of a mind that is awakening to the world outside its own boundaries. Questions are the things that keep us growing mentally and spiritually. Questions are good.

Of course, there are questions, and then there are questions. By which I mean, some questions are pure and trusting and open to the truth. And some questions are wily. Some questions are tricksy, as Gollum would say. Some questions are not friendly.

Jesus is asked lots and lots of questions in the gospel of Matthew.

Both the Baptizer and Pilate ask questions about Jesus' identity; John asks if he is in fact the one they have been waiting for (11:2-3), and Pilate asks if he is the king of the Jews (27:11). The Pharisees, Scribes, Sadducees, chief priests and elders asked questions to try to trap Jesus; why the disciples break "the traditions of the elders" (15:1-2), for signs or proofs (12:38; 16:1), about divorce (19:2), taxes (22:15-17), resurrection (22:23-28), and the role of the commandments (22:24-26), by whose authority do you do the things you do (21:23). The disciples asked him questions; who is the greatest among us (18:1), what good deed do we have to do to receive eternal life (19:16), for a sign concerning Jesus' coming at the end of the age (24:3). And for every other question someone else following Jesus asked, Peter would ask another; "How often must I forgive?" (18:21), "We left everything for you, what do we get?"(19:27).[i]

One working preacher has said that, of all these questions, only those asked by John the Baptist and Pontius Pilate are asked without ulterior motives. Everyone else who asks Jesus a question has an axe to grind, a point to make, a position to secure. “Those who ask Jesus questions want to trap him, or impress him, or get something from him.”[ii]

Take the chief priests and the elders. In this morning’s passage from Matthew’s gospel, they ask Jesus where he gets the authority to do the things he does. What things, exactly, you might wonder? And then we look back a bit in the chapter to see what Jesus has been up to lately, and when we do, it becomes immediately apparent exactly why he is being asked this question. Throughout the gospel, Jesus has been teaching, and healing, and freeing people from the demons that have been possessing them, and sitting down for meals with people from all walks of life—the kinds of people the chief priests and elders would positively run from. But here, in chapter 21 of Matthew’s gospel, we’re getting near the end of the line with Jesus, and what he has been doing lately has really shaken things up. First, he entered Jerusalem with nothing less than a splash—he received a pretty nearly royal welcome from the people. And then, he promptly went to the temple, where he drove out all the people who were buying and selling, and turned over the tables of the people who were changing money and who were selling doves for ritual sacrifices. He quoted words from a psalm as he did these things. He said, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’; but you are making it a den of robbers.”

This was a shocking thing for Jesus to do. The Temple was considered to be the holiest place on earth by Jesus’ people—the Temple mount is still considered holy to this day by all the children of Abraham, Jews, Christians and Muslims alike. But Jesus was angry about what was going on there. It’s not really that it was commerce—Jesus wasn’t against buying and selling, per se. It was simple, really: the system of sacrifices left the poor out in the cold. If you need to have sacrifices made on your behalf in order to be forgiven for your sins, and if those sacrifices cost money, guess who’s never going to have a chance to get right with God? The people without money, of course. And there he goes again. Jesus, siding with the poor over the elites. That’s what Jesus has been up to—and not just lately, throughout the entire story of his ministry.

So, the temple elites ask Jesus, where do you get the authority to do this? And instead of answering, Jesus plays Socrates, and responds, question for question. It seems that Jesus doesn’t really like the question he’s been asked—probably because it’s pretty transparent. The question was not asked the way children ask, “Why do you blink?” or “Where do babies come from?” It was asked more the way someone asks, “Why shouldn’t I hurt you?” Or even, “Would you like to buy this bridge in Brooklyn?”

Jesus rejects the question. It doesn’t interest him. He says he will answer only if his questioner answers another question, a wily question of his own… “The baptism of John… did it come from heaven, or it was of human origin?” Jesus, of course, knows the answer to this question, but his questioners are paralyzed by it. Why? Because, they aren’t asking questions with hearts that are pure and trusting and open to the truth. They are using questions to trap Jesus, to harm him.

And then Jesus asks another question: “What do you think?” And then he tells the parable, about the two brothers. Their father tries to send them to the vineyard to work, and has a really frustrating time with them. One says, “Later old man. You go to the vineyard!” But later, he decides, well, maybe dad could use my help after all. And so he goes. The other says, “Sure pop,” and then goes down to the pool hall with his buddies.

And then Jesus asks another question. “Which of these two did the will of his father?” And it’s so evident. The mouthy one, the seemingly disobedient one, the one who doesn’t care much about things like image, or who appears to have the authority. He’s the one who does the will of God. While the one who smiles, and says “Sure Pop!” Well. It comes down to what you do, not what you say. It comes down to actually going into the vineyard (or, maybe, into the basement) and rolling up your sleeves.

How do planes fly? What is time? Where does water come from? What happens to us when we die? Is God real? Questions are beautiful. Questions are good. Questions are signs that our minds are awakening to the world outside our own boundaries. Questions keep us growing mentally and spiritually. In the life of faith, questions can help to prepare us to roll up our sleeves and go do the work God is calling us to do, whether that work is taking lunch to hungry flood relief workers, or feeding a church full of people, or even helping one another to answer those big questions. Don’t be afraid of a questioning faith. Let your questions be pure and trusting and open to the truth. Thanks be to God for the questions that lead us towards him. Amen.

[i] Karl Jacobson, “Lectionary for September 25, 2011: Commentary on Gospel [Matthew 21:23-32],”

[ii] Ibid.

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