Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost | Matthew 21:23-32
Who said you had anything to teach us? That’s what they were asking. Who made you the spokesperson for God? They dressed the question up, of course, to make it sound reasonable, but the condescension and the resentment were still there.
Jesus responded with a riddle—who sent John the Baptist, that wild loon of a prophet baptizing all kinds of people out in the wilderness? They wouldn’t answer him. They refused to answer because they didn’t want to give Jesus any leverage, as if he needed any more.
So he did the Jesus thing. He told them a story. Why? Why tell a story when calling down fire and brimstone would have been so much more fun?
There is power in words that cannot be found in a fist, or in a bomb. After a while even brimstone burns out, but words? A good story is unforgettable. It keeps playing in the back of your mind. Worse, a good story is a Trojan horse for the truth. By the time you get the meaning, the truth is already running amuck in your mind. There is no getting it out.
The story he tells is simple. A father tells one son to go and work in their vineyard, but he refuses. Later, the boy gets up and goes to work anyway. The father finds his other son and tells him to get to work, and this boy agrees at once but never lifts a finger. Which liar was the faithful son?
Open rebellion is more honest and faithful than secret disobedience, and Jesus claims that prostitutes and scoundrels are closer to God than the religious folk are. That’s pretty good news for prostitutes and scoundrels. It is not much of a recommendation for the rest of us.
Worse, the story doles out a double damning for the self-proclaimed good folk—we don’t really believe what we hear about God since we don’t really respond, and we still don’t believe when we see what God is doing in lives around us.
Most of us, I suspect, are too fearful to be true scoundrels. And nobody is suggesting prostitution as a viable lifestyle choice. Still, the scoundrels and the prostitutes went far out of their way to hear wild John preaching beside a river.
We good folk worry more about who has the right credentials than about who might be channeling a word from God. And we say that we are responding to God, but we don’t lift a finger. Meanwhile, God is smiling on the folks who say they want nothing to do with church or religion, but who still respond when God sends a weird prophet to say a word. Which bunch of liars has more faith?
If the stories in scripture are our guide, God does use some odd folk. (All by itself, that thought is encouraging to many of us.) Moses the stammering murderer. Isaiah who walked around naked for three years. I wonder how much credence we religious folk would give them. Jail time and medication are more likely what we’d offer both of them.
The truth is that we are all liars of different sorts. Some of us say we listen to God when we are really listening to our own ideas about God. Ever sit across from another person and focus on what you’re thinking instead of what your friend is saying? Same thing.
Some of us say we don’t want anything to do with God, or anybody else’s ideas about God. Still, there’s that small voice running amuck in our heads, muttering that something might be out there and that it wouldn’t hurt to listen for a while.
One thing is for sure. If God is really God, then God is not going to go about things the way we would think. God is not like us. And God has some odd prophets. Some of them have done terrible things, like Moses. Some might come walking down the street naked, like Isaiah. Some might look uncomfortably like people we don’t even like or want to be around. My dog was named after a prophet—and it is likely that he can tell me more about God than I know, but do I listen?
Stop walking around with the answers. Start listening. Who knows? Now and then we may run into the odd prophet.