Odd Prophets | 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 question of his own, 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 were afraid 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’s power in words that cannot be found in a fist, or in a bomb. You can only clinch a fist so long, and 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 realize there’s meaning in the story you’re hearing, it’s already running amuck in your mind. There is no getting it out.
The story Jesus puts in their minds 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. Then the father finds his other son and tells him to get to work, and this boy agrees at once, but he 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 religious folk are. That’s pretty good news for prostitutes and scoundrels. It’s not much of a recommendation for the rest of us.
Worse, the story doles out a double damning for the self-proclaimed good folk—our faith is worthless if it doesn’t respond to what God is doing in our own lives, and more than worthless if it doesn’t respond to what God is doing in the lives around us. If Jesus had pointed at John, a wild haired man ranting in the wilderness, and asked us who sent him, we wouldn’t have answered him either. The prostitutes, scoundrels, drug addicts, and thieves would at least have ventured a guess.
Most of us, I suspect, are too afraid to be true scoundrels. And nobody is suggesting prostitution as a viable lifestyle choice. Still, if we believe these stories in the gospels, scoundrels and the prostitutes went far out of their way to hear wild John preaching down by the river.
We good folk worry more about who has the right credentials than about who might be channeling a word from God. I’ve got degrees hanging on the wall, and education is not to be despised, but someone off the street, uneducated and untrained, may just have something God wants us to hear. God seems to use the oddest prophets. Only a few of them wear ties.
And we say that we’re responding to God, but we move our lips more than we reach out our hands. Meanwhile, God smiles on the folks who say they want nothing to do with church or religion but who still respond to the weird prophets God sends.
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 in public for three years. I wonder how much credence we religious folk would give a murderer and an exhibitionist. Jail time and medication are more likely what we’d offer 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 find yourself sitting across from a friend but focusing on what you’re thinking instead of what your friend is saying? Same thing.
We may not 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—Malachi—and I’m sure that he can tell me more about God than I know, but do I listen?
Stop walking around with the answers. Start listening to the questions. Who knows? Now and then we may run into some odd prophets. Let’s just hope they’re dressed better than Isaiah.