Don’t Stay on the Sidelines

by | Sep 27, 2020 | Sermons

Don’t Stay on the Sidelines

Today’s passage finds Jesus having an encounter with the Chief Priests and Elders in the temple of Jerusalem. They ask him where his authority comes from and Jesus replies with a question which ends up being a scathing rebuke. 

If we were asked a similar question how might we answer? Would we find ourselves on the sideline as a result of our answer?

Scripture: Matthew 21: 23-32

There is an old Jewish witticism in which someone asks his rabbi, “Why do rabbis always answer a question with another question?” to which the rabbi replied, “Why shouldn’t a rabbi answer a question with another question?”

Jesus uses this technique in our passage today to devastating effect. The Chief Priests and Elders want to know where his authority comes from. He responds by saying, “I’ll tell you, but first tell me where John’s baptism came from? From heaven or of human origin?”

Now the Chief Priests and Elders are stuck and they know it. Their dialogue with one another indicates that if they answer one way, they will have no further recourse to challenge Jesus. If they answer another way the people will be angered and rise up against them. The Chief Priests and Elders take the easy road out and admit that they don’t know, even when they are fairly certain the answer is from heaven. However, to admit that would cause them a loss of face and power.

To put this in context I borrow from Prof. Stanley Saunders commentary on this passage, “…Jesus’ adversaries are chief priests and elders of the people. The political legitimacy and authority of the priestly leaders in Jerusalem, who ruled at Rome’s pleasure, was itself widely questioned. Both the elders, who were wealthy elites, and the chief priests controlled large parcels of land in Judea and beyond, making them virtually identical with the rich, powerful landowners who are the frequent targets of Jesus’ parables, as in Matthew 21:33-46. “Elders of the people” is an ironic ascription; it soon becomes clear that the chief priests and elders do not represent the people; instead they both fear and seek to manipulate the crowds to carry out their will.” (Stanley Saunders)

The arrival of Jesus in Jerusalem, his clearing and occupation of the temple was a concern for these elites within society. Jesus represented a disruption to their political and material fortunes. If the people turned on them, then their power and influence would erode. If they weren’t seen to be managing the situation, then Rome would replace them. Clearly something had to be done about Jesus. The problem was the Chief Priests and Elders were beginning to recognize that Jesus was the one who probably had the clear authority to do what he was doing. It was them, with their strict adherence to the law and invoking impossible standards of living, who were in the wrong.

I wonder if we can discern the similarities that play out today within our own social structures? Today we have individuals who control vast amounts of wealth. Many modern politicians own a sum of wealth that the average individual could only dream of possessing. There are individuals who claim to preach the gospel flying around on private jets, owning large mansions and multiple properties. How would Jesus respond to the structures we have created in the modern age?

Returning to Saunders, he asks, “Can we discern the nature and source of the powers that hold us in thrall? Can we distinguish the fruit of divine power in the midst of all that the powers of this world promise us?”

It’s a pointed question, but at some point, we have to ask who we serve? Jesus asked this question and taught on this question in a variety of different ways. “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money” (Matt 6:24) and “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s” (Matt 22:21).

The Chief Priests and the Elders they can’t figure out who they are serving. If they answer Jesus by stating the authority comes from God, they might actually serve God. If they respond from humans, they serve their own ends in preserving power, but they know it will anger the people. The result is that they equivocate and they only serve their own self-interest in maintaining power.

We’ve all been there, stuck between two hard choices. The one we know is right, but will anger others and the choice we know is wrong, but will please people. Rather than making the correct choice, we waffle and say there are advantages to both sides. I won’t lie, sometimes I read the scripture passage for a week and I cringe because I know someone is going to be offended. But if I’m honest, I didn’t pursue this calling to make friends. I pursued the calling of a preacher to shine the light of the gospel into our lives and sometimes that means you have to call a thing exactly what it is.

Jesus makes that point in this passage by asking a question to a question. He goes on with a parable about two brothers. One who says he’ll work but doesn’t and another who says he won’t work, but does. Who did the work?

The answer is clear, Jesus makes it clear but we get in the way because often the right answer is the hard one. It’s the one that will either offend people because they are living outside of the grace that God desires us all to live in. Or we make the other choice because it will be easier for ourselves. It won’t put us out and place us at a disadvantage.

Sometimes you must pick a side, the Chief Priests end Elders don’t because they are unable to admit their own fault and don’t want to lose their popularity with the people. Neither of these things honours God.

Prof. Cameron Howard writes, “Equivocation is not safe, even if it seems to be at first glance. It certainly does not shield the chief priests and elders from Jesus’ judgment, nor will it shield us.” (Cameron Howard). When you see something that is wrong, speak to it. When you see injustice being committed, call it out. It may be difficult, it may make you unpopular, but our goal is to bring about the kingdom of God and all the grace that goes with it. We can’t do that when we sit on the sidelines taking the easy route. Amen.

St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church

St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church

St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, Cobourg is part of the Presbyterian Church in Canada. The congregation was established in 1833 and continues to serve the community.

St. Andrew’s supports the gathering of community agencies, providing space for the Affordable Housing Committee. Rev. Ellis’ voice is key in advocating for improvements in awareness, empathy and action on key determinants such as housing, income and food security. 

Kristina Nairn

Public Health Nurse, HKPR Health Unit

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