I find this Sunday’s gospel lesson (Matthew 21:23-32) a little confusing. First, there’s the question of authority: “By what authority are you doing these things,” the Pharisees ask. Then, there’s Jesus appeal to John the Baptist as a reply: “…Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” Then, there’s the stand-off between Pharisees and Jesus, to which Jesus responds with the parable of the sons. It feels like a whole lot going on at once. What’s the point? Why does all of this happen together?
Let’s get to the heart of the matter, and I think the parable is the right place to start. Two sons are asked by their father to go and work in the vineyard. One refuses but then goes to work. One agrees but then goes elsewhere. Which one did the will of his father? The first, of course.
Because doing is more important than saying. Because actions show where our heart really is. Because calling a tail a leg doesn’t make it a leg. Because God isn’t interested in baseless words but heartfelt deeds.
To me, that seems to be the takeaway. In my mind, it’s hard to read the parable any other way. Because of that, I think the rest of the lesson—the bits about authority and John the Baptist and the stand-off and the final criticism at the end of the passage—are all about words vs. deeds.
The Pharisees ask Jesus by what authority he is doing “these things.” As Seth Olson pointed out in staff meeting yesterday, “these things” mean the cleansing of the temple and the other post-entrance-into-Jerusalem drama that is unfolding. But Jesus knows that an answer won’t do. Words can’t satisfy these skeptical, angry opponents. Nothing he could say would convince them of the truth. So Jesus appeals to action, refusing to engage their question until they answer the question about John the Baptist.
Yesterday, Steve Pankey wrote a great piece about why John the Baptist is important. In short, the answer is because those who followed John were predisposed to recognize Jesus. Thus, the question Jesus asks them about the nature of John’s baptism is another way of forcing the Pharisees to sort between words and actions. Their debate among themselves shows this: “If we say ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us…” They already recognize that words and actions aren’t lining up. To say something is of God requires real response. Lip service just won’t do.
So what does the preacher say? I’m not preaching this week, but I’d ask, “Are you a Christian with your tongue or with your heart?” Think of the General Thanksgiving from Rite One Morning Prayer (BCP 59):
…And, we beseech thee,
give us that due sense of all thy mercies,
that our hearts may be unfeignedly thankful;
and that we show forth thy praise,
not only with our lips, but in our lives,
by giving up our selves to thy service,
and by walking before thee
in holiness and righteousness all our days…
Isn’t that the point here? Isn’t this exchange between Jesus and the Pharisees really about how we live the Christian life? Do our words and actions line up? Do we testify to the gospel seven days a week or only Sunday morning? Have we acknowledged the lordship of Jesus Christ only with our mouths, or have we given him our whole hearts?