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Lenten Devotions from Fourth Presbyterian Church

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Today’s Scripture Reading | Matthew 21:23–32

When he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” Jesus said to them, “I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” And they argued with one another, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.” So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.

“What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.” (NRSV)

When the late Judge Abner Mikva was a young man, he walked into the ward headquarters of his Chicago neighborhood to volunteer for campaign work. He was met by a cigar-chewing Chicago politician, who asked, “Who sent you?” Mikva replied, “Nobody sent me.” The politician replied, “We don’t want nobody nobody sent.”

Which brings us to Jesus in this story.

The chief priests and scribes (albeit presumably without cigars), give Jesus the same challenge: “Who sent you?” But Jesus (not being Abner Mikva) was sent by someone and turns the question back to them: “Who sent John the Baptist?”

And these men can’t answer him for a very interesting reason. It’s not that they don’t know. It’s that they can’t agree on an expedient answer. They either have to walk back their treatment of John and admit they were wrong or say something unpopular. Nowhere in the discussion is any debate over what they believe is the answer to Jesus’s question—it’s all about themselves and how to maintain their standing. The truth becomes subject to political posturing.

Jesus holds up two kinds of people, ones who change their ways or those who don’t back up their promises, and asks which type is more virtuous. The priests say the first kind is. Jesus says, “Yes. And you’re the second kind.”

The privileged have a huge problem with changing their behavior when confronted with their own hypocrisy. Jesus was unrelenting with this type of challenge, and they killed him for it. When we look at the world, how do we see people pointing out institutional hypocrisy treated? The people who point out the need for change, who kneel and say, “We have to change?” John was beheaded by a king of questionable legitimacy. Jesus, sent to the cross by the powers he challenged.

There are two types of people in this story. Which type are we?

Lord, remind us that clinging to our privilege prevents us from doing your work. Help us to see that change begins with us, and point us to the vineyard so that we may do the work. Amen.

Written by Rob Koon, Coordinator of Fine Arts

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