3 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?” 24 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. 25 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?’ 26 But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.” 27 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. 28 “What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ 29 He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. 30 The father[a] went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. 31 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. 32 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. (Matthew 21:23-32 NRSV)
Fear. It controls our feelings and our actions. The more we fear, the more fear controls our every move. Seemingly good and kind people turn unkind, even contemptuous when in the clutches of fear. Fear hides behind a broad array of negative feelings.
We fear losing the status quo; our sense of power and privilege. We desperately hang on to it at any cost.
Jesus didn’t arrive in Jerusalem on a war horse. Instead he mocked the elite Roman Legion by arriving on a donkey: Jeremiah’s symbol of peace. We celebrate this arrival on Palm Sunday, the Sunday that begins Holy Week and Jesus’ betrayal, trial, and crucifixion. The week ends with his resurrection on Easter Sunday.
As soon as he arrived in Jerusalem, he entered the temple and “cleansed” it. His cleansing was in the form of a huge mess, tipping tables of money changers and seats of dove sellers. His point: the temple is no longer a holy place. It had become a place where the powerful religious elite hid out like robbers in their den.
Then he turned to the crowds and began healing. Worship in the temple had taken priority over service to humanity.
Watching Jesus that day were those “robbers.” The religious elite hanging on for dear life to their temple, their power, their status and privilege. They hungered and thirsted for the days of Kings David and Solomon when Israel was a unified, independent nation. Their power was only as strong as Rome permitted. They woke up every morning wondering if this was the day Rome would take over and the temple would be gone.
As long as they had the temple, they had their power. Fear kept them in its clutches. They couldn’t even state why the pits of their stomachs were always in knots. Perhaps if they had been honest with themselves, they could have let go of the fear and recognize that they would still be okay, temple or no temple.
Instead, pride took over and arrogance entered in. They despised compassion. Their righteousness was turned into self-righteousness.
How often has this happened in history? This isn’t about the Jews and in no way does this give us a pass into antisemitism. This is the human condition. Who are the powerful elites inside and outside the church who are hanging on to power and wealth and privilege in our nation and our world today?
Jesus turned the tables in more ways than one. The crowds adored him. He understood them and spoke to them with respect and authority. They didn’t care that he was a Galilean: one of “those people.”
The day following his triumphal entry and cleansing of the temple, Jesus arrived at the temple again. He’d been teaching a group of followers when the chief priests and the elders approached him.
“What gives you the right to smash up this temple? Who gave you this authority?”
They really don’t want an answer to their question. They want him gone. Go back to Galilee where you came from. Darken our doors no more.
Jesus knows what they’re asking and skirts the danger with a dangerous question of his own. The religious leaders are afraid to answer. They don’t dare admit that John the Baptist’s authority was from God. That’s blasphemous. But, the crowds are looking at their prophet Jesus and they fear confronting him. So, they back out of the question with a shrug of their shoulders.
Jesus then uses a parable to teach them and the listening crowds. A father asks two sons to go out into the vineyard and work. One says no and goes anyway. The other says yes and disappears out the side door.
When we say “yes” to God, we’re saying yes to caring for God’s people and the people God loves. When we say “yes” to God, we’re affirming our desire to return to God our gratitude for all God has done for us. Saying “yes” to God means that we no longer belong to ourselves. We give up our own false sense of power and prestige and privilege to serve in the kingdom despite a broken heart and soul.
Jesus’ power comes from God. It is ultimate. It is more powerful than any nuclear weapon.
Earthly power is temporary, limited and deals in fear. Fear of losing the status quo; fear of change; fear of someone bigger and better coming along to depose your own sense of power. Earthly power resists anything and anyone who would disturb your sense of “truth.” It attacks those with whom you disagree. It creates war and builds walls. It is so dependent on self-preservation that it can’t see the blind and the lame outside their doors.
So, if poor leadership is based on fear and protection and sidelining, what does good leadership look like?
It looks a lot like the Beatitudes.
Good leaders read the paper and watch the news and mourn for a world torn apart. They set aside their pride, fearlessly sharing their neighbor’s pain. They know how different the world is compared to the world God wills it to be.
Good leaders refuse aggression as a first resort. They assert that God is ultimately in charge. They are humbled, yet refuse to stand down from injustice. What they are on the inside is reflected in their actions. They are aware that God is at work and strive to serve where their gifts and talents are most needed.
Good leaders avoid being exclusive, contemptuous and prejudicial. They seek reconciliation. They aren’t just peaceful, they make peace wherever they can.
Good leaders are strong even when they appear to be weak. Think Gandhi, or Desmond Tutu.
Think of Jesus.
Conversations with Jesus were usually uncomfortable. Yet, even today, Jesus changes minds that were once so certain and angry. Jesus points away from fear and urges repentance. Jesus calls us to head out into the vineyard and get our hands dirty serving the least, the last, and the lost.
Which son are you? I admit that all too often my words don’t match my actions. I say to the Father “I’ll go, sir.” Then fear freezes me in my steps as I listen to vitriolic words without trying to make peace. I give money to those who say they’re in need, but rarely stop to talk to them as the children of God they are created to be.
But, once in a while we all say, “No, Father. That I can’t do.” Only to discover that our steps walk forward to the vineyard even while I’m explaining to God why we can’t possibly do it. Sometimes, we just can’t not do what the Father asks.
Dangerous conversations with Jesus. They expose fear and pride and arrogance and contempt. They point us to a different way of living.
They point us to Beatitude-Living. They point us to a sense of peace that sees clearly all that is around us. And even while our hearts break and we hunger and thirst for God’s reign to be completed on earth, we see glimpses that give us hope and fill those empty spaces inside us with fresh incentive and energy.
All glory and honor be to God.