A Choice with No Choices
Grace mercy and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ
Imagine yourself in this situation. You have a pain in your stomach so you go to the doctor. The doctor has no quick diagnosis and orders a series of test. After your last test, you go to the doctor’s office for an appointment about the results. When you get to the doctor’s office, things are different; the receptionist seems to be expecting you and takes in right away. The nurse also reacts differently; she takes you right to the examination room without even weighing you. When you get into the room she doesn’t take your temperature or check your pulse or blood pressure. You sit on the examination table and hear the doctor paged to your room. The doctor comes into the room looking at some papers closes the door quietly and sits down. (You think to yourself, she’s never done that before). She tells you that you have cancer. She then presents two treatment options; both have very dire side effects. Unfortunately both of these procedures will likely result in a slow and painful death. It is a choice with no choices. This is where we find the elders in our reading, but the consequence of their choice is much more dreadful and eternal.
The chief priest and elders came to Jesus while he was teaching and said: “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” When the chief priest and elders said “these things” they meant more than just Jesus’s teachings, after all in the strict sense he was qualified to be a Rabbi and teach. They wanted to know how he could have the triumphalentry, which happened just days earlier; the cleansing of the temple of the money changers and of course the performing miracles. Jesus answers them, which at first seem to be an evasion of the answer the chief priest were asking for; but it really isn’t. Jesus told them the truth; he and John the Baptist obtain their authority from the very same source. So Jesus asked them: “I also will ask you one question, and if you tell me the answer, then I also will tell you by what authority I do these things. The baptism of John, from where did it come? From heaven or from man?”Here Christ directly challenges the authority of the Chief priest and elders, by their answer they would define where their authority comes from. The teachings of the chief priest and the elders were often in direct contrast to the teachings of Christ.
The chief priest and elders were stuck in a difficult position at this point. As they enumerate in the text, both answers are wrought with danger for them. First if they said the authority came from heaven, Jesus would correctly ask them why they didn’t believe. This would be the next logical natural question because they represented the most learned people on the planet about God.Secondly, if they say that the authority comes from man, they risk angering the crowds that consider John the Baptist to be a prophet. The crowds felt this way because John the Baptist was a prophet which announced the imminent coming of the Messiah. John the Baptist in just about every sense was an Old Testament prophet because he told people to repent and specifically told people about the coming Messiah; and like all the other Old Testament prophets he never saw his prophesies come true. Herod had John’s head cut off before Jesus was raised form the dead. In this discourse Jesus linked the ministry of John the Baptist and himself. Unfortunately, just like in our scenario in the beginning, there is no third choice like, “go back to the way things were before; before you were sick or in this case before Jesus started his ministry”. By not answering the question, they did answerthe question posed by Christ; they did not give the right answer, “from heaven”.
The chief priest and elders are basically confronted with the same question that Jesus posed to the disciples in Matthew chapter 16. On all my books I have a sticker which has my name, phone number and email address on it. I put it there because I have the fantasy that when I lend a book it will actually come back; and at least if it doesn’t, my brothers at the seminary might at least feel guilty when they see it and remember they never gave my book back. But more importantly, on the labels I have Matthew 16:15 quoted, which says: (Jesus said) to them, “But who do you say I am? I have that there because that is the most important question every person must answer. The chief priest must answer that, the guy building pickup trucks in Detroit must answer it and the farmer in Arlington Wisconsin must answer it. This question can be answered in a few different ways; a prophet, an example to emulate, a figment of someone’s imagination or just a shrug of the shoulders and say “I don’t know”. But unless we answer the question the way that St. Peter did when he told Jesus, “You are the Christ, the son of the living God” we are not answering correctly, if you don’t answer it in that way, then you are just like the chief priest and elders.
Jesus then used a parable, the parable of the two sons,to help explain what John the Baptist was doing out in the wilderness. He was looking for sinners to repent, the chief priest and elders didn’t repent. The same parable could be told today. There are people in the church that don’t recognize their sin. Just like the second child in the parable, that says “Oh sure dad, I’ll work in the vineyard” then doesn’t. These peoplecome to church on Sunday, sing all the hymns and tithe; but later, even on Sunday night they look at porn on the internet, go to topless bars or talk about their friends behind their backs. All of which are sinful behaviors; none of which please God. All those today who confess with their lips but deny by their lives are like these Jewish rulers.
At the end of the parable Jesus says that tax collectors and prostitutes will be in heaven before the chief priest and elders. These people were especially looked down upon in Jewish society. The tax collectors of that time were to collect a certain amount of tax money for the government and anything extra they took, they could keep for themselves. It was basically legalized theft. The prostitutes were obviously selling their bodies, something that was despised by the Lord. The first child in the account realized he sinned. Once again we could say the same thing today. The woman that had an abortion and now realizes her sin, the guy that stole to feed his $2000 a week drug habit and repents of it or the woman that turned from the gay lifestylewill be in heaven before some that are in the church every Sunday. The chief priest and the elders physically saw people repent of their sins with John the Baptist; but they saw no salvation for such low characters. That is why Jesus came; He came for the sinners. Jesus said in the book of Mark: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” Sure, he threw a little sarcasm in there, after all we are all sinners, and some just don’t recognize their sin. When we realize our sin, we see our savior.
This is the only reason that Jesus came. As we read in last week’s Gospel lesson, it’s not how much time you put in;it’s that you are saved. Salvation is a gift from God, not something we have earned. Many of the Jewish people at the time of Christ felt they had attained favor with God. They thought that their covenant was because they were better than the people around them. The Israelites were chosen people, not people being paid for a job well done. We are the same, we are saved by the grace of God, and Hedoesn’t owe us anything. We try not to sin, and that’s a good thing, but that will not get you into heaven.
But how we live our lives does matter. If we just keep sinning and don’t repent we may find ourselves living in a sinful lifestyle. Paul tells us in Romans not to abuse God’s grace. We are not to just sin and say, “Jesus will take care of that”. We are called to be imitators of Christ and part of our witness to the world is our behavior. As Paul tells us we don’t want to become slaves to our sin. If we keep sinning without repenting we may not see that we are sinning anymore, if we don’t see sin in our lives, we won’t be looking for a savior. Our sinning can push away the gift of grace.
What are we to do? When we come to confession examine your life in light of the Ten Commandments, truly confess those sins you have broken. Doing this it will help you to realize the sins you are committing and help you in reducing them. Here we use the Law as a mirror, it reflects back to us our violations and transgressions. We look our lives this way in church every Sunday, but we really want to do this every day. Do not be confused, this will not get you into heaven, only faith in Christ as your Lord and Savior can do that. But examining your actions will keep you realizing your sin and therefore realizing your need for a savior.
As with the scenario in the beginning, with the doctor and dealing with a real predicament in regards to the treatment of a terrible disease, the chief priest and elders were on the horns of a dilemma. They were trying to ascertain by what authority was Christ doing miracles and teaching, but Christ had greater things in mind. Obviously, Christ knew he was from heaven, but he had more teaching to do. He took the opportunity to teach all who were there that the Kingdom of God is for sinners. Sinners of all types, even the lowest characters in Jewish society could find salvation through Christ.
In the name of the one that came to save sinners, Amen.
And now may the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.