The man entered the city to the shouts of acclaim and expectation. An exhuberant crowd was gathering welcoming his arrival and growing larger and larger. It was a crowd fed up with local authorities and injustice.
It was a crowd tired of pandering politicians with their calls to “keep calm” and to “be patient.”
It was crowd that had grown tired of strong-armed tactics employed all too regularly, of armed troops stationed on their streets, of harassing checks for identification, questioning about their daily business, “Where are you going?” and surveillance.
This crowd might have been in Portland in 2020, or the West Bank in 2000, or in Watts in 1968, or in Boston in 1773, but I suspect you know the crowd to which I am referring.
It was Jerusalem, and the year was 33 A.D. Jesus was making what we now euphemistically referred to as his “triumphal entry.”
A “triumphal entry” is not how the Roman authorities, the Chief Priests and Elders, or Herod would have viewed it.
This was a protest, a march….replete with vandalism if you think about it, as the people were cutting the palm branches off the city trees to lay before Jesus as he rode in.
It is important that you begin to look at this Gospel reading with those kinds of eyes, because too often we view this story as if it were just another one of those “questioning by the Pharisees” events.
We have seen quite a few of those in Matthew’s Gospel, as Jesus has engaged in laying out the Kingdom of God and had brought into sharp contrast his “teaching with authority.”
Jesus does not teach or instruct “in theory”
He rather engages and provokes the listener to a moment of decision. He drives to action.
The rich young man approaches wanting to know how he can gain eternal life. “Sell your possessions, give alms to the poor, and come follow me,” Jesus offers, which causes the man to turn away sad and leave because he had “many possessions.”
The man is driven to action, albeit not the one Jesus had hoped for.
Demons are cast out and infirmities are healed, they are not talked about, discussed or explained away.
Such things that plague people are driven away. They are driven to action.
Matthew, Mark and Luke all agree that when Jesus finally makes the journey to Jerusalem, that too is a fateful decision.
It is an arrival that upsets and churns up the town.
The entry in Jerusalem catches the notice of the local authorities.
Jesus makes his way to the public courthouse of the day, the Temple in Jerusalem, where he finds merchants and traders busily exchanging coins and selling things at marked up prices to take advantage of the travelers who have come to offer the required sacrifice.
The sight of it enrages Jesus and the protest that had been largely peaceful now turns moderately violent as tables are overturned and Jesus raises angry shouts about how the Temple has been changed from a house of prayer into a den of thieves!
This surely attracted the attention of the authorities, if nothing else had!
And so, as Jesus is now occupying the outer courts of the Temple and the crowds are still gathering still to hear him, the story picks up this day of the response by authorities to the disruption that has been caused.
“The Chief Priests and Elders of the people came to him as he was teaching….”
You have to visualize this with all the gravity of having caught the attention of local authorities and having them show up to question you.
This is like protesting outside City Hall and suddenly looking up to see Mayor Lukas, the City Council, City Manager, and Chief Smith coming up to ask you by what right you are doing this assembly?
This is like having a bible study outside the Capital in Jefferson City and having Governor Parsons, The Speaker of the House and the Majority and Minority leaders all come out of the Capitol to ask you just what you think you are doing on the Capitol lawn and who gave you permission to be here?
This is, in other words, a serious moment that is charged with political tension.
We make a mistake if we think this was just a minor questioning by the Pharisees, or an EQUAL exchange between Jesus as Rabbi with other Rabbis or teachers.
This is an intimidation play.
The Chief Priests and Elders of the people coming out was supposed to have the same impact that President Trump, William Barr, and General Milley in his fatigues was to have on the people in Lafayette square.
Jesus should have retreated and scurried off to hide from the approach of the authorities like any other rational person would have.
The surprise in the story is that Jesus does not give ground.
He stands it.
He is in his Father’s house and he will speak truth to power here.
The Chief Priests and Elders question by what authority he is teaching, and he turns the question back around on them by asking them to rule authoritatively on another matter.
Was John’s Baptism of divine, or human origin? You answer me that, and I will answer you! Jesus says.
John’s baptizing had been immensely popular with the people.
John himself was recognized by Herod, who although he had him put to death in an unfortunate show of face saving, nevertheless recognized John as a prophet.
The Chief Priests and Elders weigh the politics of their answer, and then do the politically expedient thing that politicians often do.
They do not answer.
“We do not know.” They say.
And so, the question about authority continues to hang in the air like thick smoke or tear gas.
Jesus will not tell them by what authority he is teaching in the temple.
But, as he has answered questions so often before, he will tell them a little parable! This one is about two sons, one that refuses at first, but then later goes and does what his father had asked of him, and one that is happy to mouth the words his father wants to hear but has no intention of ever going or doing the requested work.
“Which one did the will of his father?”
This they can answer, and it is related to their own question about authority. They answer it themselves, but their own action or inaction, their own mouthing of words that are not followed through with actions that speak of God’s justice or God’s Kingdom condemn them.
They clearly know who has given Jesus authority.
They just are unwilling to acknowledge it, or give up their own power, hoping by means of the powers of this world, title, importance, and position, to silence the will of God.
That is not so easily done, something referred to earlier as Jesus said , — that the very rocks and stones themselves would cry out even if he asked his followers to be silent.
I know this feels like a heavy sermon but bear with me.
As much as we can miss how politically charged this moment is, we also are in danger of missing what Jesus does with it.
One might expect the Son of God to lay hold of his authority now and to confront the powers that have come out against him.
One might have expected Jesus to seize this moment, with the politicians flummoxed and laid bare in their lies and the crowds whipped up and rallied to his side. The expectation might have been to seize power, overthrow the Romans and establish the Kingdom of God by might and by force, for Jesus to impose his will on those who came to question him.
But such is not the way of Jesus, nor of God.
God has been around for a while, and God has seen how Kingdoms that are built on the seizing of power, and the imposition of personal will, and the elimination of the opposition all share in the same fate.
They are themselves overthrown and mighty is the fall.
There is more to this parable that just indicting the Chief Priests and the Elders for their inaction and hollow words.
There is also signaled within it the proper action, and the new way forward.
The Kingdom of God comes near when a person repents and takes on the role of a servant, being obedient to the will of the father.
Authority comes not from your title, or your position, or your stature in a community or by decrees or executive orders.
Authority comes from being authentic, transparent, willing to lay aside one’s own will to take up instead the will of God for all people.
Authority comes not from holding on to favored position for yourself, but rather from caring for the other. Harking back to the Beatitudes of Matthew 5, where those how have no portion at this moment are promised a real future with hope.
We dare not miss this, for it turns out it is not by peaceful protesting or property damage that God’s will is accomplished.
It is accomplished in a Cross.
It is accomplished in a call to service and caring for the other that breaks the cycle of how power works in this world.
God is up to a new thing in Jesus. It was signaled by John who came and said this is going to be all about repentance, preparing.
It was taught by Jesus, who proclaimed the Kingdom was here in our midst in as much as we repented and turned our gaze away from clinging tightly to our own power, privilege and possessions and began to release those things, so that those long denied such things could finally find and have hope again.
“By what authority are you doing theses things?”
That is the question the world asks of us still, whenever it questions our wisdom, or our motivations, our advocacy for those who have no voice and no place at the table.
“By what authority do you operate food pantries? Feed the homeless? Declare that Black Lives Matter or the LGBTQIA+ people are beloved by God, whole, full people and worthy of love and rights? Work for systemic change? Dare to enter the complex? Get comfortable with the messy?”
May we answer that we are “driven to action”, not for our own sakes, but out of a sense of repenting of our past failings to now more closely do the will of our Father in this, God’s creation.