Fourteen or so verses earlier Jesus rolls into Jerusalem riding his Jackass 4.0 liter. (Matt 21 v. 5) People call out, “Hosanna.” People call Him, “Son of David.” (v. 9) Some even take off their clothes, well at least their cloaks, and throw them on the road—to create a veritable 1st century red carpet. And as the fervor grows, the city fills with anticipation, thirsty for news to sate the question, “who-is-this-person?” (v.10)
And the best the city dwellers can deduce is that Jesus is a popular prophet. (v. 11)
The Romans seem not to notice and certainly not to care. And this is curious, for wouldn’t they be concerned about hundreds, if not thousands, of people paying homage to a leader. I mean, really, think about it. One can only wonder what the Roman military establishment made of all the commotion, garrisoned as they were in the city, hunkering down in the fortress Antonia. Nowhere in the text do we see that the fortress dispatches, scouts, guards, spies, or troops. Perhaps they see people waving palm fronds rather than swords, taking off cloaks rather than putting on armor, and upon seeing the man on a donkey rather than a warhorse, perhaps they dismiss the whole thing as another hokey obscure Jewish festival. In other words, something unworthy of their attention, just another curiosity in a land ripe with curiosities. Perhaps they see this parade’s final destination, the temple, which serves as the confirmation they require to dismiss this whoIe Hosanna-Jesus-Parade as random Judaica on open display. Perhaps this is why the Romans set up no detour signs nor roadblocks. I mean, seriously, what military operation comes to town taking off its clothes, waving limbs, and trotting to the temple.
And in such a fashion revolutionary Jesus makes it to the temple (v. 12) and commences Operation: Cleanse the Father’s House. The so-called “prophet” presumes the authority to clear out the temple of business folks. And the so-called “prophet” presumes the authority to admonish them like a rabbi. (v. 13) And he goes right on doing presumptive authority things that a so- called “prophet” generally isn’t known to do: the blind see, the lame walk, and the “prophet” never uses his authority to hush them as they cry out, “Hosanna to the Son of David.” The authoritative “prophet” hasn’t hushed them since he entered the city where the same cry had been lifted up before the city gates.
And this makes the clergy angry, for a rural donkey-rider has presumed the authority to enter the city, to come to the temple, to execute and exact judgment on the temple’s business-as-usual, to teach, to heal, and ultimately to ascribe praise to his own name—a praise that shows that he is so much more than prophet, rabbi, priest, and healer. Jesus is the One who prepares praise to be given through others to himself. (v.16)
And just like that, Jesus leaves town, hangs out in Bethany, and comes back on the morrow, hungry for figs. But the local Fig-acatessin is figless and Jesus orders it to close its doors. And just like that, the Fig-acatessin goes out of business. And upon seeing the closing the disciples urge Jesus for an explanation, and so Jesus offers a homily on faith and prayer. And just like that we are back at the temple a day after Jesus has upset the apple cart 24 hours before—must’ve been a jolly jaunt.
Just like that, together with the throng, we walk into the temple—every step of the way we listen to Jesus teach us, perhaps more on faith and prayer, and we are abruptly interrupted for so it begins. (v. 23) The clergy drum up a question of authority, one sort of redundant in a way, because it had been answered only yesterday. (v.16) The question hangs in the room, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” And Jesus answers 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?” (vv. 24-25)
This question further frustrates the clergy. They hold a confab. And their confab goes nowhere. They realize that Jesus has trapped them. They say, “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 say to Jesus, “We don’t know.” A fair answer–they probably didn’t know. I mean, think about it, who but God could truly know? Perhaps they are toying with Jesus because they actually do know, but still—whether they know or do not know is not the point. The point is Jesus and what this Jesus does next.
With the question still floating around the rafters, and with a candid, “We don’t know,” floating around there, too, God the Son remarks–“Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.”
But that’s not the end of the story for the Pharisees, nor for us.
For voila! up comes a series of parables that point to the identity of Jesus as Son of David, and ultimately Ancient Israel’s promised Messiah, the Son of God. These parables do not “TELL” the clergy any “by what authority” answer to their question. These parables “SHOW” it.
Jesus does not prevaricate. Jesus shows a son that says, “No,” but later changes his mind and honors his father’s request. That seems an awful lot like a Son who, “…threw himself on the ground and prayed, ‘My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.’” (c. 26 v.3 9) This really is the case in point….no morality lesson about human behavior to be had here for this parable is all about Jesus.
And yet…this Sunday sermons will delve into the meat of this parable and turn it into all sorts of human-focused stuff. Perhaps, one might be unfortunate enough to hear:
1) Are we going to decide to follow through on what we said (say) to God or are we going to break the deal?
2) Honor our promises to God and do not break them.
3) Honor your baptismal covenant with all your might, and do not break it……but there’s just enough grace if you do.
4) Sinners promise and break their promises. Saints promise and hold out, hold on, hold tight, push through, believe with all their might, casting all their cares on Jesus…and poof they made it! Yay, human initiative and perseverance!
5) Some random trajectory about knowing God’s will and then finding the gumption to get it done.
6) Some foolishness about human repentance. A true cop out for the word commonly used for “repent” is not in the text…but alas, some will force the word for “to change one’s mind” into some monologue about us needing to repent, believe, and do God’s will—perhaps true, but still not in the text.
And—-NONE OF THIS IS ABOUT JESUS!
A sermon focused on Jesus might explore:
1) Jesus comes to the walled city that is us and is greeted by us with lavish celebration, at least, until he disrupts our temple “business as usual.” Then what?
2) Jesus invites questions by what Jesus says and does. Just as Jesus answers the 1st century clergy in stories (parables based on real life) rather than a direct remark, is it possible that Jesus answers our 21st century real life questions in real life parables rather than direct remarks? Why might Jesus do such a thing?
3) Jesus is the source of authority, and yet does the Father’s will, even if the authority he bears grants him the right to do whatever he pleases—-even if it’s out of his own will—-after all, Jesus is God. (And let’s face it, by the time Jesus is praying in Gethsemane [ch 26] , we see that Jesus has a will, and the Father has a will, and that the Son subordinates His will—so to say that the Son and the Father “will” the exact same thing might prove problematic—especially since the Son asks the Father if the cup might pass him by.)
4) Jesus–regret or no regret? Consider how the Greek word μεταμεληθεὶς (v. 29) and μετεμελήθητε (v. 32) both forms of μεταμέλομαι which means “to change one’s mind” and some sources indicate perhaps to do so apart from regret. For Matthew’s gospel seems to be the only gospel that uses μεταμέλομαι in this way. Perhaps, it is important to the evangelist that the parable’s son who changes his mind does so apart from regret (not one word in the text about remorse/regret) especially since, later in Matthew, Jesus the Son prays that a cup be passed from Him—is it important that Jesus does what is asked of Him apart from regret? Is it in some sense good news that Jesus struggles to do what is asked of Him by God? And if there is regret on Jesus’ part—isn’t that still in some sense good news?
What if this text is simply about Jesus? I mean, Matthew’s gospel does lead with the genealogy of Jesus, and then his birth, and then this text begins with Jesus addressing another identity issue—His own identity issue.
What if this text is not an excursion into doing God’s will? What if it isn’t about us—the humans?
What if it is simply a teaching tool used by Jesus to offer the clergy folks (and us by extension) a chance to think more deeply about the identity of Jesus, and through thinking more deeply on the authority of Jesus, we come to receive this Jesus and discover that we are invited into the Hosanna-Jesus-Parade? And, to be with Jesus in a house of prayer, rather than a house of business-as-usual? To receive from Jesus another chance to change our minds—no regrets!