Matthew 21: 23 – 32 The Rough Edges of Righteousness September 27, 2020

The Rough Edges of Righteousness

Matthew 21: 23 – 32

 (preached on September 27, 2020)


In my work as a pastor, I’ve heard a lot of stories about heaven, but last week I heard a new one.  I think it speaks to our gospel passage for today.  According to the story, a man died and went to heaven.  When he got there, he found the beautiful place he had long imagined.  It was full of lush gardens and elegant mansions.  He entered one of the mansions and came to a room lined with shelves.


On the shelves, he was surprised to find rows and rows of human ears!  His heavenly guide explained that these ears belonged to all the people on earth who listened to God’s word every week, but never followed God’s ways.  They heard God’s word, but never acted on it.  So when these people died, only their ears ended up in heaven.


When it comes to following God’s righteous ways, what matters most is what you and I do in our lives.  That’s the point Jesus is making in our gospel passage for today, from Matthew.  The chief priests and elders have confronted him in the temple.  They ask where he gets his authority.  What they really want to know, though, is if he thinks he is the Messiah, the anointed one of God.


It’s important for them that Jesus answer this question, because the Messiah would have authority over the temple. The Messiah would be in charge of the holiest of holies, the sacred place that has long been the center of Jewish religious life.


The chief priests, supported by the scribes, have ruled over the temple for centuries.  They’ve been the ones to keep the sacred traditions handed down from their ancestors. But if the Messiah comes along, they’ll have to stand back and turn their authority over to him.  And Jesus doesn’t look anything like a Messiah to them.  Jesus, with his hands roughened by work and his feet dusty from the road, doesn’t look at all like the refined, cultured person they’d expect God to anoint.


Still, he’s behaving as if he has the right to do what only a Messiah can do.  He’s healing the sick and giving sight to the blind.  They want to know who he thinks he is.  So they ask, “Who gave you a license to heal the sick and give sight to the blind? Who gave you a license to preach God’s word?”


But Jesus doesn’t answer their question.  Instead he asks them another question and then he tells a parable.  “A father had two sons. He tells the first one, ‘Go and work in the vineyard.’ The son says, ‘I don’t want to,’ but later he goes and works.  The father tells the second son to go and work, and he says, ‘OK, sure,’ but never goes.”


Jesus asks, “Which one is doing the will of his father?”  Of course, say the priests, the first one is doing his father’s will. Now Jesus has just about had it with them.  He tells them, “Crooks and loose women are going into the Kingdom of God ahead of you!”  Because, when Jesus preached, crooks and loose women didn’t just listen to the word of God.  When Jesus urged them to change their hearts and lives, they did.  They were ready to follow God’s ways of righteousness.  These temple priests, who are supposed to be following God’s ways, are further from the Kingdom than they are!


When the priests heard that scofflaws and women of ill repute were closer to God’s ways than they were, they must have been furious.  They had only disdain for such people.  In their view, such people had no right to God’s Kingdom.


But these crooks and loose women, these folks who are a little rough around the edges, are closer to God’s Kingdom than the priests with their smooth hands and eloquent words.  These rough folks have said yes to God.  They’ve begun to change their lives.  All the priests have done is listen to God’s word.  They haven’t acted.


Bishop Will Willimon tells about a man who had belonged to his church.  Willimon calls the man John Smith.  He confesses that he didn’t like John Smith at all.  He found him irritating: loud and full of himself.  Willimon writes, “In the first five minutes of conversation with him, you quickly learned that he made a lot of money, through all sorts of business shenanigans.  He came to church, but only when he felt like it.  People said he liked to make a big show of his financial success, but he didn’t give much to the church.”


One day Willlimon was visiting in a nearby city when he met someone who knew about his church.  “Isn’t that the church where John Smith is a member?” the man asked.  When Willimon said yes, the man went on to say, “I’ll always be indebted to John: me, and a lot of people like me.”


Willimon was surprised.  “Indebted?”  he asked.  “Why?”


“John is the one who paid for my education.  My education and the education of a lot of people like me. When I was in high school, I worked in one of his businesses after school.  He hardly ever spoke to me when I would see him at work, but my senior year, I got a note from him. The note said something like, ‘I want to help you with college.  You get into the best college you can, and I will see you through.’ That was all.  I got into a good college and he paid just about every cent of it.  I wasn’t the only one either.  I think he footed the bill for a couple of dozen young people in that town.”


Willimon was thunderstruck.  He said, “I don’t think I’ve ever heard that of John.”


The man replied, “I bet you never will.  He asked us not to tell anyone about his generosity.  He said he didn’t want everybody beating on his door asking for a handout.  But I think the real reason is that he is, deep down, a genuinely humble person.  I know for sure that he has done a lot of good in his own, quiet way” (Willimon, Pulpit Resource, vol. 33, no. 3, pp. 54-55).


Jesus might say that loud, pushy businessmen are well on their way to the Kingdom of God.  Because when it comes to following God’s ways, what matters most is what you and I do in our lives.  Some people who are a little rough around the edges may, in their own, quiet way, be following the righteous ways of God.


Rev. Elva Merry Pawle

Pentecost 17


Music for Meditation

“He That Shall Endure to the End” Felix Mendelssohn.                     

Maria Ferrante, Soprano