In almost every career that I’ve had, I’ve talked for a living. When I was a graduate student teaching freshman level Russian, I stood up in front of a room five days a week and talked. In Russian, no less.
|About This Sermon
Rev. Mark Schaefer
Part 3 in the series: “St. Matthew Wants You to Know“
St. Matthew’s United Methodist Church
September 27, 2020
Exodus 17:1-7; Matthew 21:23-32
As a lawyer, you do a lot of writing, in fact most lawyering is pushing paper around, but there comes a point when you have to stand up before someone and talk. Making a case. In fact, often in court it’s how well you can talk that matters.
And then as a minister, one of the central tasks is to stand up here every Sunday and talk. It’s part of my understanding of why my entire professional life has been. On some level, it’s been all talk.
So, it seems a strange thing for me to stand up here and say, somewhat hypocritically it might appear, that talk is cheap.
Now, the gospel lesson for today reinforces this idea. In this passage from Matthew there are actually two stories, connected one to another, each of which demonstrates something about speech and talking.
A Question of Authority
In the first, Jesus talks quite well. He’s asked a question about his authority. The temple leadership says where are you getting the authority to do what you’re doing? Jesus responds that if they answer a question of his, he’ll answer their question. Then he asks: did John the Baptist’s baptism come from heaven or from people? This was a great question because no matter what they answered it’d be the wrong answer. And they even say to themselves, “If we say ‘from heaven’ then he’ll say, ‘Then why didn’t you listen to him?’ but if we say, ‘from people,’ then the crowds will be upset because they viewed him as a prophet.” So they simply answer, “We don’t know.”
And so we have a story in which this talk is not cheap. Whatever answer they might have given would have had consequence for their relationship with the people.
The parable of the two sons
Then Jesus tells a parable. It’s a parable about a man who owned a vineyard who had two sons.
A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go.”Matthew 21:28–31
Jesus turns to those listening and says, “Which of the two sons did his father’s will?” Of course, they answer that it was the one who did what his father asked not the one who said he would do what the father asked.
This is a lesson that is paralleled throughout scripture. It’s paralleled elsewhere in Matthew’s gospel:
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?’ Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.’Matthew 7:21–23
The lesson that Matthew is making here is a lesson found in the prophets, it’s found in the Psalms, we read it in our prayers this morning, that spoke of our lips being far from our hearts. We are saying one thing but in our being we are far removed and doing something else.
This passage in chapter 7 is itself succeeded by another parable that begins: “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock.” (Matthew 7:24)
Everyone who hears these words and acts on them.
THE TWO BROTHERS
This parable of the two brothers is more than simply a reflection on the need to be active. This parable speaks right to the heart of a conflict that was going on in Matthew’s day that we find echoed in the gospel text.
Context of Matthew’s Gospel
Most scholars of the New Testament date the composition of the gospel to either the late 70’s or the early-mid 80’s of the first century A.D. A time referred to by scholars as the “Great Divorce”—a period taking place between A.D. 70 and A.D. 90 when Christianity and Judaism were parting from one another in a very painful way.
After the Romans destroyed the temple in Jerusalem in A.D. 70, a crisis befell Judaism. That crisis was one of leadership: the temple had been the center of worship and cultic life. The priesthood and the sacrificial rites of the temple had been at the center of Jewish religion for a millennium. And now the Jewish faith was without a temple, without a center, without a priesthood.
Who now carried the mantle of the faith of Israel? Who now was the true successor of the religion of the patriarchs and prophets? Who would carry that forward.
There were two sects in First Century Judaism vying for the inheritance of that mantle.
The Pharisees and the Nazarenes
The first is the sect of the Pharisees: the proto-Rabbis who believed in an oral tradition that went alongside the written tradition. Who were developing schools of thought and rabbinic interpretation, of legal reasoning.
Next to them was this upstart group of Nazarenes—early Christians. Jews who dared to claim that the messiah had come and that his interpretation of the law was the paramount one, the one that determined faith and action.
In the middle of this conflict, Matthew’s gospel is written and it bears all the hallmarks of that conflict. When we read Mark, sometimes it will tell a story in which “someone” asked Jesus a question, or “a scribe” or “one of them” came up and tested him. In Matthew’s gospel almost without fail, when that story is told that person is identified as a Pharisee.
And so, here we have this story of two brothers: one who says he will do the will of his father and doesn’t and the other who does the will of his father even after he says he won’t. In this there’s a parallel that Matthew is trying to draw. It’s a bit sectarian and we do not need to embrace his thinking on this issue. That is, we do not need to continue to view our Jewish brothers and sisters as the second brother in this narrative. But in the context of Matthew’s context, he is castigating those he feels are paying lip service to the demands of the tradition rather than living it out.
And that is why Jesus says that tax collectors and prostitutes—because even though they are the ones who’d said no at first, they are coming in, they are now doing the work and turning in repentance. They are seeking after something they understand they do not now have.
This parable, then, becomes one that not only reflects this conflict taking place in First Century Judaism, but serves as a model for how Christian community is meant to act.
UNITY OF FAITH AND ACTION
St. Matthew wants you to know talk is cheap because faith that is only a profession of faith is insufficient. For Matthew—and we see this throughout his gospel—faith requires a unity of faith and action. Of confession and deed. Of word and life.
Talk in the church
This is a perennial lesson for us. This is not just a lesson for First Century Palestine.
There are a lot of Christians who seem to think that talking is sufficient. There are an awful lot of Christians who loudly proclaiming that they’re Christian but show no evidence otherwise. They seem to believe that proclaiming oneself a Christian is what Christian faith is about. When in Matthew’s estimation there are people who would never even claim to be Christian who demonstrate Christ-like living far more effectively.
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’ will see the kingdom of heaven…” Jesus is reminding us that faith is not about confession or creed. These things are important—they’re important to us as reminders of what we are supposed to be, but they are not sufficient to the world. It is not enough to stand on the street corners and to proclaim that you believe in the Triune God if you have no love in your heart for anyone at all. It is not enough to claim that you were saved if your definition of salvation does not include meeting people’s daily needs.
This is not a Pharisee problem; it’s a church problem. And one that keeps coming back. It’s why it made it into our Book of Worship that we would have prayers that say “our lips are far from our hearts” because the publishers know that we’re going to keep needing to pray that.
This passage is one of many in Matthew’s gospel where Jesus seems to be calling out hypocrisy.
Now hypocrisy in our mind is a little harsher than what it is in the New Testament. Hypocrisy to us tends to mean outright betrayal of values or stated principles today. For example, when someone campaigns on an anti-corruption platform and then is found to have part ownership or a mob-owned casino. Or a librarian who has a lot of overdue library books at home. Or when you find anyone who says one thing and who does the exact opposite.
But in the New Testament, the word for hypocrite ὑποκριτής hypokritēs meant a “play-actor”— that is, you’re putting on a show of faith but not actually doing it. You’re playing at being religious, you wants people to think you’re religious and to accept this identity of yours as a “religious person” but you’re not actually doing the work. That’s the play-acting. That’s the hypocrisy that Jesus is talking about.
And perhaps it’s fitting that there is no other category of people who receive such harsh condemnation from Jesus as hypocrites. He doesn’t scold other sinners, or the tax collectors or the prostitutes. It’s the hypocrites—the ones who claim they are people of faith but who do not live out that faith with love, compassion, and justice.
St. Matthew wants us to know that talk is cheap, because it will often be easier to talk a big game than to actually do the work. This is a human thing—not just a Christian thing.
St. Matthew knows this. That’s why he reminds us that talk is cheap. We will always lapse.
But there is a word of grace for us in this. When Jesus says that the tax collectors and prostitutes will get in ahead of those who are saying yes but not doing it, note that he says “ahead of you” not “instead of you.”
He reminds us that even we who fail to the demands of our faith have a place in that kingdom. If we would be first in line there is need for that unity of faith and action. Not simply saying yes but living out the yes.
But as Becky mentioned in her children’s message, Jesus came and died for us while we were still sinners. Not after we’d worked it all out. Not after we’d passed the test, but in the midst of our brokenness Jesus comes.
If we would be worthy of claiming that name, we have to do more than say “yes;” we have to embody that yes with our whole lives.
Exodus 17:1–7 • From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages, as the LORD commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. The people quarreled with Moses, and said, “Give us water to drink.” Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the LORD?” But the people thirsted there for water; and the people complained against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” So Moses cried out to the LORD, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.” The LORD said to Moses, “Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.” Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel. He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and tested the LORD, saying, “Is the LORD among us or not?”
Matthew 21:23–32 • 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?” 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. 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?’ But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.” 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.
“What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. 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. 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.”