"The Madness of the Elders"

MATTHEW 21 23-32

MARCH 03, 2013

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           You may be familiar with the old story about a group of generals who built a super computer that was able to solve any problem large or small.  These military leaders assembled in front of the new machine for a demonstration.  The engineer conducting the demonstration instructed these officers to feed a difficult tactical problem into it.  The military leaders proceeded to describe a hypothetical situation to the computer and then asked the pivotal question: attack or retreat?  The enormous super computer hummed away and then printed out its one-word answer -"Yes."

            The generals looked at each other, somewhat stupefied.  Finally one of them submitted a second request to the computer: "Yes, what?"   Instantly, the computer responded, "Yes, Sir!"

            Like these generals, The Elders of Israel, AKA members of the Sanhedrin, were accustomed to people saying "Yes, sir" to them.  They were the religious authorities. They were used to being treated with deference and respect, but there was a new teacher in town, a teacher who was threatening their authority.  This alarmed the Elders of Israel.  They feared Jesus' popularity.  In their eyes Jesus was preaching heresy and leading people away from the religious traditions that defined Judaism.  On the Tuesday of Holy Week the Elders of Israel decided to expose him as a fraud.

            Starting today we are embarking on a sermon series I'm calling "March Madness."  You may have heard the term used in conjunction with the sNCAA basketball tournament, but I'm using it to refer to those who sent Jesus to the cross.  Today we will look at the madness of the elders.  In subsequent weeks we will look at the madness of Judas, Caiaphas and Pilate.

            Our passage for today is not the first time Jesus had been asked, maybe challenged is a better word, to present his credentials.  Earlier in Matthew's Gospel, first the Pharisees (12:38) and then the Sadducees (16:1) demanded that he certify his status by providing a sign from heaven.  In our passage for today, however, the challenge is more ominous, since it is posed by those who will constitute the court that will sentence him to death.  In fact, the next time Jesus meets these guys he will be brought before them to be judged.

            The elders opening question, is a two-parter.  The first part reads, "By what authority are you doing these things?" with these things referring either to the events of the week, primarily his royal entry into the city and his cleansing of the temple, or "these things" could be referring to Jesus' entire public ministry.  The second part is the more troubling part of the question:  "and who gave you this authority?"  In other words, did this authority come from God, from Old Redlegs, or from yourself?  Sensing they had already answered that second part for themselves, Jesus goes on the offensive.  He 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?

 

            The Elders suddenly find themselves between a rock and a hard place.  If they say the baptism comes from heaven, that is from God, then how are they going to deal with John's pointing to Jesus as the long expected Messiah?  On the other hand, if they say John's baptism did not come from heaven, then they risk the ire of the majority of religious pilgrims in Jerusalem.  John the Baptist had become a martyred hero to the people.

            We get questions like that all the time.  Tough questions that no matter how we answer will cause us trouble.  Does this outfit make me look fat?  If you answer, "Yes," good luck the rest of the day, but if you say, "No, not at all, " well, you risk him or her going out of house looking terrible.  "Was I a little to harsh with the sales clerk?"  If we answer truthfully, we may hurt the person's feelings, but if we don't tell the truth we break the ninth commandment. 

            So stuck between a rock and a hard place, the Elders answer "We do not know," and Jesus tells them, "Well, if you can't answer my question, I will not answer yours," then he proceeds to tell this hostile audience what he thinks of them by telling three parables back to back to back.  He tells them The Parable of the Two Sons, The Parable of the Wicked Tenants, and The Parable of the Wedding Banquet, but this morning we will consider only the first parable - The Parable of the Two Sons.    

            This parable appears nowhere else in the Bible.  Matthew is the only gospel writer to record it.  Listen to it.  He asks the Elders of Israel a second question.  He asks,

 

            What do you think?  A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, "Som, go and work in the vineyard today."  He answered, "I will not;" but later he changes 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?" 

           

            This time the elders of Israel do not dodge the question.  This time they answer it.  Listen to what they said.

 

            They said, "The first."  Jesus said to them, "Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom 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.

 

            The meaning of the parable is crystal clear.  The Elders of Israel are like the son who said that he would obey God, and then did not.  The tax collectors and prostitutes are like the son who said he would go his own way, and then took God's way, but to tell you the truth both sons leave a lot to be desired.  Neither son was a complete joy to his father, and that's the point of the parable.  Jesus is not heaping praise on either son.  Both sons are imperfect, one at the beginning by refusing to go work the vineyard and the other at the end by not following through on what he said he would do.  Granted, in the parable Jesus gets across what he thought about the Elders of Israel, but both sons come up short. 

            I personally wish Jesus had added a third son to his parable.  I would have liked a son who listened to the request, agreed to do it, and did it at once with enthusiasm, but this is The Parable of Two Sons and not The Parable of Three Sons so my wish is not granted. 

            Nevertheless, there are some important lessons for us in this story.   This parable deals with two kinds of people:  one kind whose words are a lot better than their deeds, and a second kind whose deeds are a lot better than their words.  Let's take a closer look at both. 

            First, there is the son whose profession is better than his performance.  He says, "Sure, I'll go work in the vineyard." He even replies with great courtesy.  He uses the word, "Sir."  He answers, "I will go, Sir."  What a proper young man, however, Eddie Haskell from Leave It to Beaver comes to mind here.  Do you remember Eddie Haskell?  He always said the right words in front of Wally and the Beaver's parents, but get him away from the parents, well his actions did not live up to his words. 

            Edwin T. Settle in the publication Religion in Life writes about how dangerous this type of behavior can be.  Listen to what he writes about his military training.  He writes,

 

            When our division was sent to the California coast to do amphibious training, late one evening I was walking along the deck of a large army transport chatting with a Jewish medical officer.  On his own initiative he started to talk about religion ... "You know," he said, "I admire the man whom that book describes more than any other man of whom I know.  And I have tried to put into my life some of the principles he taught. But sometimes I'm puzzled.  As I look around me, I find persons who call themselves Christian who, it seems to me, deny the principles this man taught.  I wonder sometimes, if I am not more Christian than they are, even if I am a Jew.

 

            Promises can never take the place of performance, and fine words are never a substitute for fine deeds.

            That brings us to the other son.  Let's update the parable a bit.  Imagine a father coming to a son, a week ago on Friday saying, "Would you help me shovel the driveway?"  and the kid is sitting on the couch, playing his Playstation 3 and he looks up to his dad and says, "Dad, no way.  I'm in the middle of this right now."  But then, after the father leaves, he comes to a breaking point in the video game and goes out and helps his father shovel the driveway.  Unfortunately, his initial attitude did not win him any points and a person can easily spoil a good thing by the way he or she does something.  Now, we would have liked him to have said right off the bat, "Sure, I'll be there in a minute," but he's still better than the other son, right?  Right?

            Well, those are the two sons, but there is one the last thing I want us to note.  Jesus began the parable with a question.  He asked the Elders of Israel, "What do you think?"  I want to end this sermon with a question of my own.  "What do you think about Jesus' words in verse 31?"  Listen to them once more,

 

            Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.

 

            I hear those words and I say, "NOOOO.  NOT THEM.  ANYONE BUT THEM."  Why hold out hope that the Elders of Israel might also make it into heaven?  Granted the tax collectors and the prostitutes will get better seats in heaven, since they will beat them into the pearly gates, but why does Jesus hold out the possibility that the Elders of Israel might still make it to heaven?  If they ever get around to changing their minds about him, Jesus is going to let them into heaven.  This is probably not a surprise to anyone here, but Jesus heart is a lot bigger than mine.

            Let me close with this.  A number of years ago a nurse from Australia was doing wonderful things with children crippled with polio, and the name of Sister Elizabeth Kenny became known all around the world, even here in the United States.  To one who spoke to her admiringly one day, Sister Kenny said quietly, "I'm no genius.  I'm just a very ordinary person who still remembers and puts into action the stories my mother told me from the Bible."

            We didn't need a third son in the parable.  What we needed was a daughter.  Fine words and fine deeds.  I bet you women knew that all along.  Amen.