Ezekiel 18: 25-28; Philippians 2: 1-11; Matthew 21: 28-32
As we swing into this section of Matthew’s Gospel we arrive at a scene change. We have now entered Jerusalem and tension begins to mount during Jesus’ final days before his death. The battle lines have already been drawn between Jesus and, well, just about every leader there is, both political and religious. Today we hear the first of five different controversies that are raised and only add to the tension between the camps. The first controversy is where John the Baptist receives the authority to say what he does, and like only Jesus can do, rather than answering the question, tells the unusual and yet obvious story in today’s Gospel.
Needless to say, since it is the first of the controversies, it’s important to remember that it is being told to the opposing “camp” of pharisees, chief priests, and elders of the people and so there is going to be something that trips them up and knock them out of the routine of their lives. It’s also important to know that the second son, the one who answers yes but doesn’t really mean it is the one that culturally would be the one that is accepted. It was best not to dishonor his father like that and so despite knowing that he has no intention on doing what the father has asked, says so anyway; it’s an immediate and expected response.
That’s the hang-up with the passage and the confrontation with the chief priests and elders of the people with Jesus. Most of what they hold others to are simply learned responses. We all have them. From the time we are little kids, we learn ways to protect ourselves from being hurt, from being rejected, from thinking we’re going to hurt others’ feelings, and so this defense of ours keeps us from living in and out of faith; rather we live in fear.
The chief priests, elders of the people, and the pharisees all had these learned responses. Even if they didn’t believe it or understand it, they had everything figured out and all the answers, including a predetermined understanding of God. Everything was viewed through that lens. And so when they now confront Jesus about John the Baptist, it’s a lot easier to understand because they didn’t want to hear what he had to say! They didn’t like it! It challenged them and their thinking. It wasn’t the learned responses that they were used to and what they feel they needed to protect, but rather he spoke and acted out of the divine indwelling. Of course, it ended up costing him his life as well.
We see this all too often in our politics, we see it often in the leadership of our Church, and I thin even was evident in the whole scandal that has hit the NFL the past weeks. All too often, our learned responses are what we think people want to hear or what we want them to hear in order to protect ourselves or the institution. If I speak the truth, I won’t get elected. If I speak the truth, the Church rejects. If I speak the truth, we lose income on football. If we have to work that hard to protect an institution or a symbol, it’s probably living not out of faith and ongoing conversion, but rather out of fear. Yet, we have learned how to get what we want, but as Paul tells us, “humbly regard others as more important than yourselves.”
For the Israelites whom Ezekiel speaks, it’s the blame game. Their learned response, and even ours at times, is to blame everyone else for our problems. It’s never because of the choices we make, or when our yes really doesn’t mean yes. They blame God; they blame the Egyptians; they blame, blame, blame everyone else, and yet, Ezekiel tells them today, the learned responses of life and of childhood must die in order to live. It really is a slap in the face when Jesus raises up the tax collectors and prostitutes but it is them who sought a change of mind and heart. It is them that saw the learned responses of life no longer worked and only led them further into sin and away from life and faith. It is only so long before it catches up with us, our emptiness from living this way, when we seek change in our lives.
My friends, it’s not easy. It takes a great deal of courage to let go of those learned responses and our ego and the fear of somehow being rejected; when in reality, we only end up rejecting ourselves in the process. We choose all too often fear over faith. We pray today for the courage to wake up each day and make our yes mean yes no longer to live out of fear but rather faith. It is a lifelong commitment to seeking conversion in our lives. It is a lifelong commitment to saying yes to faith over fear. It is a lifelong commitment to an authentic way of life.