Matthew 21:28-32; 18:1-5
SETTING THE CONTEXT
Jesus tells the parable we are about to read after he enters into Jerusalem for the last time. The first story in chapter 21 is the one we read on Palm Sunday about his triumphant entry into the city. We all know that sense of victory doesn’t last very long; he will be executed in a very short time. During this time period, Jesus does a lot of teaching through parables and warnings. Some of the religious leaders are challenging him regularly and scheming against him trying to trip him up in front of the crowds. When Jesus tells the following parable, he is teaching in the temple in Jerusalem and the chief priests and the elders interrupt him to challenge him. He directs this parable to them.
READ Matthew 21:28-32
This next passage is also in Matthew only it happens earlier while Jesus is still up in Galilee. You might say he’s still at home. He is in Capernaum and at home with Peter. I imagine the disciples asking Jesus this question, already anticipating the answer. As we all do from time to time, they are rehearsing in their minds what’s about to happen getting ready to receive the honor about to be bestowed upon them, but let’s remember the quote from seminary professor Ted Weeden last week, “The Kingdom puts you in free fall.”[i].
READ Matthew 18:1-5
Today’s parable is one of three parables in a row that deal with the same theme. The parable of the two sons we just read, the parable of the wicked tenants and the parable of the wedding banquet all talk about the tragic rejection of Jesus and God’s offering of life through him. I warned you about parables like these last week; they can be offensive to us. In five different places in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus makes it clear that those who think they’re entitled to God’s kingdom are going to find themselves on the outside wishing they were in. [ii] And these comments are not directed to those we’d think Jesus would scold, they are directed at the churchy folks, the leaders of the church! That makes me a little uncomfortable. In the passage, he says quite plainly “The tax collectors and the prostitutes [the people you think are the scum of your society] are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.” Now I don’t know about you, but I can understand why the church leaders would be offended.
Let’s look at the story. Both the righteous and the “sinners” are sons who are called to do God’s work[iii]; that tells us right off the bat about God’s grace and mercy. It should reinforce to us the call to encourage everyone no matter what their lifestyle or circumstance to do the work of God. As hard as it is to not judge people, that is precisely what Jesus asks us to do over and over again. This story reminds me of the old joke about the man who died and went to heaven. As he walked through heaven, he saw all these people he would never have imagined would make it into heaven. He just couldn’t believe who they let in. He ran into a former co-worker and said “I’ve been walking around and I just can’t believe who they let in up here. They’ll let anyone in! To which the co-worker replied, “When I saw you, I thought the same thing!” Both groups in the parable were called to repent and the one you’d expect would have done just that, the religious leaders, didn’t. They gave lip service to the call, but didn’t follow through. Others who one would not expect to respond did and Jesus said they would enter the kingdom. Now I don’t think that Jesus was telling us all to quit going to church and become enemy collaborators or prostitutes. I do think he was saying loud and clear that lip service and outward appearances are not enough. You won’t fake your way into the kingdom of heaven. And as the Word in Life Study Bible says, “His words show that people don’t have to become socially “proper” before they can believe. God responds to faith no matter how troubled a person’s life may be.”[iv] Praise God for that!
There is a characteristic that is critical in helping us to keep the right inward perspective and Jesus talks about that in our second reading this morning. The disciples had walked away from their lives to follow Jesus. They had traveled with him, watched him heal and teach people, they themselves had gone out to teach and heal, so when one of them asked him who was greatest in the kingdom of heaven, I can well imagine they were each rehearsing their answers when he named them. “Oh Jesus not me. You’re too kind. I just do what I can.” If there were Pharisees and leaders from the local synagogue or congregation close by, I wonder if they straightened their backs a little waiting to hear their names or positions called. Can you imagine the looks on their faces when Jesus called a child, a dirty, runny-nosed child over? I’ll bet their jaws dropped. Children were valued by the Jewish people, but they were not pampered like we pamper our children. They had no status, no rights, like women they were considered property. In the Greco-Roman culture, unwanted children were abandoned to die. Remember that just a very short time later the disciples scolded some folks who brought their children to be blessed by Jesus. Oh well, I guess they still didn’t get it, but then I rarely learn my lessons the first time either. Jesus’ statement that they must become like children or they would never enter the kingdom of heaven was shocking. Then he shares that very important character trait, “you must be humble like this child.”
I sometimes hear people talk about being humble as not thinking I’m good or good at anything. My daughter, Rachel, was a beautiful baby (if I do say so myself). She had a round face, a cute button nose and black fuzz on her head. When she was a newborn and before I went into the ministry, I was standing at the back of George’s church greeting people with her in my arms when one of the women of the church approached. She bent over Rachel and said in that special way we talk to small children, “I would tell you that you’re beautiful, but I don’t want you to be prideful so I won’t.” My immediate thought was how sad. This woman wanted to pay my beautiful child a compliment, but she had to do it in a back-handed way because of her understanding of humility. I believe that humility has sometimes been confused with self-loathing, but the two definitions are very different.
Very early in the history of Christianity, a number of men and women decided they could best love God and their neighbor by living a very different life from most of their fellow Christians. They left everything and went to the deserts of Palestine, Egypt, and Syria to become monks. Humility was a cornerstone of their understanding of love. To them, humility meant recognizing that other people are as valuable in God’s eyes as we, ourselves are. It also meant recognizing that we all make mistakes, we all hurt others intentionally or unintentionally.[v] Living with humility is living with the knowledge of our own imperfections and sins. It is not self-loathing; I believe that is an offense against God. It is living with grace-full self-scrutiny and self-honesty. Humility frees us to live without pretending that we are perfect or that we have all the answers. Humility frees us to accept that we may not be as good at some things as other people are and we need other people in our lives to help us. I’ve been watching young children lately. When our 4 year old grandson spilled his milk at the table, he didn’t agonize over it for hours; he just shrugged his shoulders and picked up his glass. The preschoolers at the pool don’t stand in groups worrying about how they look in their suits or if they know anyone to play with, they just jump in the pool and find someone and start playing. Jesus turns the whole question of status upside down so that we might approach God and each other with a humble heart and a humble heart is an open heart.
The religious leaders challenging Jesus were self-righteousness and arrogant. They thought they were better than Jesus and they schemed and plotted to embarrass and discredit him in public. They had closed hearts to the new thing that God was doing. I would guess that they had closed hearts to other people as well. I believe that to be humble like a child is to have an open heart. It is to give up the pretensions of self-importance, self-righteousness, and self-reliance that lead us to look down on each other.[vi]
Bruce Marchiano played the role of Jesus in the Visual Bible movie “The Gospel According to Matthew”. The role changed his life and he wrote a book about it called In the Footsteps of Jesus: One Man’s Journey through the Life of Christ. He talks about an experience while he was preparing for the scenes with children. He was sitting in the living room with his director’s 4 year–old-son and his friends watching cartoons when a 6 year-old farm worker’s daughter came in. As she strolled into the room, she could have chosen a dozen places to sit but she walked right over and plunked down next to Bruce. As he goes on to say, “Then, without batting an eyelash, she leaned in and curled under my arm, nestling into my chest. …It was so astoundingly unsophisticated, unintimidated, unpretentious, void of formality, needing, trusting, vulnerable, fearless, and given-over. And the God who created heaven and earth whispers into my heart, “Come to Me as one of these.”[vii] Who is in the kingdom of heaven? Jesus tells us anyone- anyone who opens their heart to God and does the will of God. Amen.
[i] Theodore J. Weeden, Sr. George Cushman’s class notes from A380-The Parables of Jesus, Colgate Rochester Divinity School, February 4, 1981.
[ii] See Matthew 7:21-23; 8:11-12; 21:28-45; 22:1-14.
[iii] Philip O. Deever has a good discussion of this parable in The Kingdom Is… (Nashville: Tidings, 1979), p. 56.
[iv]> Article on Matthew 21:31-32 “Prostitutes Enter The Kingdom” Word in Life Study Bible: Contemporary English Version (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1993), p. 1463.
[v] Roberta C. Bondi, To Love as God Loves: Conversations with the Early Church, p.13.
[vi] Eugene Boring has a good analysis of Matthew 18:1-5 in “The Gospel of Matthew” The New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes: Vol. VIII, p. 374.
[vii] Bruce Marchiano. In the Footsteps of Jesus: One Man’s Journey Through the Life of Christ. (Oregon: Harvest House, 1997), p. 105.
Sermon delived by Rev. Nancy Cushman on September 10, 2006.
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