PRAYER: Remind us this day, O God, that we possess your authority to share love with one another. Remind us this day, O God, that we are authorized to offer hope and healing, joy and comfort to those who need it most. Empower us to rise up and be your disciples – this day and every day.
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable to you O God, my rock and my redeemer. Amen.
The chief priests and the elders of the people interrupted Jesus as he was teaching to demand that he tell them by what authority he was doing the things he was doing.
As we’re in the 21st chapter of Matthew, we need to take a closer look at the timing of our story today before we get much further. At the time when these chief priests and elders question Jesus’ authority, we’ve arrived pretty close to the end of Jesus’ earthly ministry.
Our reading begins in verse 23, but several important things happen in the first 22 verses that we should keep in mind before we get too deep.
First, At the beginning of this chapter, Jesus makes his triumphant entry into Jerusalem – what we know as Palm Sunday. Verses 1-12 tell us about Jesus sending two disciples to get a colt for him to ride, and of people laying their cloaks on the road at his feet. Palm branches are being cut and spread out before him.
And then in verse 12, Jesus goes into the temple and throws out the money changers. He says, “‘My house shall be called a house of prayer,’ but you are making it a den of robbers.”
So when the Temple authorities question Jesus in our reading today, you can get a sense of their motivation. The day before, he made quite the spectacle, and they have a fair amount of righteous indignation. They want to know just who this Jesus guy thinks he is!
But there’s one more interesting thing that happens between the overturning of tables and them questioning Jesus about his authority. Starting in Verse 18, the day after he entered Jerusalem and caused all the ruckus at the temple:
“In the morning, when he returned to the city, he was hungry. And seeing a fig tree by the side of the road, he went to it and found nothing at all on it but leaves. Then he said to it, “May no fruit ever come from you again!” And the fig tree withered at once.
The questioning they directed toward him about authority had to do with understanding who he was a disciple of – who he was taught by. They were asking Jesus for his credentials by way of asking who he had studied under. If you were going around teaching, then you were presumably a student of somebody, and in that context, that’s where you would get your authority. If Jesus would have answered them with a name of some teacher, then they would have had a way to discredit Jesus by discrediting his teacher.
Jesus knows that the chief priests were trying to entrap him, so he answered their question with a question of his own. He asks them about John’s authority, and he does so because he knows two things: First, that these chief priests had rejected John. They looked down on him, and they viewed John as nothing more than a pest who tried to challenge their own authority – an authority that they clung to in order to maintain their status quo… their power. And second, that the people loved John. John’s followers were far and wide, and knowing this, Jesus knew that the chief priests couldn’t afford to get those people angry with them. So, he traps them with a no-win scenario about John.
One might come to the conclusion that Jesus outsmarted them by avoiding the question with semantics. But the truth is that Jesus didn’t avoid their question at all. Jesus answered them directly by telling them the parable of the two sons.
One son says to his father that he won’t go out and work in the field, but eventually does. The other son says that he will go work out in the field, but ultimately doesn’t. Which of the two did the will of his father? Which of the two sons bore fruit?
Remember the story right before our reading this morning that I shared a moment ago about Jesus and the fig tree. Ultimately, what is Jesus looking for from those who follow him? What is Jesus looking for from those who claim to be his followers? He’s looking for fruit. He’s looking for there to be more than just leaves on branches, like that fig tree. He’s looking for more than just religious window dressing; he’s looking for those who claim to follow him to be emulating the love, the mercy, the compassion, the healing, the hope that Jesus himself offers. If you want to talk about avoiding a question, Jesus is calling out the chief priests because they are themselves avoiding the question put forth by the prophet Micah: “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice and to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God?”
About 10 or so years ago, I walked into a coffee shop and as I was placing my order, I noticed a man sitting alone at a table with his laptop open and his open Bible. I recognized him immediately; he is the senior pastor of one of New Jersey’s largest independent mega-churches. Anna and I had been to his church a handful of times. I had seen him preach. I went over to him and introduced myself. At this point in time, I had already started the process toward changing careers, but I had not yet started seminary. I had just begun researching seminaries, so, I thought this might be a good opportunity for me to ask him which seminary he attended. I figured I would go home and Google whatever he told me to see if it was one I might add to my list of potentials.
But to my surprise, he told me that he’d never gone to seminary; that his church didn’t require it. I was amazed. He preached with such authority, and with such wisdom, I couldn’t believe that it was possible for someone like him to have NOT gotten some professional 21st century theological higher-education. Turned out I was wrong.
Now today, I stand here with my seminary degree firmly in hand. I’m proud to say that I have studied under some amazing scholars. I have read from some extraordinary textbooks, and I have researched theological understandings. I have had to dig deeply into my soul and have been challenged in both my theology and my worldview. I believe that I am vastly transformed for having had the experience of going to seminary. I believe that my ministry is informed greatly by much of what I learned in seminary.
I often think about my encounter with that pastor in the coffee shop all those years ago. As I have gained experience and expanded my understanding of theology, I have to admit that I look at that pastor and his church today and I realize that I have a fundamental disagreement with the theology that they teach there. As I said, Anna and I went there a number of times before I went to seminary, but now I don’t think I would be comfortable listening to him preach because we disagree on much theologically. But even so, regardless of any differences we may have, I cannot and I will not deny the fruit of their ministry. That church has an amazing ministry of taking food trucks into some inner cities and feeding the homeless. That’s fruit on the fig tree. They prepare hygiene kits for people in Newark, Paterson, Elizabeth, and more. That’s fruit on the fig tree. They have a bowling league for adults with special needs. That’s more fruit on the fig tree. That is what Jesus was looking for in the fig tree, and that is what he was challenging the chief priests to understand in the parable of the two sons. You can talk about God all you want. You can be the religious elite and proclaim Jesus as your Lord and Savior from the mountaintops. But if you’re not bearing fruit…
Jesus’ words in this parable were intentional. When the father told the second son to go into the vineyard, he said, “I go, sir.” In Matthew 7:21, Jesus says, “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.
What is the fruit of love that we can bear? What is the fruit of grace that we can share with our community? What is the fruit of justice that we can grow? How can we, here today, bear fruit that is pleasing to God, and that is empowering to those struggling to be free.
The teachings that enable us to bear fruit are about radical hospitality, inclusive love, and a constant merciful care for all those whom God loves. Rather than wrestling with decisions about whether or not our faith is using the correct biblical translation, or whether we put a comma in the right place in the Lord’s prayer, let us commit ourselves to bearing fruit that is about welcoming the stranger, loving the unloved, lifting up the poor.
Those chief priests and religious elites of the temple tried to act like gatekeepers, deciding who is worthy of God’s love and who is not. They had an attitude of exclusion that would withhold grace from whomever did not meet with their approval. That’s not what the church of the 21st century is called to be. We have a deep longing for relationship with God, and we are called to answer that longing by drawing closer to God in our prayer, in our service, and in how we love one another, in how we include one another, in how we bear fruit.
There was a Quaker writer named J. Brent Bill who wrote that “we yearn in the deepest part of ourselves for real and profound connection to the divine. God’s ways will always lead us into the abundant life that is promised through Jesus Christ… to bearing fruit. God is like that first son who bears fruit in his actions – as we are called to be. As we continue our Contemplative Prayer workshop this week, let us be reminded of that longing for God that draws us into deeper relationship with God and one another, that strengthens us to bear fruit for God’s kingdom. Let us be reminded that we all – each and every one of us – has the authority to share God’s love and demonstrate God’s abundant mercy in all that we do, with every fiber of our being.
Take your authority, and use it this week to bear fruit, to build relationships with your neighbors, to break the barriers that get built by our own fears. Take your authority this week and love one another, producing the fruit that Jesus seeks on the fig tree. Take your authority and fill your world with the sweet aroma of love and mercy that God demonstrates for us, that we can demonstrate for others. If anyone asks from where you get your authority to do these things, tell them about Jesus. Tell them about love. Offer them the fruit of God’s grace.
To God be the glory
 J. Brent Bill, Beauty, Truth, Life, and Love: Four Essentials for the Abundant Life (Brewster, MA: Paraclete, 2019), 27