Following Tax Collectors and Prostitutes into the Kingdom of God (w/audio)

. Posted in Sermons

Matthew 21:23-32


At the gym, the radio music was coming through the speakers as usual. As I was moving to my next exercise, I caught one of my favorite Beatles songs from years ago floating in the air. John Lennon was singing Imagine, and for a brief moment I got caught up again in the music.

Given the news of recent weeks, that has told of horrific catastrophes in places like Puerto Rico and Mexico, terrible cruelties in places like Myanmar, and instability in so many places like Venezuela and North Korea, I think I needed that song of hope—idealistic and unrealistic as it certainly is. I needed to imagine a world with no more war and no more greed or hunger. I even needed to imagine a world with no religion of the kind that Lennon was singing about and that the great 20th century theologian Karl Barth called a sin—the kind of religion that is a hotbed for hate and an incubator for violent actions against the hated ones.

I needed that song. I needed to let it wash over me, to capture my heart once again, to remind me of that holy place in me where God is found and visions of hope arise. But you know how it is with background music. The song was still playing, but very quickly I was no longer listening. I forgot that it was even on. If someone had turned off the music I doubt that I would have even noticed. I got caught up in more immediate concerns, in getting the right settings on an exercise machine, in doing what I was doing so that I could get it over with and get out of there and get back to my study at home where I could get to work.

The song was playing but I wasn’t hearing it anymore. Other things took precedence.

The song of the Spirit was playing for those religious leaders who confronted Jesus in the temple on the day after he had entered Jerusalem on what we call Palm Sunday. It had always been playing. But somehow it had become only background music for them. It did not touch them at their depths. It did not make them move to its rhythms. It did not lift their spirits to that which was higher than they. It did not lead them to dreams of a better world that captured not only their hearts but their wills to seek that better world.

It wasn’t like they were in a music free zone. It was not like the song of God, the music of the Spirit, was not playing. It was all around them. Every Sabbath when they unrolled their sacred scriptures it was there. God was singing to them in those scriptures of love and liberation, of victories won and defeats overcome in the power of the Holy One, of a better life and a better world where the poor heard good news and the oppressed were set free and all who suffered had their burdens lifted. God was singing to them in those scriptures of a world streaming to Jerusalem, making its way to their temple to learn the ways of peace and to have their hunger for God filled.

But God was singing not just in words on parchment, but in the world of which these religious leaders at Jerusalem’s temple were a part. God was singing in the man John the Baptizer, led by the Spirit to take on the mantel of the prophets of old as he stepped on the scene and carried out his ministry in Judea along the Jordan river. God was singing as John told of the breaking in of the kingdom of God and as he called people to turn from their sins and prepare for what God was about to do as they were baptized.

God was singing, as people who many others had given up as lost came streaming out into the wilderness to John to hear his message and be baptized. God was singing as whores and thieves and sinners of all varieties heard John and stepped forward to be baptized and walked away new people, transformed by the power of his message to be new people—dancing to the movements of the Spirit’s song, moving to its rhythms, ready to be signs of God’s righteousness and goodness in the places where they lived. God was singing as these people returned home and folks said, “That can’t be Rhonda the hooker, can it? And that can’t be ole Matthias the tax collector, can it? What’s with these people? They are not the same! They are talking about what God has done for them. They are going around giving to the poor and trying to help out with those in need. What’s going on?!”

And God kept on singing even after John’s ministry was silenced by the sword of Herod’s men. God was singing like God had never sung before in Jesus who took up the same words as John had preached when he proclaimed the dawning of God’s kingdom and invited people once again to turn from their sins and believe the good news of the God who was breaking into the world through the words and actions of Jesus.

God was singing as Jesus road into Jerusalem on that fateful Sunday and the people cheered him as the Son of David and greeted him as the one who comes in the name of the Lord. God was singing in especially loud and dissonant tones as Jesus walked into the temple and spoke out against what was happening there, as he overturned the tables of the money changers and drove out those selling and buying. In all these temple goings-on something vital has been lost, Jesus was proclaiming. Prayer has been lost. Spirit has been forgotten.

God was singing still as Jesus turned from holy anger to holy compassion as he healed the blind and the lame who came to him in that temple where the money changers and the temple merchandisers were still trying to clean up the mess Jesus made.

God was singing when Jesus came back to the temple the next day and the religious authorities, who had had just about enough, confronted him and asked him who gave him permission to do what he was doing. “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” they asked Jesus.

But there was no telling them by what authority he was doing what he was doing. What difference would it make? The music was playing and they were not listening. God was singing and their minds had turned to other things—religious things, more important things—and they could not hear it.

Jesus met their question about his authority with a question of his own. The ministry of John, the baptism of John, was it of divine origin or human origin? Was it authorized by heaven or humans?

The truth is that John was at best little more than a nuisance to these religious leaders. They didn’t hear God singing through him. They didn’t pick up on the divine song coming from the persons whose lives had been transformed by his ministry. They heard about the likes of tax collectors and prostitutes, the lowest of the low in their culture, responding to his message, being baptized, living transformed lives, and it meant nothing to them.

If they didn’t get that God was singing through John, they weren’t going to get that God was singing through Jesus as well. So Jesus wasn’t going to answer these religious leaders who, like a number of politicians in our day, were more interested in gauging their responses according to what people were thinking than being attentive to the truth. For they were not hearing the song.

But Jesus wasn’t through with these religious leaders yet. He had a parable for them. A little parable. A simple parable that even they could grasp. It was about two sons whose father asked them to go out and work in his vineyard one day. The first son responded to his father’s request in what has the markings of rudeness and disrespect: “No way! I got other things going.” But, for whatever reason, soon he changed his mind and he went out into the vineyard and put in a day’s labor.

The second son had all the markings of a respectful and obedient young man. “Oh, sure, Dad, I will be glad to work today in the vineyard! I’ll be out there right away!” But he never showed up. Never did a lick of work.

So even those religious leaders, who had been so cautious about answering Jesus’ question concerning whether John’s authority for ministry had come from heaven or not, were eager and willing to say which son did the will of his father. That was easy. It was the one who, even though he said he wouldn’t at first, went out and worked in his father’s vineyard.

Well, yes. Of course. And this is precisely the point I am making, Jesus was saying to these religious leaders. Those tax collectors and prostitutes, that refuse of society that you don’t give a hoot about, those people who went out to John and have come to me—they had a bad start. But they heard God singing. The music captured them. It moved them to a new place—to a new way of being, to a new way of living.

But you… oh, yes, you are the ones who have all the markings of the second son. You sound good. You say all the right things when it comes to religion. But you are not listening to the music. You saw all that God did through John. You saw the transformed lives that resulted. And nothing from you. No response. No change. No going out in the vineyard to take up God’s work in new ways. Nothing.

It was like God was singing, and these religious leaders weren’t listening to the music. So it is that “the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you,” Jesus said to them.

Which leads me to wonder, being the duly authorized religious authority that I am, what is it that the tax collectors and the prostitutes know that maybe I don’t know? How did they get ahead of me and my kind in the kingdom of God line?

We like to think of those chief priests and the elders in the temple (engaging and being engaged by Jesus on the day after Palm Sunday) as corrupt, as sold out to the cruel powers that be at the time, as hypocrites through and through. Surely some were, just as some religious leaders are now.

But I am pretty sure most of them were not completely different from me (or from many of you) when it came to the practice of their religion. They wanted to be good. They wanted to do right by their religion. They wanted to be faithful to what they were taught in scripture and in the traditions passed down to them. They were suspicious of charismatic upstarts like John and Jesus who stirred people up, drew a crowd, said a lot of upsetting things in the name of God, but had no authorization from respected religious authority to be doing what they were doing. They, like many of us, were the second son, proclaiming to their heavenly father with perhaps the best of intentions, “Yes, sir, I’ll go where you want me to go. I’ll do what you want me to do.”

But, you know, sometimes people like ourselves are so preoccupied with doing the right kinds of things and being the right kind of people and impressing the ones we think are so important to impress, that we stop listening to the music. The Spirit’s song doesn’t get through. We pray. But we pray perfunctorily, on the run and with other things on our minds. We read a bit of scripture and maybe a little devotional now and then, but as something that good people like ourselves ought to do. We hear testimonies and see signs of God at work transforming lives, giving people freedom over addictions and destructive behavior, moving people to serve the poor and enter the struggle to make this a more just and compassionate world. Nice stories, we think. Inspiring, really. But we have things to do and places to go. The setting on the exercise machine needs to be set and we have to get on with what we intended to do.

But let the song of God capture the likes of a tax collector and prostitute, and it can be like ecstasy. Because that song comes amidst despair. It comes when all seems lost. It comes amidst desperate need. It comes in shouting John in the wilderness and comforting Jesus on a hillside saying, “God is breaking in. You don’t have to live like this. Things don’t have to stay like this. God is doing a new thing, and you can be a part of it.”

And maybe even good religious types like ourselves can hear and understand a message like this, if we stopped our efforts to be good and right and authorized long enough to pay attention to our own deep longings for the music that wants to fill us and capture us and have us move again to the beat of the new thing God is seeking to do in us and through us.

—William E. Warren, Cumberland Presbyterian Church of Germantown, October 1, 2017

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