Matthew 21:23-32

Have you ever been tempted to think that you were somehow “better” than someone else… or some other group of people? Was it because of your level of education or political sophistication? Did your feelings of superiority stem from the amount of time, talent and treasure you devoted a particular cause? Or was it, perhaps, connected with the manner in which you practiced your faith? 

Guilty on all counts.

I’m not proud of my self-righteousness and complacency in any of these areas, but I am particularly ashamed of my occasional tendency to judge my brothers and sisters in their relationship with their Creator. And everything we say… and everything we think… and everything we do… is, in one way or another, connected to our relationship with our Creator. I am reminded of Jesus’ parable about the Pharisee and the tax collector who went into the temple to pray. The Pharisee, standing by himself, addressed the Almighty, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people…” and proceeded to enumerate a laundry list of “other people” to whom he felt superior, pausing only to laud all of the good works he himself had undertaken in the Lord’s name. He took particular care to single out a nearby tax collector as he prayed, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” Jesus tells us, however, that it was the tax collector who left justified in the sight of the Lord because, “all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted” (Luke 18:9-14).

Certainly, I think the chief priests and elders in today’s Gospel story were pretty sure they had the relationship between God and the people figured out, and they had all of the testimony of the Law and the Prophets to back them up. Jesus, however, had been gathering quite a following as he traveled throughout the countryside, preaching, teaching and proclaiming a new covenant: “the good news of God’s kingdom.” Jesus was offering the people a whole new understanding of who were “blessed,” and what it meant to be the “salt of the earth” and “the light of the world.” Jesus taught his disciples how to pray and named children as inheritors of the kingdom of heaven. He fed the multitudes and told them parables about trees and their fruit, seeds and sowers, pearls and lost sheep. He re-interpreted and expanded many of the laws supporting the religious and cultural status quo within Hebrew society, and would eventually go as far as to call out the scribes and pharisees as “hypocrites” and “blind guides” (cf. Matt 23). Jesus had recently entered Jerusalem on the back of a donkey, greeted by loud “hosannas,” and had physically upset the status quo of the temple by cleansing it of its trappings of commercial religion (Matt 21:1-17). Is it any wonder that the temple hierarchy felt compelled to forcefully confront this threat to their power and position, asking Jesus, “By what authority are you doing these things?” Jesus didn’t tell the chief priests and elders by what authority he was doing these things, and neither am I going to tell you. You figure it out.

will propose a parallel question, however, one addressed to all of us here today. By what authority do we judge our brothers and sisters in their relationship with the Almighty? Anytime we view ourselves in a position of superiority over others we are, in essence, judging them – and Jesus was pretty clear that that was not our prerogative. Whether we are judging a brother or a sister by where he goes to church (or not) or by how well she manages to avoid what we perceive as sinful behavior (or not), we are out on a very shaky limb with regard to authority. Such judgments are rarely expressed in public. We wouldn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, after all… or be perceived as rude or small-minded. It might happen in a private conversation with family or friends, in the car or around the kitchen table. Someplace we feel we can vent, and where folks might be inclined to cut us a little slack. Perhaps even in our private conversation with God. We don’t mean any harm, we’re just grateful that we’re not like those other people….” Ouch! Anytime we judge people, even privately, we are in a very real way exalting ourselves, which is the very thing Jesus is warning us against.

Here’s the thing: We are all God’s creatures. The good, the bad, and the ugly. God knew us before we were born, down to the number of hairs on our head. We are all equally fallen and equally forgiven, redeemed by grace… apprehended by faith (cf. Philippians 3:12-14 KJV). I believe we have been put on earth to become the creatures that God envisioned us to be from the beginning of time. And we have a lot of work to do… not for God, for ourselves… so that we might live more fully into the promise of being created in God’s image. In fact, it could be argued that the very nature of sin is anything that separates us from God and keeps us from becoming the creatures that God has created us to become. The Apostle Paul urged the Philippians to, “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will… and to work… for his good pleasure” (Phil 2:12). And we all have plenty of work to do, working out our own salvation, without making pronouncements on our neighbors’ efforts to do the same. Scripture contains God’s revelation given to us to help us be the best that we can be… not to be used as a measure by which to judge others… even in private. That’s God’s job.

God is always offering us the opportunity to do the right thing, but we are typically slow to accept the invitation – that goes for the chief priests and elders in today’s Gospel. Jesus was often pretty hard on the religious leaders of his time because they tended to judge others strictly… while failing to “walk the walk,” themselves. This constituted clerical malfeasance on one hand, but on another, it indicated that the leaders themselves were, to use one of Jesus’ own metaphors, “lost sheep” in need of rescue by the Good Shepherd. Given the Gospel’s unmistakable themes of love and forgiveness, I wonder sometimes about Jesus’ tone of voice when he called the scribes and pharisees hypocrites and blind guides. I wonder if he said it with love… and sadness. That doesn’t mean that Jesus doesn’t call the pharisees (or us) to task when we get it wrong… it just means we are as forgiven as we allow ourselves to be. Seeing ourselves through the eyes of Jesus, not with condemnation but with love, helps us understand the Good News: that no matter who we are, no matter where we’ve been or what we’ve done, God’s arms are always open. Jesus was hard on the chief priests and elders in today’s Gospel, precisely because they had willingly taken up the responsibility (and privilege) of working in God’s “vineyard,” and then had failed to walk the walk. The tax collectors and prostitutes on the other hand, though initially bogged down in selfish pursuits, had thought better of their refusal to serve God, and thus had been saved. There was still time for the chief priests and elders to repent, however. Jesus never said they wouldn’t go to heaven – he just said that the prostitutes and tax collectors would get there first.

Sometimes we, along with the chief priests and elders, need a pointed reminder that, when we think we have it all figured out, that we need to think again. I am going to excerpt for you the end of a short story by Flannery O’Conner called, “Revelation.”[1] If you’ve not read this story in its entirety, I will offer a word of caution: some of the language and attitudes displayed by the main character, Ruby Turpin, particularly in the areas of race and class, are quite offensive. Ruby is of the middle class, a pillar of her church and community. She works hard and takes care of her family. She is charitable, more out of a sense of Christian duty than actual concern for those whom she is helping, and she always displays a pleasant (outward) disposition. Ruby is also a bigot and looks down on people of color, white trash and lunatics… though she keeps her prejudices reasonably-well concealed. Ruby loves Jesus and sincerely believes she is saved. In passing judgment on others, however, sometimes even as she is helping them, Ruby is exalting herself like the Pharisee in the parable… whether or not she cares to admit it.

The first part of the story takes place in a crowded doctor’s office waiting room, where Ruby is forced to associate with a variety of people that she considers well beneath her station in life: the sick, lame and lazy. Her inner dialogue is pretty juicy, though she masks her feelings well. “Thank you, Lord, that I am not like these others . . ..” And then God speaks (in a manner of speaking). Ruby’s reverie is interrupted when she is walloped on the side of the head by a book thrown by a clearly troubled teenaged girl who screams at her, calling her an “old warthog from hell!” Ruby is stunned. What had she ever done to the girl? What had she done to anybody? She had always tried to be nice to people, even when she didn’t care for them. If someone needed something, she would help them if she could. An old warthog from hell? That wasn’t true. That couldn’t be true. What was happening?

Ruby continues to grapple with the lunatic girl’s condemnation after returning home, injured more in spirit than in body. “I am not,” she cried tearfully, “a wart hog. From hell.” But her denial has no force, writes O’Conner. “The girl’s eyes and her words, even the tone of her voice, low but clear, directed only to Ruby, brooked no repudiation. She had been singled out for this message… though there was trash in the room to whom it might justly have been applied. The full force of this fact struck her only now. Obvious sinners had been overlooked; and instead, the message had been given to Ruby Turpin, a respectable, hardworking, church-going woman. The tears dried. Her eyes began to burn instead with wrath.”

Ruby nurses her anger in solitude for the remainder of the afternoon until it is time to go outside and water the livestock. “What do you send me a message like that for?” she says in a low, fierce voice, barely above a whisper but with the force of a shout in its concentrated fury. “How am I a hog… and me, both? How am I saved… and from hell, too?” “Why me?”she rumbles. “It’s no trash around here, black or white, that I haven’t given to. And break my back to the bone every day working. And do for the church.” “There was plenty of trash there. It didn’t have to be me.” “Go on,” she yells, “call me a hog! From hell. Call me a wart hog from hell.” “Who do you think you are?” 

By now, there was only a purple streak in the sky, cutting through a field of crimson and leading, like an extension of the highway, into the descending dusk. And God spoke again… but this time not with words. “A visionary light settled in Ruby’s eyes,” writes O’Conner. “She saw the streak as a vast swinging bridge extending upward from the earth through a field of living fire. Upon it a vast horde of souls were tumbling toward heaven. There were whole companies of white trash, clean for the first time in their lives, and bands of people of every color in white robes, and battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs. And bringing up the end of the procession was a tribe of people whom she recognized at once as those who, like herself and her kin, had always had a little of everything and the given wit to use it right. She leaned forward to observe them closer. They were marching behind the others with great dignity, accountable as they had always been for good order and common sense and respectable behavior. They, alone, were on key. Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away [by the enormity of the Good News of God’s Kingdom]. In woods around her the invisible cricket choruses had struck up, but what she heard were the voices of the souls climbing upward into the starry field and shouting, ‘hallelujah!’”

[1] O’Connor, Flannery. “Revelation.” The Complete Stories. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Kindle edition, 2012. 489-556. 

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