A Lesson from a Baptist

Matthew 21:23-32

Why did Jesus pick John? In response to their question about his authority, Jesus asks the chief priests and elders about John the Baptist’s authority—whether it came from the people or from God.  But why did Jesus pick John?

He could have picked the emperor as an example.  This was always a question on the minds of the people: did the emperor’s authority come from the people or from God?  Some, including the emperors themselves, maintained their authority came from the heavens—divine right, we call it.  Others, probably most of the common people of the empire, disagreed: the emperor’s authority was purely human.  But the point here is that Jesus could have said, “Answer me this, O Jewish leaders: the emperor’s authority, does it come from God or people?”  Yet he chose John the Baptist as his example, not the emperor.

Of course, there were differences of religion between John and the emperor.  John was a Jew; and thus he worshiped the Jewish God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  Whereas the emperor was a pagan; and thus he worshiped a different god—a whole pantheon of gods in fact.  So this was a good reason for Jesus to pick John instead of an emperor.

Still, John was a relatively minor figure in the history of the Jewish people.  He was an eccentric person, off doing some obscure work in the wilderness, proclaiming some sort of convoluted message about repentance or something—wasn’t it?  And didn’t he eat bugs and wear uncomfortable clothes?  In short, most of the people of the day, if they’d even heard about this guy named John who baptized people for repentance in the waters of the Jordan River out beyond the edge of the city in the wilderness—even if they’d heard of him, he was weird.  Why did Jesus use him as an example?

Why didn’t he use someone like Judas Maccabeus?  Yeah!  Maccabeus!  Here was a true Jewish hero.  He took a stand and defied the oppressive hand of the Romans, much like Moses.  He was fresh in the people’s memory as a messianic figure, held in high esteem by both Jewish leaders and the common people alike.  He was certainly viewed as having authority.  So why didn’t Jesus use him as his example?  Why didn’t Jesus ask the Jewish leaders: “Answer me this, then I will answer you: tell me, was Judas Maccabeus’s authority from God or from people?”

But he didn’t.  Jesus didn’t use Judas Maccabeus or an emperor or anyone else as his example.  Instead, he used John the Baptist.  He could have used many other, better known examples to make his point—that you shouldn’t be too quick to judge.  But he used John.  Obscure, eccentric, weird John.  Why?

Now, I cannot help but identify with the chief priests and elders in this story, at least to some extent. They’ve been Jews for a long time.  They’re leaders in their religion.  They know how to direct spiritually a congregation of people.  For them, a lot of ecclesiastical kinks have been long worked out.  They’ve got their policy manuals, their bylaws, their articles of incorporation, their canons.  Their experience in these matters allows them to be efficient and smooth as they run their religious organization.  There’s a lot of value in this.  I can relate.

But they approach Jesus with their minds already made up.  Their question isn’t genuine: it isn’t asked from a teachable spirit with the hope of truly learning something.  Instead, their question is designed to trap Jesus.

“By what authority did you turn those tables over in the Temple yesterday?” they ask.  It’s a trap, because if Jesus says it was by the people’s authority then he is guilty of rebellion; and if he says it was by divine authority then he is guilty of blasphemy.  Either way, he’s guilty.  And either way, the Jewish leaders aren’t really looking for an answer.  They have him cornered.

But Jesus turns the tables on them—mental tables this time.  He doesn’t provide an answer.  Instead, he asks a question.  And it gets them thinking.  Despite the fact that their minds are already made up, he breaks through and does in fact get them thinking, pointing out their prejudices, their judgments presupposed since before the conversation began.  And now—I’d like to believe—there’s even some soul searching on their part.

Still, this turning of the mental tables doesn’t answer my earlier question.  If Jesus simply wanted to get us to question our own prejudices, our own already-made-up minds, our own presupposed judgments, he could have used many cultural examples, better than John the Baptist.  And well we should question our own prejudices!  But there must be something in particular Jesus wants us to associate with John the Baptist.  But what?

Without allowing the religious leaders to catch their breath—they’d been knocked off kilter by Jesus’s brilliant turning of the mental tables; so, while they were still off kilter, Jesus immediately tells a parable.

A father has two sons.  He tells them both to do some chores.  One says, “No, Dad, I don’t want to”; and the other says, “Sure thing, Dad.”  Later we find out that the one who first said no in fact goes and does what his dad asked; whereas the second son, the one who originally said yes, does not.  And I think, “Sounds an awful lot like me and my brother when we were growing up!”

Of course we get that the first son’s actions are more genuine and the second’s are more hypocritical.  But the interesting thing for me here is that they both change their minds.  In other words, to use a biblical word we’ve all heard before, both sons repent.  For that’s what repent means: to change one’s mind.

We happen to associate repentance with changing one’s mind from pursuing something bad to pursuing something good, like going down the wrong road and making a u-turn and backtracking till we find the right road.  But the word equally means changing one’s mind from good to bad, or simply from pursuing one thing to pursuing another, whether good, bad, or indifferent.  To repent is to change direction; that’s all.

And now—aha!—we’ve stumbled upon the answer to “Why John?”  For that was John’s message: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”  Repent!  It was his message to everyone, regardless of whatever road a person might be heading down.  Repent!  Change!  For the kingdom of heaven is near!

This wasn’t the message of the emperors.  This wasn’t the message of Judas Maccabeus.  But this was the message of John.

And the amazing thing about all this is that it doesn’t matter which son you identify with—whether you are the one that is more genuine or the one that is more hypocritical; or whether you identify more closely with the religious leaders or with the sinners in this passage.  The point is to repent.  Everyone.  For we all sin.

And more specifically, we are to repent of our prejudices.

Someone like Jesus comes into your life, turning over the tables of the Temple in your mind.  You know what I’m talking about.  This is your table, one that you’ve set up in your imagination over which you are the chief authority.  This is a table you know more about than anyone else.

Maybe it’s a ministry at church into which you’ve invested a lot of time, effort, even money.  And over time you’ve come to feel ownership.  Or maybe it’s a relationship you’re in, a certain ownership you’ve come to feel over a friend or a relative.  But someone comes into your life and interferes and otherwise meddles with this table.  Like Jesus in the Temple, this new person is turning over the tables in your mind and you form some judgments, some prejudices against him or her.

Well, here’s the message today: repent from these prejudices.

But the worst prejudice of all is against Jesus.  Maybe you’ve been a Christian a long time.  Maybe you’ve tried hard to follow Jesus for years and years.  You study the Bible and pray regularly, you serve in various ministries, when you hear people engaging in gossip you avoid it—you’re trying to live a life that brings glory to Christ in all you do.

But then you get comfortable.  And, like those religious leaders in Jesus’s day who knew a thing or two about religious life, you become self-righteous.  This attitude has been growing in you so subtly, though, and for so long that you haven’t even noticed it.  Now you tend to view everyone by how spiritual they are.  And—your mind is already made up—the truth is if another person is not spiritual enough for you—if another person is too obscure, too eccentric, or too weird—well, that’s just too bad for them: they’re not worth your time.

It’s time for Jesus to turn these tables over—and all tables like them—that are standing in the Temples of our minds and hearts!  We all need to examine our hearts, examine our prejudices, and repent.

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