Synopsis: The CDC has the authority to guide us appropriately in how to survive the current pandemic, but most of us want more out of life than just survival. We want to really live. Who has the authority to give us the guidance we need to not just survive, but to thrive?
Scripture Reading: Matthew 21:23-32
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Today’s scripture reading brings up the question of authority. We turn to authorities to give us guidance about what to do when faced with certain challenges. We trust that they are well-educated and sincere enough to guide us appropriately.
Today, we’re dealing with the coronavirus and COVID-19, and most recognize the authority of the CDC to give us appropriate guidance as to what to do to stay healthy. We here at Saint Paul’s recognize the authority of the CDC, which is why we have made a lot of changes in how we worship together.
We follow the CDC’s guidance in the hopes that we will survive this pandemic. Survival is good, but I think most of us want more out of life than just survival. We want to really live. We want to thrive. Who has the authority to guide us in how to thrive – even in tough times like these?
That’s the question Jesus answers in this passage. First, let’s look at the context and the parable within it. As Pastor Edward F. Markquart so aptly states, the context enhances the beauty of Jesus’ parables like the setting enhances the beauty of a diamond.
This incident took place after Jesus’ triumphant entry into the City of Jerusalem, where the final scenes of his earthly life would take place.
After entering into the city on a donkey to symbolize his coming in peace, he immediately cleansed the Temple for the second time. As he drove out the merchants and overturned the tables of the moneychangers, he said to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’; but you are making it a den of robbers.”
What did he mean by that? Well, moneychangers and merchants were setting up shop in the Temple and taking advantage of travelers coming into Jerusalem. Since many traveled long distances, they couldn’t bring sacrificial animals with them, so they purchased them at the Temple.
Their currency had to be converted to Temple currency first. The conversions were low, and the prices for the sacrificial animals were high. In this way, travelers coming to the Temple to worship God were being robbed in God’s own house.
Jesus had a serious problem with that.
After cleansing the Temple of those who were selfishly taking advantage of people, Jesus set up shop to do the opposite: to serve people by teaching and healing them. At the end of the day, he would leave Jerusalem and spend the night in the city of Bethany at the home of his friends Lazarus, Mary, and Martha.
The next morning, he was on his way back to Jerusalem to continue his ministry at the Temple, and he was hungry. He saw a fig tree but found no fruit on it, so he cursed it saying, “May no fruit ever come from you again!” It immediately withered. The disciples were amazed. Jesus then commented about the power of faith to move mountains.
Jesus often used parables illustrate his points. The fig tree was like an acted-out parable to make two points. The first point was stated: God can do anything they ask in prayer with faith as long as what they ask is aligned with His Will.
The second point was unstated and sets the scene for today’s scripture reading quite nicely. To Jesus, the fruitless fig tree represented the Jewish religious leaders of his day. Just as a fig tree’s purpose is grow figs, or to bear fruit, the religious leader’s purpose is to bear spiritual fruit and cultivate it in others.
The fig tree looked good at first glance, but upon closer inspection, Jesus discovered it lacked fruit just as the religious leaders of his day put on a good show, but they did not bear spiritual fruit.
The Jewish people put their trust in their religious leaders to guide them in how to thrive – in how to live to their lives in communion with God.
Instead of guiding the people appropriately, they forced them to follow complicated “traditions of the elders” while they themselves didn’t follow these traditions. They also ignored Mosaic Law when it was inconvenient.
Jesus had a serious problem with that.
It’s important to realize that Jesus didn’t have a problem with Judaism; he was defending Judaism – traditional Judaism – from those who were changing it beyond recognition or ignoring it and thus leading the people astray.
That brings us to our scripture reading for today. Jesus returns to the temple to minister to the people. While he is there, the chief priests and elders ask him, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” They were probably referring to when Jesus drove out the merchants and overturned the tables of the moneychangers the day before.
Jesus knows that they aren’t interested in knowing the truth; they just want to trap him in order to discredit him among the people. So, he turns the questioners into the questioned. He agrees to answer their question only if they can first answer his question as to whether the baptism of John was of divine or human origin.
If they answer that John was sent by God, then they would have to acknowledge that Jesus was also sent by God since John testified on Jesus’ behalf. But if they answer that the baptism of John was of human origin, they will anger the crowd since many strongly believe that John the Baptist was a prophet.
Since they couldn’t answer his question, Jesus refuses to answer their question. He avoided their trap by trapping them. Instead of being discredited, he discredits them not only by stumping them but also by using parables to illustrate their failure to perform their duties as religious leaders.
If you are a parent, the point Jesus is making with the Parable of the Two Sons is probably obvious. Let’s say you have two sons, and you tell both of them to clean their room. The older one says, “Sure, no problem!” But the younger son says, “No! I’m not going to do it!”
Later on, the older one’s best friend says to him, “Come to my house! I just bought this cool new video game!” And he says, “Sure! I got nothing better to do!” So, his room never gets cleaned. The younger one’s friends say to him, “We’re going to the park to play some football. Come with us!” He’s tempted, but then he thinks about his parents and his messy room. So, he says, “Nah, I can’t. I gotta clean my room.” Then, he goes and cleans his room.
So … who did what they were told? It’s obvious right? The older son was just putting on a show of obedience but wasn’t really obedient at all. And even though the younger son at first refused to do what his parents asked, he eventually came to his senses and did it.
That’s why Jesus told the chief priests and elders that the tax collectors and prostitutes are going to Heaven ahead of them. At least the tax collectors and prostitutes recognized the righteousness of John and accepted his baptism.
Many of the religious leaders of Jesus’ day were appointed by the Romans. They thought that gave them divine authority. It didn’t. I have an ordination certificate, but that doesn’t give me divine authority either.
Who has divine authority? Who has the authority to guide us in how to thrive? In how to live in unity with God and All That Is? The one who obeys God by acting out His Will so perfectly that he is literally an extension of the Divine. The one who has not only accepted the Christ as his or her true identity, but who is also living in physical form as the Christ.
The Christ within the man Jesus has divine authority, and Jesus successfully portrayed the Christ in physical form during his lifetime. He lived out of the unity in which we all exist. That, my friends, is why he was the most influential person in the history of humankind.
All of us have just as much divine authority as Jesus had because all of us have the same Christ within us as he had within him. I have accepted this, and I think all of you have accepted this. We have accepted that there is so much more to us than our personal self. Infinitely more.
So, the challenge at this point isn’t accepting who we really are. The challenge is overcoming those old patterns of living within the illusion of separation – not only personal patterns but societal patterns.
I’m sure we all still feel the momentum of those patterns within us, pushing us in directions we’d rather not go, but we don’t have to go there because we are stepping into a new way of being.
Recognizing that is half the battle.
You probably aren’t too sure about how to live from the unity of the Christ within. Neither am I. I think the first thing we need to recognize is the fact that our personal self really has no clue. Its purpose is to provide us with the experience of separation, so we can’t expect it to know anything about unity.
So how do we learn unity? We don’t. The Christ doesn’t need to learn unity because the Christ is unity. We needed personal selves to experience what separation was like so that we could fully appreciate unity – to experience it with full awareness. Now that we have accepted who we are, there is nothing more to learn. All that’s left is to experience the Oneness of Christ with full awareness.
My friends, we have graduated. It is now time to put on the robes of the Christ, be the living Christ in physical form, and get to work. Lord knows, there’s a lot of work to do. And I believe that is why our souls have chosen to be here at this time.
But the question remains: how do we overcome those old illusion of separation patterns that keep pulling us back into the attitudes and behaviors of our old identity so that we can experience the mystery of the oneness that we truly are?
I have some ideas about that, and you will know whether what I have to say has divine authority by how it feels within your heart.
If we exist in unity, then there is an infinite supply of assistance available to us if only our personal self would relax and stop meddling. So, the first pattern to overcome is the feeling that we’re “on our own,” and we need to exert a lot of effort to survive – to get what we need – to solve our problems.
Jesus was speaking as the Christ when he said in Matthew 11: 28-30, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
We are not alone. We don’t have to do this ourselves. We are part of an interconnected web of life, and the purpose of this web is not to just to help us survive but to help us to really live – to thrive.
There’s a lot going on in this world right now that is disturbing to say the least. So, if we get that sinking feeling that says, “I’m on my own. I’ve got to figure this out myself. No one can help me,” we can recognize that as the old illusion of separation mindset and let it go. Don’t believe it. We know better now. We can tell the personal self, “Relax! The Christ has this.”
The second pattern to overcome is the fearful overthinking and overreacting of the personal self – which is of course fueled by that “we’re on our own” feeling.
There are a lot of unknowns stressing everyone out right now, so many are struggling to figure out how they are going to survive the challenges that might lie ahead. The personal self does not like the unknown, so it tries to find solutions before it completely understands the situation and before all the options present themselves.
How many times have we made a choice out of fear, only to find later on that what we feared wasn’t nearly as bad as we imagined or didn’t happen at all?
How many times have we made a choice out of fear that if we had waited, we could have taken advantage of a far better option?
How many times have we had a problem where we just had to throw up our hands in defeat, but then later on, the perfect solution presented itself?
We need to withdraw our trust in the personal self and place it where it belongs. The personal self is driven by fear, which often complicates our lives and creates more problems. We need to place our trust in the Christ within. The Christ has all the answers and everything we need.
Jesus said in Matthew 6:25-27, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?”
If we have a problem or need to make a decision, we need to direct our energy out of the realm of the personal self (the head) and into the realm of the Christ (the heart). We need to become quiet and still and wait for a solution comes to us.
We’ll know that solution comes from the Christ if it gives us comfort and peace.
The final pattern to overcome is the habit of passing judgment on ourselves, on others, and on what’s going on in the world. Since we exist in unity, if we judge or condemn anyone or anything, we are judging and condemning ourselves.
Life is perfect just the way it is, but there is always room for improvement! I know, it’s hard for us to wrap our heads around that. How can something perfect be improved upon? But that’s how God created Life. Think about it. Life can’t be stagnant. The book of Genesis tells us that Creation began with the movement of Spirit over the waters of the formless, empty earth.
So, if you, or someone, or something is this or that way now, you, or that person, or that situation will not stay that way forever. You are the way you are, that person is the way he or she is, and things are the way they are for a perfect reason until it’s time to move into something new.
If we recognize judgment coming into our minds and filling our hearts with anger or despair, we can let it go as part of the old patterns of our old identity. There’s a whole lot of judgment going around – especially in the media – so we can choose to limit our consumption of all of that. We don’t need it.
We can put away old distractions because nothing matters now except that we are fulfilling our purpose as the Christ. That is why God created us and why we are here. That is the only endeavor that will give our life true meaning and the love, peace and joy that is our divine inheritance.
There are people today “setting up shop” to take advantage of others in this challenging time. We can follow Jesus’ example and do the opposite. We can “set up shop” in whatever ways the Christ within tells us to serve the people.
When we’re doing what give us joy, doing what give us peace, doing what makes the love flow from our heart, and then we’ll know we’re fulfilling our role as the Christ.
Be open to the mystery of the experience of oneness. Don’t grasp for it with the mind, just open your heart to it. Be willing for the Christ to extend through you. This is how you will get to know yourself – your True Self.
You might just be amazed at the revelations you will receive, the gifts and talents you will discover, and the bottomless well of peace, love, and joy accessible to you even in these tough times.
Let’s pray together: Lord, we accept who we are, and we are ready to step into our Divine authority as the Christ. We open our hearts to the mystery of the oneness that we are, and we are ready to receive guidance, revelations, and gifts from our True Self. Amen.
-Lewis, Karoline. “True Authority.” workingpreacher.org, 24 Sept. 2017.
–Life Application Study Bible: NIV. Ron Beers, ed. Zondervan, 2012.
-Markquart, Edward F. “Two Sons: Yesses That Don’t Mean a Darn Thing.” sermonsfromseattle.com.
-Saunders, Stanley. “Commentary on Matthew 21:23-32.” workingpreacher.org, 01 Oct. 2017.