Rev. Danielle K Bartz October 1, 2023
Matthew 21:23-32 “Questions and Answers”
Here is my favorite fun-fact about the New Testament: In the Gospels – all four combined – Jesus is asked 187 questions. He answers maybe 8 of them (even when he answers it can be hard to tell). Jesus himself asks 307 questions. So, if you have ever turned to the scriptures looking for answers and instead found only more questions, well the numbers back that up. Jesus is asked 187 questions, answers 8, and asks 307. While I have never believed that Christianity is about getting the answer ‘right’, I fully admit to often becoming frustrated by this habit of Jesus. Which is why I have a lot of sympathy for the Chief Priests and Elders in the first part of our scripture lesson for today.
You must remember, this scripture takes place during what we call Holy Week now. Jesus had just rode into Jerusalem on the back of someone else’s donkey causing a huge stir. He heads straight to the Temple and vandalizes it by over-turning the moneychangers’ tables. And he also, for no obvious reason, curses a fig tree. And now he has the audacity to teach in the Temple, something only a select few are allowed to do. So, when the Chief Priests and the Elders, tasked with maintaining the religious traditions in that occupied state under foreign, and often hostile, rule, ask Jesus by what authority he is doing all of this – well, it is an understandable question. In today’s vernacular the question may sound more like this: “Just who do you think you are coming into this city and causing nothing but problems?!? There is a fragile ecosystem here between the Jews and the Roman Empire, and what you are doing is putting us all at risk. Seriously, man, just who do you think you are?”
Remember, you and I have the benefit of the long-view – we know who Jesus is and by what authority he was doing it all. We often tell the story in the way that cheers him on as he is causing all this chaos. But, when that question was originally asked, all the leaders knew was that Jesus was an itinerant preacher from the country getting the people all worked up. I dare to say they had a right to an answer, but as Biblical statistics remind us, Jesus was not likely to give one. So, he asks them a question instead.
Like I said, I sympathize with the religious leaders trying to get a handle on the situation. And, I do find Jesus’ lack of clear answers frustrating at times. But what I do like about this habit of Jesus is that it is a reminder for me and for you that Christianity is not about getting the answers ‘right’. Christianity is not about saying the right things, it is about doing. Christianity is about living our lives in a way that bring about the Kingdom of God – even if, perhaps especially if, the answers we give don’t align with the world’s expectations of what is ‘right.’ But this is a hard thing to remember, especially in a world where it seems like all people care about is what you say, no matter what you actually do.
Years and years ago, when I was a chaplain resident at Mayo, I was assigned an intern for a summer. In chaplaincy training, called Clinical Pastoral Education, you learn by doing. But you learn under close supervision and with the support of a group of colleagues. The residents’ learning included supervising the interns as they, usually for the first time, offer pastoral care in a high-intensity clinical environment. My intern was a young man studying to become a Catholic priest. And I liked him a lot. But it became clear to me from almost day one that one of his biggest growing edges was his obsession about saying the right thing when interacting with patients or their families. He was constantly grilling me about what I would say in the imagined scenarios he came up with. When he was shadowing me, silently observing my patient interactions, I could see him making notes that turned out to be transcriptions of what I said. And when it was his turn to interact with a patient or family member, with me silently observing, he would stand outside the door with me, trying to get me to tell him what to say before even meeting the patient.
This was a problem, as there is no script for pastoral care. So, one night – likely after midnight when he was required to assist me during an overnight shift (which were, by the way, always incredibly busy and chaotic), I decided to give him an assignment. There was a family in a waiting room waiting for a loved one who was having emergency surgery, the outcome of which was not certain. The family was incredibly scared and needed a chaplain presence. And as there were several other emergencies happening throughout the hospital I needed to attend to, I told my intern that he was to stay with that family, and I would check in as I could. But, I told him, he could not talk to them. By that I do not mean that he had to be completely silent, but that he had to provide comfort by his presence, not by his words. My hope was that he would learn that he didn’t need to worry so much about saying the right thing.
Anyway, my plan backfired because every time I would walk into that waiting room he had done another meaningless task as a way of showing his pastoral care, but actually just made him look busy. I finally interceded when I walked in and he had rearranged the furniture in the waiting room. I made him sit down with me, I asked the family just one simple question: “Tell me about ‘so-and-so”, and they filled the space with stories about their loved one, invoking their love for him, their stories becoming prayers that he would recover. I made my intern sit silently with me, neither of us needing to speak, simply just being there.
It is not about saying the right things. Nor is it about doing mindless tasks that look good but don’t actually do anything. Christianity isn’t just about getting the words right or about actions meant to impress but doing nothing to advance the Kingdom of God. Now, please understand, I am not devaluing the power of words, nor am I devaluing the small tasks of service. Words are incredibly important, and whenever words are used to harm or reject or dehumanize, then it matters greatly what you say. I do believe we are judged when we use words as weapons. And small acts of service mean a great deal. It is those small acts that build up the Kingdom, even more so than grand acts that get all the attention. But when those small acts are used to put on a show to get accolades or as an excuse for not seeking justice and peace, then those small acts are just noise.
Christianity isn’t about saying the right things or busying ourselves with meaningless work. Christianity is about living the Kingdom of God into existence – often in silent or quiet ways that most people don’t notice. That is why, I believe, Jesus followed up his refusal to answer a question with a parable that reinforced to the Chief Priests and Elders, and to us, that service to God is actually about service to God and nothing else. In the parable, the father tells one son to go into the vineyard to work. The son says he will but does not. The father gives the same instruction to the other son, who says he won’t, but actually does. In the parable the father is likely meant to be God, and the vineyard meant to be God’s Kingdom. Everyone agrees that it is the second son, who may not have said the right thing, but actually did do what he was called to do, that was in the right. The same, it could be said I believe Jesus is saying, of him – he may not be saying the things the world wants him to say, but he is doing everything he can to bring about the Kingdom of God. Yes, he did it in grand, attention-getting ways. But we can do the same in our small, quiet ways that often are noticed by no one other than God.
My Beloved Community, in our hyper-connected, critical world, when people are quick to judge what we say as if words are the only thing that matters, we must remember to hold fast to the truth that the Kingdom of God is not built by words alone. The Kingdom of God is built and tended by how we are with ourselves, with one another, and with God. Often that means we don’t have to be so quick to fill the space with noise, rather we can choose to leave space for God. Because God is always there, if we can slow down and be quiet enough to notice. This, I believe, is a one of the gifts that Jesus was presenting with his teaching. Stop worrying so much about giving or getting the right answers, instead just trust in the way God is guiding you to be in the world. It is when we can all do this that God’s Kingdom will be realized on earth as it is in heaven. Amen.
Good and loving God, your presence in our lives is the one thing we can be certain of. You are never absent from us, even if we fill the space around us with so much noise that it can be hard to see you. For your ever-constant presence we give you great thanks and it is in that spirit of gratitude that we come before you now in prayer.
God, we know that we spend a lot of our energy seeking the right answers from others or trying to figure out what the world wants us to say. Help us to let go of this human need so that we can create more room for you. Give us the courage to be silent when it is best, and the strength to serve your Kingdom even when it seems like nobody is noticing. Your call upon our lives is just as subtle and yet enduring as you are.
One of the ways God that we create space for you is in silent prayer. As we open our hearts and spirits to you now, give us the ears to hear your still-speaking voice…
Good and Great God, you sent Jesus into the world to help us see what is possible when we can be still and let you be God. So, we pray all of this and so much more now in his name. And we pray in the way he taught…Our Father…