Scripture: Matthew 21:23-32
“Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.” ~ Matthew 21:31
Don’t judge a book by its cover.
This piece of timeless wisdom is about as clichéd as you can get, but it’s clichéd because we were all probably taught it in some variation as a child and more often than not it rings true. While making snap judgements can be important in intense situations, often we need to look beyond the surface and first impressions to truly understand a person or situation.
While we might all recognize the wisdom of this sage advice the truth is most of us often do judge books by their covers – we make decisions about a person’s character and worth based on the clothes they wear, the colour of their skin, how they speak and so on. Some of this is all well and good – after all, we cannot get to know everybody that we meet in an in-depth personal manner, but more often than not how we judge people is tinged with prejudice and assumptions.
We sadly do this in the church as well, we develop close-knit groups and communities that often unintentionally (though sometimes it is intentional), push people away from that look or act differently. We can convince ourselves that this is good and right, after all, ‘those’ people don’t respect the traditions of the church, or they aren’t dressing appropriately, or they’re just looking for a handout.
More often than not we hold these attitudes out of a sense of duty and protection of the church and community we are part of, we want to ensure that the sanctity of our worship and the orderly nature of our fellowship is maintained.
As hard as this may be to hear, the problem is that Jesus doesn’t much care for the sanctity of our worship or the orderliness of our fellowship but is more interested in matters of the heart as our passage from the Gospel of Matthew suggests this morning.
In our passage Jesus enters the temple and begins to teach, he is quickly confronted by the elders and the chief priests concerning his authority. Like any good Rabbi, Jesus doesn’t respond to their questions with an answer but instead with his question about authority “Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?”
This might seem like an easy answer for the Chief priests to answer, after all, John like his cousin Jesus was a religious outsider – he was on the outskirts of the community, quite literally in the wilderness, and about as from the religious establishment as you could get. And not only was he an outsider, but his fiery preaching had come into direct conflict with the scribes, Pharisees and Chief Priests calling them a brood of vipers and warning them about the coming of the Messiah and their need for repentance lest they be pruned off the vine of Israel. Needless to say, there was no love lost between John and the Chief Priests.
But as leaders in the community, the Chief priests were also pragmatists, and as Matthew shows us in this story they were afraid of the crowds and their fickle attitudes – after all, despite all his fiery preaching John was popular with the masses he was considered a prophet preparing the way for God’s chosen Messiah and the restoration of the Kingdom of Israel.
So the chief priests find themselves in a bind, with no right answer outsmarted by Jesus, and in the process of trying to undermine his authority, their tactic backfires on them.
And so Jesus finds an opportunity to turn the situation on its head, unmasking the sin and brokenness in the chief priests and the whole establishment by telling a parable.
The short parable is about a father and two sons. The father needs some work done in the family vineyard and so he approaches the first son who replies that he’s too busy or not interested in the work, and goes on his way – but then he has a change of heart and heads out to the vineyard. In the meantime, the father approaches his second son, who eagerly tells his father that yes of course he will go – but then decides that he has better things to do and that he can’t be bothered helping his father after all.
Jesus then uses the parable to teach about the Kingdom of God, and about how it is the tax collectors, the sinners, the ones on the outside that listen to Jesus – even though they didn’t always live a righteous life, they were the ones who heeded John’s call to repentance, they were the ones knew that they needed God’s grace and forgiveness and received it with open arms. But the Chief Priests, the ones on the inside who shaped their whole identity and persona around ‘proper worship’, ‘obeying the law to the letter’ and the image of righteousness and sanctity had rejected John’s message, they rejected the call to repent and change because they believed they didn’t have to, they believed that all their actions, all their piety, all their righteousness had earned them a place in God’s Kingdom.
The chief priests believed that they were the gatekeepers of God’s kingdom, that they determined who was in and who was out – but the truth is only God determines that, and through the example that Jesus set for us it is pretty clear that the entrance requirement to God’s Kingdom is far broader than we could imagine, broader than we likely are comfortable with.
God’s Kingdom does not and will not only consist of people that agree with us, or look like us, or think the same way that we do. The beauty of God’s kingdom is that it is open to everyone – it is open to you and me, it is open to the person who you disagree with vehemently, it is open to the person who looks completely different than you, it is open for those who think they have it all together and those who know they don’t, it is open to people of every culture and ethnic background no matter how different they may be from you and me.
And not only is it for everyone, but life in God’s Kingdom doesn’t erase our differences or distinguishing features but celebrates and sanctifies them so that each and everyone one of us no matter who we are glorifies and honours God with our very lives.
The Gospel and Church it creates, are not merely for those already on the inside, as Bishop George Craig Stewart once wrote, reflecting on Mark 2:17 “The church, after all, is not a club of saints; it is a hospital for sinners”
We all fall short of the glory of God, we all are impacted by sin and death in this world – none of our righteousness, none of our faith, none of our works is enough to earn a place in God’s Kingdom and yet we all are welcomed and received into the kingdom of God by grace alone, it is the gift of God which, He extends to each and everyone by the death and resurrection of Jesus and through the power of the Holy Spirit.
This is the life that God has called us to as the church: not as an exclusive club designed for the comfort of its members, but as a community where everyone is welcome no matter what they look like, how they talk, no matter how much faith they have.
This is the life that we have been called to as Grace Church here in South Scarborough even though the community has evolved and changed over the years that many of you have lived here, we are nonetheless called to welcome, serve and be transformed as we reach out with the Gospel of grace and love that we have come to know in Jesus.
At times it will be uncomfortable; at times we will wonder why God has called us into this endeavour; at times like Jonah we will try to run away from God and his call on us – but as we persevere in faith, as we receive the gift of God and turn around and share it with others the Kingdom of God will flourish in our midst, the love of God will abound in our lives and the community, forgiveness and mercy will spread so that reconciliation will occur in our midst.
God is calling us to something new and wonderful, pray that the Holy Spirit would give us the courage and strength to respond.
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