I Hate Lines

Sermon by Rev. Steven McClelland on Matthew 21: 23 – 32.  Focus on why the sinners go into heaven before the self righteous.  Why do religious leaders always seem to get it wrong?  Check out Jody and Alex’s solo following the sermon.

Families are challenging. Anybody who has a family knows that. In fact, most people who study families these days will tell you that all families are at least a little dysfunctional. One of the ways that families can be dysfunctional is by dumping all the hurtful and harmful patterns on one person. That person is called the “identified patient.” Often it will be a teenager with a drug problem or an eating disorder. Psychologists will tell you that the only way to treat the “identified patient” is to treat the whole family, because in a very real sense that person is simply embodying the problems inherent in the whole system. Sadly, some families reject this notion, because it means everybody has to take responsibility for the problem, and it’s much more convenient to just let the “identified patient” take the blame.

And this problem is seen in our Gospel lesson. The religious leaders were supposed to be the examples of righteousness. They were the ones who were devoted to constantly studying and keeping the word of God. They controlled the Temple and the Synagogues, which means that they controlled who was considered “righteous” and who was branded a “sinner.” Which was just another way of calling that person the identified patient who had to be dealt with properly.

But Jesus tells a parable that suggests there was something different going on in this whole setup. In the parable, a father asks a son to go work in the vineyard and he refuses, but then changes his mind and goes. The father asks his second son to go to work and he says yes, but then doesn’t go. The clear implication is that it’s not those who always say yes that are righteous, sometimes, often times it’s the sinners who end up being the righteous ones in God’s kingdom.

Reminds me of a joke attributed to James Guthrie that’s going around the Internet.

There was a priest riding the subway and a drunken man sat down next to the priest. The man’s tie was stained, his face was plastered with red lipstick, and half empty bottle of gin was sticking out of his torn coat pocket. He opened his newspaper and began reading.

After a few minutes the man turned to the priest and asked, “Say Father, what causes arthritis?’

The priest replies, ‘My son, it’s caused by loose living, being with cheap, wicked women, too much alcohol, contempt for your fellow man, sleeping around with prostitutes and a lack of a bath.’

The drunk muttered in response, ‘Well, I’ll be damned,’ then returned to his paper.

The priest, thinking about what he had said, nudged the man and said, ‘I’m very sorry. I didn’t mean to come on so strong. How long have you had arthritis?’

The drunk answered, ‘I don’t have it, Father. I was just reading here that the Pope does.’

In short, don’t judge a book by its cover. And it was this tendency Jesus had to pointing out the hypocrisy of the religious leaders that really got them fired up and mad. How dare Jesus tell them, the keepers of God’s laws, that they would have to stand in line behind the prostitutes and tax collectors when it came time to enter God’s kingdom.

But the truth of the matter was the religious authorities had already shown their hypocrisy when they asked Jesus by what authority he did and said the things he said and did. When Jesus turned the question back on them concerning John the Baptist and by what authority he baptized people the crowd saw that Pharisees were not being straightforward.

Not only were they being deceptive with Jesus, they were also anxious to conceal their true opinion from the crowds. Their religion was such that they were worried more about maintaining their power and prestige than they were about practicing the way of life that Jesus called “the way of righteousness” (Matt. 21:32). It would seem that the “righteous” people weren’t so righteous after all and that the sinners weren’t necessarily bad people. In fact what Jesus was pointing out was that the whole religious system that they held up as God’s will was really just an elaborate system of self-justification for their own self-righteous behaviors. The authorities who were often deceitful and malicious got to designate themselves as “righteous” whereas people who may have been guilty of nothing more than being poor or destitute were designated as “sinners.”

It’s as if they were the “identified patients” in that dysfunctional family—or better, they were the “identified sinners.” But designating them as sinners only gave the “righteous” a convenient way to avoid facing their own sins by diverting the attention to others. Making tax collectors and prostitutes the “identified sinners” simply took the spotlight off the Pharisees and Temple priests who Jesus called white washed tombs and self righteous hypocrites.

Now this kind of behavior didn’t occur just once upon a time. It exists in all times and places. Religious and political leaders throughout the ages have exercised a great deal of control over people by their power to determine who gets branded sinners and who gets to be righteous. It was their way of justifying themselves.

But whenever we use our religion to make ourselves look good at the expense of others, we’re really only deceiving ourselves. We’re deflecting the attention away from ourselves so we can keep up the appearance of righteousness. When we label others’ as sinners what we’re really doing is simply taking the focus off our own sins.

In “the Kingdom of Heaven” Jesus preached, that kind of hypocrisy will not stand. When Jesus calls us to come and follow him he is calling us to put into practice the kind of life he lived – a life that involved speaking truth to power, healing the sick and finding the lost. Saving sinners by dining with them and by loving them. And finally by his self sacrifice to benefit us all.

I’ll conclude with this story. There was a young African boy who came and asked a Christian woman if he could work for her. She said yes and the young boy did a great job as her servant, but after just three months he comes to her and asks her for a letter of recommendation to a Muslim Sheik he wants to go and work for. Upset at the thought of losing the young boy the lady offers to raise the boy’s salary, but he’s made up his mind and wants to go and work for the Sheik.

He’s on a mission to decide whether he should be a Christian or a Muslim and his purpose in coming to live and work for her was to witness the ways and habits of Christians up close. And after he does the same thing with his Muslim employer he will make up his mind. Upon learning this, the lady said to the young boy, “Good God, you might have told me that when you came here!”

What’s important to remember is that the way we live our lives is as easy to read, as was the story of the drunk man reading to the priest. To tell which one you are on any given day just look in a mirror and see what’s moving in your heart – judgment or mercy. Amen

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