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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising, Michigan

They Woudn't Have to Crucify Him - 09/27/2020

In Matthew’s account of Jesus’ journey to the cross and beyond, this is the first of five times the Pharisees, Sadducees and “elders of the people” will try to trap Jesus with tricky questions. 

On the surface, this story might seem fairly straight forward. As part of the kerfuffle Jesus came to be while he was here on earth, there was tension between him and those who held religious responsibility and power in the name of God’s people.

It’s important to remind ourselves that we really have a little work to do in order understand who these people were. We have to pry ourselves from our 2020 perspectives, which is not easy.

So, just for the sake of a little perspective shift … let me remind us that our gospels can be hard on these folks, as they can be on lawyers and bankers, those with wealth and privilege. So, it’s important to remember that generalizing in any instance is not typically helpful.

So, for instance, I think we can assume there were some problematic Pharisees around, and Jesus could very well be talking with some of them right here in this story. In general, however, the Pharisees were well-respected teachers and clergy. They tended to live pretty modestly and be charitable. To respond to this sacred call was an honor. I expect the majority of them felt it was their duty to help people nurture their relationships with God, even when they were blind to the way the temple system had actually perverted God’s law.

The Sadducees were another sect of Jewish leaders who had a lot of Roman-given power in Jesus’ time. They are most often remembered for their disbelief in resurrection, which plays into the trap they try to set for Jesus regarding marriage in the resurrection. The historian Josephus wrote that the members of this sect were men of wealth and status in that region. They had a lot of duties, including maintaining the temple. And they weren’t around for very long. Thirty or forty years after this episode they will disappear from Jewish leadership.

And we have the elders of the people, who came from a long tradition of elders beginning with Moses, and who at this point and time, were mostly wealthy elites who probably didn’t have much authentic connection to the people they represented.

That’s just a little more insight into the chief priests and elders of the people Matthew is using to move our story along. They were coming at Jesus with suspicion from the moment he entered Jerusalem, triumphantly, on a donkey and a colt(!), escorted by throngs of people. Jesus has taken up a teaching position at the temple. The religious leaders are threatened by his presence with the people; by his knowledge of God’s law and the scriptures, his ability to explain things to a people who just want to be seen and be faithful to God. The religious leaders feel their own positions of power and privilege are at risk in Jesus’ disregard for Roman power. They do not like how enlivened, hopeful, engaged, empowered the people become when Jesus teaches them about this steadfast loving God who has and will always act first on behalf of the most vulnerable, not the most powerful.

And so they begin to try to trap him, in public, by tricking him into saying something that would be blasphemous.

In this first instance of their plot, they question Jesus’ authority. Where does he get the power, the permission, to interpret scriptures, speak truth to power, heal the sick, forgive sin?

 It is, of course their authority that is really suspect here. Jesus refuses to be played so easily by them and he turns the table with a question that reveals a fault line in their own authority … “Did the baptism of John come from heaven or human origin?”

Do they answer in the way so many of them did when they themselves went to John at the river, repenting and being baptized? John said to them, “You brood of vipers … I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me … He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire …” Soon after Jesus himself did come to be baptized by John, “And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” (Mt 3:7-17, para)

And John stood back and said, “See? I told you he was coming.”

So, if they answer Jesus that John’s baptism came from the authority of heaven … or God … they also essentially admit they know precisely where Jesus’ authority comes from.

And yet, if they say John’s baptism came of human authority, they risked angering the people, who consider John a prophet. The religious leaders need to keep the people under control and Rome happy and well paid in order to maintain their power and status.

They just stepped into the trap they thought they were setting for Jesus.

And so, with ears down low and tails between their legs, they answer, “We do not know.”

But they are not done yet. More tricky questions about taxes and allegiance, marriage law and resurrection, the most important of God’s laws, and so on are yet to come. Jesus beats them to the punch at every turn. Give to God what is God’s; God is the God of a living creation, not a dead one; it’s about love – love of God and neighbor above all your stuff and desire.

In the fifth and final attempt to get this plot off the ground, Jesus doesn’t even wait for a question. The religious leaders are still all kerfuffled over their last failed attempt to undermine Jesus’ authority. They are conspiring to come up with something else and Jesus interrupts their conference and skips right to his question.

“’What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?’ They said to him, ‘The son of David.’ (Jesus replied), ‘How is it then that David by the Spirit calls him Lord? … If David … calls him Lord, how can he be his son?’ No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions. (Mt 22:41-46, para).

… nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions … Jesus won. His authority increased. He was not dislodged from the temple. He kept teaching and speaking truth to power. Until he was arrested.

Here’s the kind of mind-bending part though. Up until this point, I think, this could be the story of any earthly power play. Powers come and go – our histories and our present days are, and our future stories will be full of examples.

But this is no ordinary power play on account of one major player – Jesus, the one our gospel writer introduced to us in this way when an angel speaking to Joseph in a dream said, “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, ‘God is with us.’” (Mt 1:23)

I think it’s safe to assume that Jesus – aka “God is with us” – was well prepared for the legalistic, human conceived traps the Pharisees and Sadducees and the so-called “elders of the people” laid for him.

He’d been through this before with the devil in the wilderness following his baptism. That adversary also tried to trap him with questions and quizzes and challenges.

Jesus knew that the objective of those trying to trap him in these stories was to undermine his authority and dislodge him from the temple.

And we know something too. We know Jesus cannot be successfully tricked by these questions and plots. We know from this side of the cross, from our faith, from our studies and discussions about Jesus: his miraculous birth, his ministry and teachings, his willingness to be nailed to a cross for our sake, the resurrection … we already know from all of that … Jesus is not just more powerful than those trying to undermine him. We also know Jesus’ power is different. We know that we can trust Jesus wields this power for healing and reconciliation, rather than the alienation and violence too often borne of human-wielded power.

Jesus knew, and we know too, that the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the so-called “elders of the people,” and anyone else who has or will come along to undermine Jesus’ authority and put him out of any temple, including the temples of our hearts, is doomed to fail before they even begin.

Which leads us to one more conclusion, a conclusion that truly reveals how much God loves us …

It shows us how committed God was to come among us in human form, to experience all the guts and the glory of human life …

It gives us a deep and abiding sense of how serious, authoritative, righteous, perfect and unstoppable God is in delivering us from all the brokenness of this world, and ultimately into life-everlasting in a fully revealed Kingdom of God …

It is a conclusion that reveals all of this and probably universes more when we realize what Jesus knew all along: If the Pharisees, Sadducees and so-called “elders of the people” won any of these arguments, they would not only undermine his authority and be able to kick him out of the temple … if they won, they wouldn’t have to crucify him.

Let us pray. Jesus, thank you for not letting them win. Thank you for showing what it really means that “God is with us.” Thank you for going to that cross. Amen.

Pastor Ann Gonyea

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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising Michigan ~ An ELCA, Northern Great Lakes Synod Congregation
P.O. Box 360 ~ 1150 West M-28 ~ Munising, MI 49862 ~ 1-906-387-2520 ~

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