It’s a Message of Inclusion, Once Again
by Bishop Chris Giesler
Preaching Text: Matthew 21:23-32
Our text for this week begins by telling us that Jesus is entering the temple. It is essential here to take note of the context for this passage. Jesus’ presence in the temple on this day is actually his return from the day before. The day before (Palm Sunday), Jesus entered Jerusalem and went directly to the temple, where he cleared the temple grounds of the money changers and sellers of sacrificial animals. This was big business for those who made their money off of exchanging Roman money for temple money and for those who sold animals, both big and small, for use in the sacrifice often associated with the celebration of Passover. You don’t mess with church leaders who have found a great fundraising program; that is precisely what Jesus did.
So it is no wonder that upon Jesus’ return to the Temple, he is asked by what authority he is doing these things. And rather than answer that question, he asked them about the authority by which John the Baptist did his ministry. This put the religious leaders in an awkward and no-win situation. No matter how they answered, they would be seen in a poor light by the common folk of their day. So they refused to answer, leading Jesus to say he would not answer their question.
But Jesus goes further by posing a hypothetical situation involving a vineyard owner and his two sons. The father asks both of his sons to work in the vineyard, and one verbally says that he won’t but ends up doing it, and the other says that he will but doesn’t. Jesus then asks, “Which one did his father’s will?” The takeaway here is that Jesus alludes to the fact that these religious leaders are like the son who gave lip service but did not do the work.
There is undoubtedly a sermon for us in that as well in that our actions always speak louder than our words, but I’d like to focus on the verse where Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.”
Including these folks points to a more significant value to which Jesus dedicated himself: the inclusion of all people. Tax collectors and prostitutes were seen as the vilest of folks in their communities and certainly not worthy of inclusion within their synagogues. But time and time again, these people get Jesus’ attention.
Jesus always defined his mission based on who should be included, not on who should be shunned.
The clearing of the temple, which again took place just before this passage, indicates this. The portion of the temple where the sacrificial animal dealers and money changers set up their booths was in the part where the Gentiles and foreigners were generally given space to pray. Jesus was giving space to the outsider.
This reality is a constant theme throughout the Gospels. Here is just a sample:
- The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor” (Luke 4:18a).
- Looking at his disciples, he said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God” (Luke 6:20).
- But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous” (Luke 14:13-14).
- In Mark 1:40-45, when Jesus is approached by a leper who needs healing, Jesus doesn’t just speak words of healing; he reaches out and touches him! Lepers were considered unclean by law, and a person who touched them would also be regarded as unclean themselves.
- A centurion sends word to Jesus, asking that he come to heal his dying servant. Jesus could have certainly used this opportunity to complain about the Roman occupation of his homeland, but instead, the healing was granted.
- When Jesus told a teacher of the law that loving his neighbor as himself was an essential part of fulfilling the law, he asked Jesus who was his neighbor. Jesus’ response was the parable where a Samaritan is the hero (Luke 10:25-37).
Jesus always defined his mission based on who should be included, not on who should be excluded. This is where our sense of mission should begin as well. Who needs to find a place within our community of faith? Who is it that is being excluded elsewhere? How can we give them a home?