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Life of Christ (1996-1998)

Religious Fakes

Matthew 21:23 - 22:14

In this month’s Scientific American is a pleasant story of a man who collects shells. Thrilled by the opportunity to get two rare specimens at a bargain price, he snapped them up from a dealer. He became suspicious when telling of his good fortune to a fellow collector his friend asked, “Are you sure they’re not painted?” As it turned out, one specimen was genuine; the other painted to enhance it. (The dealer made things right).

In the matter of shells we turn to the microscope, the x-ray and other scientific tools. But what about matters religious? How do we know the fake from the real there? In today’s lesson the Pharisees will test Christ in this – and he will test them. The matter is not academic; we still have need of such testing today.

Some might argue that. After all, if I don’t know the answer, how can that hurt? The answer is simple enough: would you say the same thing about the pain in your chest, or would you go to the doctor? The question is not an option, for things religious are things ultimate.

So then, how do we test things? Unlike the conch shells under a microscope, there are no scientific tests. Like most things in life, we need some sort of authority.

·         Often we use an expert authority – like the doctor. But who is the expert on the expert?

·         Sometimes we seek a practical authority – Ted Williams on the art of hitting the baseball. But who is so righteous as that among us?

·         In matters religious we must seek a moral authority. We know just what kind of person that is – one who points out our failings and calls us to fix them. We know the expert by the guilt he calls out in us.

Having said that, let’s look at how Jesus and the Pharisees see it:

John’s Baptism

(Mat 21:23-27 NIV) Jesus entered the temple courts, and, while he was teaching, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him. "By what authority are you doing these things?" they asked. "And who gave you this authority?" {24} Jesus replied, "I will also ask you one question. If you answer me, I will tell you by what authority I am doing these things. {25} John's baptism--where did it come from? Was it from heaven, or from men?" They discussed it among themselves and said, "If we say, 'From heaven,' he will ask, 'Then why didn't you believe him?' {26} But if we say, 'From men'--we are afraid of the people, for they all hold that John was a prophet." {27} So they answered Jesus, "We don't know." Then he said, "Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.

Why is John the Baptist considered an authority?

·         First, he seems free of the usual reason for getting into the “religion business” – he’s definitely not into it for the money!

·         Next, there is a consistency of his life and message. He speaks like a prophet – and wanders the desert like one, too.

·         But most of all there is the sense of conviction that he produces. When he speaks, people are convicted of sin – and repent. The common man knows who this John is.

Christ echoes that by asking them about John’s authority. Note that in so doing he is going right to the heart of the matter – guilt and sin. So often we forget that belief is only possible to those who obey. We all know that the converse is true. Here Jesus puts the stabbing question: what about John?

It is a point worth repeating often. When Bill Clinton first took office his administration was so composed that he was unable to come up with a speaker for the Congressional Prayer Breakfast. After much dithering a minor functionary of the Veteran’s Administration was offered. The Congress rejected that and selected a lady from India – Mother Theresa. The message she gave was not at all polite. She took Bill Clinton to task for his view on abortion. How much more telling it was in that the leader of the nation had abdicated his moral duty!

The Pharisees show themselves here by asking the wrong question. Instead of asking “what is right” they asked “what looks good?” They were more afraid of the shame of lying than the sin of it. Looking for status, looking for debating points, they came up empty. Jesus takes the moral point to its conclusion. Rather than play the game with them and trump this weak point by continuing the debate, he cuts it off. This is not a debate. It is eternal life or damnation, and thus far too serious to turn into collegiate debate.

The Parable of the two sons

Christ now makes the point to those around.

(Mat 21:28-32 NIV) "What do you think? There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, 'Son, go and work today in the vineyard.' {29} "'I will not,' he answered, but later he changed his mind and went. {30} "Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, 'I will, sir,' but he did not go. {31} "Which of the two did what his father wanted?" "The first," they answered. Jesus said to them, "I tell you the truth, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. {32} For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him.

The meaning of the parable is quite clear. One son represents the “religious” folks; the other those whose views are not so high. Note that neither son is quite satisfactory. After all, if it were my children, I’d want to hear “Yes sir” – and then see action. But if you have to pick……

There are lessons in here for us today:

·         The only qualification for being a Christian is that you have to be a sinner first. It does not matter what you are; what matters is who He is.

·         God does not desire our lip service – that’s cheap. He desires our heart service. Our status in life means nothing in that.

·         When we see the wicked enter the church with repentance, do we rejoice? Or do we hope they’ll find someone else’s classroom? Are we convinced that no Christian would ever have a rap sheet?

Parable of the wicked tenant farmers

(Mat 21:33-46 NIV) "Listen to another parable: There was a landowner who planted a vineyard. He put a wall around it, dug a winepress in it and built a watchtower. Then he rented the vineyard to some farmers and went away on a journey. {34} When the harvest time approached, he sent his servants to the tenants to collect his fruit. {35} "The tenants seized his servants; they beat one, killed another, and stoned a third. {36} Then he sent other servants to them, more than the first time, and the tenants treated them the same way. {37} Last of all, he sent his son to them. 'They will respect my son,' he said. {38} "But when the tenants saw the son, they said to each other, 'This is the heir. Come, let's kill him and take his inheritance.' {39} So they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him. {40} "Therefore, when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?" {41} "He will bring those wretches to a wretched end," they replied, "and he will rent the vineyard to other tenants, who will give him his share of the crop at harvest time." {42} Jesus said to them, "Have you never read in the Scriptures: "'The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone ; the Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes'? {43} "Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit. {44} He who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces, but he on whom it falls will be crushed." {45} When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard Jesus' parables, they knew he was talking about them. {46} They looked for a way to arrest him, but they were afraid of the crowd because the people held that he was a prophet.

We may look at this story in three aspects: how it applied to Israel, how it applies to the church, and this strange concept of “the cornerstone.”

Israel

The obvious meaning is this. The servants who were sent are the prophets, sent by God, the owner. The son is Jesus Christ, and this is a prophecy of the crucifixion. For us, then, comes the point. Note who owns the vineyard. Everything that Israel had – the land itself – was the gift of God. To this day the claim of the Jewish nation is solidly based upon the idea that God gave the land in what we now call Palestine to Abraham, and from him then to the Jews of today. The land is his; the nation of Israel is his. See, then, what they have done to his prophets, his messengers, and now are about to do to his Son.

The church

This can be very self satisfying to read. After all, Christ is talking about what has happened a long time ago, and surely doesn’t apply to us. Or does it?

·         He sends messengers to us – it is not inappropriate to call them prophets in that sense – to remind us of our sins and call us to repentance. What do we do with those messengers?

·         He reminds us that he is our Lord; we belong to Him. Yet how many of us feel we are happiest without the lordship of God? How many of us would much rather be in charge of our own lives?

·         And when the Son of Man comes again, then what?

The Cornerstone

This is a very old concept from the Old Testament. It still applies to us today. A cornerstone in a building is not just a ceremonial thing; rather, it is the starting point of the whole building. If it is misplaced, the construction cannot succeed.

·         For those who obey, the cornerstone soon becomes precious.[1] We become like the cornerstone, and become building stones in the church.[2]

·         For those who do not obey, the cornerstone is something to stumble over.[3] It is the function of the Holy Spirit to cause those who are in sin to come to know it – and repent. Sometimes you have to stumble and fall on your face before you can admit you’re walking in the dark.

·         When He comes again He will be the “smiting stone” (KJV) prophesied in Daniel[4] -- who will fill the whole earth.

The parable of the marriage feast

(Mat 22:1-14 NIV) Jesus spoke to them again in parables, saying: {2} "The kingdom of heaven is like a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son. {3} He sent his servants to those who had been invited to the banquet to tell them to come, but they refused to come. {4} "Then he sent some more servants and said, 'Tell those who have been invited that I have prepared my dinner: My oxen and fattened cattle have been butchered, and everything is ready. Come to the wedding banquet.' {5} "But they paid no attention and went off--one to his field, another to his business. {6} The rest seized his servants, mistreated them and killed them. {7} The king was enraged. He sent his army and destroyed those murderers and burned their city. {8} "Then he said to his servants, 'The wedding banquet is ready, but those I invited did not deserve to come. {9} Go to the street corners and invite to the banquet anyone you find.' {10} So the servants went out into the streets and gathered all the people they could find, both good and bad, and the wedding hall was filled with guests. {11} "But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing wedding clothes. {12} 'Friend,' he asked, 'how did you get in here without wedding clothes?' The man was speechless. {13} "Then the king told the attendants, 'Tie him hand and foot, and throw him outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.' {14} "For many are invited, but few are chosen."

The kingdom of heaven is indeed a feast for the believer. The application here is specifically to Israel. Those who were invited – the Jews – paid no attention, or they rebelled – and look what happened to them! Scattered over the earth and only now called back to their home.

There is a parallel here for America. Most of us pay no attention to the call of God, or reject it with anger. The lesson is clear. America grew to greatness in the hand of God. That same hand is still active today.

Note well the king’s reaction. If those invited (in this parable, the Jews) will not come then He will find someone else. It doesn’t matter to him if they are “worthy” or not. The invitation will be sent elsewhere. But not everyone who responds will be allowed to stay at the party. Only those who come prepared for the wedding. In other words, those who come with lip service, those who come with only a casual intention, those who do not honor the seriousness of the occasion will be thrown out. Blessed are the pure in heart!

This passage has caused some problems because it raises the matter of election. Some have concluded that God selects certain individuals before birth and foreordains that those individuals will be saved, and others will not. They conclude that nothing the individual does can change God’s mind one way or the other. This is a misreading of Scripture.

·         It certainly is the nature of God that his mind does not change. He has firmly decided to save those who will follow him. He will not change his mind about that.[5]

·         It is also true that the Jews rejected this salvation, and that rejection has (up to this time) provided us, the church, with the opportunity to inherit the promises made to Israel. We are now heirs to the covenant.[6]

·         All this is possible because we are “called” – but we are called “in Christ.”[7] It is not random chance; it is our decision to accept the grace of God offered through Jesus Christ.

Application

·         We have an obligation to discern the real from the fake in religion. It is not as though we have not heard; we have heard and now must make a decision.

·         Not to decide, is to decide. And to decide we need to be aware of the consequences. God is not hasty in judgment; nor is he tardy.

·         There is one sure path: Jesus Christ. To walk that path you must choose heart service over lip service.

Often when we read these passages we think they apply only to the nation of Israel. But Israel always stands as warning to the church. If you will not love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, will he not spit you out?


[1] Isaiah 28:16

[2] 1 Peter 2:4-8

[3] Isaiah 8:14

[4] Daniel 2:34-35

[5] Romans 8:28-39, for example.

[6] Romans 9:1-11

[7] Ephesians 1:1-12

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