What do you do when you have an impossible question asked of you? Do you dodge the question? Do you give a quick reply and then realize you’ve fallen into the trap? It’s the question like, ‘’Have you stopped beating your dog yet?’’ Or, ‘’Do you already know that you are mentally ill — yes or no?’’
Jesus was asked some impossible questions a few times and dealt with them in some interesting ways. Jesus had gone into Jerusalem and found his way to the temple, where he became upset that there were people who had set up shop within that sacred place selling small animals, which were to be used for the ritual sacrifice. Since it was in Jerusalem, where everyone wanted to come to make their relationship right with God, the people who had set up booths for the out of towners were charging inflated prices for these sacrificial animals. And that became a barrier to people being able to receive forgiveness for their sins. If you couldn’t afford to pay the high prices, you couldn’t afford to have things made right between you and God. There’s nothing quite like profiteering in the space between God and someone’s forgiveness.
That was upsetting to Jesus. He was so upset that he turned over a bunch of tables. You can imagine that little birds would have flown out of their overturned cages, coins would have been scattered on the floor, and everyone would have been scrambling.
That’s when the chief priests and elders came to Jesus and said, ‘’By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?’’ That might have seemed like a simple enough question. But, here’s the impossibility of trying to answer it. If Jesus had said straight up that his authority came from God, he would have been arrested for blasphemy. If he said he did it by his own authority, he would have been arrested for violating the rules of the temple and for claiming something that was blasphemous to God. Any answer to the question was one that would end badly. They hoped he would answer quickly. Having him arrested would have solved lots of problems for the religious authorities.
Instead of stepping into their rhetorical trap, Jesus told them he would answer the question if they would answer a question he posed to them. Was John’s baptism something that came from heaven, or was it a human thing?
Now the religious authorities were stuck in a dilemma. If they said John’s baptism was from heaven, they would have to answer why they didn’t follow John. And if they said it was just something human, they would have to answer to the crowds of people who had known something holy through John’s baptism. ‘’We don’t know,’’ they said.
So, Jesus told them a story about two sons. The father asked each son to go work in his vineyard. The first son said, ‘’I won’t go,’’ but later did go and work. The second son, ‘’Yes sir, I will go,’’ but later didn’t go. Which one of them did what the father wanted?
It was an easy enough question to answer. The confounding thing about Jesus’ story was that it was about his listeners. While they hadn’t answered the question about John and his authority, they had answered the question in his parable, which convicted them.
Jesus had been talking and eating with tax collectors who had sold themselves out to the Romans, and with prostitutes who had sold out their bodies to have enough to feed their families. Somehow, these people who had said no to God, had begun, through their conversations with Jesus, to do the things required of the kingdom of heaven. They were re-establishing a relationship with God and trying to live in gracious ways. The actions they were taking now spoke a louder ‘’yes’’ than the words they had used earlier to say ‘’no’’ to God’s ways.
The religious authorities had said ‘’yes’’ to all the rules, to all the visible signs of religion, to all the public rituals that confirmed their allegiance. But their actions were not gracious or inclusive. They built walls around what was sacred and excluded the people who were not like them. Their actions spoke a louder ‘’no’’ than the words they had used earlier to say ‘’yes’’ to God’s ways.
If Jesus were to tell us a parable about our contemporary selves, what would our actions say about us? Do we do things that are gracious, forgiving, and loving toward people who are not like us? Do we insist on rules that press people to conform or risk being excluded if they don’t? How can our actions so closely resemble the kingdom of heaven, that even the words we speak pale in comparison? When our actions speak love, forgiveness, and grace that loudly, they may just drown out the words of hostility and hate spoken so harshly in the name of religion. How loudly do our actions speak? What do they say about who we are?
Lander Bethel is the minister of Grand Avenue Presbyterian in Sherman and First Presbyterian Church in Denison. He earned a degree in psychology from the University of Oklahoma before attending McCormick Theological Seminary. He lives in Sherman with his wife and three sons.