The Proof is in the Pudding
While Jesus was teaching in the temple, the chief priests and the elders confronted him, saying, “By what authority are YOU here again? Whom do you represent?”
Among themselves, they were most likely asking, “Who let him in? What audacity does this man have? How dare he enter this temple –especially after yesterday!”
Yesterday? What happened yesterday?
Well, yesterday is the important prequel to today’s story. The yesterday they were speaking of was the day we have come to call Palm Sunday: Yesterday, Christ had ridden into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey and his followers had waved him in with branches cut from trees and shouts of Hosanna! Now, we may imagine that the little parade was the focus of all Jerusalem on that day long ago, but the truth is that the procession likely went unnoticed. In a huge city teeming with pilgrims and merchants, Christ’s “regal” entry was hardly a bleep on the radar.
But if the parade didn’t capture anyone’s attention, what happened next did. Christ entered the temple and wreaked havoc. He saw in an instant that the Lord’s house –at least the outer Court of the Gentiles– was not a holy house of prayer. Shoot, prayer would have been impossible in that space because it was not a church at all, it was a crooked market, an unapologetic arcade aimed at extorting poor pilgrims. You did not bring the required silver half-shekel to pay your temple tax? Then we will change your currency —for a modest fee. What, you require money back, well there is a little charge for change, too. O, and we see you brought your own sacrifice. No, look it is blemished and unacceptable. You must buy one of our doves – that will be 15 shillings.
The great temple of Jerusalem had become an arcade where peddler’s got rich off the piety of simple people –where merchants cheated pilgrims in exchange for absolution – where God had been squeezed out and mammon sat on the throne. And Jesus was angry. So angry that he protested. He didn’t just take a knee. He upset their tables, and spilled their tills. He threw out their tokens and released their doves. He made a mess of the place. And the chief priests and elders were fit to be tied.
But they could not grab him and throw him out, because –in an instant—he was surrounded by the sick and lame. And now Christ had everyone’s attention. He was healing people, curing people. He was restoring sight to the blind, and hearing to the dear. The lame were getting up from their pallets and walking away. Little children were shouting their hosannas. And the name of Jesus spread through the temple and into the town. At some point, the enigmatic rabbi quietly slipped away into the night. And the authorities seethed.
Good riddance, they thought; the rabblerouser is not welcome here.
But that was yesterday. And today, he’s back. He’s in the temple. He’s teaching, and by whose authority?
And so they confront him. Who gave you the words you preach? Who gave you the power to heal? “By what authority are you doing these things?” [Matthew 21: 23] Their unspoken questions also filled the silence: If you are so learned, under whom did you study? If you are a prophet, where is your piety? Why don’t you keep the Levitical law? If you are God’s chosen, why have we only recently heard of you? Why do your disciples look like fishermen and goat herders? Why are your followers the destitute and illiterate? In other words, why do you look and act the way you do? What is your pedigree? Where is your coat and tie? Where are your diplomas from esteemed divinity schools? Why are you YOU?
Jesus knows what they are thinking but he doesn’t answer. Instead, he throws a question back at them: “What about John?” he says. “By whose authority did John baptize people in the Jordan?”
It’s a tough question, so they huddle up. “This crowd,” they mutter, “thinks John is a true prophet – though he was even more of an eccentric than this blasphemer in front of us. So if we say that John was merely human and his baptisms mean nothing, then the place will erupt! But, if we admit that John baptized under the authority of God, then this Jesus will say, “Then why did you not believe him? After all, it was John who baptized me!”
They were afraid no answer, so they made a safe reply: “Pending further investigation, we do not know.” But it was clear to all that they were humiliated; they lost all credibility. If the chief priests and elders could not distinguish truth from falsehood, then who could?
But Jesus, standing between the Jewish Sanhedrin and a crowd of curious onlookers sees a teaching moment: “Let me tell you a story, he says: A farmer had two sons, and he said to the first, go out into the fields and harvest grapes today. And the son refused, but later changed his mind and did as his father asked. The father asked the second son to do the same. This son readily agreed: “Sure, Dad, I’ll get right on it,” he said, but never walked out into the vineyard, never picked a single grape or did an moment’s work.
“Now which of the sons did the will of his father?” Jesus asks the priests. “Was it the one who gave lip service to his father, who smiled and nodded and said ‘Yes, sir. Right away, sir’? Or was it the one who actually obeyed?”
“The first,” the crowd agreed. “The one who obeyed his father.”
“Right!” Jesus said. “It was the son who heard the words of his father and actually obeyed.”
So, looking at the Temple establishment, Christ drives home his point: “I do what I do, and John did what he did under the authority of our Father in Heaven. And we have the Father’s blessing because we do what He asks. We are obedient to his will. It’s as simple as that. Being pious and “religious” has nothing to do with it. Looking the right way or speaking the right words or attending the right schools has nothing to do with it. What matters is gathering God’s harvest. We are doing what our Father asked us to do. We are picking the grapes. Are you?”
Of course, that sounds too simple. Is Jesus saying that God isn’t interested in our creeds, our religious heritage, our ethnic identity?
Yes, in part. God knows who his children are because they do His will – not just think about it, study it, talk about it, but do it. They feed His sheep. They love their neighbors. They share their possessions, and forgive their debtors. And, they actually pick some grapes.
“You think you know who will be in the Kingdom of Heaven when you get there,” Jesus says. “But, boy, will you be wrong! It will not be a reunion of the grand old establishment. No, Heaven will be filled with prostitutes and tax collectors, with bartenders and bus drivers, with artists and actors, with cooks and custodians, with the young and the simple, with gay and straight, with church-goers and those who never darkened the door. What all these folks will have in common will be their obedience to the voice of the Father. The Kingdom will be filled with those who not only hear Gods’ commands but obey them. You see, the proof of a good cook is not in the recipe but in the pudding. Actions speak louder than words.
So, who are the true sons and daughters of God? Those who do his will. Make no mistake, this is radical stuff. It was radical then and it is radical now. Our theology teaches that salvation comes from faith alone. All we must do is confess Jesus Christ as our savior. But this passage portrays God as that college instructor who says “If you can demonstrate to me that you learned the material, then you pass no how often you came to class or how many homework assignments you submitted. If you cannot demonstrate that you know how to serve others, then perfect attendance all semester won’t make any difference. While showing up for the lectures would certainly help you grasp the material, just occupying a seat, nodding your head and asking questions doesn’t prove a thing.
For all their education, for all their sanctimonious keeping of the law, for all their piety and pretty words, the chief priests and elders had not grasped the material. They did not understand God’s will, they rejected God’s son and denied God’s authority. But even worse, they were not doing God’s bidding. And what was that? Micah says it beautifully: God has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
The same standard applies to us. We can claim the authority of God our Father if we are truly doing his will. I am reminded of a favorite hymn: “ We will work with each other, we will work side by side; we will work with each other, we will work side by side. And we’ll guard each man’s dignity and save each man’s pride. And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love. Yes, they’ll know we are Christians by our love. The proof is in the pudding.