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Sermon: An Interview with Jesus

An Interview with Jesus

Text: Matthew 21:28-31

(Gary W. Charles, Cove Presbyterian Church, Covesville, VA, 10-8-2017)

All the major networks have preempted regular programming for this exclusive moment. The stage is set with two chairs facing each other. In one chair sits the person who will conduct the interview. In the chair opposite sits Jesus. A dark stage is suddenly lit like noon on a sunny day and the interview begins. The interviewer has her notecards in hand and is poised to ask Jesus everything she has always wanted to ask..

I got this idea of an interview with Jesus from Chuck Campbell who teaches at Duke Divinity School. Years ago, Chuck was a classmate of mine at Union. When I arrived as the new pastor at Central in Atlanta in 2004, Chuck and his family worshipped there and he taught at Columbia.

“A few years ago, while channel surfing,” writes Chuck, “I paused and watched part of an interview with television psychologist and celebrity Dr. Phil. At one point the interviewer asked Dr. Phil, ‘If you could interview anyone in the world, past or present, who would it be’? Dr. Phil replied, without hesitation: ‘Jesus Christ. I would really like to interview Jesus Christ. I would like to have a conversation with him about the meaning of life.’

“As soon as Dr. Phil spoke,” Chuck continues, “I remember thinking, ‘Oh no, you wouldn’t! You would not want to sit down with Jesus, treat him like an interviewee, and ask him about the meaning of life. You would be crazy to do that. He would turn you upside down and inside out. He would confound all your questions and probably end up telling you to sell everything you own, give the money to the poor, and come, follow me. No, Dr. Phil, you do not really want to interview Jesus, and I do not want to either. It would not go well.” (Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 4, 117.)

In effect, in today’s text from Matthew, the religious authorities in Jerusalem interview Jesus. At least, it starts as an interview of Jesus. Jesus walks into the Jerusalem temple and the questions start to fly. The religious leaders do not ask honest questions looking for honest answers. They ask loaded questions looking to entrap Jesus, such as on the issue of John the Baptist’s authority.

Then, Jesus changes seats and starts interviewing them. He asks his own questions and he wants some answers. Very quickly, the Temple leaders learn the hard way that it is never a good idea to interview Jesus. He does not play by the interview-interviewee rules. He has more important questions to ask of us.

So, Jesus the interviewer asks the Jerusalem authorities this question: “What do you think?” Think about what, Jesus? Almost before they can form that question, Jesus follows this short question with a very short parable.

Most translations begin the parable: “A man had two sons.” Frankly, I do not know why it is translated this way, other than the usual male bias in most English translations. Actually, the Greek noun for offspring has no gender to it. “A certain man had two children” is closer to the Greek. True, the two offspring could have been two sons, but they could also have been two daughters or one of each. In other words, this parable is not just for guys and it is not one that women can escape.

The parent tells the eldest child, “Go and work in the vineyard today.” So, here we are back in the vineyard again. Just two weeks ago, we were in the vineyard with laborers who went to work at all hours of the day and got the same pay. Now, in this parable, the Father instructs child number one to get to work in the vineyard. The child replies, “Thanks but no thanks. I have other plans for the day and picking stinking grapes is not in my plans!” A short time passes and for whatever the reason, the first child reconsiders her inconsiderate answer and heads off to work in the vineyard.

Child number two gets the same parental instruction and as this seasoned second child has learned; he tells the parent just what the parent wants to hear: “Vineyard? Pick grapes? Today? Well, of course, I’m there! You can count on me.” The parent leaves but child number two never gives working in the vineyard a second thought.

Now, remember the setting for this story. Jesus is in Jerusalem. He is in the Jerusalem Temple. He is standing knee deep in religious tradition with the keepers of tradition. He is standing on their turf and they are intent on interviewing him. Somehow, though, Jesus commandeers the interview and they find themselves being interviewed.

So after Jesus tells the parable to these keepers of tradition, he asks them what should be a really simple question to answer: Which of the two children did the will of the Parent? There is no real choice in how to answer that question. It is obvious. There is no place for them to duck.

Which of the two children did the will of the Parent? “The first” is their answer to which Jesus does not give them a pat on the back. These tradition keepers may be “first children” themselves chronologically, direct ancestors of Abraham and Sarah, Rachel and Leah and Jacob, Moses, and David, but they have acted like the second child. Despite John’s preaching and God’s living presence standing before them in Jesus, they have not had a change of mind and they have not followed Jesus into God’s vineyard of justice and mercy. Like the second child, they have made lots of promises to God that have not been kept.

Just when I had this parable neatly tied up this week, with a bumper sticker moral: “Be like the first child, not the second,” I noticed something I have missed over the years. Jesus does tells these keepers of tradition, these privileged children entrusted with the promises of God how badly they have managed God’s promises and that ethically reprehensible tax collectors and morally bereft prostitutes are going to enter God’s kingdom before they do.

All these years, I have focused on tax collectors and prostitutes making faces at the religious prudes being left behind while the most unlikely candidates stroll right past them into God’s kingdom. That may be how I want the story to end but it does not end that way. For years, I have skipped over the last three words, “before they do.” Jesus looks at the hard-headed religious traditionalists and says, “Yes, tax collectors and prostitutes are entering God’s kingdom,” and then he adds, “before you do.” First child or second child or combination of first and second child, in other words, every last one of them, every last one of us, is being welcomed into the kingdom of God.

Wait a minute. Even when we arrive late to the vineyard, after saying we would never come? Yes.

Even when we promise to work, but never step foot in the vineyard? Yes.

A child of God is a child of God – obedient or not, same-minded or with a changed mind.

Everybody gets in.

Who wants that? What kind of reward is heaven if everybody gets in? Come on, Jesus!

God’s vineyard grace is at work again in this parable, a parable that refuses to be reduced to the good child and the disobedient child. Instead, it is a parable about a good God whose welcome does not finally rest upon our behavior. Thank God!

All that said, Chuck is right. The interview with Jesus by these religious tradition keepers did not go well. I doubt it would go better for us. Jesus has a way of fending off small questions that we have for him and then asking big questions that he has for us.

I can imagine just a few of the questions Jesus might want to ask those of us with our eyes set on the kingdom: “When will you stop talking about gun violence and finally do something about it? “When will you stop shaking your head about the crazy weather and start taking steps to address climate change?” “When will you stop talking about wanting racial justice and start doing the hard work to make racial justice a reality in society and in the church?” I imagine Jesus has a much longer list waiting to ask us.

And yet, when I go back to the parable that Jesus tells, even those who do nothing about gun violence or think the conversation is misguided, who deny climate change and believe good science does not support it, who stay in racially segregated bubbles and think people prefer to live that way, even children with whom I passionately disagree are welcome into God’s kingdom. Just when I want Jesus to withdraw the welcome mat, to do some lecturing, set some folks straight, and draw some bright red lines, he tells this confounding parable.

Interview Jesus? I will pass. Not today. Not tomorrow. Not ever. What I will do is to pray for the wisdom to bask in God’s grace and to live a glad, joyful, and generous life in response to the One who welcomes you, who welcomes them, and who welcomes even me into God’s kingdom.

AMEN

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