17th Sunday of Pentecost September 27, 2020


First Reading: Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32
Psalm 25:1-9
Second Reading: Philippians 2:1-13
Gospel: Matthew 21:23-32

Prayer of the Day:

God of love, giver of life, you know our frailties and failings. Give us your grace to overcome them, keep us from those things that harm us, and guide us in the way of salvation, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.

Hymns of the Day

If you don’t have hymnals at home,
look up the hymns on YouTube or other websites.

Lord, Whose Love in Humble Service (ELW 712)
Dearest Jesus, at Your Word (ELW 520)
Change My Heart, O God (ELW 801)
Hallelujah! We Sing Your Praises (ELW 535)
Just As I Am (Many renditions on YouTube)

Reflection on Matthew 21:23-32

by Pastor Tim Dean

Reflection: What Kind of Authority?

The TV series “Game of Thrones” was a huge hit show on cable that ended last year. I did not watch it, and please don’t take my reference as a personal recommendation to watch it. It’s not a “PG family-friendly” show suitable for a church movie night!

“Game of Thrones” is based on a series of medieval fantasy books by George Martin about rival family groups fighting for power, for control of the throne.

Even though I didn’t watch the show, I did hear a catchphrase from the show that kind of sums it up: “When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die. There is no middle ground.”

The kind of power this describes is telling: you get the throne by any means, even by destroying your enemies. You win or you die.

I thought of this phrase as I studied Matthew’s gospel reading for today. This reading is the beginning of a series of conflicts between Jesus and the religious leadership of the temple, represented by chief priests and elders. The previous day, Jesus entered Jerusalem on a donkey (Matthew 21:1-11), invaded the temple, and turned over tables of money changers to clean up corrupt practices (vv. 12-17).

In our reading today, he goes back to the temple, the center of religious power, and starts teaching. The temple leadership immediately starts attacking his authority.

Some background here is helpful. In the 1st century, the chief priests and elders were an elite class supported by the Roman Empire. Rome gave them a healthy financial subsidy to stay in power and not rock the boat. Not surprisingly, this did not make them very popular with ordinary folks in Israel. In fact, people revolted against Rome and their allies, taking over Jerusalem briefly, until the Roman army came in and destroyed the temple in 70 AD.

Swirling in the background of this scene is the military occupation by Rome. If the religious leaders don’t take care of this “rabble-rouser” Jesus, the might of Rome would come down on them. The conflict depicted today when Jesus enters the temple and begins teaching is not just a scholarly debate, but a political powder keg threatening Rome’s control. As Richard Swanson notes, the “Roman sword hangs over everyone in this scene.” (“Provoking the Gospel of Matthew,” 2007, p. 236)

Notice how Jesus responds to the attempts of the temple authorities to catch him in a net. He answers their question with a question. He asks them about John the Baptizer, and his authority—was it of divine or human origin? (21:24) The chief priests and elders don’t know how to answer, and so Jesus’ doesn’t answer. He doesn’t play their game of thrones!

In contrast to authority based on fighting for a throne—whether that be temple elites or the Roman emperor—Jesus’ authority is something completely different. It’s more like John the Baptizer, the prophet who appeared in the wasteland of the wilderness, proclaiming God’s revolution of justice and righteousness.

It’s more like the reversal of welcoming tax collectors and prostitutes, flawed yet deeply loved people, welcoming them into the kingdom.

Jesus’ authority is constantly ridiculed and challenged in the gospel, yet he shows his power by teaching that the meek not the mighty inherit the earth, by feeding the hungry, forgiving enemies, eating with untouchables, expanding God’s mercy to include people who have no voice, no power.

You and I know what happens to him. It’s what has happened to John and every prophet who doesn’t play the game of thrones. The Roman sword comes down on Jesus, and he is brutally executed as a threat to the empire.

Yet surprisingly, ironically, Jesus’ death affirms how different his authority is. His power rises up in humility, justice, and love. This power is affirmed in the cross and resurrection.

Paul knows this power, as he quotes from an ancient hymn in Philippians. Jesus is found in human form and humbles himself to the point of scandalous death on a cross. He empties himself (Philippians 2:5-8). This is Jesus’ power and authority.

Not “win or die,” but “dying we win.” Or maybe better: dying we live.

These days, it often feels like a sword is hanging over our heads. The grief, loss, and weariness as the pandemic drags on. We have hit the somber 6-month mark of Covid, with over 200,000 people losing their lives in our country alone.

Maybe it feels like a sword when there is violence against Black communities or the troubling conflicts that have led to bloodshed during protests.

Maybe it feels like a sword as we lurch toward the election. New fears and threats arise over things we had taken for granted, like voting. Leaders willingly cause toxic divisiveness for political gain, and use their power to not just defeat, but destroy, those who believe differently.

We see the “Game of Thrones” in a lot of places right now: win or die. Might is right. Win at all costs. Demonize your opponent.

But, dear friends, as Jesus’ disciples, you and I are invited to something different. God reigns with a different authority. We follow a Savior who dies so that others can live. We follow a Teacher who walks humbly as one of us and goes out of his way to include those who have never been included.

We follow a King whose royal decrees are always about lifting up the poor, healing the brokenhearted, and not giving up on anyone, even enemies.

As David Lose puts it, “Even as he faces betrayal, accusation, desertion, and crucifixion…Jesus imagines more room in that kingdom of God than anyone would imagine or have a right to expect.” (“In the Meantime” blog, 9-23-20)

Jesus’ power is not playing to win at all costs, but dying so that there is room for more than any of us could imagine.

This is Jesus’ authority. This is his power, and he confers this power on us. “All authority has been given to me to give to you.” (Matthew 28:18) To you—to me—to us.

Heal the broken. Teach mercy. Practice kindness. Act for justice. Forgive generously. Welcome the least and the last. Offer yourself humbly, so that others may rise up with you.

We are invited to receive and use this kind of power, dear friends.

Dying we live. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Let Us Pray

Gracious and Loving God, in the death of Jesus we live, and in his resurrection, we are empowered to humbly serve others. Fill us with his power to heal the brokenhearted, care for the poor and vulnerable, and welcome the least. Make our faith community a source of grace for all people, and especially for those who live in fear of violence and intimidation. May the cross, and Jesus’ ways of serving and empowering others, be the guide and center of the mission he has given us. Amen.