Riddler Jesus

Terri Stewart
September 25, 2011
Tibbett’s UMC
Matthew 21:23-32

Solve My Riddle

When I first read today’s scripture lesson, the first thing that popped into my mind was, “Jesus is up to his old tricks again!  Answering questions with more questions…riddles with riddles.”  It reminded me of the story in JRR Tolkien’s Hobbit where Bilbo Baggins is trying to get around the creature Gollum—who, by the way, wanted to eat Bilbo.  In this scene, Gollum and Bilbo enter a riddle contest.

Gollum launches the contest with:

What has roots as nobody sees,
Is taller than trees,
Up, up it goes,
And yet never grows?

Do you remember the answer?  Mountains.

Bilbo replies and they go back and forth with each answering the other’s riddle until Gollum’s final riddle:

This thing all things devours
Birds, beasts, trees, flowers

Gnaws iron, bites steel,
Grinds hard stones to meal,

Slays king, ruins town,
And beats high mountain down!

Bilbo thinks and thinks.  He becomes frightened and nervous.  Gollum started coming toward him seeking lunch.  Bilbo wanted to scream out, “I need more time!”  But all that came out was a croaked, “Time.”  Which of course, is the answer to the riddle?  Time.  This allows Bilbo one last riddle.  Bilbo, not even meaning to ask a riddle, reaches down and feels a lump in his pocket, feels the ring, and forgetting he had picked up the ring, ponders aloud, “What have I got in my pocket?”  And that was that.  Gollum thought it was another riddle and is defeated.  Bilbo goes free.

Jesus has a similar encounter with the chief priests and the elders.  The chief priests and elders were in a sticky situation.  They have to work with the Roman authorities, the other Jewish leadership, and with the people of Jerusalem.  Trying to hold all these factions together, made them wary of people coming forward with new and revolutionary faith claims.  They had a special agreement with the Romans that they could continue to worship their God and not be sucked into the Roman religion.  This was an uneasy truce because it set the Jews outside the Roman structure but at the same time within it.  Under this system, there were two places that authority could be received.  From the Roman government or from the Jewish religious establishment.  Jesus seemed to be coming from a third place altogether and the Jewish leadership was extremely cautious of anything that might upset the political apple cart.  So they went to Jesus hoping to put an end to the challenge Jesus represented to the current, uneasy, political alliance.  Almost any answer Jesus could give could be a threat to Jesus’ freedom.  Part of Jesus’ brilliance was to start a riddle contest. 

They start off with a riddle…“By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?”

Jesus says he will enter into the game if they answer his riddle first.  He says to them, “Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?”

Of course, they did not know what to answer.  The text doesn’t say what they actually think the true answer is.  It simply says that if they choose answer A, “from heaven,” Jesus will be annoyed and if they choose answer B, “from humanity,” the people will be annoyed.  So they took the easy way out and confessed to not knowing.  For them, it was better and safer to not have the answer.

Have you ever been in a situation where it was better to not have the answer?  I know that I have been in situations where I simply didn’t have the answer!

Recently, I was meeting with a young woman in the King County Youth Detention Center.  She was using our time to vent her anger and frustration at her situation.  One of the girls in her hall had taken a dislike to her.  And the other girl was not doing anything overtly problematic, but was covertly taking every chance she could to make the young woman lose her cool.  She would call her names, but not so the staff could hear.  Her cell was directly over the young woman’s cell and during the middle of the night, when they were supposed to be sleeping; she would stomp on the floor keeping her awake.  It was a relentless campaign.  Any one of these things could easily have been handled, but the cumulative effect over days of this behavior was one where the young woman was ready to snap.  And that was the thing she feared most.  Losing her temper, losing her control, and then the consequences which would be more time, more incarceration.

She dumped all this stuff out and I had no answer.  She had tried talking to the staff, the supervisor, and to the other girl and everything had failed.  In a system where nobody cares, nobody was going to provide relief.  What do I do with that?  I don’t have an answer?  Do you?  The only thing I could do was listen, knowing that if I sided with her against the authorities that would forever damage my relationship with the detention center and potentially end any good work I might be able to do there.  And if I sided with the authorities against the youth that could potentially further antagonize her to the point that she lost control.  There was no good answer.  The only thing I could do is suggest that she focus on herself and figure out what it is she needs to keep control.

Sure, I could make recommendations like prayer, leaning on God, confiding in a friend if she has one, talking to staff, but really, there was no answer.  No solution.

Have you been there?  I think this is why Rabbi Kushner wrote the book, “Why Bad Things Happen to Good People.”  There are no easy answers.  And Jesus knows this.  That is why he answers the authorities with his own riddle knowing that they will be stumped.  They cannot turn to Roman laws or Jewish laws for an easy answer.  There is no easy answer that will allow them to maintain the uneasy alliance they have in their current political structure.
I think we have all been there!  When I read the headlines in the newspaper, it looks like we are all there every day.  Especially our political leaders.  They make choices knowing someone is going to be annoyed no matter what they do.  But for them as for the authorities in Matthew’s story, the answer seems to be governed by political expediency.  Annoying, but true.  So perhaps we should take pity on the authorities presented in this story.  They are just like us, finding no easy answer in a situation that could mean the end of their livelihoods.

This leads directly to the parable of today’s scripture reading:  The parable of the two sons that are working for their father.  The father owns a vineyard that the two sons work at.  The father was suggesting to his children that it was time to go and do their work.  In my house, it would go something like this…

“Son, go unload the dishwasher.”

This would be followed by complete silence.  Like crickets chirping loudly.  Then after issuing the command again, I might get a response.  Often the answer is, “I’ll do it in just a minute when I’m done with what I’m doing right now.”  I think that’s fair.  Finish what you’re doing and then do your chores.  However, in practice, like the second son, this ends up being a promise to go and complete his chores but with no follow through.  The dishwasher remains loaded.  Annoying.

Or, if I ask one of my kids to do a chore that is not on the assigned list of normal chores, then I will get a “no way, it is not my job.”  Then we have to discuss family participation and what it means to be part of a family that works together to get things done.  Sometimes the answer is still “no.”  But, sometimes the outward sign is “no” but the action or follow through becomes “yes.”  Of course, this usually requires threats of consequences like taking away the car, but it sometimes turns into a “yes.”  This is also annoying.  The job does get done and I’m grateful, but the wrangling to get there makes me a little crazy.

So the question is, “which child did the will of the Parent?  Who delved fully into earning their livelihood?”  The authorities answer that the child who said no but did the job anyway did the will of the Parent.

Jesus tells them that they are the willfull, disobedient child because they did not heed the message from John the Baptist.  What is that message?

John the Baptist, according to Matthew, had a very focused message:  repent and believe that someone is coming who is going to make a new thing.  We know the story.  The tax collectors and prostitutes repented and believed and those in authority did not.  Why would this be?

It is exactly as Jesus described.  The people that had the outward signs of saying ‘no’ to God…the tax collectors and prostitutes, eventually did the will of the Parent.  The people that had the outward signs of saying ‘yes’ to God…the religious authorities, did not do the will of the Parent.  Why is it so much easier to turn to God and repent and believe if you have the outward signs of saying no to God’s grace?  And why is it so much more difficult if we are living a life that looks successful and has the outward signs of charity and love to realize that we too, need to repent and believe?

And, I have to add, in our current religious environment, to say the phrase “repent and believe” triggers all kinds of junk for me.  It reminds of the preachers that stand on street corners threatening people with damnation or of the folks that think that all we need is to say a confessional phrase.  This brings up a lot of baggage for me because I went to a church like that when I was a teenager.  A church that believed the confession is what saves you.  That experience nearly drove me away from church in its entirety.  I don’t like to hear the word repent.  But we have to tackle it if we are to read Christian Scriptures.

I was surprised when I realized that when John says “repent,” in the Greek, repent is plural.  John is not calling the authorities to individual repentance one at a time, but is saying all of y’all need to repent!  Repentance is plural.  John is representing prophets well.  Time and time again, prophets of Hebrew Scriptures call the people to repent and to prepare for a new way.  John specifically references Isaiah.  Typically, the reason people are being called to repentance is not because they did not believe or because they did not confess God as Lord, it was because they were not taking care of the widow, the orphan, and the stranger among us.  It comes up again and again.  We can extrapolate that the religious authorities that Jesus is talking to are neglecting these vulnerable populations.  And Jesus is calling them to repentance by referencing John who references Isaiah.

This is further strengthened by just a few short chapters later when Jesus, in Matthew 25, tells us that the righteous are those that feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, take care of the sick, and visit the imprisoned.

Well then.  That upsets my comfortable apple cart.  Nowhere on this list do I see write a check.  Not that you shouldn’t donate to worthy causes or tithe—please don’t tell Joanne I said that check writing is not important!  But there is more.  There is simply more to be done.

Do you remember what Golem’s last riddle was?

This thing all things devours
Birds, beasts, trees, flowers

Gnaws iron, bites steel,
Grinds hard stones to meal,

Slays king, ruins town,
And beats high mountain down!

The answer was time.  And that is the answer for us.  In the complicated way that God works, God can create the Kingdom of God, through us, here and now.  It is often referenced as eternal life.  The Greek root of eternal being time.  Another way to say it and perhaps a more faithful translation may be the life of the time to come.  So we can hold this tension of the time to come and the time right now by repenting and being called back to the care of the orphan, the widow, and the stranger among us.  And each time one of us does this, it creates just a little piece of the Kingdom of God, right here, and right now.

Shalom and Amen.

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