“My lips are near but my heart is far away…” A Sermon on Matthew 21:23-32

Since we’ve all been children and many of you are parents, I think we all know what it’s like to know the difference between saying what somebody wants to hear and saying the truth. Rachel and I have this fight all the time. She is much more inclined to save face, be nice and say what she thinks the person wants to hear. Do I look nice in this t-shirt will always be answered with a ‘of course!’ I on the other hand don’t have the same conscience on this. I’d be a bit more blunt and just say it how I see it. Some of us want to hear the cold and honest truth. Others want to be confirmed in what they already think to be true. So the hard part of Rachel’s approach in this is that you have to assume or guess what the other person wants/needs to hear. Sometimes this works out really good. It could turn out that the person needed to just be encouraged that day and told that they were beautiful despite the t-shirt they were wearing. Maybe sometimes though it turns out horrible because that shirt made them look unprofessional and they didn’t get the job they were interviewing for. So there is an art to telling someone what they want to hear, because sometimes the question they are asking isn’t really about needing the right answer, it’s about something else. Sometimes it’s about affirming them, or sometimes they are asking a question to indirectly ask about something else.

These methods of engagement will work sometimes with people. It has backfired for both me and Rachel at different times depending on the person asking the questions. I have severely hurt people’s feelings before, and Rachel has found herself deep into committing to something that she never really wanted to be a part of.

If we start to spiritualize this kind of thinking a little bit and our relationship with God, we are left with this question of ‘what do we think God wants to hear?’ God asks us a question, what do you think He wants from us? Does he just want an honest answer? Does he want to hear our hopeful answer? Does he want us to stick to our convictions and lay it all out on the table, even if it’s doubt or anger? Does he want us to try and overcome our emotions and just speak to what we think is the right thing?

Whether we admit it or not, I feel like we have all paid lip service to God’s questions before. We will say and admit things that we are convinced that God, our church, the people that are listening want to hear. So we say what we think needs to be heard because it makes us feel better, it reassures ourselves that we are not disappointing the hearer. We could probably argue that when we pay lip service there is a small part of us saying what we want the other person to hear. But the other part of it I think is that we are saying what we really want to say, even though we know it’s not true. Deep down we think we know what they want to hear, and so we convince ourselves that the right thing is what they want to hear, so we say it, and it appeases our consciences temporarily.

Think about a child where you tell them that they have ten minutes before they have to go to bed. Overtime, they will start to learn not to fight you as soon as they find out they have ten minutes, but to start fighting you when the ten minutes is over. It is a brilliant move on the part of the child to say ‘OK mom, ten minutes it is’ and then enjoy those ten minutes in peace. Then when they are over, start freaking out and making your case. What the parents want is agreement, so the kid gives it to them just to appease them as long as possible. There is really no intention for the kid to go to bed in ten minutes whether they know this or not. They learn to agree to something verbally because they don’t have to talk about it anymore and they really have no intention of doing what they agreed to verbally.

I think we do this all the time. This was the case with altar calls at church growing up. Almost every single service the pastor would do an altar call with a new challenge. 30 day fasts, commit to my 10%, sign up for a volunteer program, to stop sinning and the list goes on. The altar would be full every Sunday – but very little would change in my life. I truly intended in the moment of the altar call to do that thing I was saying I would do, but as soon as I walked away, real life happened and rarely would I follow through.

I see this with some myself and friends all the time. We all have ideas. A million of them. We say we are going to do this idea and we can verbally explain all these things about it. Then a year goes by and we have done nothing about it. We pay lip service to change very easily and without thought, but rarely do we do the hard work of actually making change. We know we should do some things, like eat healthier, go to school, quit that job, bring flowers to the neighbour, start devotionals with the kid…..but then life happens.

Q: Is this true for you? Are you the kind of person that says something and then does it? Are you the kind of person that doesn’t say much but does a lot? Are you the kind of person that says something but then has a hard time doing it?

So Jesus starts to run into similar people. We’re going to read one of the stories about him but first I’ll give a bit of context. This story is right after Jesus had cleansed the Temple. So things are tense. Jesus is pissed and he drives out the markets and the powerful out of God’s house. There is a lot of conflict growing right now between Jesus and the Pharisees. So the Pharisees are out to get him. They are trying to outwit him and make him look like a fool and so they are getting into some intellectual sparring a little bit. So in this context, this is where the following story is placed.

Matthew 21:23-32
When he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?”

Jesus said to them, “I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things.

Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” And they argued with one another, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’

But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.”

So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.

Jesus intellectually bullies his adversaries. For most of you that know me, you’ll know that I get a kick out of trapping people with arguments, and I love even more people trying to trap me. This is exactly what is going on here, but with a lot more on the line. The Pharisees are just so frustrated at all the different things that are happening so they demand to know how he thinks he can do it. Who does he think he is. And Jesus here is such a little brat. He is just not giving them anything. He knows the game and he’s just a better player. This reminds me of every time I argue John, by the end John looks like the foolish one. :)

But let’s remember here, the Pharisees are the arbiters of the Temple and the main religion here. Jesus has flipped all this upside down and refuses to bow under their authority. He is making a way for a new way to understand life. If you read through just the woes and the curses towards the Pharisees from Jesus they are all about them missing the point. Pharisees were classic lip-service givers and Jesus was never interested in playing their games. Pharisees approached Jesus intellectually, by saying the right things, trying to trap him with the right theology, by putting on a guise of purity and righteousness. We know how this feels though. It’s very easy to put on a front for people, to make it look like we have it together. After all we know what the ‘right’ things are to do and believe, so if we can fight for what is right we are at least ‘doing something’ — right? This is the same trap they fell into. The whole spirit of the law was lost on them and they were all about the law. Jesus was fed up and refused to play into the games of right/wrong theology – he knew that could only go so far. He knew that word games and lip service was empty. So he continues with a parable.

“What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’

He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went.

The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go.

Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.

For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.

This is a full out assault on the Pharisees, which ends up being a full out assault on us as well. We know we are like this. We know we are the very kinds of people that say things, and put up a facade of the right way of living, the right way of thinking – displaying to the world that we have it right. I’m the worst for this. I know it. I am convinced that I am right. Not only that, I’m convinced that I’m right about the way that you should live. I’m the son that is told to go into the vineyard and I’ll look at my brother and say well at least he isn’t doing it either, but I really want to and then blog and argue a bunch about why we should all be working! It’s the thought that counts. Right?

As we read the parable before, we are reminded of Jesus’ teaching earlier in the Sermon on the Mount, when he said in Matthew 7:21, “Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven but only those who do the will of my Father.” We remember Matthew 7:24, 26 “Everyone who hears these words of mine and does them will be a like wise man who built his house upon the rock.” “Everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them is like a foolish man who built his house upon the sand.” We remember Matthew 5:19 20, “He who does and teaches these commandments shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

So I guess, the thought doesn’t do much for us.

A parable that Jesus presents us here though is hard because it contrasts two positions that don’t typically get upheld as good positions and they are both very easy to relate too. He is definitely taking the side of the harder one as well. You’ve got the person that doesn’t want to do the right thing then does it anyway, and the person with the good intentions (or just saving face) who doesn’t ever do it. We want to kind of credit both people in their own right. We have sympathy for those with good intentions – probably mostly because that is us. But Jesus makes it awkward. He’s not interested in good intentions. God doesn’t want to hear our good intentions – what he wants is follow through, not the intention of follow through.

Q: Does a parable like this rub you the wrong way?

Arcade Fire has this song called Antichrist Television Blues that was originally called Joe Simpson, which is about Jessica Simpson’s father. The songs takes shape as message to God about not enjoying his job and the crumbling economy and so he exploits his daughter to become wealthy and famous kind of living vicariously through her all the while justifying it because he is a “Good Christian Man” and a “God Fearing Man” and “you have to work hard, and have to get paid” It is a honest portrayal of how saying the right things, and believing them, even out loud is good enough for some people. Joe Simpson was a minister and says the right things, but his actions are drastically different than from the world that he got caught up in and the way he should be.

In the middle of the song, it goes like this…

Now I’m overcome
By the light of day
My lips are near
But my heart is far away
Tell me what to say
I’ll be your mouthpiece

I think what Arcade Fire is doing here, and also what Jesus is doing with this parable is bringing light to the large separation between what we say and what we do. When our lips are close to the truth, but our hearts are far away then we end up being far away. Jesus isn’t interested in our lips, in our songs, in our theology when they are separated from our lives. He’s interested in our hearts, in our action, in our living. The question before us is always “who does the will of the father?” Not who knows the right things, who says the right things, who knows the right answers.

God is not interested in hearing what we think we want him to hear. He is not interested in us being his mouthpiece. As we can easily see with Jessica Simpson, being just a mouthpiece ends up being a really bad mouthpiece. The best mouthpiece is one that is doing what they are told, not just spouting off the right things to say. He is interested in us doing and living his will. He is challenging us through this parable to refuse to be boxed in by closed systems of religious thought and speak, structures of judgment that are bound to come up from just knowing what is right and what we think God wants to hear. He challenges us, and the pharisees not to judge them but to give them and us a wake-up call.

“Truly I tell you, the tax-collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.”

Instead of playing the game of lip-service. We can just join in with the tax-collectors and prostitutes. We can just admit that we don’t have it together either, and move in the way of the kingdom.

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