On one of my first forays into the desert southwest, I found a children’s book called Coyote: A trickster tale from the American Southwest. A large blue coyote graces the cover. The story begins by telling us that Coyote had a nose for trouble, and he soon finds his way to a mesa where some crows are chanting and dancing. Coyote wants to dance too, so he asks old man crow if he can join them.
A Sermon Based on Matthew 21:23-32
Soon Coyote is dancing with the crows, but he makes it all about himself, and he starts getting quite proud. The crows become very much annoyed with him and prepare to continue their dance up in the air. Coyote begs to go with them, and finally the old crow relents. Each crow takes a feather from their left wing and one from their right wing and stick them into coyote. He cries out in pain, but soon he’s flying just like the crows.
Well, now he thinks he’s all that and a bag of chips, and he begins bragging relentlessly. The crows have had just about enough so they take back their feathers—their trickster intent all along—and Coyote falls to the ground. His tale flames up as he falls and when he finally lands he tumbles into the dirt before he coming to a final stop, humbled and ashamed. His fur now looks like it does today—a dirty gray with a black-ended tail—and his bragging is finally over. The trickster old crow brought that pompous blue coyote down quite a few notches.
We didn’t read it this morning, but just before our lesson Matthew described Jesus cleansing the temple. Jesus became disgusted by the greed he saw and so he overturned tables and released animals that were being sold to faithful pilgrims. He got fed up because of the many deceitful practices. Foreign money had to be exchanged by the pilgrims first at the temple, and the rates highly favored the sellers. Costs for the offerings resembled prices on the food you buy at the airport: exorbitantly overpriced. In other words, faithful Jews who had traveled a long way to get to Jerusalem to keep their religious piety were taken advantage of, and they paid whatever was requested in order to remain faithful. So Jesus rightfully made a scene and chased out the sellers.
“By what authority do you do these things?” the religious leaders ask him the next day. They were the ones who had the authority in the temple of course, and they didn’t dole it out to others very often, keeping their own power and interests in mind. “What gives you the right to do this?”
Jesus tells them he’ll answer them if they answer his question: “Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” They are wedged tightly between a rock and hard place, rhetorically speaking. They begin muttering amongst themselves. “If we say from heaven, he’ll ask why we didn’t believe him. If we say from humans, then the people will rise up against us.” “We’ll take door three,” they respond. “We don’t know.” So Jesus refuses to answer them.
But he doesn’t let them off the hook so easily, and he tells them a tale about a father with two sons who are asked to go out and work in the yard. The first looks at dad and replies that there’s not a chance that he’ll go out into the field. Later in the day, however, changes his mind and goes outside to do what’s required. The other is quick with the right response, but then he grabs his iPhone and earbuds and plops down on the couch for the entire afternoon. “Which one,” Jesus asks those religious leaders gathered there, “which one of them did the will of the father?”
You can almost see their clenched teeth as they bite out their reply. “The first,” they respond, getting it down to just two words. They know they’ve been caught, but there’s little they can do since there are people in the temple gathering around, watching this interaction take place.
“And so it is with you.” Jesus says. “Tax collectors and prostitutes are going into the kingdom ahead of you, because when John came preaching a message of repentance, they turned around. You, on the other hand, just ignored him and refused to change your mind and believe.”
We hold our opinions very fiercely these days. One need only spend 10 minutes online reading the comments section of a news story. People stick to their guns politically, theologically and in a whole host of other arenas, and use social media only to restate their hardened positions or to make fun of the enemy. We talk past each other—so certain of our own beliefs and held values—and we rarely ever listen to others, using the time when they’re talking to think up our next reply.
The Greek word for repentance is metanoia. It literally means to change your mind or to turn around. When John the Baptist came to the River Jordan, metanoia made up the bulk of his message. Turn around, he preached. Change your mind. Repent.
But the religious leaders by asking their question about authority are interested only in one thing: keeping the status quo. They want to keep their power, the lives of comfort they have created, and this profit-making scheme of providing offerings to pilgrims. In other words, the last thing they want to do is to change their minds. Their minds are made up, thank you very much. Yes, they claim they want to please God, their lips know all the right words. “I go, sir” they say. But their hearts and their actions do not reflect their statements at all. They stand off in the distance casting judgmental looks on any and all.
So when Jesus bobs and weaves like he does in this text, I cannot help but see it as another trickster tale. Jesus sees the arrogance and the self-centeredness of those religious types and e sets out to expose it to them as well. But Jesus continues to be wily, because as soon as we join him on the side of denouncing those haughty chief priests and elders, we run the risk of becoming the haughty ones ourselves. When we respond to others who have taken up hardened positions with our own hardened positions, we are no better.
Jesus—ever playing the trickster here—slides out of our own grasps on him too. He doesn’t want us to take on the role of a judge and jury, but rather for us to focus on ourselves and our own lives. He wants us to change our minds and turn around too. He wants us to repent.
Which is, I think, what he truly desires for those chief priests and elders too. While this story takes on many aspects of a trickster tale, I think Jesus doesn’t want to make the religious authorities look foolish simply to criticize them; he wants them to have a change in heart. He wants them to see that the hardened position they have taken—this authority they have grabbed, relished in and abused—only pushes them further away from God. Jesus longs for them to repent.
But they won’t. They do not change their minds. They neither believe John the Baptist nor Jesus. They cannot see how tax collectors and prostitutes could ever be considered righteous. So they stay right where they are, hearts cold and stony with anger, seething at him.
What will it take for you to change your mind? What beliefs about God or our world do hold onto so dearly that you refuse to see the work of Jesus in others? How have we pigeon-holed Jesus ourselves to want him to act only as we expect? Who is it that we cannot ever imagine receiving the grace of God? How do we close off God’s grace in our own lives?
Jesus stands before us offering the gift of abundant life that comes when we change our minds, when we turn around, when we repent. He isn’t out to trick us, but invites us beyond the status quo to receive his grace and self-giving love. It will mean letting go of some of our tightly held beliefs about God, but when we open ourselves up, we discover that we are more deeply beloved by the Creator of the world than we could ever have imagined. Clearly Jesus will go to any extreme in order to help turn us around so we can head in the right direction.