Holy Week Meditation: Be Careful What You Ask For

Manuscript: Holy Week Sermon for joint services of Calvary Baptist and First Church.

Text Matthew 22:15-46

Some people collect toy trains. Others baseball cards. I still remember my father-in-laws obsession with coins. One of the rights of passage to date his daughter was to take the collection tour! I do not have any such collection, my interest is a bit different. It is questions. How many famous questions can you think of? “What is a nice girl like you doing at a place like this” is one of my personal favorite. I, of course, have never used that question in any way! What about Peter Drucker, the famous management guru, who continually asked companies he worked with, “what is your business?” and “how is business”. Will you marry me? That did work for me at one point. Where’s Waldo? is a line of children’s books. John Wesley, the founder of this movement called Methodism crafted an entire small group movement around the question, “how is it with your soul?” Kid questions are some of my favorites. Of course there is the obligatory procreation question that all parents must deal with. Go ask you mom, that is my pat answer! Or what about that pure innocence of a child when they ask why Texas A&M, being a football school, was ranked higher than Kentucky a basketball school? There is a God Johnny. There is a God.

My interest in questions is two-fold. First, it tells us a lot about a person. What type of questions a person asks give us insight into their interests, objectives, and buy-in to something. In contrast a lack of questions may very well mean a lack of lack of interest or perhaps the communicator has not done a good job. Second, I believe that questions are the key to knowledge. Asking questions and being inquisitive is the beginning of the discovery process which leads us to a new place of knowledge.

But questions are not always what they seem to be. Sometimes, a question is not an open ended attempt to gain new knowledge but instead an attempt to get something out in the open. For instance, it is only appropriate since my parents are here from Texas today to explain it this way. When your mother asks you, “were you at the bowling alley today instead of youth group?” She is not really seeking knowledge. She knows all she needs to know. The only thing she will be seeking is your hide!

Let’s hold that image of “seeking understanding” and “law and order” questioning in our head for a moment as we begin to look at the passage we read together this morning. The stage is set as Jesus has entered the city of Jerusalem and according to Matthew’s gospel enters the temple and drives the money changers out. He then heads out of town to spend the night before entering for his second day in the city to teach in the temple courts. His teaching on this day takes on a Socratic flavor as he engages those people in the temple courts with questions and then responds with parables and Scripture. The topic of his teaching on this given day centered upon the Jewish leadership and their failure to be carrying out God’s will. He was not holding back, but calling them to task and pointing out their lack of effectiveness for God.

Chapter 21 verse 45 says that when the “chief priests and the Pharisees heard Jesus’ parables, they knew he was talking about them. They looked for a way to arrest him.”

And this brings us to our passage today. It begins with the Pharisees, the interpreters and keepers of the law, and the Herodians, those allegiant to the government, approaching Jesus with a question. This was actually a very common practice with the major teachers of this day. Disciples (or followers of the teacher) would ask questions in a quasi formal setting and then give the teacher an opportunity to respond. This was an acceptable and common teaching method. So this would not have been anything out of the ordinary. What would have raised eyebrows would have been the make-up of the group asking the question. Jesus had to know that something was a matter for these two groups were more like oil and water than peas in a pod. I love how they set their question up. Unwittingly, they draw a powerful contrast between themselves and Jesus when they say, we know you are a man of integrity (we are not) and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth (we do not). You aren’t swayed by men (we are) because you pay no attention to who they are (we do). TELL US THEN, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not? Don’t miss this, they are attempting to pit Jesus against Caesar in hopes of trapping saying something that will help them turn Jesus over to the authorities.

After successfully putting the Pharisees and Herodians to shame, it is now time for the Sadducees (the pious followers of the Torah (1st five books of the Bible sometimes called the Pentateuch) who did not believe in interpreting the Law, but rather taking it literally. If it is in the Law, it is in. If it is not, there is no room for adding something. For instance, since resurrection is not mentioned within the Torah the Sadducees did not hold this belief. Isn’t it interesting then that the question the Sadducees asked was concerning “resurrection”. Can you get a sense of their intent? Their question begins in keeping with their belief, “Teacher, Moses told us.” From there they go on to ask a question about the Torah which is found in ? about the obligation of a brother to his brother’s widow. Listen to Jesus’ first line of his answer, “you are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God.” You are in error? They didn’t forward an answer, they simply asked a question. The error must have been in the question itself. And then Jesus cuts their knees out from them by saying you do not know the Scriptures (they probably had memorized the Torah) or the power of God (which was revealed in the Torah over and over). Do not miss, the Sadducees are pitting Jesus against Moses here. Again, the questioners were put in their place and now it was the Pharisees’ turn again.

This time, the Pharisees sent a “lawyer”. When things get tough, who do you call? Same thing today. I have several attorney friends, and they remark that the only time I call them is when I have a ticket! But I digress. The Pharisaical lawyer asks an interpretive question (which is most appropriate). There is some speculation among current day scholars that this might have been the en vogue question to ask the teachers of the day. Boil the entire Law down to a sentence. In fact, we have Rabbi Hillel’s, a contemporary of Jesus and very important interpreter of the Torah, answer to this very question.

He says, “that which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is
the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn.

Therefore, Jesus is being pitted against other great teachers. Instead of attacking or impugning the questioner as with the past two questions, Jesus instead asks a question back to make his point. Scripture tells us that there were no more questions of Jesus asked by the Jewish leaders.

Instead of pointing toward the answers of Jesus today, I wanted to spend time helping us understand the questions and the questioners. For I believe that the answers do not matter unless the heart is receptive. Think about the parable of the sower that Jesus tells in Matthew 13. A sower went out to sow. He throws seed in many different places. The only seed that produces fruit is the one that is planted where? In the fertile soil, right? All other seed either is snatched away or has a limited effectiveness. Jesus ends this parable by saying “let those who have ears hear.” Let me say it again. Answers do not matter until the heart is ready to hear them. It is obvious from the questions being asked by the Pharisees and Sadducees that these were prosecutorial in nature and not seeking a deeper understanding. These groups had made up their mind about Jesus and their interactions were directed at proving themselves right. Let those who have ears hear. Those whose hearts are truly receptive will hear and be changed! Those with hardened hearts will be unchanged, maybe even hardened because of their interaction with Christ.

We have probably all been in a conversation with someone who had already made their mind up about something. No matter what we say, how clever our arguments, how compelling or passionate our speech, they are not going to hear it. Right or wrong does not matter at this point. To hear or not to hear, that is the issue.

Do we have ears to hear? Maybe better put, are we ready to hear today? Or are we seeking after “verification” to answers we already have made our mind up about? We already “know” how the world is and anything that does not square with our viewpoint has to be wrong, or misinformed, or out of context. To say that we do no know something is an admission of weakness in our Western culture. Have we made our mind up about how God intends to use us? Where our vocation will take us? Who will be our friends and co-laborers in life’s journey? Do we truly want to hear God’s word on issues of the day such as homelessness and poverty? Hunger and illiteracy? Forgiveness and mercy? Do we want to hear what God might be saying to the church on issues such as child abuse and neglect? Have we decided what the extent of our involvement in God’s kingdom will be and close our ears on what God wants from us with respect to our time, our gifts, or our resources?

Those are but some of the questions for us to consider during this Holy Week. But before we can consider them, we must consider our own heart. Sometimes, I believe that we spend so much energy getting the answer and not enough time plowing our own heart in preparation to receive the seed of God. During this Passion Week, let us spend some time preparing our own hearts. Let us not move too quickly past the difficulty parts of the story that this week presents us and perhaps miss what God may be requesting of us. Let those who have ears hear.