The Hat of Elijah: A sermon on Matthew 21:23-32 by Joe Ellis, Sept. 27, 2020
I’ve never felt like this story was a home-run. I’ve always thought, “I get it, God wants us to be like the one son and do what he says.” I felt in a similar way when Jesus tripped up the Chief Priests’ by asking if John’s baptism was sent from heaven. At most I’ve seen this just as an example of Jesus avoiding a trap from his enemies, and having a little bit of fun at their expense. This all changed when I began to take the context of these stories more seriously. When we read these stories within the whole book of Matthew — they take on explosive power. So let’s start with looking at who Jesus is talking with. Who you’re talking to changes the meaning of your words. Jesus is talking with the chief priests and the elders. Let’s focus on the chief priests. There were thousands of priests in Jerusalem, but there were only about 28 chief priests. They came from four or five different families, and they were a unique breed — mainly perhaps because they were inbred. They didn’t want to marry outside these four or five families because they didn’t want to dilute their power and wealth — and they had a lot. They got their power and wealth through two ways — first, they basically ran the temple and generated a sizeable income from the temple. Second, they were quite cozy with the Roman Rulers, especially with King Herod. They held on to their power in the temple with an iron grip, and they were strongly motivated to keep the Roman Rulers happy. The Chief Priests were probably Saducees. And the Saducees didn’t believe in much of
an afterlife — which meant that they were far more motivated to enjoy life here and now. So if warming up to King Herod made life more comfortable and solidified their position at the temple, so be it. Ironically, in that way the Chief Priests aren’t that different from the tax collectors. That may explain why Jesus action in the temple hit such a nerve. Jesus had chased out the people selling sacrifices, and in doing so brought the sacrificial system to a halt. Jesus had invaded the chief priests’ territory, and the chief priests are really triggered. They march up to Jesus wanting to know where he gets his authority. Who gives you the right to shut down the temple? In response, Jesus asks the chief priests “Was John’s Baptism from heaven?” In other words, “Was John sent by God?” Now, why would Jesus bring up John the Baptist in response? Is Jesus just changing the subject? Did the Chief Priest’s question about authority make Jesus so uncomfortable that he had to asks them a question and make them equally uncomfortable? No, actually. In bringing up John, Jesus is actually answering their question about authority. He’s just making them work for the answer. Let’s refresh our memory on John the Baptist. The most important thing to know about John is that He was playing the role of the Old Testament prophet, Elijah. If you don’t understand that, you won’t understand John. But to understand what that means we need to brush up on the Old Testament book, Malachi. Malachi was one of the last book written in the Old Testament. Through the prophet Malachi, God is accusing His people of having lost their love for him. Throughout the book you can hear God calling out to his people, “Come back to me!” Then God explains his plan
to bring them back. God will send his messenger, Elijah. Elijah will come with the job of changing people’s hearts — or at least he’ll try to bring people’s hearts back to God. Elijah’s work will be bring people back to their first love, God. So, in playing the the role of Elijah, John’s job is to change people’s hearts. That’s what his baptism of repentance was all about. John was calling people to get baptized and show their readiness to be reconciled with their God. His baptism was a call for people to repent of their sins and come back to God. John was doing the job of Elijah and turning the hearts back to God. The problem was that not everyone was on board — or maybe I should say — not everyone went overboard. Not everyone repented and was baptized. John had some choice words to say to the Pharisees and the Sadducees. Oh, and remember, the chief priests were Sadducees. Do you think that the Chief Priests went out and heard John say to them: “You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance.” If the chief priests had met John at the Jordan, that’s almost certainly what they would have heard — so they probably avoided that conversation. John was not able to do his job as Elijah and turn the hearts of the chief priests. John’s Elijah work also wasn’t successful with King Herod. As you know, Herod put John the Baptist in prison when John told Herod to repent in a very particular way (John was telling Herod it wasn’t lawful to marry his brother’s wife). So John was in prison, and he stayed there. It appears that Herod’s buddies, the chief priests, were just fine with John’s imprisonment. They weren’t remotely tempted to use their considerable influence to get John released — they let him
rot. Moreover, the chief priests were probably not too troubled when their colleague, Herod, served up the head of John the Baptist on a silver platter. Back to the book of Malachi. In Malachi, God explains what will happen if evildoers refuse to repent. God promises that if Elijah is rejected, He Himself will come to the temple in judgment. If Elijah is rejected, then God himself will come and curse the land. Elijah has not simply been rejected, he’s been beheaded. What must now happen? God, YHWH, must now enter the temple in judgment and curse the land — With that in mind, pay attention to what Jesus does. Immediately after Jesus triumphantly rides into Jerusalem, riding on a donkey, he enters the temple with a profound act of judgment. He throws out the money changers and those selling doves, crying out, “my house will be called a house of prayer, but you are making it a ‘den of robbers.’” I don’t believe these words are directed to the money changers and the merchants, they were doing their job to make sacrifices happen. Jesus’ words are directed at the chief priests. Jesus intent is to put a stick into the spokes of the temple wheel, causing the temple sacrifices to grind to a hault. This foreshadows the final judgment that will happen when the temple is destroyed 40 years later. In effect Jesus is saying that their attempts to atone for sin are now rejected. Slaughtering animals for forgiveness won’t do much good if they’ve not repented of their sin in the first place. The charade is over. They’ve rejected Elijah’s attempts to change their hearts, and now they are under God’s judgment. God has come to the temple in judgment, and He’s come with a whip. Malachi also says that God will come
and curse the land. Jesus leaves the temple, and approaches a fig tree which has born no fruit (again read chief priests). Jesus looks at this tree and says— “May you never bear fruit again”. Immediately the tree withers. The message is loud and clear. Malachi’s words are fulfilled. Elijah was rejected, God has come to His temple in judgment and has cursed the land. The dust settles. Jesus re-enters the temple courts and begins teaching. The chief priests approach. “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority.” Now does it make sense why Jesus would answer with his question about whether John’s baptism was from heaven? Jesus is forcing them to recognize that if John was from heaven then they’ve rejected God’s Elijah. If they’ve rejected God’s Elijah, then in Jesus God has come in judgment on the temple and on the land. That’s where Jesus get’s his authority. Jesus has the authority to do all this because he is the embodiment of God himself, and God is making good on His Word spoken through Malachi. So what does this mean for the Chief Priest? This means the chief priests are on the wrong side. This means that when the chief priests rejected Elijah, they were rejecting God’s messenger. This means that they’ve now found themselves in the uncomfortable place of being under God’s Judgment. They’ve rejected the one God sent to change their hearts, and now they are on the wrong side. Understandably, they aren’t ready to answer Jesus’ question about whether John’s baptism came from heaven. They can’t say John’s baptism came from heaven, because that would be to admit that they are under
judgment. They can’t say John’s baptism was just earthly, because their afraid of the people — the Roman Rulers put up with the chief priests because they have some ability to keep the people docile. So, they pathetically answer Jesus, “we don’t know.” So Jesus says then He won’t tell them the source of His authority — although He couldn’t have spelled it out anymore clearly. Actually, Jesus spell it out a bit more clearly. He tells them a story: “what do you think” a man makes a request of his two sons. One says, I will, but doesn’t do what his father asks, the other says, I won’t and does his fathers will. Which of the two did what his father wanted?” The message to the chief priests is loud and clear! Jesus is saying, “Do you see how much you’ve lost! You’ve gained the world but lost your soul.” And if the Chief Priests are still not clear on what Jesus is saying, he says: “I tell you the truth, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to show you the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him.” You’ve gained the world but lost your soul. They thought they were the first, the top of pile, and Jesus says, look how far you’ve fallen — “The tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the Kingdom of God ahead of you.” Often when I hear that line about the tax collectors and prostitutes entering the kingdom of God, I hear it first as a message about God’s grace — but here its a word of Judgment. What puts the sinners ahead of the priests is their willingness to repent. Their willingness to have their hearts changed by
God’s messenger. Their willingness to say, “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Let’s be careful about thinking that because we are inside God’s temple we have no reason to repent. What puts the chief priests under judgment is their willingness to close their ears to the Holy Spirit. Their desire to hold onto their sin rather than repent. Their willingness to do the hard work of ignoring their conscience rather than confessing and asking forgiveness. May we not join their company. May we have soft hearts, sensitive to the Holy Spirit. When we are convicted of sin, may we quick to repent. May we be eager to confess our sins and ask forgiveness. Is Jesus calling you to repent? Is Jesus calling you to confess? Is Jesus inviting you to seek forgiveness? He has made a way.