our traps only ever trap us

Posted on October 1, 2017 at 5:30 AM

Our Gospel reading today, where an encounter of our Lord with some of the religious leaders of Jerusalem is described, takes place on the same day as his triumphal entry into the city. Shortly after that he cleanses the Temple, chasing out the dealers in livestock and overturning the tables of the money changers, and declaring that his Father's House has been made into a den of thieves.


It is because of these actions that the chief priests and elders ask him by what authority he does these things. And we must note from the outset that theirs is not a sincere attempt to understand what is happening. The question is designed as a trap for Jesus. They believe that whichever way he answers they will have an excuse to condemn him. They have heard others refer to Jesus as the Messiah – if he admits to them publicly that this is true, well they can use that to their advantage. Other men in the history of their land have made such claims, usually men trying to stir up rebellion against the Roman occupiers. If Jesus tells these leaders he is indeed the Messiah, then they can run straight to Pilate, the governor, and denounce Jesus as being a threat to the security of the region.

Perhaps, indeed, they hope Jesus will go even further than that. He has often referred to himself using the mysterious title of Son of Man, and he frequently refers to God as being his Father. If he were to claim Divine authority for his actions, then they would have an excuse to accuse him of blasphemy, and use that as a means of stirring up the crowd against him. They knew all too well, as we ourselves know from our reading of Scripture, just how fickle the mob in Jerusalem could be. And, of course, if Jesus denies having any special authority, denies being the Messiah or anything else, then they can use that to undermine him before the people. 'Look,' they will be able to say, 'even he admits he is nothing special – why they do you bother to follow him or listen to him?'


So they must be feeling pretty pleased with themselves as they wait for their answer. But our Lord, as he so often does, turns the tables on them. He says he will not answer their question until they have first answered his: where do they say the authority of John the Baptist was from. And, as we see, they dare not answer it honestly. They think John was not a man sent by God, but they dare not say it for they know that the people believe that he was; and they can not say that he was indeed sent by God, for then they will have to explain why they did not believe him and follow him. So the leaders are caught in their own trap. They know whatever answer they give they will make themselves look bad – just as they hoped to do with Jesus – and so they refuse to give any answer at all.


And having caught them in one trap, our Lord immediately catches them in another, by the question he asks at the end of the parable of the two brothers – a question, it might be noted, they can really not afford not to answer, having already failed publicly to answer the previous question Jesus put to them. Now, the interpretation of the parable has been made clear to us by the Church Fathers, those great saints and early leaders and teachers of the Church. The son who says he will, but then does not do as his father asks, stands for those present who claim to God's will, but in fact do not by rejecting Jesus; and the son who says he will not but later does stands for those who currently reject God's law – those who are objectively speaking leading sinful lives – but will later repent and obey.


The answer to Jesus' question as to which of the two brothers does the will of their father is so obvious that the religious leaders answer quickly, almost without thinking – and, of course, by declaring that the son who at first refuses, but then repents, and obeys is the one who is ultimately the one who is obedient, they condemn themselves.

Now, because we know these passages of Scripture speaks to us just as much as it did to those who were present when the scenes they describe took place, it is important as we draw to a close that we apply some of the questions asked that day to ourselves. First, consider that the chief priests and elders asked Jesus by what authority he acted as he did. How would you answer that question? Would you say that it was because he was the Son of God, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity? I presume that all here would, or else you would not be here, you would not call yourself a Christian.

Now consider the two sons; of them both, who are you most like? Do you say you will obey the will of the Father, but do not – perhaps always finding excuses to justify your actions? Or do you sometimes struggle, but always repent, and then strive to do better to follow God's law? I hope that there are few or even none who in their heart of hears know themselves to be numbered among the first. But I also think that most, if they are honest, would know themselves to be among the second – sinners, but sinners who want to be saints. And if that sometimes seems hard, remember that it was such as those that Jesus said would enter into the kingdom – the kingdom that I pray all will enter into in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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