In my sermon yesterday, I made the assertion that Jesus was not stupid. This brought about a few chuckles, probably because the idea of Jesus not being the smartest person in every room is absurd to many. As a modern-day religious authority, I wish I could say that the Chief Priests and the Scribes weren’t stupid either, but based on the way things go in Matthew 21, I’m not sure that’s the case.
Their best question, the one they planned all night in an attempt to trap Jesus in blasphemy, was a weak noodle. And then, as Jesus launches into a three parable tirade on how awful they are at leading the people of Israel into a full relationship with God, they just stand there slack jawed. Why do they keep listening?
At the end of the Parable of the Two Sons, Jesus makes a very pointed statement toward the religious power-that-be, “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 (“metanoia” = repent) and believe him.”
Following the Parable of the Wicked Tenants, a particularly awful parable, Matthew tells us that they finally realized that he was speaking about them, but for fear of the crowds they did nothing. Here’s where I really begin to wonder about these people. I mean, they didn’t have to arrest him, but surely they could have turned around and walked away, but no, they stayed for yet another Parable.
Finally comes the Parable of the Wedding Banquet, which we’ll hear on October 12th. This is perhaps the harshest of the three and ends with people either dead or cast into outer darkness. Finally, they figure out they have offices to retreat to and they go off to scheme some more, but seriously, why did they stay so long? Just to give Jesus the chance to tell three particularly harsh parables? Probably not.
Here’s what I think. These guys are proud men. They’ve worked hard to get to their place of prestige and they aren’t likely to give it away easily. My gut tells me that they stick around for two conflicting reasons. First, and probably foremost, they stay to save face. If they turn and walk away with their tails between their legs, it gives Jesus all the momentum. Second, and perhaps more sympathetically, they are heavily invested in the faith of Israel. There must be some small part of them that wonders if Jesus really is the Messiah; some part deep in their bones that feels hope even as he speaks judgment against them. Yes, Jesus is growing increasingly inconvenient for them, but the people are drawn to him and the people seem to have been right about John the Baptist. Maybe, just maybe, they’ve found their hearts strangely warmed in Jesus’ words to them. It won’t last, however. Things are about to get much, much worse. Yet for now, something keeps them listening. I wonder what it was. Perhaps the Holy Spirit.