Rev. Elizabeth Chandler Felts is the Senior Minister of Beneficent Congregational Church UCC in downtown Providence, Rhode Island.
Scripture: Matthew 21:23-27, 31b-32 (NRSV)
When he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, ‘By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?’ Jesus said to them, ‘I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?’ And they argued with one another, ‘If we say, “From heaven”, he will say to us, “Why then did you not believe him?” But if we say, “Of human origin”, we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.’ So they answered Jesus, ‘We do not know.’ And he said to them, ‘Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.
Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. 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 and believe him.
Reflection: Good Trouble
Jesus is challenged by some priests and elders to identify the authority by which he is teaching and healing. The day before, he rode into Jerusalem on the backs of a donkey and a colt while children – always keen for a parade – chanted ecstatically. Next, he strode into the temple and overturned tables in protest – not of commerce in holy spaces, but of price gouging. Quite a lot of hoo-ha for one day.
The folks who approach Jesus in the temple the next day are his peers. They observed his arrival in town and his dust-up in the temple and declared these events “amazing” or “wonderful.” These are not the words of critics. They are the words of admirers who also recognize that Jesus has exposed himself to Roman notice, and they are wondering why. Though they have their differences with Jesus, they are fighting a life-or-death battle alongside him against a common enemy, Rome. Yes, they quarrel, but most of the time it’s a lovers’ quarrel.
Apart from being the headquarters for cultic rituals, the temple is a place where lively debate is the order of the day. The Sanhedrin, the Jewish high court controlled by the Pharisees, is housed there. The scribes – a combination of lawyers, journalists, judges, government ministers, teachers, calligraphers and umpires – spend their days arguing over the fine points of the Torah. The temple is a place where every Jew belongs and is entitled to be -- a marketplace for the energetic exchange of news and views. Jesus isn’t “confronted” in the temple by “opponents.” More likely, he eagerly gravitates to the temple to join in the sport.
After the priests and elders pose their question, Jesus poses one in turn: Did John baptize by his own authority, or by God’s? When they respond in a manner strategically calculated to save face, Jesus realizes they haven’t shown up to engage in real debate and there is a shift in the energy. He’s not interested in playing tepid games; the Q&A is now over.
Jesus then reminds these respected clergy that even tax collectors and sex workers – whom society scorns and who seem to be well distanced from divine favor – nonetheless have a divine spark of wisdom within them. Any priest or elder worth their tefillin* would agree with him about that. The story ends here because they can’t summon a counterargument.
Too long have we painted the religious leaders Jesus encounters using broad, caricatural strokes that fuel Christian anti-semitism. Priests, elders, scribes, Pharisees, Sadducees -- all can be great hecklers, but so can Jesus. Most of his confrontations with them contain a hint that the squabbling is a normal and well-practiced form of debate. Three-dimensional chess? Absolutely. Jockeying for power? Of course. Do not underestimate the Thunder Dome, fight-to-the-death effect of the presence of thousands of Roman soldiers wearing riot gear and licensed to kill.
In our time, the old, white model of polite public civility is giving way to robust challenge, protest and disruption. Gen Z, millennials and people of color are leading the way. It’s time for us to get more comfortable with the contentious encounters between Jesus and his colleagues. It’s time to grow a thicker skin and, in the words of John Lewis, get in some “good trouble, necessary trouble.” Following Jesus faithfully means adopting all his strategies – not just the gentle ones. Here’s why: Do you see how the events of our time are aligning with the events of his? What does that mean? It means that right now, the gospel is on fire.
* tefillin – a small set of boxes containing scrolls worn by rabbis and scholars
God, give me eyes to see the fire. Amen.
New Prayer Requests:
We ask churches and church leaders to join us in the following prayers either by sharing them during worship, printing them in bulletins, or sharing them in some other way. To make a prayer request, please contact Drew Page at firstname.lastname@example.org
Prayers of Intercession:
- For those grieving for the more than 198,000 victims of the Covid-19 disease
- For Peter Hainsworth, husband of the Rev. Ruth Hainsworth, Pastor of United Congregational Church of Westerly RI, who has been diagnosed with a cardiac condition
- For Mr. Brian Baeder, LMS, Pastor of Second Congregational Church of Stafford CT, who is recovering from eye surgery
- For The Rev. Dr. Ede Steele, pastor of First Congregational Church of Griswold CT, who is recovering from knee replacement surgery
- For the family and friends of The Rev Dr. Gordon Elon Ellis, who served in Connecticut and Massachusetts, and was Pastor Emeritus at First Congregational Church of Southington, CT. Rev. Ellis died on Sept. 13
- For the family and friends of the Rev. Avery D. Post, former MA Conference Minister and UCC General Minister and President. Rev. Post died on Sept 7
- For this nation as we mourn the death the Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg who was a champion of women's rights and justice
Prayers of Joy and Thanksgiving:
- For volunteer firefighters who serve communities in which they, live risking their lives for the lives and property of their neighbors
Please Pray for the Following SNEUCC Churches:
West Gloucester Trinitarian Congregational, UCC, Gloucester, MA
Buckingham Congregational Church of UCC, Glastonbury, CT
First Church of Christ Congregational, Glastonbury, Glastonbury, CT
Byfield Parish Church, Inc., Georgetown, MA
First Congregational Church of Georgetown UCC, Georgetown, MA
First Congregational Church, UCC, Gardner, MA
The Franklin Federated Church, Franklin, MA
Edwards Church, Framingham, MA
The Plymouth Church in Framingham, Framingham, MA
Bethany Congregational Church, UCC, Foxboro, MA
Moosup Valley Congregational UCC, Foster, RI
This Week in History:
September 23, 1957 (63 years ago) Nine Black students, known historically as "The Little Rock Nine," enrolled in the previously all white Little Rock Central High School were escorted by police into the school through an angry mob of white protesters. The students had been barred from entering in prior days due to the Arkansas National Guard troops order by Arkansa Gov. Orval Faubus to prevent their entry. The guard was later ordered to leave on Sept. 20. Once the students had entered the school, the protest turned into a riot and the students were subsequently removed from the school.
September 25, 1957 (63 years ago) Ordered by President Eisenhower, 1200 federal troops from the Army 101st Airborne Division, with fixed bayonets, clear the way through protesters for the nine Black students to attend Little Rock Central High School. Troops remained at the school for the duration of the year, though the nine student reported being subjected to numerous cases of harassment and violence throughout the year.
“Study the past if you would define the future.”