I am blogging this Advent from #decolonizelutheranism’s Advent devotional, Shut Up. (That would be the sanitized version)
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 when you saw it, you did not afterward change your minds and believe him. (Matthew 21:32 ESV)
Who are we?
There’s an argument going on, and has probably always gone on, among the followers of Jesus.
What does it mean to follow Jesus?
I have found, and I think many others have too, that the church really isn’t a place where tax collectors and prostitutes — sinners — are welcomed much. It is a tension embedded deep in our history. Because if we do church right, if we are church right, a people who both love our neighbors and live with self-discipline and restraint, we create a kind of righteousness that becomes its own mark.
And that can be a good thing. But this kind of individual-centered piety, often grounded in the letters of Paul, frequently becomes a version of the pharisee’s prayer at the temple:
“God, I thank you that I am not like other people — greedy, unrighteous, adulterers, even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of everything I get.” (Luke 18:11-12 CEV)
We get right with God. And stay right. That marks us as righteous, saintly, even sinless, and earns us … well, whatever it’s supposed to earn us.
Jesus today asks the chief priests and the elders who did the will of God: a man who said “no,” but then went to work later after changing his mind; or a man who said “yes,” but who didn’t? Acts speak, and the work in the vineyard was done by those who initially refused.
The sinners who hear, and wander into the wilderness to be baptized — they understood what was happening. They believed.
But Jesus says one more thing. You saw all this, and it didn’t change your minds about John. Or God. Because God could not possibly be calling cast-off sinners to repent. They have no place in a righteous, well-ordered world.
They — we — have no place in the church.
But God calls us. Because the only righteousness that matters is the righteousness God gives us, and not what we give ourselves. No amount of right, pure, and sinless living makes us people of God.
Only God’s call does that.