How does Jesus respond when confronted by dishonesty? What can you learn from him to make you more conflict-competent?
These are a few of the questions we will explore in Matthew 21. We will also glean some practical lessons from what we learn.
It is essential to keep the context of this confrontation in mind.
The preceding day, the Lord Jesus had entered Jerusalem as a conquering hero, to the delight of the crowds. Then we watch and listen as:
Jesus entered the temple area and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves. "It is written," he said to them, " 'My house will be called a house of prayer,' but you are making it a 'den of robbers.' "
The blind and the lame came to him at the temple, and he healed them.
But when the chief priests and the teachers of the law saw the wonderful things he did and the children shouting in the temple area, "Hosanna to the Son of David," they were indignant. "Do you hear what these children are saying?" they asked him.
Three things happened that upended the comfortably corrupt establishment the temple had become.
1. Jesus cast out the parasitic commercialism that had attached itself to the temple offerings and sacrifices.
2. He healed the blind and lame who “came to him at the temple.” The blind and the lame were two categories of people not welcome in the temple. Jesus received and healed these outcasts.
3. The shouts of children in the temple area ascribing to Jesus: “Hosanna to the Son of David.”
The religious authorities were indignant at what Jesus was doing, implicitly telling Jesus to shut down the joyful shouts of the children.
"Yes," replied Jesus, "have you never read, " 'From the lips of children and infants you have ordained praise'?"
Jesus responds by quoting Psalm 8:2—
“a psalm of worship to the God of creation, thus implicitly giving Jesus adulation reserved for Yahweh alone.” (Osborne, Matthew, 765)
Matthew ends this scene with Jesus going to the city of Bethany to spend the night.
One can well imagine the authorities' sleepless night as they moved from shame to anger to aggression. They were preparing to confront this upstart Galilean troublemaker in the morning.
It is not difficult to imagine the religious authorities gathering that night to vent their criticisms of Jesus' actions and devise their retaliation.
The following day, they set their plan in motion and interrupted Jesus.
Jesus entered the temple courts, and, while he was teaching, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him. "By what authority are you doing these things?" they asked. "And who gave you this authority?" (21:23)
These questions are more in the nature of a challenge: “Who do you think you are?” It strikes to the heart of the identity of Jesus.
It is also evident that the religious leaders do not accept Jesus as the messianic conqueror or the one to whom Psalm 8 is addressed. Otherwise, they would not have asked their questions. They were determined not to be convinced by Jesus’ actions or words.
So, Jesus asks a question that strikes to the heart of their identity and integrity.
Jesus replied, "I will also ask you one question. If you answer me, I will tell you by what authority I am doing these things. John's baptism— where did it come from? Was it from heaven, or from men?"
They discussed it among themselves and said, "If we say, 'From heaven,' he will ask, 'Then why didn't you believe him?' But if we say, 'From men'— we are afraid of the people, for they all hold that John was a prophet."
So they answered Jesus, "We don't know." (21:24-27a)
These religious authorities rejected John the Baptist, yet they craved the popularity and recognition of the crowds who believed John the Baptist was a prophet. To preserve their status with the people, these leaders evade the question and lie, saying, “We don’t know.”
Their evasion reveals their lack of integrity. They hardened their hearts, committing themselves to their dishonesty and their denial of Jesus as the Christ. No matter what Jesus said, they would not be convinced otherwise.
As a result of their dishonesty and intransigence, Jesus would not answer their question.
Jesus continues by directing three hard-hitting parables at these religious authorities. “Each parable deals with their dishonesty and failure as leaders of the people” (Wilkins, Matthew, 696):
1. An antagonist does not always deserve an answer.
We often feel obligated to respond to a question or defend our position, but this scene demonstrates that this is not the case.
Where the actions or words of the antagonist indicate dishonesty or demonstrate that nothing will change their mind, no answer is deserved or need be given.
2. How do we respond?
Do we know enough about our antagonists to do what Jesus did— that is, to bring their dishonesty or intransigence to the surface?
Perhaps we know of a particular inconsistency that will uncover their dishonesty— for example, speaking to a member of the self-styled Jehovah’s Witnesses about a clear statement of the Bible that contradicts their organization's position (e.g., their denial of the deity or the physical resurrection of Jesus Christ).
In many cases, we do not know enough to reveal their dishonesty. So, we move on.
3. What if others are listening?
Sometimes, there are observers, people listening to the discussion. Such was the case in Matthew 15:10-11 (the crowd) and 15:12-20 (the disciples). Jesus took the time to explain himself to them, even though the antagonist would not be convinced.
If no others are present, the option is to get up and leave. Spend your time more profitably by speaking to those who will listen openly and consider honestly.
One other option is the one Jesus took. He directed three parables at these hard-hearted religious authorities— each parable speaking to their dishonesty, failure, and ultimate judgment.
4. Loving your antagonist.
Many are confused about God’s call to love others.
Jesus instructs his followers to “love your enemies,” including antagonists in a conflict with you. If we engage in conflict like Jesus, we must love our enemies even in the heat of conflict.
What does that mean? And how do we love our enemies in real and practical ways?
We will explore those questions in the next post.
Please let me know your experiences of conflict with dishonest people and how you responded (or should have responded). You can contact me by using this link.
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