23 When Jesus 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?” 24 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. 25 Did the baptism that John administered 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?’ 26 But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.” 27 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.
28 “What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ 29 He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. 30 The father[a] went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. 31 Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. 32 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.
Philippians 2: 2-11
If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, 2 make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. 3 Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. 4 Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. 5 Let the same mind be in you that was[a] in Christ Jesus,6 who, being in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped,
7 but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
8 he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.
9 Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name,
10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth,11 and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
It often happens that on Wednesday morning when I turn the bulletin over to Pat for final preparation, I will not yet have come up with a sermon title, and I always promise her I’ll have one by around noon. This past Wednesday, my mind was all over the place. I couldn’t settle on anything. So, at around one o’clock as I was running out the door to get some lunch, Pat called after me, “Do you have a sermon title?” I hurried back to her office and without thinking I said, “Better Off to Be a Prostitute.” It was a gut response. A Spirit intuition, maybe. By Friday, I had some regrets about this title. But I decided I would follow this intuition about the gospel story and Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi.
To the chief priests and elders, the Jewish religious leaders who challenge his authority, Jesus finally says: “You’re better off to be a prostitute.” The bare fact is that in 1st century Palestine you were definitely not better off to be a prostitute. You were not better off to be a woman. And certainly, not to be a woman whose only means of achieving some economic security was to sell her body to men. These are women who are, for whatever reason, vulnerable, without the customary protection of a male provider—a father, husband, or brother—in a patriarchal society. These are women who are assigned membership in that unsavory bunch of folk, written off as sinners. Not righteous, not right with God, shamed, and unwelcome within the religious community they were born into. There was no door through which they could enter the sanctuary. To the chief priests and elders who had shut the door, Jesus says, “You’re better off to belong to this bunch of banished folk, because they are entering the kingdom, the commonwealth of God before you.”
Jesus is not winning points with these men who are in charge of Jewish religious life. Nor does he have any interest in doing so. They have no authority over him. He doesn’t need their approval. Jesus is not afraid of them. But they are afraid of him because plenty of people have cast their lot with this interloping rabbi who has come out of nowhere, without any religious credentials, or any human authorization to say and do what he says and does.
It is one thing for Jesus to preach and teach on hillsides and village street corners. But Jesus is teaching in the Jewish temple, that most sacred space, where the day before he had had the nerve to overturn tables where sacrificial animals were being sold. Who in God’s name does he think he is? The chief priests and elders are not bad people. They are properly credentialed and responsible to preserve the religious tradition and institution they oversee. They are trying not to attract undue negative attention from the Roman government that allows them to practice their religion. It isn’t a constitutional right. It is a reward for good behavior. They don’t want trouble. Nor do they want to lose their positions.
From an institutional perspective, they have every right to ask Jesus who has authorized him to act as he does. And, like a good rabbi Jesus answers their question with a question: “who authorized the ministry of John who announced the coming of kingdom God and called people to be baptized and turn around to receive God’s reign. Was it God, or was it a human being?” They are caught between a rock and a hard place. If they say God authorized John’s ministry, Jesus will ask why they have resisted what God is doing. If they say it was a human authorization, they fear that the crowds who received John as a prophet and now follow Jesus will riot. They huddle to calculate their options. They are like elected officials always checking their approval ratings, figuring out what to say to hold onto their base, unable to speak truthfully for fear of losing power, influence, privilege, and control.* To protect themselves, they finally say they don’t know the answer. And Jesus won’t tell them.
Instead he tells this parable about the two sons and ends by saying to the chief priests and tax collectors, “You’re better off to be a prostitute or tax collector because they are going into the kingdom of God before you.” The moral of the parable isn’t that some will enter the commonwealth of God and some will not. The chief priests and elders think like that. There are good folk and bad folk, and they have figured out who is who and who they are in this calculus. And we may tend to think like this—am I more like the first or the second son? Is she more like the first or the second? Am I more faithful than he? Am I doing a better job of doing what God desires than she is?
But Jesus doesn’t think like this. He thinks that this kind of thinking is a waste of everybody’s time and energy. This kind of thinking pits us against one another and robs us of both our true humanity and the community God intends for us. In the end, what Jesus says about the prostitutes and the tax collectors is that those who occupy places of shame in our society, those who are shunned by religious institutions, those who are judged to be the least, the lost, the last, but who are open to the love and desire of God, those who are drawn to the way of Jesus, who walk in love, who do not think they are better than someone else—these will enter the commonwealth of God first. And those who are religiously self-righteous will bring up the rear. The door is not closed to them. By the grace of God, by the love of Jesus, by the non-coercive power of Holy Spirit, their minds can be changed. They can stop living in fear. They can stop grasping and using their position, and power, and privilege to prove their own righteousness and to shame and shun others.
This past week, one of our long-time members told me that somebody said something to her about the Old Dutch Church that really offended her. They told her that people in the community call us the “gay” church. (Not an affirmation from their perspective) They told her that one of our members used to be a prostitute up on Broadway. (Not an affirmation from their perspective) And Jesus says, “You’re better off to be a prostitute than to be stuck in protecting your power, privilege, and self-righteous pride.
And what would you expect from a person who being in the form of God did not regard equality with God as a thing to be grasped and exploited, but instead empties himself of the privileges and protections of divinity to become a human being. And not a human being at the top of the social hierarchy. Jesus humbles himself and accepts the shame of being like a slave. He attaches himself to those who are shamed and shunned. Jesus accepts the shame of public crucifixion. Jesus assumes to himself the shame of every person who has ever been or ever will be shamed by family or church or society. With his death he puts that shame to death.
And with his resurrection, through the Spirit, Jesus fills the cosmos with his life and with his mind. Then turns and says, “live from my mind. Be transformed by my consciousness, by my Spirit in you. Know that you are eternally beloved. Fear no one. Fear the loss of nothing. Go wherever love compels you to go.” Don’t expect perfection from yourself. Somedays you will be all in. And other days you will not. Somedays you will let go of self-interest. And other days you will be clinging to it for dear life. And there in front of you or beside you will be the prostitute walking arm in arm with Jesus, risen from shame, walking in total trust of divine love.