CAMINANDO WITH JESUS: Will We Change Our Minds?
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.
“What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went.
The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. 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. 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.
- Matthew 21:23-32
In 2013, Scientific American Mind ran a special edition on sensory illusions, which are described by one author as visual mind tricks that “distort our perception so that what we ‘see’ does not correspond with what is physically there.” Typically, the incessant flow of information we receive through our senses is processed correctly by our brains. But under certain conditions, we experience glitches that deceive us. Some of the glitches help us adapt to our environment. Some, like optical illusion vectors, are just fun to experience. What’s more is that these glitches help us understand how our brains—and not our eyes—function as the means by which we determine truth and reality.
Beyond the visual dynamics at play, philosophers and theologians, since ancient times, have also understood that sensory illusions can be induced and influenced by belief, culture and emotion. What you believe, the cultural values you hold and the way you process your feelings can all impact how your brain interprets visual stimuli. Thus, it is not surprising, in this passage from Matthew’s gospel, to find Jesus, who is the embodiment of truth and the door to reality, exploring the dynamics between what we see and what we believe.
Religious leaders in the temple have taken umbrage with Jesus over the way his teaching and healing have disrupted their social, political and economic power. The day before, Jesus came into the temple and “drove out all who were selling and buying...[overturning] the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves” (Matt. 21:12). When he returns the following day, the elders and chief priests decide to confront him. They approach aggressively and ask him to reveal who has given him authority to act in this way. Not one to shy away from a challenge, Jesus responds to the testing of his credibility with a test of his own.
“Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?”
Jesus is testing their vision. He wants to know what they see in John and his ministry of repentance. Do they see his work as being a divine call from God? Or do they see him as just another misguided mystic disillusioning people in the wilderness?
An argument ensues amongst those present, revealing the way their hearts and minds interpret the visual data their eyes provide them. They are stuck between God and the crowds. If they say John’s calling is divine, they fear undermining their own authority as religious leaders since it will be clear that they themselves are not in alignment with God’s will. If they say John is just another human, they fear being undermined by the crowds who perceive John to be a prophet.
The options they debate are telling. They are not confused about the nature of John’s ministry, but are consumed by what his calling means for their lives. When they witness John at work, their hearts and minds interpret him as competition for their own power and authority. They know what they are seeing, but they cannot believe or receive it out of fear and a false sense of self-preservation.
Ever diligent in his approach, Jesus follows the first test with a second in order to validate his findings. This time he tells a parable about a father and his two sons to convey what it means to do the will of God. As he concludes, he tells the elders and the chief priests that their unwillingness to repent and receive the gospel is due to a glitch in their spiritual perception.
“...even after you saw it, you did not change your minds...”
As the Civil Rights Movement unfolded, there was a belief among many that seeing racism in action, and its human and social consequences, could end Jim Crow and transform American society. In 1955, Mamie Till-Mobley courageously allowed the mutilated body of her son, Emmett, who had been killed by white men in Mississippi, to be shown and photographed open casket at his funeral. The world needed to know what racism had done to her son. Beyond the still image, Martin Luther King, Jr., expressed his faith in the widespread availability of television as an antidote to racism because the entire nation, and even world, would see the violence, death and terror it wrought.
During the 1960s, it seemed as if this line of thinking might be right. The images of Billy clubs, police dogs and firehoses being weaponized against marching protesters left many unaware citizens appalled and granted political leverage in the signing of major Civil Rights legislation. However, almost 60 years later, we find our neighborhoods and schools more segregated than ever and a criminal justice (and immigration) system that Michelle Alexander aptly calls the “New Jim Crow.” All of this despite the fact that visual representations of racist violence committed by the state and civilians alike permeate any and every screen available to our eyes. Thus, it is clear to me that the jury is still out on whether what we see as Americans—and Christians, in particular—can change what we believe.
“...even after you saw it, you did not change your minds...”
What the elders and the chief priests failed to understand was the impact of their social, political and economic situation on their ability to see truth and reality. The Romans had boxed them into believing that the only way to survive was by holding onto the power granted them by the empire. Unlike the tax collectors, who realized that earning a living by exploiting and oppressing their own people was no way to live at all, the religious leaders failed to see how turning from gentile kings to the kingdom of God could be good news.
What will we do with this lesson? Will we be honest and vulnerable about the ways racism, patriarchy and wealth influence the way our brains interpret sensory input? Will we admit we are afraid to lose the power and prestige afforded us by the current arrangements of things? Will we have the courage and conviction to repent from cultural values and practices that denigrate the image of God in our fellow human beings? Or will we, like the elders and chief priests, be satisfied with the glitches that make deception our perception?
God has shown us truth and reality in sons like Jesus and sons like Emmett, in mothers like Mary and mothers like Mamie, in prophets like John and prophets like Martin. The question is, will we change our minds?
Brandon J. Williams is a member of St. Titus’, Durham.
Tags: Caminando with Jesus