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Sneaky Sneakers

September 29, 2002

Matthew 21:23-32

by Tony Grant


Sneaky Sneakers

Why walk when you can roll? That is what Michael D'Amico thinks as he lifts his toes and starts to roll down the hill to his friend's house--at 15 to 20 miles per hour, balancing all the way--giving him the appearance of hovering just above the ground. The ride is so smooth and unexpected it looks like Michael is levitating. Of course, he is not.

He's walking and rolling. His red-and-black sneakers, which he hardly ever takes off unless forced to do so, are stealth skates. Hidden inside the heel of each sneaker is a removable wheel made of high-performance polyurethane. Each wheel encloses hi-tech ABEC micro-bearings, which are the bearings in the wheels of inline skates. This means these sneaky sneakers really zoom. Along with their nonabrasion soles for controlled braking, they are speedily becoming a coast-to-coast craze.

This sneaker-skate contraption called the Heely has sold at least 500,000 pairs since it was introduced just over a year ago. Surreptitious skaters now wear these shoes into schools, malls, and stores that ban traditional wheeled transportation like roller skates, inline skates, scooters and skate-boards. If you try scooting into school rolling on a conventional wheeled apparatus, the principal will pounce on you immediately, but you can get away with wearing Heelys because thought they behave like skates, they look like sneakers.

These new-wheel-in-the-heel, helmet-less riders zip to their hearts' content down school hallways, and up mall aisles, leaving administrators agog and mall security perplexed, at least for the time being.

Meanwhile, school committees are considering the public safety and litigation issues. Imagine a teen, one principal says, zipping along, heeling down the hall, glancing at a Palm Pilot, listening to the Walkman, not paying attention to where he's going, only to suddenly encounter the top stair of a long, high stairwell at rapid speed. Schools now find themselves in the middle of an absurd public policy debate: When is a sneaker not a sneaker, and when is a skate a shoe? The question sounds ridiculous, but it is not. Christians sometimes have to deal with similar questions. Time and again, Christians contend with confusing and contradictory issues concerning how someone appears vs. how he or she behaves. Jesus made a similar point when he said, "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence ... . First clean the inside of the cup, so that the outside also may become clean" (Matthew 23:25-26).

Jesus is always telling us to get our spiritual priorities straight. What is on the inside matters. If the sneaker has a hidden-in-the-heel wheel, then it is not what it appears to be. The problem is that we cannot see the inside of shoes, or of people. We can not judge much about their hearts by their outward appearance, or even by their words, but we can get a glimpse of the state of their souls through the ways they behave.

People can talk like they are nice people;

People can dress like they are nice people;

But on the inside be as ugly as sin.

But by their doing we glimpse what they are.

Their works show how near they are or how far.

Unfortunately, the world does judge by outward appearances. Ever since September 11, 2001, Americans have asked the question: Why do they hate us? Why are these people willing to commit suicide to harm us?

Philip Yancey, writing in Christianity Today [ "Why do they hate us?", April 1, 2002, 80.] says, "I recently listened to a panel of experts address the Why do they hate us? question in an all-day forum ... One panelist mentioned the Baywatch syndrome. That television program, which features hunks and babes cavorting on the beaches of California, replaced Dallas as the most popular television export. 'We are attracted to what we most fear,' said one thoughtful Muslim. 'Imagine what American culture represents to a young Muslim who, outside his family, has never seen a woman's knee, or even her face' ... . Much of the world draws conclusions about "the Christian West" from MTV, Baywatch, and violent movies. Muslims speak of nuclear weapons as 'the Christian bomb.'" Now we, of course, would protest that America is not represented either by Baywatch or the Bomb, but that is the appearance we often give to other countries.


The Authority of Christ

But appearances can, be deceiving. By all appearances, the chief priests and elders of the Jewish people in Jesus' day were the exemplars of piety and religious sensitivity. John the Baptist, on the other hand, with his hair shirt and ascetic diet, did not fit any proper image of a respectable religious leader. Even if one maintains that he did look the part of the classical Israelite prophet, many in the Jewish community by the Second Temple period had a deep mistrust of prophets and prophecy in general. (See, for instance, Zechariah 13:1-6). So when one compared John with the leaders of the Jerusalem religious establishment, one saw two entirely different types of religious expression. Which was truly of God?

To answer this question, Jesus relates a scenario in which a father, representing God in the parable, instructs both of his sons to work for him in his vineyard. The first initially refuses, but later goes. The second immediately agrees to go but then does not. The first of these two sons represents John, and religious figures like him, Jesus included, who were not born into religious service but came to their ministries in adulthood. The second son represents the priests and leaders who were always part of the religious establishment of Judea. The work in the vineyard, then, which John ultimately ends up doing and the priests do not, represents the work of religious renewal and rededication that John and Jesus awakened in Jewish believers. In so doing, they assured that persons like prostitutes and tax collectors who repented because of this message would find a place in God's kingdom and that members of the religious establishment who did not repent would not.

This is the true test of authority for Christ, namely that fruit is born through his ministry. John's ministry was apparently one that bore much fruit because the crowd believed John to be a true prophet. Jesus' point is that he can prove his own authority on that same basis. If prostitutes and tax collectors heard his teaching and reformed their lives, then this is proof that Jesus' work was of God. He does not have to answer the chief priests and the elders. He uses John's ministry as an example like his own. If John's ministry has received true admiration and numerous followers, then God must have ordained it. Similarly, Christ's ministry holds the same authority.

For all the gospels, the question of Jesus' authority, particularly his authority to contradict establishment religious leaders was a critical issue. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, this discussion of John's authority is followed by the longer parable of the wicked tenants. In this parable, a vineyard owner, whose servants (and eventually his son) are killed by his tenants, represents God, whose servants the prophets, such as John, are rejected by the religious leaders of Israel. The son who is killed by the tenants represents Jesus. Thus the point of the parable of the wicked tenants is that God establishes authority and that God has established the authority of Christ.

We should notice that the major part of John's ministry, about which Jesus questions the religious leaders, is John's practice of baptism. This baptism was different from the standard Jewish rituals of bathing. Jewish law required that ritual baths be undertaken in order to purify persons who had encountered various causes of ritual impurity. These water rituals were required in order to restore the person to a pure state in which they could resume contact with others and return to participation in religious life. Sources of ritual impurity included sexual activity, childbirth, menstruation, certain illnesses, and contact with a dead body (see, for example, Leviticus 12-15). By and large, the causes of ritual impurity were not considered to be sins. They were simply conditions of life during which it was believed to be inappropriate to participate in religious worship. Thus, the Jewish ritual baths that purified one from these conditions of uncleanness were not thought to remove sin. They restored a person to a state of ritual purity. So John's baptism was a substantial departure from standard Jewish custom, and submitting to that baptism would have represented not only an endorsement of this new idea but also an admission of sin which the Jewish leaders were unwilling to do.

Two Sons

In his story about the two sons, Jesus makes clear who is obedient to God and who is not; who follows the real rules and who only appears to.

The son who does the work, although he initially claims he won't, is obedient. The other son, the one who lies, telling his dad that he'll get the job done, but not having any intention of doing so, is disobedient and defiant. His manners, of course, are impeccable. He appears to be a good son, but he is not.

In the end, it is not what the sons say that matters. It is what they do. It is their behavior. "Just tell 'em what they want to hear, then do what you want" is the credo of the bad lad. This sweet-tongued son looks, at first, like a clean-cut kid. He's slick. He's quick. He talks a good game. But he's a bad, bad boy whose outsides hide his disobedience. He is not to be trusted. He lies to his dad, as if his dad is not ever going to discover just what type of person this son is, as if his dad is not going to see through his charade.

The Christian faith is a show-me faith. It is not a completely private religion, because Christianity is a DOING religion. Works matter, as the letter of James shows. Faith matters, of course, but so do works. What we do, how we behave, matters.

Deceitful Christians may fool themselves into thinking they have fooled the world, but they can't fool God. We are all transparent before God. We hide nothing, not actions, not intentions, not little wheels hidden in our heels. It's like that old-time saying about preachers - "The best sermon I ever heard was watching how the preacher lived, not listening to what he said."

George Shultz, Secretary of State during the Reagan administration, kept a large globe in his office. When newly appointed ambassadors had an interview with him and when ambassadors returning from their posts for their first visit with him were leaving his office, Shultz would test them. He would say, "You have to go over to the globe and prove to me that you can identify your country." They would go over, spin the globe and put their finger on the country to which sent - unerringly.

When Shultz's old friend and former Senate majority leader Mike Mansfield was appointed ambassador to Japan, even he was put to the test. This time, however, Ambassador Mansfield spun the globe and put his hand on the United States. He said: "That's my country."

On June 27, 1993, Shultz related this to Brian Lamb on C-Span's Booknotes. Said the secretary: "I've told that story, subsequently, to all the ambassadors going out. 'Never forget you're over there in that country, but your country is the United States. You're there to represent us. Take care of our interests and never forget it, and you're representing the best country in the world.'" [Wallace Alcorn, "Ambassadors of Christ," Christianity Today, Fall 1998]

That is exactly what Christians are doing with their lives--representing Christ, who is the best savior in the world.

In the parable, the truthful son, who speaks his mind plainly, doesn't tell his dad what his dad wants to hear. Dad asks for help. He answers honestly, "No, sir. Not me." Maybe that boy speaks rashly. Maybe he is not as smooth, as slick or as refined as his brother, but, eventually, he does what is required of him. He does not sneak off. He thinks about it, makes up his mind and without another word, goes off to do the obedient thing.

Many people put too much stock in what appears, rather than what is. Certain individuals may want to appear to be good Christians. They want to go to the right church, to be seen with the right people and to give to the right charities. They may wear the right clothes. They may read the right books, speak the right words, look the right part, but maybe they are like the son who lies to his father, expecting never to get caught. But like the Pharisees, or like a sneaker that rolls, the truth eventually plain to see.

Jesus points to the prostitutes and tax collectors, whose appearance isn't religious but whose hearts are. These people aren't synagogue people. They are scorned people. Outcasts. They're barely tolerated, and often despised.

Jesus says the prostitutes and tax men are going to get into heaven before the holier-than-thou Pharisees. Before them. Why? Because the prostitutes and tax collectors see, hear and believe. They know do not know beans about the law and care less, but they know enough to recognize the truth when they hear it. Once they hear it, their hearts change. Once their hearts change, they live their faith.

Admittedly, the Heelys are pretty cool and lots of fun, but they are not what they appear to be. They're too sneaky to be true sneakers. But it is easier to figure them out than it is to know what lies hidden in the heart of another Christian. But that's okay: Seeing the heart is God's job anyway.

Terry Mattingly, writing in his nationally syndicated religion column, tells the story of Archbishop George Carey when he was serving communion as a parish priest. A college student knelt at the altar rail, another parishioner pointed accusingly and loudly said: "Don't give him communion. He does not believe. He is mocking us all."

Stunned, Father George Carey asked the student for his response. He looked up and said: "I am confirmed. I am here because I want to follow." The priest served him communion.

This scene occurred at St. Nicholas Parish in Durham, England, years before Carey began his decade-plus service as the 103rd Archbishop of Canterbury. Today, he still uses this story as a parable about spiritual seekers and those who are quick to judge.

After all, we are all here to follow Jesus. That is what we are about. The game of checkers is an illustration of the Christian life. There are three rules of checkers.

First, you must not make two moves at once.

Second, you may move only forward, not backward.

Third, when you reach the last row, then you may move wherever you like.

From this we learn that we should not clutter our lives with more than one move at a time, that we should always keep sight of the goal toward which we are moving, and that we become truly free only as we move to the last row. The last row is the row of Christian love, where Christians can do whatever they want. Christians can behave however they want to--as long as they do it in love. Amen.


Brandon, Karen. "Heelers ready to walk and roll." Chicago Tribune, February 10, 2002.



If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant

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