Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
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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.
In our country, we are in a time of rising tension. I don’t know if you’ve noticed. We have a pandemic that has not been addressed as it should be on a national level and a national election that is among the most contentious of the last 80 years. There’s the death of a well-respected Supreme Court justice and the on-going protests against racism. And, there’s natural disasters, like fires, droughts, and hurricanes, complicating an already complicated year. Things are tense. Today’s scripture reading is tense, too. There has been a lot going on in Matthew. And, this might be the moment, or the collections of moments, when Jesus is preaching and teaching in the temple in Jerusalem, where the tension finally rises to a head. And, so much of the conflict with center on this question of authority. By who authority will Jesus preach and teach? That’s the question the chief priest and elders wanted him to answer. But, Jesus didn’t think this was the right question.
It bears mentioning: when we read today's Scripture, it is important to know where we are in the story. This reading takes place just after the triumphal entry of Palm Sunday. As you consider this text on this lovely fall morning, hear the echo of last spring's Easter. The scholar Emerson Powery argues that the encounter described here, this argument between Jesus and the chief priests and elders is part of a constellation of events that seems to lead directly to Jesus' arrest, torture, and execution. First, Jesus rode into the city on the back of a donkey, evoking messianic prophesies from the book of Isaiah and Zechariah. People followed him into town, treating him like a king and calling him “Son of David.” Then, he flipped over the tables of the moneychangers and dove-sellers in the temple. And, then he healed people inside the temple. They shouted “Hosanna to the Son of David,” too. Any one of these events would have been enough to irritate community leaders.
Dr. Powery argues that when you take them as a whole set, especially if they all happened during Passover, when so many people were crowding into Jerusalem and the Roman soldiers would have been on high alert for anything that smelled like revolution, leaders would have seen it as a major threat. For a certain set of people who believed that the Messiah would be a military leader for the Jewish people, it might have looked like Jesus was sowing seeds for a political rebellion. It probably didn't help calm things, when, in chapter 21:21, Jesus destroyed a fig tree and told his followers that they could do the same and more through the power of their faith. People immediately connected his teaching to their own destruction. Rome was looming, ready to pounce on any whiff of revolution.
As Jesus returned to the temple and began to teach, why wouldn't we expect the current leaders who ask him where he got his authority to teach? Wouldn't we have a similar response to someone who just showed up here and began teaching and healing in ways that were very different from our current practice, especially in ways that might put us in danger? The chief priests and scribes were the ones held responsible for the teaching that made its way out of the temple. They wanted to know if they could trust Jesus with that oh so holy task. To be fair though, this whole set of questions might have been a trap. This may have had nothing to do with them doing due diligence. They may have just been hoping that Jesus would get himself in trouble so they could be done with his clear teaching and hard questions. Maybe they thought he was so wrong that he had to be gotten rid of by any means necessary.
I can't help but wonder what answer they expected when they asked him where he got his authority. Whatever they expected to hear, they didn’t get it. In fact, they quickly realize that they have been caught in a trap of their own making. They realize that they can't say that John's authority came from heaven or they will look like fools for not following him. And, they can't say that it was from human authority for fear of the crowd, because this crowd trusted John as a Holy Prophet. So, they gave the best answer they could come up with and said they don't know. Since they gave no answer to his question, Jesus felt no compulsion to give them an answer to their question. Or, at least not the direct one they had hoped for. Instead, he shares a parable.
It is short... Only four verses. But, as many of us know, it doesn't always take a lot of words to make a strong impression. He used four verses to completely up-end their understanding of how someone can know if a prophet is righteous. Because Jesus told these people, the pillars of his community, that the way we know if a prophet is good and true is that the most hated people in town begin to follow him. Now, I don't know about you, but that doesn't sound like a ringing endorsement of a prophet to me and it probably didn't sound all that great to them. I mean, if you're like me, you've been taught that the way you judge an event or activity or leader is by how respectable the attendees of the event are. The two groups of people that Jesus mentioned, sex workers and tax collectors, weren’t respectable people. But, here is Jesus, telling the chief priests and elders that the people who saw righteousness in John, that is, people who included the most disrespected members of their community, were closer to God’s will than they were. And, they will be rewarded for it. Jesus told them that you can say that you follow God's will all day long, but until you actually do what God calls you to do, until you actually work in that vineyard, you are not contributing to the empire of Heaven.
The word Gospel means “Good News.” How is this story good news for us today? How can it provide instruction to us as we figure out what it means to be church in a time of great tension? Just about every time I turn on the television or look at my phone, I see people in the midst of conflicts about who has authority. Does the government? Do scientists and physicians? What about the media? What is the authority of the media and who gave it to them? We are right in the middle of conflicts over which institutions should be granted authority and which institutions and people are taking authority that should not be theirs.
I offer today some questions for us to think about as we consider the idea of authority. First, inspired by a pastor named George Hermonson, I'd ask, who are the chief priests and elders right now? The ones who have been granted and earned authority? The ones who are afraid to make those in power of them angry? Who are the ones invested in the way things are right now because they have figured out how to have authority in this current system? Emerson Powery, in his commentary, notes that sex workers and tax collectors were among the least trusted, most reviled people in Jesus' day. Who would be their counterparts today in our town and our country? What happens when they make the first, right choice to follow Christ in our time? Do the respectable people join them?
What we do with this text probably comes down the parable. Who is the one who did the will of God? The one who did what God asks. What does God ask? That will come up soon. In the next chapter, a pharisee, one who knew the law well, will ask him, “which commandment in the law is the greatest?” Jesus will say, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with your mind. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” Jesus was right. This is the core of Jewish teaching. And, he would continue to hold it as foundation to his own.
If we are judging who is following God’s will, perhaps we need to keep these commandments in mind, too. People are making lots of choices and claiming all kinds of authority. Perhaps we judge how they, and we, are using this authority by how well it follows the heart of Jesus’ teaching. Does this action that we are being directed or invited into demonstrate a love of neighbor? Does it show mercy? Does it meet basic needs? Does it provide healing? Does it enhance relationship and connection? Jesus tells us that we know we’re doing what God wants of us not when all the respectable people show up but when the people who have been rejected see a way to a more robust and loving future. God’s will might be disruptive. It will definitely surprise us. This story reminds us that if we are more concerned about being respectable than following God, we’ll be missing out. May we learn to follow the authority that is actually worth our attention.
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Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.