Whose Authority?

Matthew 21:23-32

It's been a busy twenty-four hours, or so, by the time we arrive at today's gospel story.  Jesus has been paraded into Jerusalem by a crowd of nobodies, shouting and singing his arrival as the Son of David, who comes in the name of the Lord.  He's quite intentionally joined in the pageantry of the whole thing, riding a donkey (like the prophet Zechariah said the Messiah would), while the crowds spread their cloaks like a red carpet and waved palm branches like flags, heralding the arrival of a new kind of king.  All of this sets the city spinning in wonder about just what's going on, in this carpenter-teacher from the backwoods of Galilee.

Then, as a bit of an exclamation point, Jesus strolls into the temple and causes a holy ruckus, flipping tables, and spilling money and sending sacrificial birds flying everywhichway, and shouting about how God's house is supposed to be a house of prayer, but the religious industrial complex has turned it into a robber's den.  Then, just in case his presence hasn't been sufficiently announced, he goes about healing the blind and the lame, which I assume only added to the excitement of the day. 

Needless to say, this all gets the attention of the chief priests and the Bible scholars, who have some responsibility for the order of things.  When they look up and see all the commotion--blind folks running around looking at stuff, and cripples doing cartwheels, and birds everywhere--and then they suddenly hear children running around the streets singing crazy things like, "Hosanna to the Son of David" (suggesting that God has something to do with the chaos that's just erupted), the priests and Law teachers are none too pleased.  They come to Jesus and say, "Hey!  Get it together.  Show some responsibility, teacher.  Think of the children! Can't you hear that people are saying that God's got something to do with your shenanigans?!" And Jesus says, "Yeah.  Cool, eh?  From the mouths of babes, right?  Kids say the darndest things."  And then he walks out without another word and goes for a sleepover in Bethany.

So, it's not a big surprise that things aren't exactly resolved the next morning.  As he's teaching some folks arrive and want to continue the conversation.  It's the chief priests again, only this time they haven't brought the scholars as back up, they've brought the elders--the spiritual and moral and likely financial authorities; folks whose reputations precede them.  They want to know just who Jesus thinks he is, and who gave him the right to think that.  "By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority.

And it's not an unreasonable question, especially from people who are trusted and expected to keep a handle on things.  If you're going to turn "the way things are" on its head, you'd better have a good explanation for yourself.  So, Jesus: whose authority?

Let's pray:  Holy God, overshadow us by Your Spirit this morning.  Speak into our lives that we might know you better, so that we might make you better known.  Convict, cajole, and comfort in the way that only You can.  Through Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, our rock and our redeemer, our hope.  Amen.

The issue of Jesus' authority has been present since the beginning.  Way back when the Magi showed up wondering where to find the new king who'd been born, terrifying Herod and all of Jerusalem with him, it was clear that this was going to be a theme.  When Jesus starts preaching and the people hear the word of God in a way that they'd never heard it before, they marvel at this One who teaches with uncommon authority.  He has authority over demons, and the authority to forgive sins.  A Roman centurion recognizes that Jesus has an authority analogous to his own and then quite a bit more.  "Just speak the word, Jesus, and my slave will be healed," he said.

Of course, just because his authority is evident, does not mean that people are universally enthusiastic about it.  The folks who hear him preach seem a touch confused.  When Jesus commands a couple thousand demons out of a man and into a heard of pigs, which promptly stampedes into the sea, the people who used to own the pigs, and the townsfolk who rather preferred the demons in the man, ask him to leave and not come back.  In today's story, it's not exactly subtle that his authority isn't celebrated by the chief priests or the elders.  One doesn't get the impression that they're asking where his authority comes from so that they can affirm it. 

That said, Matthew's witness is unflinching.  He is testifying that Jesus' authority is God's authority--all authority in heaven and earth belongs to Jesus, by the end of the gospel.  The trouble is that this isn't the way that anyone expects or particularly wants God's authority to take shape.  We certainly don't want divine authority to show up and throw unsanctioned royal parades, or waltz in and start flipping tables and flinging open bird cages--let alone chum around with tax collectors and prostitutes; or suggest that the way things are is not the way they will be, without any apparent consideration for those of us who happen to like them that way.

I think it's easy to get embroiled in the contextual stuff of this story--the head-on collision between Jesus with the social and religious and political keepers of the way things are, in that time and that place.  And certainly, there are significant and specific conflicts churning beneath this gospel text--not the least of which is the crowd's singing and dancing about Jesus being the God-anointed saviour of Israel, and then the world.  Or, we could spend a fair bit of time considering why the rich and religious, who actually got to witness the whole thing, couldn't recognize John's baptism and Jesus' ministry as a glimpse of heaven, when it seemed pretty clear to the wrong and the wretched.

But there's no room for spiritual or religious pride at this safe distance from first century Jerusalem and all of its peculiar turmoil.  On this side of the resurrection, which is the evidence that Jesus' will and way is God's will and way in the world, the gospel challenge is at least as direct.  Perhaps quite a bit more so.  I have a hard time imagining that Matthew recounted this story to his first century resurrection congregation so that they could rest pleased with themselves that they believed the right thing about who Jesus was, now that the evidence is in.  This is not a congratulatory pat on the back for the Church.    

The parable undoes that.  There's a father with two sons.  He tells the first to go about the family grape business, and the kid rolls his eyes, and declares, in a voice that I seem to recall from my teenage years, that he doesn't want to, he's got other plans and he's not going into the vineyard today. So the father goes to his other, politer and apparently more reliable son, tells him to go work in the vineyard and this kid says, "You bet dad!"  Only by the end of the day, for reasons Jesus leaves out, the first kid's dirty and sweaty with the day's work, and the second has gotten distracted by something else deemed more important.  "Which one actually did the father's will?" Jesus asks.  The priests and elders know the right answer.

At which point Jesus unloads on them for having said that they're about the stuff of God, the kingdom-of-heaven-family business, but they've gotten themselves distracted by other things.  "They honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me," as the prophet puts it.  Whereas when John showed up, bug-eating and camel skinned, shouting about axes and trees, repentance and forgiveness, and this One who was on his way to baptize not with water but with Spirit-power and new-life fire, folks who were not, by any evidence, in on the things of holiness saw something, heard something, felt something that claimed an unexpected authority over them.  And though they might have rolled their eyes and dragged their feet, they relented, submitted to that authority, and found themselves in a whole new world: a world infused with grace and glory.

Part of me is just delighted at the image of the prostitutes and tax collectors sauntering high-heeled and cheap suited, into the presence of God, into the wild and wonderful ways of God here and now and forever, while the upper crust and the upright are looking the other way, missing what's right in front of them--only to find themselves at the back of the line, late for the party.  It's another beautiful gospel inversion that's enough to make anyone with eyes to see and ears to hear kind of giddy.  (I admit that I tend to imagine Jesus being a bit fire-and-brimstone on this point, but what if he's laughing while he preaches, at the absurdity of grace?)   

Of course, there's another part of me that knows full well that I'm just as likely as anyone to take up a comfortable pew alongside the elders and chief priests.  Pledging allegiance to Jesus is a rather different thing today (now that the Church is a more or less respectable institution), than when Matthew was writing to a scraggly and scrappy and rebellious bunch who had come to believe that Jesus was dead and is alive and that that radically changes the world; who believed that, wonder of wonders, that's how God was saving the world and it demands an entirely new way of getting in on that saving work; who believed that Jesus' authority really is God's authority on the ground, in the dust, which means that following him, walking in his will and way means attending to God, listening to Jesus, heeding the nudges and prods and shoves of the Spirit, and learning to do the things God wants us to do, whether we feel like it or not.  It's learning to say with Mary, Let it be with me according to your word. Or with Jesus, Not my will but Yours be done. 

Before we decide which brother we are, we would do well to listen to this parable alongside, say, the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5-7); listen to Jesus speak with authority about the way God is, about what it means to live kingdom of heaven lives, what abundant Spirit-filled life looks like.  None of the things Jesus preaches there are suggestions.  They're commands, with authority, about what he expects of his followers.  All that poor-blessing, enemy-loving, recklessly generous, fruit-bearing stuff is not an option if we kind of feel like it, or if it fits into our schedules and works with the rest of our life choices. 

And it's the kind of stuff that will have folks asking us by what authority we think we're doing these things.

It's just as likely that here, today as 2000 years ago, Jesus is not the savior, not the God we want.  He's not the God anyone wants--except, you know, tax-collectors and prostitutes, those who know they're wrong and those who've been made to feel that way, the downtrodden and the broken, the folks who know that they need the kind of God who will get down on our level, reveal our sinfulness by his light and free us from it by his love.  Jesus is the kind of God that folks who need to see a table or two turned over seem to recognize.  Those of us content with the way things are are more than likely to find Jesus a bit much to take: a nuisance and a stumbling block in the way of our attempts to be gods for ourselves. 

And so, the question of Jesus' authority is the same for everyone who encounters him.  And I suppose we should take a second and acknowledge that "authority" is a bit of a dirty word these days.  It makes some of us a little twitchy.  And rightly so.  We've seen authority abused all over the place.  We may well have been the object of that abuse.  And in our time and place we tend to be quite open to the idea that we are perfectly free, autonomous individuals, who are mostly--if not entirely--what we make of ourselves.  To grant authority to anyone over us challenges some of our most favorite cultural values, and many of the things we like to believe best about ourselves.  But, to paraphrase the great theologian, Bob Dylan: everybody's serving somebody.   

And the gospel witness is not that authority is invariably good.  In fact, one of the common themes in Matthew's telling of it all is the fear and anger that are at root of so many kinds of authority, so much keeping of the way things are: Herod's terrified of a baby, the Chief Priests are afraid of the crowds; the news cycle this morning suggests that not much has changed).  Instead, the gospel witness is that we can trust Jesus to be in authority, to be King and Lord, because he uses that authority to pick up a cross, to pray forgiveness, to heal the blind and the bound, to lift his eyes and his life to the One he calls Father and in whose name he comes.  He is the One who doesn't see authority, divine right, as a thing to be grasped at, but lets it go, taking instead the form of an obedient Son who both says, "I go" and does it. 

In fact, the Church at its best (which we all know it has not always been) has been bold to say that Jesus' passionate authority--not just in our lives, but ultimately over all--is about the most hopeful thing we've got.  It's what gives us license to freely and fully live the lives we're created to live, here and now and come what may--lives that reflect the glory and wonder and love, the hope and joy and profound peace, of the One who made us and loves us beyond measure.  If Jesus is the authority in our lives and in our life together, then we are perfectly free to live in a way that will have the world asking what on earth we think we're up to, asking us to give an account of what gives us hope, asking us who said we could flip those tables and lets those birds out and throw those parades.  And the answer won't be trick questions about desert prophets.  The answer will be something very much like, "Jesus was dead and is alive and reigns forever, and that changes everything."

God give us the guts and the grace.

Amen.

Aaron Miller