By What Authority?

Lessons: Matthew 21:23-32

From the perspective of the religious leaders, Jesus came to Jerusalem looking for trouble. First he paraded through the streets on a donkey. The common folks welcomed him like the long-awaited Messiah, like the king they could call their own.[1] What will happen if the Roman garrison gets wind of this? Then he disrupts business in the temple square by driving out buyers and sellers, and knocking over tables.[2] No wonder the religious elites are upset.[3]

So when he shows up at the temple to teach the next day, they ask him, “By what authority are you doing all this?” In other words, “Who do you think you are?” Just who do you think you are, Jesus? It’s a question that people ask when they think they belong here, and they want to let you know that you don’t. It’s what people say when they are trying to put you in your place.

Jesus says he’ll answer their question if they answer his question. When John baptized the crowds at the Jordan River, was he inspired by God, or was it just a human invention? It’s a trick question. If the religious leaders say “from God,” they’ll be exposed for ignoring God’s will because they didn’t listen to John. But if they say “from humans,” the crowd, who loved John, will turn on them. They’re in a bind, so they plead ignorance. “We don’t know.”

Then Jesus tells them the parable about the two sons. The father tells his sons to go to work in the vineyard. The first son says no. He’s being honest. He doesn’t want to spend his day in the hot sun picking grapes, but he has a change of heart and does it anyway. The other son doesn’t want to work, either, but he answers yes, maybe to avoid his father’s disapproval. Then he doesn’t show up for work. “Which of the two,” asks Jesus, “did the will of his father?”

It isn’t hard to figure out the lesson here. Jesus and his adversaries agree that the son who said “no,” but went into the vineyard to work anyway is the one who followed the will of his father. In other words, actions speak louder than words. And more specifically, going back to the original question posed by the leaders, “Just who do you think you are, Jesus?” Jesus is saying that authority comes from integrity. Authority comes from walking the walk, not just talking the talk.

After telling the parable, Jesus returns to John the Baptist. John, you might recall, called for the people to repent. To our modern ears, the word “repent” sounds harsh, almost like a malediction or a curse, but John was offering it as an opportunity, a chance to turn around and make things right, a chance to return to God, to God’s justice and generosity, to God’s shalom. A chance to walk the walk. Certainly, there was an element of warning in John’s message, but it was a warning of logical consequences. Things were – or maybe I should say, things are – falling apart at the seams when people stubbornly insist on following their own ways, ways that do not lead to justice and shalom for all people, instead of God’s ways, which do.

So when Jesus challenges the leaders that they did not believe John, that they didn’t trust his message, he’s saying they don’t see any need to repent, to turn around and walk the walk instead of just talking the talk. When, in fact, while they claim they are saying yes to God, they are acting out a big no.[4] Jesus brings the tax collectors and prostitutes into the conversation to expose this. He seems to have spent most of his time with people the religious elites held in contempt; outcasts; the people who had, at least at first, said no the loudest. It’s interesting that Jesus didn’t force-feed these people moral platitudes; he didn’t scold them; he didn’t spend his time with them arguing why they should believe he was the Messiah. Instead, he came with acceptance of those people whom no one else would accept.

Do you see what’s going on here? These outcasts were not first accepting Jesus; first, Jesus was accepting them. The yes they gave Jesus was not approval of him, but acceptance of his approval of them.[5]

But the religious leaders don’t get it. Jesus is subtly implying that if these tax collectors and prostitutes showed up at the temple, these leaders would probably ask, “Just who do you think you are? You don’t belong here.” Which is a big, fat no; a no to God’s love, to God’s justice, to God’s acceptance – to God.

Now, let me be very clear that Jesus isn’t condemning Jews and Judaism. Jesus was a Jew, after all. Instead, if we ask, “Who is this message intended for today?” or “Who would be the chief priests and elders today,” the answer probably ought to be, “Us!” The Church – and in particular, the American Church. The people with religious power, money, and privilege. Our task, our calling, is to pay attention to that. To notice and be aware of that, especially when we have the impulse to ask, “Just who do you think you are?”

Last Sunday right after church several of us skedaddled down to San Anselmo Avenue to the booth that some kind souls had set up for us before choir rehearsal. We were there as a presence, mostly, to remind our neighbors that we’re part of the neighborhood. We hoped a few people might recognize when they saw the banner we borrowed from the Schlobohms – that one that says Black Lives Matter, Love is Love, Science is Real and so on – that not everything they hear about Christians in the media is true. We also offered a prayer tree. It was actually a vaguely tree-shaped hat rack, and we invited people to write their prayers on little brown paper tags like this. While perhaps 25 or so people contributed their prayers, I think the lesson was that the word “prayer,” itself, was something of a stumbling block. People in Marin County – people who are “unchurched” – aren’t sure what we mean by prayer. Why do we pray, anyway? Do we think it changes God’s mind? Is it like magic – plug in your prayer and get your wish? I imagine folks had many other questions like these best left for another sermon; or if you can’t wait, there’s probably a sermon or two on our website that wrestles with these very questions.[6]

Even with this reluctance to “pray,” the prayers or intentions or whatever you want to call them that people did leave on the tree show that the concerns on people’s hearts right now are remarkably similar, church or no church. Here are just a handful: “For a world peaceful and verdant, loving, merciful, and just.” “Safety, care and love for all families.” “Equity and acceptance for all.” “Relief to all of the countries suffering right now.” “Hurricane relief for Puerto Rico.” “Acceptance.” “Inclusion.” “North Korea.” “Freedom from fear.”

It reminded me of something William Sloane Coffin said: “Let Christians not quibble about commitments to Christ. Let all those who want to keep civilization civilized – put quality into culture, humanity into business, life into millions who are now drifting – let them all be drawn to the cause and then, if they will, let them find Christ as the leader who can achieve it.”

These prayers made me want to be very conscious of the subtle ways we, the Church, might be communicating, “Just who do you think you are?” Just who do you think you are, you who have doubts, you who can’t recite the Apostles’ Creed without crossing your fingers? Just who do you think you are, you who follow a different path, or even no path at all?

Today is World Communion Sunday, the day we celebrate the global church. We celebrate that barriers are broken down because after we have said no to all the attempts to make us accept God, God comes to us, and says yes to us. God accepts us as God’s people. God invites us and welcomes us into God’s family. God’s acceptance of us, God’s yes to us, we call grace. Living as God’s children is about accepting God’s yes to us. And when we accept God’s yes, then we find that God’s yes makes it possible for us to accept each other. And so, even as we celebrate the global church, it’s also a good day to remember that God’s world, God’s family, is bigger by far than the Church.

We are called to accept people where they are. To say yes to all God’s people, wherever they are. God already does. Whenever the Church forgets this, and does not walk the walk, it loses its authority. Whenever the Church lives into God’s acceptance of us by accepting others, by living our yes to God’s love and justice and acceptance, we are, indeed, the Church of Jesus Christ.

May it be so for you, and for me. Amen.

© Joanne Whitt 2017 all rights reserved.

[1] Matthew 21:1-11.

[2] Matthew 21:12-13.

[3] Matthew 21:15-16.

[4] Barbara Brown Taylor, Home By Another Way (Plymouth, U.K.: Cowley Publications, 1999), 199.

[5] Norman Theiss, “Saying No, Saying Yes,” in The Library of Distinctive Sermons, Vol. 8 (Sisters, OR: Multnomah Publishing, 1998), 156.

[6] For example, “Why Do We Pray?” preached on September 18, 2016, http://www.togetherweserve.org/we-all-have-questions-why-do-we-pray/.

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