We need to do just a little bit of stage setting for this story in Matthew. This is toward the end of Jesus’ life…and days earlier he rode into town on a donkey, with folks calling him Son of David, then he shows up in their worship space and upsets things quite a bit. He flips over tables, he curses and he brings in the marginalized sick folks and just makes himself right at home. And all of this sets the stage for the big question: “By what authority are you doing these things?”
He certainly didn’t show up quietly or politely…it was impossible to ignore him and all those folks surrounding him, many of whom were blind and lame, so they asked, “Just who the heck do you think you are? “What gives you the authority to do such things?” “You’re not a rabbi.”
This isn’t the first time Matthew tells us that the religious leaders are trying to trap Jesus. Jesus is approached by the Pharisees a few times before this and Matthew has him predicting his arrest. Jesus knows what they’re really asking and why. So when confronted with the question, instead of answering, Jesus throws a question right back…and it’s a hard one for them to answer. Either answer creates problems for the chief priests. And the only answer they can offer is “We do not know.” So when they can’t answer, he starts telling them a story about these two brothers.
My granddad used to do that…he had this old southern gentleman sort of way of telling you a story when you were just trying to get a quick answer from him. No matter what I would ask him, he would stretch back, rub his tummy and say, “You know, I’m glad you asked me that…it reminds of this story…” Sometimes it was frustrating as a kid and I got impatient and I weighed at times whether what I wanted to know was really worth asking or whether I was going to get the right answer. But typically somewhere in his stories was something bigger for me to think about when I just wanted a right answer.
Right answers are what we want after all…right answers make life gobs easier. My i-phone gives right answers…I tell Siri where I’m going and she gives me right answers all the way there. She’s a dependable helper. She can instantly tell me what inning the Mariner’s are in and what the score is…but the other day, in a moment of technological curiosity, I asked Siri a theological question and she didn’t have a right answer…she had a pre-programmed answer from Apple, “Leigh, I am not able to help you with that, perhaps you should talk to a religious leader.” And then up popped a list of all the nearest places of worship. RIGHT answers are clear, very black and white…certain roads takes us to certain places…baseball games have dependable rules and scoring is straight forward but our questions of how to walk this life of faith… rarely are they that easy. And the trap of so called right answers is that they imply some people are righteous and others are not. All roads have the potential to take us where we need to be if we are willing to pay attention, to open ourselves to other ways of understanding and to do the work. And, when we’re called, to step over to roads and paths that may be rocky at times and where the scenery may not be what we want.
These chief priests, they’re nervous, they’re protecting the law, their understanding of the right answers, their own power and Jesus’ behavior is pushing them into a place that’s both uncomfortable and politically dangerous. That Son of David label Jesus was hearing when he rode into the city makes these leaders very uncomfortable and already had them on edge. They’re walking a tight rope with Roman authorities and now Jesus has entered their space even further. Nothing in this text tells us they told him what he was doing was wrong; they only asked to him to tell them what make it okay for him to do these things. And for them, you are either completely in line with God’s will or you are condemned…and Jesus is about something bigger than that way of thinking. So when they ask him, he asks them to tell him what it is that they know about John the Baptist and his authority. Now you and I know the right answer, John’s authority was from God and so was Jesus’. But remember these folks are walking this political tightrope; they opposed John when he was alive but John’s followers are still around so either answer is trouble for them. This is one of the traps of right answers. And Jesus isn’t playing by Temple rules entirely. He’s flipped over tables, he’s cursed a fig tree, and he’s brought with him the sick folks who normally wait outside. My mother would say he wasn’t “on his Sunday best.” And then he brings up John??
Authority is one of those tricky words…and even though my phone could instantly give me the English definition of the word, it’s more complicated than that, isn’t it? As a community, we agree that some folks have what we define as authority…police officers have authority, the mayor has authority, teachers have authority, and in congregations we elect people to positions of authority. In the last year, I’ve realized pastors have authority and sometimes in ways they don’t even fully realize. But if you or I got out in the middle of an intersection and started directing traffic, someone might say, “What do you think you’re doing?” because authority is contextual.
Jesus’ question about John is going deeper than this. His question is at the heart of the gospel itself. For Jesus, authority is sourced in truth. He’s talking about an authority that can look weak and often goes against expectations. This is an authority that isn’t concerned with power. Even though we might associate power with authority, Jesus’ definition of authority is about radical generosity and humility. Jesus invites people to believe in him not because they have to but because they have experienced truth in him. Jesus’ authority isn’t about power but there is power in Jesus’ authority. It’s simple because it’s transparent. His authority is grounded in truth and he invites us into that truth with him.
I had a conversation with a friend a couple of days ago. She’s a teacher in North Carolina and from what I can glean she does incredible work. She’s also heavily involved in the Christian Education program at her church, something that profoundly impacted her own life as a kid. She’s pretty faithful and tireless…last year when she learned that a number of the kids in her class didn’t have books to read at home, she invited all of her friends to join her and each kid got two new books of their choice for Christmas.
She’s one of the many teachers in this country that stay up late working on craft projects and ways to engage and excite students in learning. And she clearly loves each and every one of them.
For the last five years this teacher, a single mom, has done all of this work and loved all of these children despite a constant battle with cancer. Her cancer was caught early enough to be treated but it’s become a chronic condition that requires radiation and medications that leave her exhausted at times.
During our conversation I asked her how she was doing…dealing with a serious health condition, raising an elementary age child herself and still she goes above and beyond what is required of her professionally as a teacher.
Her answer was pretty simple, because I love them…and they’re my kids.
My friend has a lot of authority in the lives of these children, not just because she tells them when to go to recess or lunch and writes up their report cards but because she loves them so purely with such truth. And it’s still hard work, cancer still has to be managed, exhaustion is still a problem and parents aren’t always there to affirm her work. But her authority is sourced in truth and love.
When Jesus was confronted with the question of authority, he ended up telling a story…about two brothers. Both brothers appear to have changed their minds and did something different from what they said. One brother knew the right answer but didn’t want to do the work so he said he would work but didn’t. The other brother, he just owned it…I don’t want to do that hard work…but after some time of thinking he did the work anyway. He went out into the vineyard and just did the work. He did work he didn’t necessarily want to do.
Bernard Lonergan was a twentieth century Canadian Jesuit priest. He wrote a lot about what defines genuine conversation, about the importance of saying what you mean and listening to what others say. My favorite Lonergan quotation is this: “Be attentive, be intelligent, be responsible, be loving, and, if necessary, change.” I think Lonergan is naming the authority of truth here. The brother who didn’t want to do the hard work and said so, he changed his mind and eventually did it. He was willing to change his mind. He was willing to change his thinking and his behavior in such a way that was generous and loving. He was willing to go into the vineyard despite where he wanted to go.
I’ve been thinking a lot about vineyards this week, and I started asking myself where my vineyard was…where are those places in my life where the work is hard and I just don’t want to do it because they exist and it’s lots easier to play to my strengths than to go out into the places of work that challenge me. And I thought about how Jesus flips this question and asks them about John and where his authority came from and invites each of us into an outrageous truth and love that often has absolutely no worldly power.
If we’ve come to Jesus looking for the kind of authority that makes things go smoothly and run easily, that’s not what we always find but we do find truth and sometimes truth is hard. And if we come to Jesus looking for “right answers” it’s rarely going to be like Siri.I see that kind of good work being done in this church, people choosing the authority of truth over worldly power. I see you caring for others in ways that are humble and compassionate. I watch you show genuine and gracious hospitality not only to another congregation to share in this space but in welcoming the homeless, both men and women, to find shelter here. And it’s often messy work. And I see you doing it without acknowledgment or affirmation at times. It encourages me to get out into the vineyard with you. A couple of weeks back, you gave me this beautiful alb…and I hope you realize how much it means to me to have this always as a gift from this church. That day we talked about this as a reminder of baptism as the source of our authority and call in life. That’s the authority Jesus is talking about…it won’t bring you power but there is power in it and its