Sunday, September 28, 2014

By Whose Authority

Matthew 21:23-32
September 28, 2014

            “Because I said so.” 
            These four words are four of the most basic, simple, seemingly benign words in the English language.  Yet when I was a child these common words, strung together, had the power to undo me.  I hated hearing them.  To my way of thinking, they were the epitome of all that was unfair and unjust in the world.    
            All I wanted to know was, “why.”  Why can’t I do this or why do I have to do that?  Yet as a kid, it seemed like the only response I ever received from my parents to my sincere inquiries about the limits enforced upon me was “Because I said so.”  So I swore on everything I held sacred that when I grew up and had children of my own, I would never, ever say those four words to my own kids.  I would always carefully and lovingly explain to my children why they couldn’t do something or why I expected something of them.  I would strive to ensure that my children understood my reasoning.  “Because I said so,” would be anathema in my home.  Never say, “Never.”    
            Becoming a parent makes you understand your own parents a lot better.  My parents were not tyrannical authoritarians.  They would often talk to me about what their expectations were of me, and why they made the decisions they did.  But there just weren’t enough hours in the day to answer my every questioning of their authority with, “Amy, we love you.  Your well-being and safety are more important than anything.”  “It is our job as parents to teach you responsibility, to make sure you can function in society on your own”  “We take seriously our task to rear you to be an engaged, thoughtful, compassionate, caring citizen – not just of these United States, but of the world that God has given us.”  “And we set these limits for you, Amy, because no matter what the standardized tests say about your intelligence, sometimes your decisions make us question whether you and your brain leave the house at the same time.” 
            “Because I said so.”  It is a statement of authority.  I am the parent and you’re not.  Even though as a child I didn’t like hearing it or understand it, as a parent I know that I have to be the parent. I’m the parent, you’re not.  This is my expectation.  This is my decision.  “Because I said so.”
            Authority lies at the heart of this passage in Matthew’s gospel.  That is the question asked of Jesus when he comes into the temple.  The chief priests and elders approach him while he’s teaching and ask, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” 
            As always, I think it is important for us to understand the context in which they asked this question.  This was not just a random day in the temple; significant events had occurred leading up to this moment and this question.  Chapter 21 begins with Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, or what we know as Palm Sunday.  He rode into Jerusalem and was greeted as king.  This cast the entire city into confusion and tumult.  From there Jesus went to the temple and “cleansed it.  That’s rather an innocuous way to describe what Jesus actually did.  He overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of the ones selling doves.  He drove them out, and charged them with turning his Father’s house into a den of thieves!  Once they were gone, he healed people.  The blind and the lame came to him to be cured.  Children sang hosannas to him and proclaimed that he was the Son of David.  This angered the ones in charge, the religious authorities.  Jesus left the temple, went to Bethany to spend the night, and the next morning, as he made his way back to the temple he stopped by a fig tree, hoping to find some fruit for breakfast.  However, the fig tree was barren; no fruit, just leaves.  So he cursed the fig tree and it withered at the sound of his voice.  The disciples were understandably amazed, and Jesus, in his explanation, ascribed it to faith.  If you have more faith than doubt, you can tell a mountain to throw itself into the sea, and it will happen. 
            Now we come to our passage.  Jesus has returned to the temple.  He is teaching.  Again, the chief priests and elders, the religious authorities, come to him and demand to know by what authority he does and says what he does and says.  Who gave him this authority?  But their question is a trap.  If Jesus says the wrong thing, they can accuse him of blasphemy; which was not a light offense.  Jesus knows they’re trying to trap him, so he turns it back on 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?” 
            The priest and scribes know that they have stepped into their own snare.  If they say that John’s baptism was of divine origin, then Jesus will want to know why they didn’t believe him.  Doesn’t that mean that they didn’t believe God?  If they say that is of human origin, then the crowds will turn on them, because the people believe that John was a prophet.  The only safe answer is the one they give.  “We don’t know.”  Jesus responds, “Well, if you don’t know, then I’m not going to tell you the origin of my authority.” 
            But he does tell them a parable about a father and two sons.  The father asks both sons to go and work in his vineyard.  The first son refuses, but changes his mind and does what his father asks.  The second son replies in the affirmative.  He will go and work in the vineyard, but doesn’t make good on his promise.  Jesus questions his questioners, “Which of the two did the will of the Father?”  They answer, “The first.”  Jesus then equates the son who does the will of the Father with tax collectors and prostitutes.  The sinners, the castoffs and cast outs of society, the ones who said, “No,” are the now the ones who go “into the kingdom of God ahead of you.”  John’s authority should have convinced you, but you didn’t believe him.  But the tax collectors and the prostitutes did.  They heard John.  They believed John.  They’re going into God’s kingdom ahead of you.
            I guess Jesus could have responded to their original question with, “Because I said so.”  He was and is the Son of David, the Son of God.  He had all authority.  Instead he tells them a parable about two sons, and he turns it back to John.  John came with authority, the authority of a prophet, but you wouldn’t listen to him.  Now you demand to know my authority?  Yet the people that you have deemed unfit to even be in your presence, much less God’s presence, heard John and believed him.  Perhaps the choice they made to live the way they lived was their way of saying, “No.”  But when they heard God’s call through John, they ultimately said, “Yes.”  But you who at first said, “Yes,” refuse to go where God now calls you. 
            As I said at the beginning, the issue of authority is at the heart of this passage.  The religious leadership questions Jesus’ authority.  Jesus in response refers to the authority of John.  But the true authority is God’s.  Think about the word authority and also think about a word that is related to it – author.  Scholar and preacher, David Lose, wrote that authority, unlike power, is always given.  We give people authority.  We elect our officials, and in their election they are given authority to govern on our behalf.  That is true in our denomination as well.  We elect our elders, teaching and ruling, investing them with authority to make decisions for the congregations they serve.  By calling me to be in this pulpit week after week, you invest me with a certain amount of authority.  I may not feel authoritative, but that doesn’t change the fact that I am believed to have it. 
            Jesus preached and taught with an authority that threatened the authority of the religious leadership.  They were the pastors of their day, and they wanted to know what authority Jesus really had.  It seems to me that Jesus points them, in his response and in his parable, not just to one with authority – John – but to the One who is the Author.  An author isn’t just someone who publishes a written work.  The other definition of author is someone who originates or creates.  God is the Author of all life.  God as Author gives authority.  Jesus, who is God with us, God’s authority embodied, is the author of the new life to be found in him.  John proclaimed that, but the ones who claimed authority couldn’t and wouldn’t accept it.  It was the ones without authority, the people whose very identities were defined by sin and by their “no,” who recognized the authority of John and Jesus, and changed their answer to “yes.” 
Sisters and brothers, the choice is ever before us.  God, the Author of life, calls us to do his work, to hear the authority in the words of his prophets, to accept and embrace the new life authorized by his Son.  How often have we said, “No?”  Yet the good news is that no matter how many times we’ve refused in the past, we are not defined by that.  We have not shut and locked the door to the kingdom through our own stubbornness.  Through God’s grace and mercy, through his abiding love, the door to God’s kingdom of abundance, love and peace is not closed.  We can open it with one word.  Yes.  What will our answer be?  I say make your answer, “yes," and follow through on that yes.  Why? 
Because I said so. 
Let all God’s children say, “Alleluia!”  Amen. 

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