Sunday, September 25, 2011

The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 21A] - September 25, 2011 (Matthew 21:23-32 and Philippians 2:1-13)

Authority is almost always a sticky issue, as in: who exactly has it?

Daily headlines and news stories tell us that this particular question and many like it are being fleshed out in many places these days with a frequency and an urgency that has not been seen for some time. Look, for example, at Libya and Egypt and other countries that have been affected by what is being called the Arab Spring. Who has the authority there now? Dictators have been overthrown, but the resulting chaos has left a power vacuum that no one seems to know how to fill. Imagine how frustrating it must be for those citizens to be free of an authoritarian regime only to have it replaced with an authority-less free-for-all.

Palestine’s bid for statehood this week in front of the United Nations only underscored our world’s own deficiencies and desperate hopes when it comes to determining who has proper authority. Is a gathering of most of the world’s recognized political leaders, some of whom have no direct relationship with each other, really capable of wielding any authority in a complicated conflict that has been raging for decades, if not centuries?

All of this makes me more thankful to live in a country where politicians and institutions may suffer times of disapproval but where there is nevertheless little question about who holds authority and from where that authority is derived. And it also makes me thankful to live in a nuclear family where the issue of who has real authority is equally unambiguous. One of our daughters will often ask a question about anything under the sun—“What time are we eating?” or “How much longer till we get there?” or “Is Cinderella friends with Snow White?”—and if I attempt to offer an answer, no matter how correct, I will get the clear response, “No, Daddy! I was asking mommy!”

Although I think that Melinda and I do a decent job of sharing responsibilities and decision-making, it is clear that our two daughters give her ultimate authority. That’s what the “Martin Spring” has established…and I’m quite OK with that.

As you can see from the exchange between Jesus and the chief priests in this morning’s Gospel text from Matthew, the issue of authority is sticky for the religious leaders in Jesus’ day, too. In fact, Jesus’ authority becomes a critical issue once he enters Jerusalem, which happens just prior to this encounter. Jerusalem was the capital. It was the seat of authority. The provincial government was based there, army divisions were headquartered there, and, most of all, the Temple was there. In the villages and countryside of Galilee and other outlying areas, Jesus was often perceived by many to be the Big Man on Campus. People there were, on average, less educated and less credentialed. They could be impressed with Jesus’ command of the Scriptures and his explanations of the law. But in Jerusalem he comes into contact with the head honchos and heavy hitters. The Temple is where they sit and posture themselves all day, preparing, among other things, Sunday school classes (like ones on the ways the Internet can influence and benefit faith formation which will begin next Sunday in the Chapel).

In the villages and countryside of Galilee, people also often experienced Jesus a fresh alternative to their rabbis and scribes. Jerusalem presents a hornets’ nest of these leaders, and pretty soon the issue of his authority is going to come up. A schooling in Nazareth and an apprenticeship in Capernaum isn’t exactly going to be enough to win over the authorities, and things are going to get even more difficult for Jesus in that department after he goes into the Temple the first time and overturns the tables, drives out the moneychangers, and begins healing and preaching there himself.

That’s when the chief priests and the elders confront him with their question of authority: What is the basis of his authority and how in God’s name did he get it? In fact, they are setting a trap for him, for there is really no way for Jesus to answer that question without igniting a firestorm. So, in typical rabbinical fashion, he counters their question with another of his own. It concerns the ministry and authority of his cousin and forerunner, John the Baptist. John had also been immensely popular with the crowds, maybe even more so than Jesus. By asking the chief priests about how they regard John’s legitimacy, he puts them in a bind. If they agree that John the Baptist had divine authority, then they’ll have to admit they goofed when they rejected him, and, ultimately, they’d have to accept Jesus, because John pointed the way to Jesus. But if the chief priests and elders say John did not somehow have divine authority, then the crowds will rise up against them, and that the authorities do not want. They’re afraid of an Arab Spring.

The parable that Jesus tells then as a follow-up serves to illustrate the bind the chief priests and religious authorities are now in with regards to Jesus’ authority and whether they will accept it. In that parable, the first son publicly humiliates his father with outright disobedience when he replies “No” to his father’s command to work in the vineyard. Even though he later changes his mind—repented—about this disobedience, that type of affront to the father in that culture was still considered very offensive.

The Parable of the Two Sons
The second son, by contrast, dutifully answers “Yes” but then never follows through with the intent in this response. He had read his father’s command—and at least verbally respected his father’s authority—correctly, but had misread how to fulfill it.

The same situation applies to those who are receiving Jesus’ authority and those who are not. Those who originally offended by essentially answering “No,” are now those who are repenting and choosing the labor of the vineyard over the directionless paths of self-seeking. People like tax-collectors and prostitutes in Jesus’ day were typical examples. These two groups often get special attention, especially in Matthew’s gospel. It is thought that Matthew might have once been a tax-collector, himself, so he knew personally the shame of that profession. However, this category could be expanded to include anyone who had excluded themselves—or who had been excluded—because of their disobedience to or transgression of the law. The chief priests and Pharisees had long ago written them off. Yet, in their repentance, in their change of mind, in their realization of their need of mercy and the promise of being called to work in the kingdom, they actually heed the will of the Father.

But the son who first answers “Yes,” who, for all we know, crossed all his religious “t’s” and dotted his spiritual “i’s,” but never actually ventured into the vineyard of grace are like those who saw John’s way of righteousness, those who knew the Scripture’s call to confession—could even teach Sunday School classes about it—but did not carry through with its promise. This is why the sinners are entering the kingdom ahead of them: it is the sinners who have come to understand their need for grace and, in Jesus, God’s overwhelming desire to give it.

I harbor a concern—it is probably ill-founded, though—that the central message of this parable can be radically misinterpreted in our churches and in our preaching. The point Jesus is making when he says that tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God does not mean that, because of Jesus and his offer of grace and compassion, things like cheating and sexual immorality, for example, are suddenly OK with God and accepted in the kingdom of heaven, yet I fear that’s how it’s taken. If Jesus’ message is one of “inclusive love,” it must be a love so inclusive that it affects a change in the sinner. Jesus came to receive and love people like tax collectors and prostitutes because, at the time, no one else was. They had been excluded permanently—it was thought at the time—from any plan of God’s grace. But Jesus’ loves and receives them so that even they may repent. The good news is the kingdom is now open to them, and in that kingdom they are no longer things like tax collectors and prostitutes. They are, rather, sinners who have been redeemed, lost who have been found, offenders who have now done the will of the Father. For the fulcrum of the parable is that there is work to do in the kingdom of the Father—and by Jesus’ grace even we get to do it—not that kingdom calls us to an idleness that mirrors the world’s. The key is recognizing his authority and having the sense of mind to receive have that desire to get in that vineyard and start working because you realize you get to work for that Father.

But even more important than our sense of mind to receive Jesus’ authority and more important than our decisions, late or soon, to go work in the kingdom, is the way and manner in which Jesus displays that authority. And that’s the crux of the matter here. That’s the crux of the entire Christian message. Jesus, you see, gains and claims his authority in the strangest of ways, which is something utterly lost on the chief scribes and elders, and maybe even the tax collectors and prostitutes, too. Jesus gains his authority, paradoxically, by laying it aside altogether.

Jesus, we must remember, “had equal status with God but didn’t think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what. Not at all. When the time came, he set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, became human! Having become human, he stayed human. It was an incredibly humbling process. He didn’t claim special privileges. Instead, he lived a selfless, obedient life and then died a selfless, obedient death—and the worst kind of death at that—a crucifixion!”

Georges Rouault, "Crucifixion" 1920's
Those are words used by the apostle Paul, paraphrased by Eugene Peterson, spoken to a congregation years ago who happened to be struggling over—bingo!—the issue of authority. They were trying to learn what Jesus will eventually show the chief priests and elders himself: that he ultimately displays his authority not in crafty word games with the religious leaders, not in defiantly reaching out to the sinners and the oppressed, but in becoming oppressed himself. On the cross, just when his effectiveness is at its emptiest, his authority, in fact, reaches its highest point. We learn there is no distance too great for him to overcome, no territory too bleak for him to conquer. This is the good authority that will claim us all.

It is the type of authority that I see modeled, thank God, from time to time, by some of the youth in our congregation, who fight the urge to form cliques and, at gatherings, intentionally leave their friend groups in order to reach out to those hanging out on the margins.

It is the type of authority you experience as volunteers when you find that those you serve through our H.H.O.P.E. pantry or CARITAS homeless shelter end up teaching you more about God’s grace than you think you’re offering them.

It is the type of authority that surprises us in each moment of forgiveness when we discover that the offense that had been gripping us with feelings of revenge and anger is disarmed by one selfless act of apology.

We know this authority through Jesus, and yet, in so many ways, this authority becomes even more difficult to receive, because it looks like the giving up of authority. It looks to us like weakness. Yet in that moment of humility, on that day of darkness, when all the world rises up to drive spikes through the hands of love, a new spring is born. And it is not an Arab spring or an American spring, but an eternal spring for every person. It is a spring of hope that rises, never again to be vanquished, from the tomb. It is the spring that brings life everlasting to all who seek the Lord’s mercy, to all who ever wonder how to find a God of grace. It is the spring of that promise that one day we will all have that change of mind and we will all go and work in that vineyard.

And that vineyard will be fruitful and beautiful. It will produce that righteousness which God desires in each and every life. The issue of authority will be decided, once and for all… "and every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth”…and there will be one truly United Nation…and, for all we know, Cinderella and Snow White will be friends…"and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is the authority, to the glory of God the Father!”

Alleluia! Amen!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.