When Jesus entered the temple—that sacred site within the faith of Israel described in the Old Testament as the dwelling place of God, representing the presence of God with the people of Israel … when Jesus entered the temple—and it’s for the last time—it’s the last time Jesus enters the temple in Matthew’s gospel … when Jesus entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things …?”
What things? Well, most immediately, probably the teaching he was doing as they came to him, but looming over the teacher (and the teaching) was that recent and dramatic entry into Jerusalem (Matthew 21:1-11), that unexpected cleansing of the temple (Matthew 21:12-13), the healing of the blind and lame there in Jerusalem and the crowd’s response to those healings (Matthew 21:14-16)—more broadly (by what authority are you doing these things?), there was all Jesus had been doing throughout his ministry, and most broadly, there was who Jesus was. “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?”
It’s almost—it’s almost funny. It’s like hired caretakers approaching the homeowner claiming the authority of the one they represent who stands before them unrecognized! “By what authority are you doing these things …?” The irony is overwhelming. They’re claiming his authority to belligerently question his authority! It’s almost funny, but we hear the fear, don’t we? Fear of his authority, fear for their own.
Now let’s take just a moment to consider the implications of a perspective on authority such as heard implied in the question put to Jesus. Because the question is really rather dismissive—apparently rather dismissive of Jesus. Do you hear it? Who’s the power behind you? Who or what are we really dealing with here? Because if we can identify that authority, then we can figure you out. And, more importantly, we can figure out how to deal with you. Because (do you hear it?) we’re not interested in you—in what you say or what you do—who you are. We’re not listening. We’re not open. You threaten the authority we claim, and all we’re interested in is how we can compromise you/undermine you/destroy you. We’re afraid of you—can’t really admit that, so try and get around you … try and get past you … behind you … through you.
It’s not just that these are people who use the language of deflection—pointing beyond themselves to justify themselves, using the language of mandate and power base, of speaking for God, of speaking for a country instead of a small percentage of a smaller percentage of the voting, population, speaking of God’s law and the authority vested in institutional leadership by the tradition as God’s will—claiming an acknowledged power source bigger than any individual. These are people with no sense of personal authority and no sense of personal responsibility either. Because authority comes from beyond us, right? And blame lies beyond us too. We’re the conduits of other power/other authority. Others make the decisions and others are to blame though we’ll take any praise and any of the benefits of the authority we claim. Pathetically, it’s all of that, but it’s not just all of that. It’s also that conversation is rejected. Relationship is rejected. There is no future for them with Jesus. They themselves have rejected it. In making it all about power and authority, they deny the very possibilities of encounter, conversation and relationship.
Acknowledged without question—taken for granted, notice, is Jesus’ authority—is the fact that Jesus had authority. Okay, but that’s not the point. Where did it come from? What are we dealing with here? Does his authority come from the number of his followers? Well, that’s a definite concern of the fearful, but no. You may remember at the end of the Sermon on the Mount, “the crowds were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes” (Matthew 7:29). The authority of Jesus preceded the crowds. Where did it come from? From his ancestry? That he traced his lineage back to the legendary king David—back to Abraham? Everyone did, didn’t they? Not to David, but to Abraham. Did his authority come from from his amazing birth narrative? With the angels appearing and the magi? No, that spoke to his authority maybe, but didn’t generate it. Did it come from his mighty acts of healing—the miracles? Well, those are some of the acts that raised the question, how does he do this? Did it come from his own charisma? No, this kind of power—this kind of authority, it has to come from a source beyond. And what are the options? Earlier in Matthew the Pharisees said, “It is only by Beelzebul, the ruler of demons, that this fellow casts out the demons” (Matthew 12:24). Or did it come from God?
Now he could have just answered them: “All things have been handed over to me by my Father …” (Matthew 11:27), but he didn’t. He asked them a question. Do you see? They rejected conversation, relationship and a future out of fear looking for power. He held out the option for all three without fear and in so doing claimed no authority beyond himself. “Deal with me. Look at me; see me. Listen to me; hear me.”
I grant you the authority to disrespect me—to reject me, but I will not disrespect or reject you. Jesus said to 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?”
Now, on the one hand, Jesus links his ministry to John’s and his authority to John’s and through John to the history of prophets in Israel, so often rejected by the people. Later, looking out over the city, he will say “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it” (Matthew 23:37)! And that’s what’s happening, isn’t it? First you deny relationship, conversation, a future. Then, if you’re that partisan, having already dehumanized the other, it’s a rather small step to execution—for the good of the whole.
On the other hand, in making the connection to John, putting this question to his questioners: what John did … making the explicit link with John’s baptism (Matthew 3:11) … baptizing people in the Jordan for repentance … was that the activity of a man or was it the work of God? Jesus offers the fearful the option of repentance as the way to get beyond their hyper partisan fear of power, bondage to power. And they argued with one another, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ Because they really couldn’t deny they hadn’t. But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.” So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.”
Their question, we come ever more to see, was not one of curiosity and inquiry, but of strategy. They reveal themselves not as seekers of truth, but of leverage and advantage honoring not conversation but dictate, not relationship but power, not possibility but fear. Now they are caught in who they are—as they’ve chosen to be. And they could not see repentance as a way out. They just saw that they cannot answer one way (John’s baptism was of God) because their own actions belied that possibility. But they were too scared of people to answer the other way. They have no driving conviction just the latest opinion polls, their own fear, their own sense of how to manipulate authority and power. “We do not know” can actually be a valid, appropriate, important, all too often disregarded answer. But not here. And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.”
Then we go right into a parable. Jesus still unwilling to give up on the possibility of conversation. Still holding out the possibility for relationship and a future. “What do you think? A man had two sons (no, not that parable! Although think about that one! A relationship and a future rejected, then reclaimed after repentance)—a man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.”
Now here’s the fascinating question to consider. Who’s Matthew talking to? Who is Matthew using Jesus to address? You remember the context in which Matthew writes? He writes to that early church congregation, separated from the synagogue they grew up in (whether they left the synagogue or were asked to leave—forced to leave). Defined now over and against that synagogue. Distinctly aware of the distinctions between the way in which they grew up and the way they now embraced.
And so the easy distinction to make is, of course, between us and them, and to make the second son them. God came to them, spoke to them, related to them, expected of them, and they said, yes, but they didn’t follow through.
But what do you think? Jesus’ question queries us, not just them. It’s a doubled-edged sword. Because if we’re the ones who say yes to God, then do we do what we say? And if they’re the ones who say no, then will they be transformed? There are no easy answers here for anyone.
And what we have here is a story version of “Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven” (Matthew 7:21). What we have here is a separation between words and words made flesh. A commitment uttered and a commitment lived. You see, it’s the specifics—the details of our living that proclaim, “Deal with me. Look at me; see me. Listen to me; hear me.”
Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.
The rejected, the rejected then and the rejected now. The excluded, the excluded then and the excluded now. The despised, the despised then and the despised now. They get in ahead of who? Us? Because we’re not the rejected, the excluded and the despised, are we? We’re not the ones desperate. We’re not the ones who know—deep down—who know at some essential level—that we need to be invited into a conversation, a relationship, a future that redeems. No, we’re too confident. We’re not the ones who know we need another story. A deeper better more hopeful story. We do, but we don’t know it. Not like we need to.
It tends to be true about parables. If you’re comfortable hearing one, you’re probably not hearing the parable. You’re not encountering it. You’re asking rather what authority it has. You’re keeping at a distance that will allow you to think you can control it interpret it. You’re locating yourself within it where you want to be instead of listening to where it places you.
What is authority? Not just the authority of Jesus and Jesus’ words and stories, but what’s the authority of our own living? Our own words? Less what we say and more what we do. It’s not about what power’s behind us, but what power is lived out in and through us. And conversely the power within Jesus—within his words—within his stories. To this very day. To this very place. Do you hear?
Now a word (or a few) for those of you who over the last week or so, have enjoyed the last installment of the Harry Potter story told in its movie format. What a ride! But as someone who so thoroughly enjoyed Rowling’s work, I must say to you who did as well, her story but reflects the story she claims as authority—even as she herself says, “The truth is that, like Graham Greene, my faith is sometimes that my faith will return. It’s something I struggle with a lot” (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/fictionreviews/3668658/J-K-Rowling-Christianity-inspired-Harry-Potter.html). You see, it’s precisely not giving up on the conversation, rejecting the relationship and the future.
As marvelous a story as she tells, we read a better story in Scripture—one reflected in her seven (seven!) books at times in breathtaking ways, at times rather more dimly. But one thing she gets so very right, the truth illuminated in our text today.
Whether your name is Ariana, Albus or Aberforth, Bane, Bill or Bellatrix, Colin, Crabbe, Charlie or Charity, Dean, Dumbledore, Dobby, Ernie, Flitwick, Fred or Fleur, Ginny, George, Griphook or Grawp, Harry, Hagrid, or Hermione, Ignotus, James, Jones or Johnson, Kendra or Kingsley, Luna, Lee, Lavender, Lupin or Lily, Mad-Eye, Molly, or Minerva, Neville, Nick, or Narcissa, Ollivander, Percy, Peeves, or Potter, Quirrel, Ron, Remus, Sirius, Severus, Sprout, or Salazar, Tonks, or Tom, Umbridge, Viktor, Vernon, or Voldemort, Wormtail, or Weasley, Xenophilius, Yaxley or Zacharias … whatever your name, the allegiance you claim—the choices you make—the story you decide to live—is the story by which you will be identified. The authority of your choice becomes the authority of your living honored by all who are witness. And those choices you make are a part of the larger story unfolding. So do you choose love or do you choose fear? Do you choose conversation and relationship or do you choose power? Do you choose a future … or not?
And it’s our own voice we hear acknowledging our own authority, even as it’s the voice of Jesus we hear demanding his. It is our call to repentance. It is Jesus’ call to move beyond fear and beyond power and authority into conversation, relationship and a future. “Deal with me. Look at me; see me. Listen to me; hear me.”