Sermon from September 28th, 2014. The texts for this week were Matthew 21:23-32 and Philippians 3:3-14.
An Opportunity of Crisis
Do you think that the chief priests and the scribes believed that John’s authority came from heaven or was of human origin? That’s what gets me about the Bible passage for today. Matthew tells us the exact calculus that was going on in the heads of the chief priests and scribes when Jesus asked them that question. If they say heaven, they will have to account for why they refused to follow him, why they rejected John’s message of baptism and repentance. But if they say human origin, the crowds (who supported John) will reject them. But we don’t ever get to hear what the chief priests and elders actually thought about John. Did they think that John was right and his call to repentance was exactly what they needed? Did they think that John was wrong and he should go take his camel’s hair suit somewhere else?
They don’t say. We never hear what the chief priests and the elders actually think about John the Baptist, because it doesn’t matter to them. What they believe about John the Baptist’s message is irrelevant to their answer. Because to them, the right answer is whatever will protect their reputation and authority.
Our passage for today happens shortly after Jesus raids the Temple, overthrowing the tables of the moneychangers and refusing to let anyone through. His behavior was a direct challenge to the system that the chief priests and the elders stand on top of. And so the elders have come to challenge Jesus’ authority. “By what authority are you doing these things,” they say. “And who gave you that authority?”
The chief priests and the elders had been given all the signs of authority. They are well educated. They studied under the great rabbis of their day. They are well employed. They’re priests; by their positions they represent God’s voice. They are well to do. The priestly class had huge landholdings outside the city, and villas in the city with servants to order around. And they are well-protected. The chief priests and the elders were kept in power by the Romans to keep the people of Jerusalem passive and non-resistant. If need be, they could count on both Temple guards and Roman centurions to be on their side.
The chief priests and the elders, the most powerful people in 1st-century Jewish society, have all the signs of authority, but they don’t feel secure in that authority. Every decision they make is done with an eye to how it will affect their influence. They’re so heavily invested in their own authority, they’re now more interested in keeping that authority than they are in using it for a purpose. Like a politician who chooses reelection over righteousness, they’ve inoculated themselves against new ideas that challenge their established way of living. So it doesn’t matter if they believe John or Jesus, because they still won’t follow. They’re unwilling to follow any authority but their own.
When the chief priests and the elders challenge Jesus’ authority, Jesus flips the script on them. Where did John’s authority come from, he asks? Their answer reveals what they truly value. Knowing that Jesus has caught them in the question, they claim not to know, for fear of the crowd. Though they claim to have spiritual authority, when spiritual matters come to light, their answer shows that God hardly figured in their reasoning at all.
In response to their challenge of his authority, Jesus offers a parable. Two sons, are each told by their father to go to the vineyard. The first son refuses. He says he won’t go, but later he regrets it and goes out to work. The second claims to be obedient. He says that he will go, but he does not. “Who did the will of his father?” Jesus asks. The answer for them as well as for us, is obvious. Saying that you are obedient is not the same as obeying. In the words of Conway Twitty, “Don’t call him a cowboy until you’ve seen him ride.”
The parable’s meaning is a pointed one. Jesus is comparing the chief priests and elders to the son who claimed to obey, but did not. You say that you are under the authority of God, he seems to be saying, but when push comes to shove the only authority you obey is your own self-interest.
Tax collectors and prostitutes was a shorthand that Jesus used for sinners and unrighteous people. They were despised within their society, and good pious people had nothing to do with them. But unlike the so-called “righteous” people of their era, they had the sense to be looking for something. They had the humility to know that their way of living was not necessarily right just because they were living it. And so when John comes calling, with a message of repentance, calling them to a deeper life, they’re ready to jump in (literally). Because these folks didn’t have much to lose, they were able to let go of what they had so that they might gain.
We are at a unique moment in American history. Because over the course of our lifetimes, the structures of authority are shifting. It used to be the case that just about anything printed could be trusted to some degree, because it was backed by some authority with resources to print things. But now truth and fiction sit right next to each other on the internet, and there are no universally trusted sources to help you sift them apart. It used to be the case that there were only a couple of TV channels. We all shared the same information base to make our decisions. But now the television market is so competitive that truth has become subject to the profit. The History Channel has shows about aliens. History. Aliens. Really?
And because the structures of authority are shifting beneath our feet, it gives us an incredible opportunity to retune ourselves towards the real source of authority in our world. We can’t say anymore, “I go to church, therefore I am a good person.” Too many scandals in churches have come out for that to be the case. So if we can’t trust the church to be good on our behalf, it’s an opportunity for us to focus on being good for God. If we can’t trust the voices of authority in our world to tell us what righteousness is, then we have the opportunity to go and discover righteousness for ourselves.
Whenever I talk about the Pharisees or the chief priests or the scribes, I generally like to mention that we are those people in our society. We are the well educated, well heeled, pious people of our day. But at this particular moment, we have the opportunity to mimic the righteousness of the tax collectors and prostitutes. The protective shell that we all grow up in is so difficult to crack, but at this particular time in history it has been cracked for us. It can be tempting for us to cling tighter to broken institutions, to reassure ourselves in the face of the chaos of trying to find our way without them. But let’s give that up. Let’s go out like those whom Jesus praised. “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you,” he told the priests. Because the tax collectors and prostitutes were looking for the kingdom of God, instead of building kingdoms of their own.
So let’s be humble enough to know that we haven’t found the Kingdom yet. Because nothing is more damaging to our ability to be righteous than the belief that we already are.
Let’s be wise enough to recognize that we won’t find it digging up the same holes we’ve been digging in. Let’s be bold. Let’s be transformative. Let’s repent, renew, and resurrect ourselves into seeing that God is the author of all existence, so all authority must be ascribed to God.
Because even if we do have something to lose. Even if we do have everything to lose, we will count it all as gain. As Paul explained in his letter to the Philippians, he had every kind of authority you could have. He was a Jew, a Benjaminite, who studied the law under Gamaliel, a perfect Pharisee in every way. Blameless under the law. “Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of Christ Jesus my Lord.” Paul had everything to lose, and he lost it. And yet he tells us that it was all worthless compared to the surpassing value of Christ Jesus his Lord.
We have the opportunity, today, tomorrow, and the next day, to give up our own authority and submit to a new authority. New life is waiting for us. All we need is the humility to realize that we don’t have all the answers, and the guts to go out and seek them. We need the awareness to know that our own authority comes from a higher authority. And its purpose is not to be protected and preserved, but to be used in service of Christ. And when we have spent all the authority we have, and given up our sure place in the world for a place in Jesus’ flock, we will count it as the greatest deal we’ve ever made.