17 Pentecost, Proper 21 – October 1, 2017
Matthew 21: 23-32
Authority is the question of the day – the question raised in our gospel story. We live in a time when authority is rightly questioned. And this is not new, according to this passage from Matthew. To some extent those in power had every right to question Jesus’ authority. After all, what had Jesus done, what had he said, that would justify his rather obtuse claims? Before we vilify the chief priests and the elders of the people, we should be honest — their question is often our question. Many people claim authority.
You get can authority based on a position that you hold. But just because you hold a position that has had a history of authority does not necessarily mean that authority is granted to you. Authority is proved. It’s tested. It’s lived.
True authority demands a perceived and palpable connection between who you are and what you do. Between what you say and what you do. Authority never goes over well when it is supposed. This is, in part, what Jesus is saying. There is a correlation between word and deed, between ideas and implementation, between vision and action. Authority should only be granted when there is integrity.
Jesus added the story of the two brothers and the distinction between the two brothers turns on action versus word. Jesus and his adversaries agree that only one son does the will of the father, the son who says “no,” but goes nonetheless into the vineyard to work. Actions speak louder than words. Jesus uses this exchange to expose what the leaders really thought about John. The chief priests’ and elders’ failure to believe and respond to John reveals the truth about where they stood, and therefore which brother they actually represent. Jesus’ authority, in contrast, is affirmed by the integrity of his words and actions, as well as by its outcomes: gathering and restoration, healing and cleansing, release from demonic powers, restored sight, table fellowship with sinners, and preservation of the least ones — all examples of the “fruit” of repentance. Matthew focuses on the nature, source, and consequences of Jesus’ power. He aims to demonstrate not only that Jesus is more powerful than the world’s powers, but that his power is of a different kind, a power that produces healing and reconciliation rather than alienation and violence.
German theologian Helmut Thielicke’s take on the parables is that they are a mirror for us to look at, and they only have significance if we can see ourselves reflected in them. It’s easy to see the Pharisees in this parable; they are represented by the second son who said he would work but didn’t. And it’s easy to see those first-century scoundrels in the life of the son who refused his father’s request. But where do you see yourself?
In my view, the church is still filled with both kinds of people. There are those whose religion looks and smells lovely when they are surrounded by other religious persons. They can quote scripture verses by the boatload. They know all the religious language, all the religious rituals. But they don’t go to work in the vineyard. And all the love, and all the kindness, and all the compassion that they speak of in church…tends to stay at church But there are also those whose lives are laced with sin, whose language would make a sailor blush, and who wouldn’t know a bible from a dictionary if it were handed to them, but they are kind, and generous, and compassionate to no end. They don’t get it when it comes to religion, and yet they are walking examples of the very people Jesus came to love.
Which of those people is doing the will of God? It’s a trick question because neither of them is. But here is the word of grace: Which one of them is God’s daughter or son, which one of them does God want to nurture, and mold and change into walking examples of righteousness in the vineyard?
The answer is all of us. God wants to nurture and mold and change all of us into walking examples of righteousness in the vineyard. Thanks be to God! Amen.