By The Rev. Sherry Deets
16 Pentecost, Proper 21 – September 28, 2014
On the surface today’s gospel may seem pretty straightforward. Which son did the will of the father? Actually, neither did – the first son blatantly disobeyed his father, and right to his face. The second son sucked up to his father – he even called him “sir” – but he failed to follow through. Which one did the father’s will? Neither one.
David Lose, now President of Lutheran Seminary in Philadelphia, presents a much deeper look at our gospel. It has to do with the question on authority posed to Jesus: “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?”
There’s essentially one thing we need to keep in mind about authority: it’s given. This is the primary difference between power – the sheer ability to do something or bring something about – and authority – when one’s ability to do, say, or make something, derives from having been delegated or given that ability. Authority, in short, is power that has been given, directed, and limited to achieve a particular end.
This is the connection between authority and its linguistic siblings authorize and author. One has authority to do things because one has been authorized to do them by the author, the one with the actual power. Authority is always and only something given.
But authority is given in two ways. That is, not only is authority given by those “above” with the power, it’s just as often given by those “below” who decide to accept the authority of another. David says: when I was a child, for instance, I remember a conversation with my dad where I told him that he was making me feel bad for not following through on something I said I’d do (sound familiar?). He responded by saying something that absolutely infuriated me in the moment: “I don’t have the power to make you feel anything. You’re in charge of your own feelings.” Now, truth be told, we try to make people feel things all the time, and maybe my dad really was trying to make me feel bad. But even granting that possibility, he was still absolutely right. He may have had authority to dish out consequences for my behavior, but he had no authority – unless I gave it to him – to make me feel bad.
And here’s the thing: in about 99% of the cases of our life, those with authority over us have it only because we give it to them. The colleague who slighted us, the child who disappointed us, even the spouse or parent who abandoned us – yes, in each case the person in question may have actually done something to harm us, even something catastrophic; nevertheless, the way we regard that action and person over time is something we get to determine. If we are still angry, hurt, disappointed, or upset, it’s because we have decided to give authority to that person or event to continue to influence and even dominate our lives. We may have been victimized, but we choose whether or not we will live as a victim.
It’s only against this background that we can make sense of the parable Jesus tells. I mean, what does this story of two sons have to do with authority in the traditional sense? Pretty much nothing. But it has everything to do with how we regard the past. One son says he’ll help out and doesn’t follow through – I sympathize. The other son, however, is the focus of the parable. For he says he will not help, but does. Whatever may have motivated his initial response – he was already committed, he was feeling overwhelmed by prior obligations, he was annoyed that his father is always asking for help, he nursed a grudge about a time he felt his father didn’t help him, whatever – he recognizes that the future is always open. He can still respond to his father’s request and invitation, and as he does he proves himself faithful and lives into his father’s hopes for him.
At this pivotal moment in Matthew’s story about Jesus, and through this deceptively simple parable, Jesus is inviting his adversaries into an open future, one not dominated by the arguments and opposition of the past, but one that is open to the movement of God’s spirit to heal, revive, restore, and make all things new. The chief priests and elders do not accept this invitation. They have too much at stake in the past – it has created for them their primary identity and, whatever its limitations, they have become dependent on that identity – and so they refuse to trade that past for an open future. But those who are down and out, those who discover that the identity created by their past does not bring them life – represented here by “tax collectors and prostitutes,” two categories of people whose actions supposedly remove them beyond the pale of decent society – they…grab hold of Jesus’ promise with both hands.
And here’s the thing: Jesus makes this same promise to us. No matter what we have done, no matter what may have been done to us, the future is still open. Whatever hurt we may have experienced or done in the past is, ultimately, in the past. We do not have to allow it to determine or dominate our future. We do not have to drag our past on our back the way a snail does its shell. We are, finally, more than the sum total of all that has happened to us. The future is open. It may be hard – really, really hard – to let go of the past and walk into the future. The past, after all, we at least know, and even our dysfunctional identities are at least familiar, whereas the future is so open it can be scary.
So, by what authority? God, the author of all life, who regularly decides to invite us into a new relationship. God, who will not count our past deeds, mistakes, griefs, or hurts against us. God, who refuses to define us by what we do (or what has been done to us), but instead regards us always and only as God’s beloved children.
So perhaps this week, take some time to consider to whom or to what we have given authority in a way that does not serve life. Bring to mind those elements of our past – those things we have done or have been done to us – that we most regret or resent…and let them go, consign them to the past, no longer give these past things authority over our lives and walk into an open future defined not by regrets, hurts, and resentments but instead by God’s promise to be with us and for us forever. Amen.
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