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There are some who would say that this passage is all about authority – who has it and who grants it. We live in a time in which authority is really being questioned. Do we just grant authority, based on social position or elected office or, perhaps more troubling, characteristics, like race or gender? Do we grant authority to objects, or to stories – or versions of stories? We are currently experiencing a real divisive encounter between those who would hold up the authority of the flag, for instance, and demand obedience and those who would say that the flag is only symbolic, we don’t grant authority to it, but rather to the values we’re supposed to practice when we place our hands over our hearts. In other words, it isn’t the ritual, it is the set of values that the ritual espouses. And confusing the result with the object is precisely what Jesus decries in this portion of Matthew’s gospel. He wants the authorities to know that they have made the ritual the point of everything, when it is only supposed to direct you to God. So maybe this is about authority – where does it lie? In a flag, or in the ideals which the flag represents? In the temple, or in God, which the temple is only supposed to point towards?
Jesus meets the authorities of his culture on the steps of the temple, just a day after he has waltzed in there, grown furious over this abuse of authority, thrown over the tables of the moneychangers – who were totally authorized to be there, by the way – and chased them out with a whip. It is considerably more than taking a knee. The temple authorities, in Jesus’ mind, have found all of the loopholes, they have wiggled their way into a lucrative and completely legal enterprise, which ensures their power and prestige. They have crossed every “t” and dotted every “i” of the law, only thing they are not doing is actually practicing the values and ideals the law teaches. They are not, according to Jesus, bringing anyone closer to God. In fact, they deny people the very embrace that God wishes to give them.
And now they want to question him about this. Where do you get the right, buddy, to question our authority…turning over tables, asking who is in and who is out, all while quoting Jeremiah, who we know prophesied the destruction of the temple? Don’t think that is lost on us! And what’s with riding into town on a donkey (like you didn’t know what image that provoked), cursing fig trees, announcing that, “The last will be first and the first last”…who do you think you are? The priests know it is not only Jesus who decries this activity, he comes from a long line of prophets who cry out against their own country, resisting the injustice of political and social objectives that do not meet what they know to be the measure of righteousness. They do so with their voices, they do so with political theater, they do so with direct action, with the redistribution of wealth, the inclusion of the outcast and by taking a knee in silent prayer against the hypocrisy that will speak the words of holiness, while ignoring or, worse yet, enacting injustice. Prophets protest the claim of authority, with nothing done to deserve it.
Of course authority is power in Jesus’ world and Jesus is never given authority, never granted any power by the ruling authorities. This is almost always the case with prophets, a fact Jesus exposes with his setup about John and John’s authority. His question pins them between a rock and a hard place, for they readily admit (in their little huddle to the side that we get to overhear) that the people consider John a prophet and they can’t go against that. This, by inference, means that they don’t consider John a prophet, nor Jesus, and their efforts are aimed at discrediting this whole movement that the people readily identify as the action of God among them. It is a threat to their authority and power. Jesus claims his power from God on multiple occasions in this gospel, but the authority, it would seem, comes to Jesus as much from below as from above, for it is the people who follow him, the people who grant him authority. And this is no good in a top-down world. But the kin-dom of God, Jesus teaches, is no top down world. In fact it resists that at it’s core, inverting the power structures that lie at the heart of not only the culture in which Jesus lives, but our culture as well. And that inversion begins with knowing that your theology is wrong…or at least that it isn’t right.
When Jesus tells this misleadingly simple parable about these two sons, he asks the elders – “What do you think?” The tale begins with this father’s request, “Go and work in the vineyard”, thereby evoking his authority, and asking his sons to respect it. Neither really do. One speaks the words of obedience, but then does whatever he wants to do, and the other says no to his father’s face, but then goes back. Both sons disrespect the father’s authority, especially for the listeners of Jesus day who value the father’s authority above all else. And a simple reading of this is as a tale about authority, for this is precisely what the priests challenge Jesus about. Yet the rest of the tale doesn’t seem to focus on authority, but rather on how we approach the past. Not about authority, this is instead a parable of invitation, Jesus asking his listener to see themselves in one of these two camps – the “yes, sirs” who became “no, sirs” , or the “no sirs” who became “yes, sirs.” But, as is often the case with Jesus, there is a twist.
Maybe he has some guilt about the whole scene with the whip, maybe he know that we sometimes violate one deeply held value while we pursue another. Maybe he’s trying another tactic, or some reflection has caused him to wonder how some other people might be taking this. Whatever the case, the parable he tells is not, I believe, a morality tale, with a right choice and a wrong choice. With this simple imagery, Jesus is suggesting to his listeners that the door is open wide. For those of you who think that you’ve missed the boat, God is available, and for those of you who have said all of the right things, and attended every service and followed all of the rules, the time is here to see where God is moving now, to understand how the Creator of the universe is still creating, still working, still speaking. Both sons have offended their father, all of us fall short, but the time is always right to do what is right.
This is, I believe, ultimately the most offensive thing that Jesus does – he announces God’s grace – he declares that God’s power is not confined by the ways we grant it authority, and God is no respecter of our boundaries. In fact, the people who are in are the very people we think are out. The people who we claim have rejected God are, in fact, following the will of God more closely than those who say all the right words and claim all the authority. Go check under the bridge near the jail on Thursday nights, where Night Light Tulsa meets to feed, clothe and care for the hungry and sick and you will find far more people who don’t ever darken the door of a church tending to the needs of the weak, literally washing the feet of the downtrodden. Just as you will find an increasing number of people inside the walls of church buildings questioning in a variety of ways how we’re going about this whole “Christianity” thing.
This parable, and the encounter that precedes it, may be an example of Jesus saying that our theologies are wrong – ALL of them are wrong, at least in the sense that they are only partial, they tell only a portion of the whole story. When the elders and the priests think they are closest to God, they are wrong. When the tax collectors and the prostitutes believe themselves to be outside the reach of the Holy, they are wrong. Notice that Jesus never says that the priests and elders won’t ever enter the kin-dom, just that they won’t get there until, like prostitutes and the tax collectors, they have learned a new way of seeing, and abandoned their need to be in charge of who is in and who is out. Jesus’ problem doesn’t seem to be that they have a theology, but that they seem to think they have the theology.
Our admission price for the kin-dom, Jesus says in many ways is this – learning to let God be the authority on who is in and who is out, setting aside our desire to name and define God and focusing instead on shaping our hearts, training our eyes, to see and love how God sees and loves, which is quite different than our way of doing things. It is so different that we have to reach for it, to train ourselves to trust it, to remind ourselves when the news gets rough and the despair sets in, when we see such suffering and meanness, when we are tempted to believe the worst, to point our fingers, to lay blame so fully on others, that there is also truth and hope and light, and they float right next to us as well, courtesy of a God who always welcomes us all back into life…the God at whose table we sit this morning, with siblings all over the world, to hear again the good news of God’s grace.