A DIFFERENT KIND OF AUTHORITY – Debbie Allen
Today, we continue our exploration of the wisdom of heaven for earth with a two-part message – a confrontation between Jesus and the chief priests and elders in the temple followed by the parable of the two sons. The two parts, as we shall see, are closely connected by the themes of authority and repentance. And the wisdom we are invited to enter into once again challenges us to let go of our expectations, to experience the discomfort that change brings about, and to open ourselves to a new reality.
The passage begins with questions that Jesus has already encountered in his ministry – What kind of authority do you have for doing these things? Who gave you this authority?
It is a tense time in Jerusalem. Jesus has just entered the city on a donkey accompanied by the Hosannas of the crowd. We read that the whole city was in turmoil, asking, Who is this? Then Jesus stirred things up a little more by overturning the tables of the moneychangers in the temple. Children cried out, Hosanna to the Son of David, and that really made the religious leaders mad.
So you see how the stage is set. Now the chief priests and elders are ready to confront Jesus again and demand answers, only they’re afraid because they don’t want to antagonize the crowd.
Jesus knows what they’re up to and cleverly avoids the trap they have set for him by responding with his own questions – Where did John get his authority to baptize? Did he get it from heaven or from humans? I’ll answer your question, he says, if you answer mine first. He knows that the chief priests and elders felt threatened by John because John’s movement was not centered in the temple and had a powerful effect on the people. It was John who first pronounced the message of repentance and Jesus who reinforced that message and made it the path to entering the kingdom of God. This message undermined the authority of the temple leaders.
The chief priests and elders are left in a quandary and start to argue among themselves. Neither response – that John’s authority was from heaven or from humans – will get them the results they want. Between the crowds and Jesus, they find themselves in a very uncomfortable place. Just when they want to assert their authority, they are revealed to be weak, fearful, and indecisive.
Authority is a complicated word for us in today’s world. Historically, it is rooted in Greek philosophy and Roman ideals, but it has evolved in radical ways over the centuries. For many today, the notion of authority conjures up situations in which force, intimidation, or shame has been used. For others, it may still convey a sense of respect, even awe, but this seems to be less and less evident. In today’s world, we easily see through the veneer of power and privilege and often have little hope that those in positions of authority will act with integrity.
I’m sure for each of you, the word “authority” brings to mind particular individuals, institutions, credentials, rituals, or perhaps phenomena in the natural world. I find myself thinking back to my childhood years when my father, my aunt who lived with us, and various people at the churches we attended were authority figures. The ways in which these people asserted their authority sometimes felt harsh and lacking in compassion. It has been important for me, and perhaps for you too, to find an inner source of authority that is not dependent on outer influences.
This morning, I’d like to invite you to step back from your personal associations and experiences of authority and consider a bigger picture of what this word means. The Latin word for authority, auctoritas, is derived from a verb that means to augment, to increase, to originate, invent, or provide the foundation. An author, then, is someone who has the authority to lay the foundation, that which will contribute to the expansion of wisdom and well-being. The word, ‘authentic,’ is related to authority. Authenticity, the quality of being genuine, trustworthy, and honest, is required of someone who has authority over others.
Hannah Arendt, the American political theorist who grew up in Nazi Germany, made some very important observations about authority based on an enormous breadth of knowledge and experience. She says that in ancient times, authority was conceived as requiring obedience, but never resorting to force or coercion. It was not based on equality and therefore, not open to argument or persuasion. And finally, the source of authority was understood to be external and superior to the power of the person who is endowed with authority. In other words, the legitimacy of the authority figure was derived from a transcendent force, a self-evident truth. If we carry this description of authority into the present, it’s easy to see why authority figures today are often not perceived as worthy of respect.
Lutheran pastor and theologian, David Lose, elaborates on the theme of authority from a Christian perspective. He writes:
One has the authority to do things because one has been authorized
to do them by the author, the one with actual power. Authority is
always and only something given.
This is exactly how Jesus describes his own authority when he commissions the disciples at the end of the Gospel of Matthew. All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me, he says. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. Sadly, violence has repeatedly been used throughout the ages in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. That is something we should deeply grieve.
Let’s return now to Jesus and the religious leaders. Even though Jesus seems to have successfully silenced them, he is not finished making his point. He continues to expand our understanding about the relationship between authority and repentance with a parable about two sons. Like most parables, this one turns upside down ingrained beliefs about who the righteous are and what it takes to enter the kingdom of heaven on earth.
In this parable, two sons are asked by their father to work in the vineyard. I find it revealing that neither of these two sons just says he’s going to do the job and does it. Apparently, the compliant child we might wish for doesn’t exist. Instead, the first son says he won’t go, but later changes his mind and goes. And the second son, says he will go, but decides to do something else.
Which one of these two did his father’s will? Jesus asks the religious leaders. This time, they give him a straight answer. When they identify the first son as the one who did his father’s will, I wonder whether they realize that the parable reveals their arrogance. I wonder whether they get it even after Jesus tells them that tax collectors and prostitutes will enter God’s kingdom before them. My guess is that the comparison of these upright law-abiding keepers of the temple to tax collectors and prostitutes infuriates them. It’s very hard to accept truth like this.
The reality is, we are all capable of acting like the religious leaders, of being self-serving rather than serving the will of the one who gives us authority. We are all capable of judging those people in our lives who don’t appear to have authority, but who have much to teach us about God’s love.
In the parable, both sons need to repent, but only one does. We don’t know what caused the first son to have a change of heart or what prevented the second son from doing what he said he would do. What we’re told is that the least likely people believed and changed their heart when they heard the message of John the Baptist, but the religious leaders did not. The righteous road, the road to a loving and compassionate future, was open to those who were rejected by society, but not to those whose striving had earned them important titles in the world. Inside, their hearts were hardened.
When I think of this change of heart that Jesus speaks of, I am reminded of my friend, Tim Phillips, the pastor of a large American Baptist church in Seattle that I attended when I was out there for an extended period of time. He concluded every sermon with some variation of these words – and today, if you hear that voice [and he was speaking of God’s voice, the voice of love, that calls us to be who we are truly meant to be] if you hear that voice, do not harden your heart – and every time, tears would come to my eyes as I was reminded of the hard places in my own heart and, at the same time, of God’s great desire to soften every bit of hardness so that we can go into the vineyard and live as joyous people, healing and making whole what is broken.
May we be open to new and unexpected voices of authority that have their source in a changed heart. And may we learn to live more fully from the authority of love that has been given to us. Amen.
Arendt, Hannah. “What Is Authority?” 1954 http://pevpat-ugent.be/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/H-Arendt-what-is-authority.pdf
Lose David. “Pentecost 16A: Promising an Open Future.” http://www.davidlose.net/2014/09/pentecost-16a-open-future/