This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations I serve.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Talk Is Cheap.

Matthew 21:23-32

I.
The day after Jesus causes a riot in the Temple, he goes back.  And as soon as he gets there he is accosted by some chief priests and elders of the people.  They demand to know by what authority he does such things.  Who said you could do this?  Who said you could drive the merchants and money-changers out of the Temple.  Who said you could disrupt the system like this?
Jesus does not answer the question.  Instead he says he will answer them if they will answer first a question from him.  And he asks them about John the Baptizer.  “Did the baptism of John come from heaven or was it of human origin?”  In other words, was John sent by God, or was he just some lunatic?  Was he an authentic prophet, or did he just make some stuff up out of his imagination?
His interlocutors have to think about this.  And they can’t answer honestly, as we will see.  So they have to think about which will be the most politically acceptable answer.
If they say that John’s baptism was from God, then they will have to answer for why they did not support him.  Why did they not follow him?  Why did they discourage people from going out to him?  Why did they send delegations out to question his authority and criticize his practices?
And if they say that John’s baptism was bogus, false, and heretical, something he made up himself and not from God, they know that they will have to answer to the people.  The people felt that John was a God-inspired prophet.  If these officials were to blaspheme his memory they could be looking at another riot.
[It reminds me of what Ronald Reagan said when he was asked what he felt about Martin Luther King.  It was around the time that King’s birthday became a national holiday.  Now, Reagan certainly couldn’t pretend to admire someone whom he worked and spoke against his whole life, whose beliefs and principles — nonviolence, social justice, peace — he spent his whole career rejecting and denigrating.  But neither could he criticize him, as by this time practically the whole country had accepted King as a hero.  So he basically refused to answer.] 
So these chief priests and elders also refuse to answer Jesus.  But we know what their answer is... and so do the people.  We know this because it has already been demonstrated by their actions.  When John was active in his ministry these people were his opponents.  They did not support him or follow his message.  When they had the chance they did not go out and join John.
But they can’t say that out loud, even though everyone knows it.  It would enrage the people, and apparently they still need some measure of tolerance from the people for their own legitimacy.
Since they do not answer, neither does Jesus choose to answer their question.

II.
But then he does respond by telling a short parable, which is one of my favorites.  There is the father who had two sons.  He asks each of them in turn to go work in his vineyard.  One says he will go, but doesn’t.  The other at first refuses to go, but then changes his mind and actually goes out to work in the vineyard.  The question Jesus asks is: Which son did the will of the father?  The one who went or the one who just talked about going?  I think Jesus is using this parable to answer the question about authority.
The first son is like the tax-collectors and prostitutes, these being two classes of people Jesus is infamous for hanging around with.  Jesus attracted sinners, people who were outcast and rejected by the establishment religion of his day.  He was known for bringing these people to changed lives, where they renounce their sin and live in forgiveness and blessing.
These are the ones who, when the father approaches them, refuse to go to work in the vineyard.  Why?  Maybe they feel unworthy.  Maybe because if they work in the vineyard they might have to interact with their pompous and self-righteous older siblings.  Maybe they feel guilty, excluded, out-of-place, and harassed in that vineyard.
We might know what this is like.  It has been said that the worst thing about Christianity is... the Christians!  We have a reputation for being judgmental, cruel, exclusionary, demanding, bigoted, and hypocritical.  Who wants to work in the vineyard if people like that are going to be there?  Especially if you’re not a member of the upright, church-going, law-abiding, privileged class.
So when the father asks them to go work in the vineyard, they say, “Dad, stop bugging me about the stupid vineyard.  I had enough of that vineyard when I was a kid.  Let my big brother, Mr. Perfect, work there, but I’m done with that place.  So stop asking.”
But this brother finally changes his mind and repents.  He goes to work in the vineyard.  Maybe he just loves the father and feels bad about saying no to him.  Maybe he has a change of heart and realizes how important it would be to the father.  Maybe, like the lost son in another parable, he comes to himself and realizes his true identity is to do the father’s will.
The second son is like the priests and elders.  They know what to tell the father to get him off their case.  “Yeah, sure, Dad, I’ll go work in the vineyard... (as soon as I have time).”  They know the right words.  But they don’t want to have to do any actual work, at least not the work the father wants them to do.  So they hang around the Temple, wasting time.  They look like they’re doing the father’s will.  They talk like they love and obey the father.  But they don’t actually go to the vineyard.  Maybe they have convinced themselves that doing busy-work in the Temple is “working in the vineyard,” so to speak.

III.
How does Jesus’ parable answer the question put to him about authority?  The one who is our authority is the one we listen to and actually obey.  We demonstrate who our authority is by our obedience.  If I do something on my own authority, that means I claim the moral and legal weight or license to do it.  If I do something on someone else’s authority, that means I am undertaking to carry out the will of this other power.  It means I have their weight behind me, backing me up.
John’s baptism was from God not because he talked about God but because through this ritual he brought people to repentance and closer to God.  He liberated people from their destructive and violent lives.  People experienced change and transformation because of their encounter with him.  This change, from a bad, sinful, unjust, and degraded life to a life of justice and peace, is what God does in the world.  John’s authority was from God because he did the things God does.  He was able to act in the name of God.  On his own authority he had no such power; he was just a crazy guy in the desert.  But because he was following God’s will he was able to do what he said.
The people recognize that authority and follow John.  The people also recognize the authority of Jesus and follow him.
My point is that merely talking about something gives you no authority at all.  Who has more authority, the musicologist, or the musician?  The sportswriter or the athlete?  The correspondent or the soldier?  The theology professor or the pastor?  The one who observes and talks about something, or the one who actually does something?
Earlier in this chapter, when Jesus cleanses the Temple, he does not do it on his own authority as a human being.  You’ll notice if you read that section that immediately after the incident Jesus heals some blind and lame people in the Temple.  These were all things that the Messiah was supposed to do.  In these actions he reveals that his authority comes from God.
The priests and the elders do not accomplish these things.  They maintain an institution.  They write and expound on the rules that actually increase people’s guilt and powerlessness.  They make people figuratively lame by preventing them from walking in a closer relationship with God.  They make people blind by obstructing their vision of the true God of love we know in scripture.  And they prop up and benefit from this bureaucratic institution — the Temple — which was now perverted into a tool of the economy, a tourist trap, a revenue and profit generator.  They rule by violence and fear, and they maintain the status quo.  This reveals that their true authority is their own power, their own wealth, their own standing in society.
Thus, like the second brother, they talk, but they don’t go and work.  And the ones who get into the Kingdom of Heaven ahead of them, according to Jesus, are the sinners who repent, the tax-collectors and prostitutes whose lives are transformed by Jesus’ ministry.    
Jesus concludes: “For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax-collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.”

IV.
So where does real authority come from?  Does it come even from the Bible, which the priests and elders knew inside and out, and which the tax-collectors and prostitutes probably knew not at all?  Does it come, as Mao Zedong said, out of the barrel of a gun; that is, is authority based on raw force and coercion?  Is it based on personal charisma, the ability to gain a following?  Is it based on your standing in an institution or hierarchy?  Does it come from your pedigree, your family status, name, and genealogy?
No.  Real authority comes from the “author” of all things, God.  And we demonstrate that authority when we have the effect in the world that God wills God’s people to have.  When we “do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God”, to quote the prophet Micah, then we are acting on God’s authority.  When we heal the lame and give sight to the blind... that is, when we empower powerless people and when we reveal to them the truth so they can move and see with integrity, then we are acting on God’s authority.  When we are able to get the market out of our heads and purify our souls as true temples of God’s Spirit, then we are acting on God’s authority.  When the blessings of Jesus’ sermon — poverty of spirit, purity of heart, gentleness, peacemaking, grieving, and desiring righteousness — when these characteristics pervade and permeate our actions, then we are acting on God’s authority.
In other words, authority is shown in the quality of our lives, our transformed, changed, renewed, liberated and liberating, lives.  It is shown in our ministry and our mission in Jesus’ name.
Let’s remember that.  Our authority — all authority — comes from God.  And it is granted to us when we are in tune with God’s will, which is always to save, heal, deliver, redeem, and love.  There is no true authority for any other action.  And our words only matter when they are backed up by real actions, actually changed lives — our own or others’.  We have authority… to live as Jesus Christ lived; we are called to this kind of life.  He gives us the power to do it, which is the Holy Spirit.
He calls each one of us into the vineyard, which is the way Jesus sometimes talks about the mission of his disciples.  Hearing that call, may we drop everything and go into service in his name, bringing to all people the good news of God’s love, revealed in Jesus.
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