What is true authority? And what is authority for?
What is the authority of Football players to take the knee? Of presidents to tweet? Of cabinet members to spend taxpayer money? Of ICE agents to make raids? Of me to give this sermon?
Questions about authority are very much alive right now. Jesus has a lot to say about authority, and even more to show about it. To understand what today’s gospel tells us about authority, we need to back up a bit and put it in context. So let me take a moment to do that.
The gospel takes place a few days after Jesus has arrived in Jerusalem for Passover. Pontius Pilate, the Roman Governor, had come into Jerusalem from the West at the head of a column of imperial cavalry and soldiers to impose order and assert authority. He did this every year at Passover, as a sign of the might of the Empire. Jesus had arrived the same day from the East on a donkey surrounded by peasants – a counter procession to question the authority of Pilate.
Jesus goes to the Temple immediately and overturns the tables. He throws out the moneychangers and vendors, who had been overcharging the poor for sacrificial animals and turning this holy place into a “den of thieves.” Jesus will be in the Temple for most of the week, shaking the foundations of the society’s assumptions about power and what it is for: the original occupy movement.
And there are other occupiers, as it turns out. Matthew 21:14 tells us that the blind and the lame are coming into the Temple for healing. Children are crying out “Hosanna” – in the Temple. This is chaos! David had prohibited the blind and the lame from entering the Temple (2 Sam 5:8). The Law of Moses prohibited them from offering sacrifices (Lev. 21:17). Jesus has not only cleansed the temple, he has started a revolutionary celebration. Jesus is the high priest who has come to restore right worship and right practice to Israel.
The chief priests and scribes are furious. They need to re-establish their authority. They spend the next several days throwing tests at Jesus. Today’s gospel is the first test.
“By what authority do you do these things?” they ask Jesus. Jesus tells them, I’ll answer your question if you answer mine. “Did John’s power come from heaven or is it of human origin?”
The priests and scribes know they can’t pass this examination, so they say “We do not know.” Scholar Stanley Saunders points out that, in the Greek, their answer is two short words, so it’s meant to convey that they mumbled under their breath, “dunno.”
In refusing to answer, they reveal that they are serving themselves. They are more worried about losing their status than serving God and helping people to connect to God.
Jesus drives home this point by telling a parable. It involves a vineyard (symbolizing Israel) and two brothers. Scripture contains lots of “two brothers” stories: Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau, Aaron and Moses. So this parable is not just a random story – Jesus is locating the priests and scribes who claim divine authority within the big picture of the people’s history and values. He is hoisting them on their own petard.
Jesus is reminding them and the people around them that God is a generous God who has made them a vineyard and calls them to be fruitful and make wine and share it. The whole point of Temple worship is to celebrate this God of generosity.
True power and true life and true connection with God’s purpose are not about power over others but about pouring oneself out. They are about generosity – Generosity of spirit and action is the calling, for we are are to be like Jesus, who…
though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death– even death on a cross.
We go into the vineyard when we open our doors and our hearts to all God’s children.
I have been a part of this community for over 7 years. I continue to be so thankful for the ways in which I see and experience something of this generosity here: Your commitment to making this a house of prayer for all people; your generosity of donations for disaster victims, time praying with one another; your forgiveness of one another’s foibles; your financial support for our mission. Being with you has made me a more generous person.
When, in a sermon in the spring of 2016, I shared the news of my child’s gender transition, I expected someone to get angry or walk out. Instead, I was told by a new member during the passing of the peace, “I am so glad to be part of a church where we can stand together with all people.” That generosity is holy. I pledge to this church because in a sin-sick world where authority is so often so poorly exercised, where selfishness and fear seem so prevalent, I get to raise my children in a community that strives to ground itself in God’s generosity and to practice that generosity day by day.
May we continue to grow in grace and generosity in the days ahead.