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Sermon for Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, God Values: Authority, Year A, Matthew 21:23-32

Sermon 9/25/11
Matthew 21:23-32

God Values: Authority

The process of becoming an ordained pastor is pretty long and involved. From start to finish, it took me nine years before the bishop laid hands on me and said, ʺtake thou authority.ʺ But before a candidate is allowed to get too far along in the process of becoming a pastor, she must undergo a battery of psychological tests, including a review of the results of these tests with the conference psychologist. The tests involve hundreds of questions as specific as whether you preferred President Washington or President Lincoln, and as vague as whether you hear “voices” – always a tricky question for those answering a call from God! I’ll admit I was suspicious of the testing process – wondering what some of these questions could possibly tell anyone about me, and frankly, not wanting someone to feel like they  knew me so well because of some multiple choice test I filled out rather than because they actually took the time to get to know me. When I met with the conference psychologist to review my results, my skepticism shone through – the test revealed among other things that I was a defensive test-taker, guarded in my answers! Another thing it revealed was that I also have a tendency to question authority figures. Apparently, I have authority issues. My reaction to the news, was, as revealed, to be a bit defensive and skeptical. Oh please. I don’t have issues with authority figures. What does this psychologist know?  
            But, my mother might tell you a different story. Not about issues between the two of us, but about my relationship with my sixth grade teacher, for example. Apparently, though I barely have a recollection of it myself, apparently I had gotten into the habit in sixth grade of publicly correcting my teacher when he was wrong. Surprisingly, he didn’t like this, and I got a note home about it. Now, I liked my sixth grade teacher a lot. I still remember him as one of my favorites. But I figured he was into sharing authority since he purposely left the answer book out for us to check our own homework responses. He gave an inch, I took a mile. I figured he wouldn’t mind a little help when I saw him giving a wrong response. Turns out, was the one who was wrong in that situation! OK. Maybe I have a small issue with authority figures.
            But, I think we all have some authority issues, or at least, questions about authority. Should someone have authority solely because of the position he holds? Does someone earn our respect and deference just because she is in charge of something? Over the years, I have had a deep admiration for some of my professors and teachers and mentors – but not because of their titles. Instead, I’ve admired and respected them because of an authority earned by intelligence, scholarship, compassion, dedication. Still, though, I certainly have learned since sixth grade that some authority figures simply have to be followed, obeyed, simply because of the position they hold, and that’s that. It won’t do me any good to argue with a police officer because I don’t respect her authority, right? The reality is that in our society, some people have authority simply because of the position they hold, and because we, as a community – a social community or a faith community – we have decided together to give them such authority for the good of the whole. So, have authority in this church on some matters, not because of who I am personally, but because of the role I fill – I am the pastor. Hopefully, over time, I have authority here because I earn it – you have known me for a couple of years now, and theoretically, by now you trust from experience and relationship that you can entrust me with the authority of being your pastor. But when I first arrived, and you didn’t know me at all, you still were asked as a congregation to trust in my authority, weren’t you – just based on the fact that I was sent here through a denominational system in whose authority you put some trust? So many authority issues!
Authority is a key element in today's gospel lesson. Our scene takes place very near the end of the gospel of Matthew. In fact, it occurs during the last days of Jesus' life – he is already in Jerusalem, after being welcomed into Jerusalem with triumph and palms waving. The time is short. In this text, Jesus has entered into the temple, and is teaching. And the chief priests and elders come up to him and say, ʺhey, who gave you authority to do these things?ʺ In other words, what gives you the right to come in here and teach as if you knew what you were talking about? Maybe you have been asked, or even asked someone that before in the heat of a conflict. What gives you the right to do that? Who put you in charge? Or: you aren’t the boss of me!  
            Jesus isn’t willing to just play their game and answer their questions. Or, maybe you could say he just plays the game better than they do, because he turns it around on them, and says he will absolutely answer their question – if they can answer his first, which is also about authority: The baptism of John, cousin of Jesus – did that come from heaven, or was it of human origin? The leaders debate; if they say from heaven, from God, Jesus will say, ʺthen why didn’t you believe him?ʺ But if we say of human origin, the people will be mad at us, because they think of John as a prophet. And they definitely didn’t want to risk the anger of the crowds. So they are trapped, and have to answer: We don’t know. Jesus has managed to make these people who are supposed to be religious authorities look pretty silly – they have to admit before all these people in the temple that they don’t know the answer – they can’t say whether John was legit or not. And so, Jesus concludes, I won’t tell you about the source of my authority either.
            Then Jesus tells them a little mini-parable. Two sons are asked by their father to go and work in his vineyard. One son says no, but then later changes his mind and goes to work anyway. The other says yes, but then never goes to work. Which did the will of the father, Jesus asks? Of course, his audience must admit, the one who actually made it to the vineyard, regardless of what he said he would do, was the one who did his parent's will. Jesus concludes saying that prostitutes and tax collectors will get to the kingdom of God before the priests and elders, because they believed, but the religious leaders won’t change their behavior or beliefs even when it becomes clear that they are in the wrong. In fact, when Jesus says that they won’t change their minds, the word he uses is what the bible usually translates as repent. The religious leaders just won’t repent, even when they realize they are wrong.
            The chief priests, the elders, and the other religious leaders Jesus comes into conflict with in the scriptures, like the Pharisees and scribes – Jesus isn’t saying that their authority shouldn’t be respected, in principle. In fact, in places in the gospels, he urges people to listen to what they teach, just not to follow what they do. No, I think Jesus respects the role they are meant to play – studying God's words, carrying out the rituals of the faith handed down for generations. But, eventually, their lives have to bear out the authority with which they’ve been entrusted.              
            I remember my mother once telling me about a friend of hers whose daughter had gotten in trouble on the bus at school, along with another young person. The woman’s daughter was a church-going child from a fairly well-to-do family, and the other child in trouble was just the opposite. When relaying the story, my mom’s friend said, ʺWell, at least I know that my daughter knew better, so that gives me comfort.ʺ My mom said to her, ʺBut doesn’t that make it worse? If the other kid didn’t know better, he can hardly be blamed for his behavior. But your child knew what was right, and still chose to misbehave.ʺ Naturally, my mom's wisdom did not endear her to her friend. But she had a good point, no? I think this is how Jesus feels about the religious leaders – they are supposed to know better! They have been given authority. And yet, they are like the son who says yes to hard work, but doesn’t actually carry out on the good behavior.  
            Whenever we read about the religious leaders in the gospels, we have to put ourselves in their roles to hear Jesus' message for us, because they, like it or not, are who we are most like, rather than the prostitutes and tax collectors! We are the church-goers, who have learned the stories, heard the gospel, have taken membership vows to say we believe certain things, and so on. So we have to answer Jesus' tough questions.
When have we made commitments to God, only to fail on the follow through? How many times have you made promises to God that for one reason or another, you have not kept? And how often do you find yourself responding to God when you had already told God “no?” Probably, if we are honest, we have more examples of saying yes to God and not acting than saying no and acting out a yes. Why is that? The chief priests knew the right answers in their hearts, but were unwilling to act because of image, because of stubbornness, because they wanted to keep their power. But in the end, Jesus made their supposed authority look pretty silly.
What about us? Why do we not follow through on what we say we will do, both in our human relationships and in our relationship with God? Is it really a case of good intentions gone awry, as I think we want to believe, or is something more at work here, some deeper issue emerging that we need to confront? Theologian Søren Kierkegaard wrote, “When you say “Yes” or promise something, you can very easily deceive yourself and others also, as if you had already done what you promised. It is easy to think that by making a promise you have at least done part of what you promised to do, as if the promise itself were something of value. Not at all! In fact, when you do not do what you promise, it is a long way back to the truth. Beware! The “Yes” of promise keeping is sleep-inducing. An honest “No” possesses much more promise. It can stimulate; repentance may not be far away. He who says “No,” becomes almost afraid of himself. But [those] who [say] “Yes, I will,” [are] all too pleased with [themselves]. The world is quite inclined – even eager – to make promises, for a promise appears very fine at the moment – it inspires! Yet for this very reason the eternal is suspicious of promises.”(1)
            For Jesus, things, as usual, come back to a question of words and actions. One pastor reminds us that “Jesus doesn't divide people up into believers and atheists. Jesus divides people into those who act and those who don't act.” (2) The religious folk in the temple had a lot to say about what was right. They were careful to study the scriptures, and they spent a lot of time in the temple, and they tried to figure out, in great detail, how to apply to scriptures for daily living. Yet, they were so sure they had things right, that they became unwilling to examine their lives to see if they were living what they were teaching, practicing what they were preaching. And they were unwilling to repent, and get back to work. Their words said yes, and their lives said no, as somehow they managed to overlook real ways to love God, active ways to love neighbor.
Jesus says that it isn’t the religious folk who are first in the kingdom of heaven. It is those who are most open to turning their lives around who are first in line, those who take action when Jesus says, “follow me.” Jesus doesn’t say ʺbelieve in meʺ - he says, ʺfollow me.ʺ As people of faith, do we have authority? What will our actions, our living say about us?
A parent had two children. The parent went to the first and said, “Child, go out and work for me today.” The child answered, “I will not,” but later, had a change of mind and went out and worked. The parent said to the second child and said the same, and the child answered, “Of course, I’ll go and work,” but then did not go after all. Which of these two did the will of the parent? They said, the first.

(1) Søren Kierkegaard, “Under the Spell of Good Intentions,” 


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