"By What Authority?"

Matthew 21:23-32
The Rev. Melanie L. McCarley

“By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?”

It’s the day after Our Lord overturned the tables of the money changers in the temple. Jesus has returned to the temple and the leaders have turned out in force to challenge this man who is upsetting the status quo. Take a moment, place yourself in the temple and imagine the tension that must have filled that space. The Pharisees gather themselves and issue this challenge. “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?”

Jesus counters with his own question about authority, referencing John the Baptist. He asks: “Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” It’s a savvy and strategic response. For now, the Pharisees suddenly find themselves in a dilemma—because they are not alone in the Temple with Jesus. Surrounding the Pharisees and Jesus in the temple are multitudes of people (remember, it is coming up on the time of the Passover.) Many of those present are admirers of John the Baptist, who called people to repentance by the shores of the Jordan River. But many of the Pharisees—particularly those who are questioning the actions of Jesus, didn’t listen to John. They were not supportive of this prophet of God—rather, adversarial. So, now, they find themselves in something of a double bind. Because, on the one hand, if the Pharisees say that John’s authority came from heaven, it raises the question as to why, if they knew John was divinely inspired, they didn’t listen to him and failed to follow his words. On the other hand if they say that John’s authority was of his own making, and had nothing to do with God, they risk the anger and censure of the crowd surrounding them. What can they do? They can’t answer the question—and therefore Jesus need not answer their question in return.

What our Savior does, however, is tell this short parable about a man and his two sons. It’s a parable whose main point doesn’t, at first glance, seem to make an obvious connection to the quarrel about authority. But perhaps that’s because we, like the Pharisees, are looking for Jesus to prove his authority, while he is making the point about what it means to accept true, godly authority. So, let’s take a closer look at those sons, the first, who says he won’t work in the field, but eventually does what he should; and the second, who says he is happy to labor in the vineyard, but never goes. These boys aren’t Jesus. They are the Pharisees. And they are ourselves. And it poses the same question that was asked to Jesus by the Pharisees: “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you that authority?” In other words, by what authority do you choose to live your life? Is it an authority given by God to love your neighbor as yourself and to live into the commandments of God? Or, is your reigning authority a political party, a religious tradition, a family matriarch or patriarch, persuasive friends or an employer? Or does it all come down to you and whatever happens to make you happy? Who is the authority and what are the guiding principles to which your life is a response? This is a challenging question, and make no mistake, Jesus—he’s interested in your answer.

Jesus begins his parable with a question, “What do you think?” He isn’t just asking the leaders—he’s asking everyone listening to decide for themselves whose authority they will follow, and what kind of “obedience” they will exhibit.

There’s the first son, the one who looked and sounded disobedient, but eventually proves himself righteous by his repentance. And then there is the second son, who sounds obedient—giving lip service to the father but proves himself otherwise. It’s a reference to people hearing the call to repentance by John the Baptist. The tax collectors and prostitutes Jesus mentions in today’s lesson, they lived in open disobedience to God’s will until John’s message changed their minds and they repented. What we’re left with is an open-ended question from our Savior, and it is filled with Good News. Jesus is asking everyone listening, including the Pharisees as well as ourselves, to decide whose authority they will follow (God’s, or their own), and what kind of obedience they will exhibit. What’s more, Jesus is leaving the door open for us all to make a change of heart.

Look at it this way, this is a parable not only about authority, but also about the possibility of change. The theologian Paul Tillich wrote a sermon with this phrase: “the eternal now.” What he meant was that each moment is pregnant with the possibility of receiving God’s grace, repenting of things we’ve done or were done to us, returning to a right relationship with God and those around us, and receiving the future as open rather than determined. IOf you think about it, there is something both cautionary as well as hopeful about a person’s initial reaction not necessarily being their final answer.

What good and gracious words these are! And what an antidote to a society which—more and more—finds itself entrenched in various camps ranging from political to religious to cultural and moral. If, as Christians, we believe our authority comes from God and Christ—how might this play out in our daily lives?

If Christ is my reigning authority, how am I being called by my Lord to respond to the will of God? How, for example, do I resist evil? How do I proclaim, both by word and example the Good News of God in Christ? How do I seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving my neighbor as myself? What inroads have I made in striving for justice and peace among all people, and respecting the dignity of every human being? How have I worked to cherish, protect and restore the beauty and integrity of all creation? To put it simply, how is your daily life—your mornings, afternoons and evenings, reflective of doing the will of God? How do the groups to which we belong and the people with whom we interact reflect our priorities? How is your life a light to others rather than a dim reflection of a pervading darkness? Ask yourself, what might I need to change in order to be a more constant reflection of God’s love in this broken and hurting world?

In other words, your response to the question “By whose authority” do you do these things” is answered by your life. As we learn from today’s parable, The truest answer is not in the words, but in the living, a daily expression of doing the will of God. Live well, then—fulfilling the commands of your Lord. In Jesus’ name. Amen.