Pentecost 17A September 27, 2020 Matthew 21:23-32
There are two kinds of authority and we see them bumping heads in our gospel reading for today. First, there is human authority. No matter how it is packaged, human authority is all about power. It looks something like this: if you have enough votes or carry big enough guns or have deep enough pockets, whatever you say, goes. With this kind of authority, you can give commands and they are followed, you can take action and make final decisions.
The other kind is divine authority and divine authority has to do with the truth. Not the kind of truth we often hear on the campaign trail that is simply told to get votes and sway elections, but truth with a capital “T”. Truth that comes from God and has eternal dimensions. Divine authority has a spiritual quality to it, and it is ladened with love. And as we often see, human authority can appear to overwhelm divine authority in the short run; it can even crucify it, but in the long run God’s Truth always prevails … it always rises from the grave.
What prompted this question of authority was the fact that the day before, Jesus was overturning tables and chasing the money changers away from the temple courtyard. Then he took the blind and the lame in the temple and healed them … healed them right in front of the chief priests and the scribes. The next day Jesus was back in the temple … back on their turf, teaching like a bona fide rabbi. That’s when the temple leaders asked him this question about his authority.
Now, I get it. I can understand why these religious leaders had to ask about his authority. It is their job to question guys like Jesus. They need to know that he has been properly trained and is capable of preforming to a certain standard. They need to know if he has filled out the right paperwork and gotten the right people to sign off on it. They need to know if he has been cleared by security and passed a background check. They need to know if he has been authorized and licensed and certified to do what he is doing. They need to know because if there is a problem then they have a problem with the authorities to whom they must answer.
So, I understand that the chief priests and the scribes were only doing their job in asking Jesus where he got the power and the right to do what he was doing. But I have a sense that there was more going on here than these leaders just doing their job. The way I read this it looks to me like they were trying to trap him and discredit him and, thus, destroy his authority in the eyes of those around him.
Jesus knows what they are up to and he knows there is no chance that they are going to believe him if he answers their question and so, like the shrewd fox that he is, he asks them to answer his question first. “The baptism of John – was it from heaven or from a human?” In other words, “who authorized it … who gave him the authority to baptize?” They were on the spot now and they knew it. They pulled into a huddle and whispered amongst themselves. “If we say it was from heaven, he will ask us why we didn’t believe him and if we say it was of his own doing, we will catch it from the people who believe he was a prophet.” The best they can do is look a bit foolish themselves, “we don’t know” is all they can say.
This becomes the launching pad for Jesus’s little parable about a father and his two sons. “What do you think,” he asks, “both boys are asked to work in the vineyard, one says ‘no’ but then goes and works, the other says ‘yes’ but doesn’t go. Which one did the will of the father?” We are asked to choose one or the other, but the problem is that neither one fully does the will of the father, they both dishonor and disrespect his authority. The first disappoints his dad by telling him “no” and the second disappoints him by not following through with his word.
The chief priests and scribes, however, are hearing this as a human authority question and they answer that the first one, even though he said no, did the work the father asked of him. And Jesus plays along with them, telling them that because the tax collectors and prostitutes believed John’s message and you didn’t, (essentially being the first son and the chief priests and scribes being the second), they are going to get into the kingdom of God first, ahead of the supposedly most religious of their day.
And this is where Jesus throws his divine authority punch. He says, all are going to enter the kingdom. All are going to enter by the divine authority of mercy and grace and forgiveness and love. The order is going to be different because God is going to keep working on the hearts and shaping the spirits of the religious elite who think it is all about their good works and pious efforts. God is going to keep working longer on them for them to finally be ready to embrace, in all of its fulness, the glorious Truth of God’s divine authority that operates by mercy and grace and forgiveness and love. And God is going to keep doing the same thing with us and everyone else who are enfolded in the love of God.