a sermon for the 17th Sunday after Pentecost
It seems as if everyone is questioning authority these days, just as they did in Jesus’ day. But what does true authority look like?
Back in the 1950’s, the governor of Massachusetts, a man by the name of Christian Herter, was running for reelection for a second term. One day, after a busy morning chasing votes (and no lunch) he arrived at a church barbecue. It was late afternoon and the governor was famished. As he moved down the serving line, he held out his plate to the woman serving chicken. She put a piece on his plate and turned to the next person in line.
“Excuse me,” Governor Herter said, “do you mind if I have another piece of chicken?”
“Sorry,” the woman told him. “I’m supposed to give one piece of chicken to each person.”
“But I’m starved,” the governor said.
“Sorry,” the woman said again. “Only one to a customer.”
Governor Herter was a modest and unassuming man, but he decided that this time he would throw a little weight around.
“Do you know who I am?” he said. “I am the governor of this state.”
“Do you know who I am?” the woman said. “I’m the lady in charge of the chicken. Now move along, mister.”
That woman had real authority.
Lately, it seems that everyone is questioning authority. Some question the authority of our government officials. Some question the authority of professional athletes. In either case, its important to note that what people are asking about is Moral Authority. Who does that person think they are and where does their authority come from?
Society in Jesus’ day followed some pretty strict rules of authority; who was “in” and who was “out”, who had power and who didn’t. The Romans were in charge, of course. But nobody believed they had moral authority. That was supposed to belong to the leaders of the temple, the chief priests and elders. So when Jesus came to the temple one day and overturned the tables of all the money changers and merchants, he nearly started a riot. Who the heck do you think you are, Jesus? What gives you the right to throw the merchants out of the temple? What gives you the right to change the way we do things around here?
As today’s Gospel opens, the chief priests and elders are confronting Jesus. “By what authority did you do this? And who gave this authority to you?”
Now this is a trick question. Because if Jesus said that he acted on his own authority, he was no better than a thug. And if he said he acted on God’s authority, he was guilty of blasphemy. So he turned the question around. “Does baptism come from God or from man?”
For us, the answer is obvious. It is God who baptizes us; God is the one who sends the Holy Spirit at our baptism and adopts us as God’s own. But for the leaders of the temple, it was a trick question. Because if they admitted that John was sent by God, then they were guilty of disobeying God. And if they said that John was just a street preacher, then they risked their standing in the temple. Either way, Jesus had them and they knew it.
So Jesus throws them a life-line by telling them a parable. “Which son does the will of the father?” The one who says “no” first, but then changes his mind; or the one who says “yes” first, but doesn’t obey?
It’s important to note that Jesus did not ask which was the better son. Both of them are imperfect. The first showed disrespect by breaking the 5th Commandment, dishonoring his father. The second showed disrespect by not doing what he said he was going to do. Neither of these are perfect sons, but in the end, it’s the son who repents and changes his life who eventually does his father’s will.
The question for the chief priests and the elders, the question for all of us is, which son are we? Are we the son who publicly denies God’s authority over our lives, but then repents and returns to God. Or are we the son who pays lip-service to God, saying the right things but never really changing our behavior?
The first time I read this passage, I thought that the message of the parable is that “actions speak louder than words.” That the way we do the will of God is through our actions, now our words and beliefs. But the more I think about it, the more I think that’s exactly NOT was Jesus was saying.
Instead, I believe that the message this parable is the good news that it is never to late to turn around our lives and become followers of Jesus by becoming a missionary worker in the vineyard. God will embrace those of us who turn and choose in the end, no matter what we have been doing, to become members of the community. It’s not our actions or our words that God wants. It’s our recognition that all of us are sinners, just like the tax collectors and prostitutes, and we need to turn around our lives and return to God.
As Christians, we know that none of us is perfect. We know that we will strive for kingdom behavior and sometimes we will fail. That is why our baptismal covenant says that “whenever” we sin we will repent and return to the Lord. But we also know that the church exists for those who do not yet belong. As Christians, we rejoice when the sons and daughters of God who have led lives of saying “no” turn and join the other workers in the field. The Church exists so that the vineyard is there ready for the latecomer and for the newcomer alike.
I believe that the question asked by the chief priests and elders is still important to us today. Whenever we are faced with the prospect of making a major change in our lives, somebody asks questions about authority. When our country abolished slavery; or when women won the right to vote; or when the right for all people to live where they want, and work where they want, and go to school where they want was established; when the right for people to marry whomever they loved was affirmed. In each of these situations someone asked the question, “by what authority do we do this, and where does that authority come from?”
As followers of Jesus Christ, we can only have one answer – the authority of the One who became a servant of tax collectors and prostitutes, sinners like me and you, and who brings us all back into relationship with God, our creator. The authority of Christ is the only authority that matters. His authority is based not on power, wealth, or prestige, but on humility, love, and servanthood. And it is by this authority that he calls on all of us – tax collectors and prostitutes, chief priests and elders, presidents and NFL players, you and me – to turn our lives around and become followers of Jesus Christ.
Thanks be to God.