By What Authority

I am sitting here at my desk listening to the rain fall outside and just mulling over the sermon I gave yesterday.  I keep thinking on authority, what it means
for me and how so many people use and misuse that term.   What I’m trying to figure out is how do I claim my own authority?  What is the authority I have to claim and will I use it not for my own selfish reasons but for the good of all.

Tomorrow is my official start to my last year the School of Theology and
Ministry and so I am thinking where I’m going and what I will do.  I will be 65 when I graduate next fall and for me that was an ages when I believed people retire not start a new career!  I have so many questions of the God and (Hello God) sometimes I think God is just sitting up there giggling at me as She tells me ‘to just wait for the surprises I have for you.’  I love a good mystery, one I have to figure out and laugh when I get it wrong or celebrate when I get it right.  But, it’s not quite so comfortable being the center figure of my own mystery.  Well, I guess I will just have to wait and see how this all ends up; actually I will have to wait because God is talking!

Below is the sermon I preached last Sunday and I offer it to you, as I told my community, as an invitation to the conversation.  I look forward to your comments.


Sermon for Queen Anne Christian Church
September 25, 2011

This scripture from the Gospel of Matthew is not only rich in meaning but difficult to open up.  The questions Jesus asks the leaders of his people are difficult ones and not to dissimilar from questions we are asked as Christians or the ones we ask ourselves.  I think to understand what the author of Matthew is trying to get at we need to first understand the scriptures historical context.

First of all the audience for the Gospel of Matthew was a Jewish community.  There may have been a few Gentiles and converts to Judaism but essentially it was a community of Jews who would have known well their Jewish history.  In addition this gospel was written following the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, so the author of Matthew is talking to a group of displaced Jews who have fled their homes in terror and are now wondering if what they had believed in has any meaning.

The actual story takes place the day after the triumphal entry into Jerusalem when on that day Jesus had cleansed the temple of the money changers, and healed the blind and the lame before escaping the hands of these very leaders now questioning him.  In addition as Jesus and his disciples had entered the city on this morning he had cursed a fig tree for not producing its fruit.  So we have here several miracles and events that the leaders would have seen as a test of their authority to rule.

One interesting note is how the debate between Jesus and the elders takes place.  Did you notice that Jesus asked a question instead of answering the question given him?  Well this was a common technique of rabbinic debate.  When a rabbi was asked a question the response would often be another question.  So while it might look as if Jesus is side stepping the question it is actually what the Elders and Chief Priests would have expected from a fellow Rabbi. However, Jesus is not an “ordained” rabbi; he has no official status with the religious community.  Jesus is an itinerant preacher and charismatic speaker who had a loyal following, not unlike many self-proclaimed preachers on our own frontiers or even today.  Yet the Chief Priests are treating him as if
he is one of their own.

We also need to understand that the Elders and Chief Priests who confront Jesus are members of the priestly aristocracy and are not “the Jews.” Rather they are compromised leaders who collaborate with the Roman Government and are under the control of the Roman Governor.  So it is in the interests of the Priests and Elders to keep the status quo in place for that is where their power comes from, they had a vested interest in not rocking the boat.  Therefore, whenever anyone outside their own select group showed any ability to inspire the people they would have looked at it as a serious threat to their own safety.

Mind you the Chief Priests and Elders weren’t necessarily bad people.  At least some, if not most, probably felt they had no choice but to collaborate with the Roman Government if they were to protect their people.  The issue here is who were the people they were protecting.

So let’s get into the story.  Jesus is teaching in the temple when the Chief Priests and Elders confront him with the question, “who gave you the authority to do what you do?”  On the surface this seemed like a silly question to me. After all the care of the indigent, widows, children, and strangers are mandated by God in the Hebrew Scriptures.  However, this is a very serious question for these leaders because if Jesus’ authority comes from God then what does that reveal about their own authority, for they have not taken God’s charge all that seriously.

Instead of directly answering their question Jesus asks one of his own, “where did John’s authority come from?”  Now this puts these guys into a real pickle for they know they are trapped.  They have three ways they could answer Jesus’ question: a, agree that John’s authority came from God; b, John’s authority came from human origins; or c, they didn’t know.  Recognizing the consequences of the first two they chose C, they didn’t know.  This was a way to save face without actually acknowledging anything about John.  But Jesus, as we soon see, is not about to let them off the hook.

Jesus’ next act is to tell one of his famous stories, and he ups the ante with this story because the Priests and Elders will be unable to side step the final question.  Jesus’ story of the Two Sons is a simple one, but with deadly consequences for Jesus.

A father asks his first son to go and work in the vineyard and the son says NO, then the kid thinks better of it and goes anyway.  Not knowing that his first son has gone to the vineyard the father asks his second son who says YES, but instead hangs around the house playing video games.  Jesus now asks the Elders and the Chief Priests who has done the will of the father?  This is not a multiple choice question, rather there is only one answer and these leaders know it.  They have no option except to say the first son does the will of the father.  They also recognize that Jesus is identifying them with the second son
who says they will do the will of God but don’t, they protect themselves not the people in their charge.  Jesus identifies the first son with the crooks and prostitutes who originally tell God no, only to repent and live changed lives.
This is not what these learned men want to hear.  They have been compromised by their own egos and a wish to survive at all cost, while the authority of the poor has grown as they begin to do the work of God.

So what is the meaning of the words “by what authority” for me, us, today?  How do I, we, respond to the story of the Two Sons, who do you identify with? How do I, we, respond to Jesus’ question?  Most of all, how do I, we, interpret this story in such a way that does justice to the author of Matthew, but still has meaning for all of us in the 21st century?  These are important questions because I need to be honest and recognize I’m not the audience the author of Matthew was writing to.  However, I think I can draw some insight from the story despite the fact that I live in a world 21 centuries beyond the authors Jewish community.

If I examine this event in the context of the whole Gospel of Matthew I recognize that the author of Matthew, more so than the remaining 3 gospel writers, is trying to call his Jewish community back to the original Mosaic Covenant with God in the context of Jesus’ teachings.  That Mosaic covenant called for caring for the widow, the orphan and stranger, to share from abundance graciously given, not just material wealth, but from spiritual wealth, compassion, mercy and justice.  In the Gospel of Matthew Jesus is calling for a way of living where all have “enough” to live whole and healthy
lives, and that all give out of their grace given abundance to those who, for
whatever reason, are in need.  In the Gospel of Matthew Jesus repeatedly tells his followers that the Kingdom of God is here, all we have to do is live in to it.
It is not a Kingdom that will come in some future date but now, all the reader of Matthew has to do is “see and listen” and they will see the Kingdom before them.  I’m not sure what it meant to our First Century reader to “live out” the teachings of Jesus and I am struggling with what that would look like for me.

I recognize and sympathize with the Elders and Chief Priests as they wrestle with this question because it is just as much an issue for me as it was for them.  After all I live a comfortable life, and while my family was never rich, nor am I rich now, I never went hungry, or without clothes or shelter.  Despite what I might say I have lived a privileged life and I would guess that most of us in this room have lived such privileged lives as well, it’s not bad, it’s just who we are.

But if I am honest with myself I can sometimes identify with the second son.  And, while I don’t believe I’ve ever been intentionally cruel or unjust, I know that at times I too have not been as kind and merciful as I like.  All of us have had our moments of brokenness and despair, times when we’ve turned away from God and said NO, or, I am going to take care of just me and leave it at that, our moments of survival.  That is part of being Human, but it is what we do with our lives after such moments that matters.

In the story of the two sons Jesus wanted the Chief Priests and Elders to identify with one of the characters.   He wanted them to see, listen and repent.  He wanted them to recognize their covenantal duty to all of the Jewish people not just the rich and powerful.  In 5 days these same men would prosecute him and it would cost him his life on this world, this was a last ditch effort to get the leaders to see their role in the abuse heaped upon those who have no power.  It obviously did not work.

But what about me, all of us in this room, what does it mean to live our lives as Jesus taught, to see and hear the Kingdom of God.  How do we look at our 21st
century lives and say ‘I want to act like Jesus?’  Does it mean I have to give up modern conveniences’, or modern technology?  I don’t think so, I think if I accept the challenge Jesus gave to the elders and Priests as doing the will of God, then that means I need to respond to those God cares for the most.  If I live my life as if I have “enough” I will have enough, and If I give out of my grace filled abundance, I will always have grace filled abundance, but so will
everyone else.  Jesus tells me not to worry about what I will eat or wear, that will be taken care of.  My survival is assured simply by giving to those who are in need.

What gifts did the elders and priests have: they had money and goods, but they also had compassion and mercy all of which they horded in order to maintain their life style.  I must admit I do that myself, I might be trying to change but I haven’t quite given up something’s, … such as books.  Now, I don’t believe I have to give up everything.  I, we all, have special possessions that link me, all of us, to the past and lead us into the future; Jesus isn’t calling any of us to give away everything.  Rather, I believe that Jesus is calling all of us to be generous with what we have and to remember that while we are fond of some special possessions they are not to become our idols, our stuff isn’t supposed to own us.

Last year I interned at the Chief Seattle Club, a day shelter for Urban Native Americans, and I learned so much about what is important in life.   Community, family and friends top the list for Native Americans.  Those who frequented the Club were the ones that even those in their own culture often didn’t want to acknowledge: the chemical and substance abuser, the sexual offender, the unskilled, the murderer, the mentally ill, and those who just wanted to be left alone to live as their ancestors did.  Yet in this place I found an abundance of spirit.  I found graciousness in that they welcomed me into their midst and accepted me as one on a journey.  These are the people we all rush past on street, the dirty, the smelly and the strung out and I was honored that they called me friend.

I became close with one gentleman in particular who lived on the street by his own choosing, and carried his entire life on his back, yet he went every day to the home of a handicapped lady to cook her meals and make sure she made it to the doctor’s office.  One day he told me a story of sitting on the grass at Seattle U and watching a soccer game when the wind came and circled around him.  He felt that somehow he was being watched over and that this breath from the Great Spirit was to remind him he wasn’t alone.  Was he perfect, no, but his spirit was moving in the right direction, in him I saw the Kingdom of God, kind, gentle, giving, working for the other.  It makes me wonder if people see the Kingdom of God in me.

Laurie and I talked about what authority means, and I said, I didn’t know what authority I have to preach from this pulpit.  Laurie reminded me that preaching isn’t what I’m to do, but rather to invite you into the conversation.  So I’m inviting you into my conversation of what it means to live out the teachings of Jesus, what does that look like for you, and how are you wrestling with all of the questions Jesus asks?  None of us can figure this out by ourselves.  How you view the Kingdom of God maybe, and probably is, different from mine and that’s Ok.  We all have different visions, we will all live out these teachings in our own way, the idea is that we make the effort.  Don’t be like the Elders and the Chief Priests who cop out and do nothing.  Nor would I want any of you to identify with the second son, rather even if you’ve said no, go anyway into the vineyard. While the company you keep may be a bit smelly and dirty, their hearts shine with the light of God.

Ruth Jewell, ©September 25, 2011