By Pastor Sarah Stadler
I struggle with this story from the gospel of Matthew.
Jesus has just ridden into Jerusalem on a donkey, lauded by crowds of people waving palm branches, people who think him a king. He enters the temple where the chief priests and elders question him about where he gets his authority. Instead of answering their question, Jesus asks his own: Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin? The chief priests and elders are caught. They can’t say that the baptism of John came from heaven because that would legitimize John, and Jesus could ask them why they didn’t follow John. They can’t say that the baptism of John came from human origin because the crowd would riot since they believe John was a prophet. Since the chief priests and elders can’t say one way or the other, they settle for: We do not know. Jesus then launches into a parable that seems to say: don’t just say the right things; do the right things. And when you do the right things, even if your mind had to be changed in order to do them, you enter the kingdom of God ahead of those who only say the right things. In the breaking down of this parable, the people who do the right things are the tax collectors and prostitutes, and the people who just say the right things are the chief priests and elders. But Jesus finishes out his parable with this line: For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.
I wanted to preach a sermon about doing the mission of God, not just talking about doing the mission of God.
I thought a sermon about how we can change our minds in the process of determining what God is calling us to do would be interesting.
I would have loved to talk about how Jesus deems tax collectors and prostitutes more worthy of the kingdom of God than the chief priests and elders and what that might mean in our context.
I would have settled for a sermon about how everyone in the parable enters into the kingdom of God whether or not they actually do the will of God.
Unfortunately, none of these lovely sermon ideas actually reflect the point of Jesus’ parable and encounter with the chief priests and elders. The point of Jesus’ parable and encounter with the chief priests and elders is that the chief priests and elders should ascribe authority to Jesus and to John since God is the origin of them both. Since the chief priests and elders are invested in maintaining their own power and authority, they are not eager to hear Jesus’ words. Very simply summed up, Jesus says today: I am Lord, the authority of your lives and the world.
Now, of course, I’m on board. Sure. “Jesus is Lord” is our first guiding principle. It means that what God wants is more important than what anyone else wants. It means that, here at Grace, the only question that really matters is: What is God calling us to do? Not: What do I want to do? Not: What is my opinion? Not: What do I think is best? No. What is God calling us to do? The only question, the only consideration, the only thing that matters.
Jesus’ parable and encounter with the chief priests and elders tells us to whom we should ascribe authority—namely Jesus. And if someone has to have authority, I’m all for Jesus having it. Absolutely. But at my core, I have problems with authority. Anyone else?
I have problems with authority because authorities seems to disempower those who don’t possess authority. An authority can be so easily corrupted. An authority is not easily challenged or even questioned. Authority leaves me feeling dead instead of energized.
And in my journey with the gospel of Matthew this week, I couldn’t figure out where the good news resided until I remembered that authority is not proscribed but ascribed, not chosen for us but chosen by us. The chief priests and elders ask: Jesus, who gives you authority? The obvious answer is God, but the actual answer is the people, the crowds who laud him with palm branches. Regardless of Jesus’ divine origin, if the people failed to give Jesus authority, he wouldn’t have it. And unlike the common people, the chief priests and elders ascribe authority to themselves or perhaps the institution of the Temple—but not to God and certainly not to Jesus.
The nub of the issue for us, then, is: to whom do we ascribe authority? To whom do you ascribe authority? Really? When you are struggling with a decision or trying to sort out what is right or wrong, to whom do you listen? What do you read? Whose opinion do you solicit? The “right” answer is Jesus, but let’s forget that for a second and be real. To whom do you listen? Your parents or your parents’ legacy, as in: my mother always taught me… A particularly wise and trusted friend? A favorite teacher or professor whose counsel you swear by? Your therapist or spiritual director, your pastor or the teachings of the church? Maybe a particular author whose books you read or a particular podcaster or a particular news source? Maybe you are your own authority. You see, we choose who has authority in our lives. Jesus may be the “right” answer, but if we don’t choose Jesus as our authority, then he doesn’t have it in our lives.
Probably ten years ago, I noticed that my mom always has an answer to the questions I ask. Every single time, and they are good answers! The opinions and perspective of my wise mother have been incredibly valuable in my life. And not just for the big things like racism or sexism or sex but the little things too—like how to get wine stains out of tablecloths and how to iron gathered fabric. The day I realized my mother’s seeming omniscience, I asked my mom: How is it that every single time I ask you a question, you know the answer? Amused, she looked at me and said: Sarah, I’m just making it up!
I ascribe authority to my mom. It was a bit of a blow to learn that authority is not some objective state. Lee Stadler is not omniscient nor always right. Instead, because I trust her and love her and through experience have found her perspective helpful, I choose her—consciously or not, it’s hard to say—as one of the authorities in my life.
Do you choose Jesus as an authority in your life? There is no judgment for you if you don’t. I and probably all of us can understand when anyone decides to make someone or something else an authority. Because to choose Jesus as an authority is quite a daring act. I have heard many a person say, “Jesus said, Turn the other cheek, but my dad taught me never to back down from a fight” OR “Jesus said, Give away your possessions, but you need some things, right?” OR “Jesus said, Do not worry, but Jesus didn’t live in the twenty-first century and work a job and raise children.” These are the moments when we acknowledge the authority of Jesus in our lives and then turn away, choosing someone or something else as our final authority.
Hey, it’s just as hard for me as it is for anyone else. But I do know that, when I choose Jesus as my authority, it’s not just the “right” answer or the “right” thing to do. It’s a way of being in the world that brings peace, joy, love…to me and then to others around me.
When Jesus concludes the parable about the two sons, the first one who does the will of his father and the second who decides not to, Jesus likens the son who does the will of the father to the tax collectors and prostitutes who made John—and thus Jesus—an authority in their lives. Jesus surely enflames his listeners, the chief priests and elders, by proclaiming that the tax collectors and prostitutes go into the kingdom of God ahead of them. The chief priests and elders and all of us who struggle to give authority to Jesus will also be welcomed into the kingdom of God, but the tax collectors and prostitutes will get there first. And I think the reason is that, in making Jesus their authority, they enter into the kingdom of God, not just at death or the end of time but now, today, as they walk in the peace, in the joy, in the love of Jesus.