10/1/17: A Question of Authority, Matthew 21:23-32
A Question of Authority
First in the Series: Bearing Fruit
First Lesson: Psalm 25:1-10
Second Lesson: Matthew 21:23-32
Rev. Scott Dickison
This is one of those occasions when the lectionary doesn’t quite match up with the church calendar. This is the prescribed gospel text for this Sunday, the 17th Sunday after Pentecost in the church year, but in the Gospel of Matthew this scene of the chief priests and elders confronting Jesus takes place on the Monday of Holy Week.
Just a few verses earlier, at the beginning of the chapter, we’re told of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, which, as Matthew tells it, ends with him making a scene at the temple: driving out the folks selling animals to sacrifice, overturning tables of the moneychangers and all the rest of it. After healing some sick people there, he goes back to stay with friends in Bethany for the night, and in the morning returns to Jerusalem, “because he was hungry” we’re told—which can I tell you I love? Jesus loves brunch as much as any of us, friends. This is the meaning of incarnation!
Matthew tells us he returned to Jerusalem because he was hungry, and he sees a fig tree on the side of the road. He goes up to it expecting to find something to eat, but when he does he sees that the tree is barren—there’s “nothing on it but leaves,” we’re told. And in a fit of hunger-induced frustration—again, Jesus is just like us, friends; he get’s “hangry” too—Jesus curses the fig tree and says: May no fruit ever come from you again! And the fig tree immediately withered there in front of him. The disciples see this and are amazed saying, How did it wither all at once? And Jesus responds to them, Truly I tell you, if you have faith not only will you be able to do what’s been done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, Be lifted up and thrown into the sea, it will be done.
And it’s after having said that we’re told he entered the temple and the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching.
And this fig tree, we’ll find, becomes a potent image for what Jesus will discuss with them, not only in this passage today, but over these next several passages in Matthew’s Gospel that we’ll look at in the coming weeks. Over and over again, Jesus will lift up the importance of bearing fruit: of taking action, of doing the work of God, of feeding the hungry, of clothing the naked, of visiting the sick and incarcerated—of granting mercy and forgiveness, of working for justice. These are the fruits of the Kingdom of God. These are what we’re called to bear. And likewise, Jesus will call out those whom he sees as trees with nothing but leaves—nothing but fluff. May look full from a distance, but upon closer scrutiny they’re shown to lack substance: no growth, no fruit. And the challenge for us will be a familiar one, which is to not get to comfortable and assume Jesus is talking to someone other than ourselves.
And so he enters the temple that day and the chief priests and the elders—the officials of the temple—do what some officials are known to do when faced with an outside presence they’d rather not deal with, they check his credentials. By what authority do you do these things? they ask him.
Now, hear me when I say there are of course completely legitimate and some reasons to ask for credentials—even necessary reasons. Of course there are. But there are also times when asking for some credentials is nothing more than a power move meant to intimidate, and this happens in all sorts of ways:
So where did you go to school?
Or, as I remember from fraternity rush in college: So what does your father do?
Or, as I remember being asked once when we lived in New England, Oh, are you of the Plymouth Dickisons?
Umm, no sir. The Peoria, Dickisons. That’s Illinois.
It’s a power move meant to intimidate, or even worse, incriminate. And I feel some obligation to say that the call for identification means different things to different groups of people. I’ll confess, of all the times I’ve read this passage through the years, even in understanding how these officials were trying to intimidate Jesus by questioning his legitimacy, his right to be there, it wasn’t until reading it this week that I wondered how an African American or Latino American might hear it. Between the sad history of voter ID laws, routine traffic stops, stop and frisk, and ICE raids, it’s become painfully clear that asking for some ID for people of color has often meant exactly what the officials at the temple meant at the temple that day, which is: We don’t think you’re supposed to be here.
By what authority do you do these things? they ask him—wanting him to feel small and unwelcome as the country bumpkin he was, and yet Jesus was quick—quick how we all wish we were in moments like these. He does what he does so well, which is turn the question on them: Answer me this, was the baptism John the baptist offered of God, or was he just some crazy person?
And they’re in a pickle. Of course, the chief priests and elders want to say that John was just some crazy person—just some wild-haired madman preaching about the end-times—but they also know he had a following. They’re nothing if not politically savvy. They know there are plenty of folks in the audience who thought John was a prophet of God, and plenty more who at least thought he was wronged by the authorities, to be handed over to Herod to be executed like that. So they answer in a way that depending on how you look at it is either politically expedientor cowardly, and yes, sometimes those can be one and the same. They say: We don’t know. And Jesus tells them, Well if you won’t answer me, I won’t answer you.
But then he kind of does. He tells them a parable. And as far as parables go, it’s pretty straightforward:
A man has two sons—and how many parables and stories in the Bible start this way? A man has two sons and he asks them to go out to work in the vineyard. We heard about vineyards last week, and we’ll hear about them again. Israel has a perfect climate for growing grapes and was known, and is still known today, for their many vineyards and the wine that comes from them. This father asks them to go out and work in the vineyard. One son at first answers, I will not, but later changes his mind, and does. The second son, however, says, I’ll go, sir, but in the end never does.
Which of these two did the will of the father, he asks them? The first one, they answer, of course.Truly I tell you, all the people who you think are on the outside, but whoaccepted the baptism of repentance John offered—the tax collectors and prostitutes—they’re like the first son. But all of you who heard his call to repentance and didn’t change your minds, you’re like the second son; who said one thing, but did another.
In other words: you’re like that fig tree over there; the one with lots of leaves, but no fruit.
The tax collectors and prostitutes, those on the outside, are said to have an in-roads to the kingdom over and against the religious authorities—and why, Jesus tells them? Because they repented. They changed.
In Hebrew the word for repentance is teshuvah, which literally means to turn, as in, to turn in a different direction, to start on a new path. The Greek is similar: metanoia: which literally means to change your mind, but is probably closer to having a change of heart—action is still the key. Blessed are the ones, Jesus says, who realize they need to change and do. In fact, the word that’s closer to what Jesus describes here is not “repent” but “convert.” Repentance can have a sense of feeling remorse, but to convert—this is a true change. This is drastic. In fact, to convert literally means to “change completely,” or "turn around.” Is this word to much for us?
This was Jesus’ message that day to those on the inside there at the temple who would keep him and others on the outside: Authority comes through action, not words. Words are important—incredibly important. Words are powerful and we must always be careful with what we say—if Scripture is to be believed, it was words that brought all creation into being. But just like at creation, words are only as powerful as the action that spring from them. Authority comes from the fruit you bear. And the fruit Jesus lifts up here is the fruit that’s so hard to bear, particularly for those on the inside: the fruit of repentance; the fruit of confessing our faults, our failings, our sins, and turning in a new direction. Jesus says the ones with true authority are the ones who find strength enough to admit their mistakes, and move in a new direction.
And the church has struggled with this. We’ve struggled with it just like the chief priest and the elders did, and just like any institution or individual with inside status has struggled with it in some way. This may be the greatest spiritual challenge for those of us on the inside: that we don’t think we need to change. We think we’re safe, we feel protected in some way. But it’s this line of thinking that we’re right and everyone else is just different kinds of wrong that’s kept the church on the wrong side of not only history, but the gospel through the years. Which is why I think a lot of folks have stopped listening to the church: they hear a lot of words, but not a whole lot of action. Not much repentance at all.
This is also something that those of us with a different kind of insider status struggle with. My good friend, Alan Sherouse, who serves as pastor of First Baptist Church in Greensboro, North Carolina, told me recently about being in a meeting with a group of other local clergy to respond to one of the many terrible shootings of unarmed black men that have happened over the last couple of years. He was one of only two white pastors among them, and as they crafted their statement, he raised objections about the tone of the letter. He thought it was too severe and might turn off some people—meaning his congregation. But the rest of the room was unified in their belief that this urgent tone was required. The other white pastor, a good bit older than Alan, agreed with them. Alan relented, and after the meeting was over, found himself walking to his car with the other white pastor who’d been in the room. And Alan expressed his frustration that the statement was too much, and he didn’t understand why no one else could see that. And the older white pastor said to him, Alan, I’ve found that if I’m the only white person, especially the only white man, in a room with people of color, and they all see something so clearly that I can’t, it’s usually an opportunity for me to learn something.
I’ve thought about this a lot recently as I’ve been in different clergy groups of my own, and listened to other friends of color and how they’ve experienced these past few years in our country. And I’ve thought about this over these last several days as the drama has unfolded around NFL players standing or not standing or kneeling or remaining in the locker room for the national anthem. And there are so many layers to this, and so much absurdity that I even hesitate to bring it up. But it’s clearly struck a nerve. It’s impossible not to see that the breakdown in how we view these things as a country has been down racial lines. A majority of whites see not standing for the anthem as disrespectful, especially to service men and women. A vast majority of people of color see it as a peaceful, powerful way to call our nation to live up to its ideals—ideals that have not been granted to everyone. They’re also beginning to wonder, as am I, what an acceptable means of protest would be. I’ve thought about it, too, over the past couple of days as it’s become more and more clear that the people of Puerto Rico haven’t received the aid they so desperately need from those of us here on the mainland—care that was so generously extended to folks in Texas and Florida and here in Georgia, as well it should have been—and have even been accused of asking for too much! To the Latino community, the reason for this disparity seems clear. And when so many people who have been historically disenfranchised seem to see so clearly something that many of us who have not been oppressed do not, then I can’t help but think this is an opportunity for us to learn something. And Lord knows we’ve had so many opportunities over these past few years. Too many.
True authority, Jesus reminds us—especially those of us who find ourselves on the inside—true authority is found in the fruit we bear. Do our actions line up with our good words? Are we living the good news of God’s radical, expansive love for all people? And if not, are we willing to change? Are we willing to be converted? Converted into something closer to who Jesus is calling us to be? Are we willing to be changed that wholly, that completely? Are we willing to be born again?
It’s the hardest thing in the world to do, change. On this side of it, to change can feel like a kind of death. And this is true. This is the hard, hard part of following in the way of Jesus. But the good news—the story we proclaim and do our best to live—is that there’s life on the other side. New life. Abundant life. The good news, is that we’ll born again. Even us. Amen.