The readings on which this sermon is based can be found at:

s059g11  Sunday 26  25/9/2011

'by what authority'  Matthew 21.23

The chief priests and the elders wanted to know by what authority Jesus acted and said the things he did.   These were people who didn't act on their own.   They were people who deferred to other authorities, primarily scripture and tradition.   And they deferred to other authorities because they wanted to act less than charitably.   They used these external authorities precisely to justify their exclusion of other people.   Typically they excluded the very people with whom Jesus associated – the tax collectors, the prostitutes and the sinners.   Jesus tells us that these believed in John the Baptist as well.   The chief priests and the elders were easily able to quote chapter and verse to justify their marginalization, alienation and condemnation of these other people.   At the end of time they could rightly say that they were only doing as they believed God would have them do.   Hence the question to Jesus: 'by what authority was he acting in the way he did – associating with the very people scripture and the tradition decreed as unworthy?

The Anglican Covenant is another external authority delineating just with whom, and with whom we may not, have communion.  

But it is clear that people are excluded by the devout and the orthodox – marginalized, alienated and condemned because those who do such things (a) don't have such a person they love in this position and (b) don't want to associate with such people themselves.   Of course these two are interrelated.   If a person has someone they love who is ritually excluded, then the person begins to question the exclusion.   But if there is no love, then there is no reason to question the exclusion.  

And there are people who consider their love for the Lord as far more important than their human relationships – therefore if God says that someone is condemned, then they are bound to agree.   I recall hearing a minister talking about speaking to his own, gravely ill, father when he suggested that his father needed to 'accept Christ' so that he, the minister, could then be confident that he would be reunited with his father in the next life.   Whose need is being fulfilled here?

Jesus acted on his own authority and acted to accept, include and to magnify others.   And this is what we, who want to be known as followers of Jesus, are similarly called to do.

The second portion of the gospel for today talks about the two sons.   It is a curious parable.   I wonder at the change of attitude of both the boys.   The first obviously doesn't want to work in the vineyard for he initially refused and I wonder why he changed his mind and later went.   My devious mind wonders if he realizes that if he does go into the vineyard he will score brownie points with his father for he will be working there alone.   The second wants to score brownie points with his father so he agrees to go, but when he realizes that he has to work alongside his brother in the vineyard and work on the same terms, he refuses.   Lying behind this parable is the eternal sibling rivalry, evident from the first murder, when Cain killed his brother Abel when he perceived, rightly or wrongly, that his brother’s offering to God was preferred rather than his own.  

But, again as with so much in the Bible, we can take this personally, yet the church, supposedly the repository and interpreter of scripture, is (it seems) eternally at loggerheads with other brothers and sisters over whose offering to God is more acceptable and whose is less acceptable.

Again, the vineyard is where we get our hands dirty, to grow the grapes to make the wine that gladdens the hearts of all; others as well as ourselves.

We are told: 'John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax-collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.'   So it was not just Jesus who had this effect on the religiously marginalized, the alienated and the condemned.   John the Baptist seems to have gained a reputation for joyless self denial, yet ordinary people found acceptance from him.  

A long time ago I heard a minister preach at a wedding.   His theme was the command to love, and I recall him beginning by saying what a seemingly unnecessary command to read as a lesson at such an occasion as a wedding, when two people are rejoicing in their love and seeking its fulfillment.   His words come back to me in this context, for if we need any authority for our acceptance of all other people, the command to love is it.   We are called to love not just those who love us or for whom we have family obligations – even the mafia do this.   No, we are called to love beyond the boundaries.   We don’t just honour our father and mother, we are called to honour everyone. (1 Peter 2.17)

And I believe that it is significant that Jesus refuses to name the authority by which he acts.   Jesus refuses to play the political games beloved of the orthodox and the devout.   In recent years  the church has played the very same games over the arguments about the scriptural justification for and against the ordination of woman.   In the end it will always be inconclusive, because in the end we are called to reason, think and make our own informed decisions.   For it is in reasoning, thinking and making our own decisions that we are most obviously human.   We think that the animal kingdom is ruled by their brute instincts of self preservation.

So in declining to act in obedience to any particular rule, Jesus encourages us to act as adults.   Of course we take into account what scripture and tradition say, just as we take into account the advise of well-meaning people around us; but the last thing we have to do is think the same way and accept uncritically the perceptions of earlier ages.   Indeed, of course, the advise of those around us is likely to be of more value, because those around us know the social niceties with which we have to take account.   The devout and the orthodox who relied only on the writings of the past, scripture and tradition, were still able to act uncharitably towards others.   Indeed they used their devotion to past authorities to avoid accepting those around them.

So the story of the two sons, a rather banal, homely story, is the perfect segue after the question about authority.   If scripture and tradition binds us to the past and divorces us from the present, and those around us, then we are not doing what God wants, despite our seeming devotion to God and our supposedly orthodox belief.

And so this shows us that we are meant to exist in community.    We are meant to live in our own time and live with love for all those around us, thinking for ourselves and allowing others to think for themselves as well.


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