on which this sermon is
be found at: http://web.me.com/frsparky/iWeb/r059.htm
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
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
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.
Back to: "A Spark of the Spirit"