The Gospel isn’t meant to be gulped down on Sunday morning, but gnawed on through the week so it really becomes a part of us. You’ve got to work at it, like a dog with a good bone! Here’s the Gospel for this coming Sunday — the Seventeenth Sunday After Pentecost — with food for thought on the authority of lived experience and the power of God’s love to transform … Gnaw away!
Jesus entered the Temple precincts and began teaching. The chief priests and the elders of the people came to him and said, “By what authority are you doing what you do? Who gave you this authority?” “And I,” replied Jesus, “will ask you a single question; if you give me the answer, I will tell you my authority for these actions. What was the origin of John’s right to baptize? Was it divine or was it human?” They discussed it among themselves and said, “If we say, ‘divine’ he will respond, ‘Then why did you refuse to believe him?’ But if we say ‘human’ we have the people to fear, for they regard John as a prophet.” So they replied to Jesus, “We do not know.” Jesus said in reply, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.”
Jesus continued, “What do you think? There was a landowner who had two offspring. The landowner approached the elder and said, ‘My child, go out and work in the vineyard today.’ The first child replied, ‘No, I will not; but later had a change of mind and went. The landowner then came to the second child and said the same thing. The second child said in reply, ‘I am on my way,’ but never went. Which of the two did what was wanted?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “The truth is, tax collectors and prostitutes are entering into the reign of God before you. When John came advocating justice, you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. Yet even when you saw that, you did not change your minds later and believe.”
The Backstory – What’s Going On Here?
We have skipped over some huge events here, without which this conversation is a pretty unintelligible non sequitur. Why are the chief priests and elders questioning Jesus about authority? Is it just because he is teaching? Is that “these things?” Hardly! Jesus has entered into Jerusalem in a royal procession, with cries of “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” and then proceeded to go directly to the Temple and cleanse it of the moneychangers, invited people who are blind and with physical disabilities in and heal them, and even start his own children’s praise choir! He has claimed the role of both king and high priest — uniting all power as the restoration of the line of David. He has been in all things the Messiah. Teaching in the Temple is the least of what Jesus has done!
The authority Jesus has claimed for himself has taken it away from the chief priests and elders … and from the government officials who enjoy privilege for their cozy relationship with the Romans. They feel the threat and sting of that lost power and so they ask THE question that Christians have been asked for every generation since: “Hey Jesus, why you? What’s so special about you? Why you and not me or someone else?”
A few things to chew on:
*The authority of Jesus is the most powerful force in the universe, and so it is one of our deepest temptations to claim it for our own agendas and deputize ourselves and those agendas as God’s will. But we need to remember the conversation Jesus had just before this scene. Just before Jesus enters Jerusalem, he has a conversation with his disciples (and with James and John’s mother!) about authority … and who will exercise it. The authority of God, which Jesus claims in Jerusalem and which is so tempting for us to claim for ourselves, comes with a cup that we must be willing to drink. And it is not the cup of victory and acclaim but of pain and death. It is the cup of the cross.
When we are tempted to claim that we are the agents of God, Jesus first words to us are “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink.” And we need to think deeply before we answer “I am able.” And we need to pray continually that we are exercising that authority not for ourselves or for our own agendas but out of our willingness to love even to the point of our own deep loss.
*The story of Jesus’ exchange with the chief priests and elders isn’t just him one-upping them in a trick question contest. Jesus is showing deep love by inviting the chief priests and elders to join him where he is — in a place of speaking truth at great risk. He is inviting them to either stand by a conviction that John was a heretic or stand by a conviction that John was a prophet. Either stand invites them into a place where their beliefs are not just gumflapped words but lived convictions that will have a direct effect on their lives. But, out of their fear both of Jesus and of the crowd, they decline — and show their faith is just of words and not of substance.
Our theology shouldn’t be something we sit and think about and then go and try out … but something that emerges as it forms and shapes us as we live it. G.K. Chesterton touched on this when he wrote: “Let your religion be less of a theory and more of a love affair.”
This week, spend a little time each morning meditating with a simple question: “How can I live Christ’s love today in a small way? A way that might help change one person? A way that might help change me?” Then when you lie in bed at night, reflect on the day and how it went … and what change you might notice.
Jesus tells the story of the landowner’s children. A story about what we do being more important than what we say. We tend to talk a lot – but the question that is always before us is how do we live? What concrete actions of our lives communicate who we are? This week in your writing, pick something that we regularly say as part of our community of faith. It can be “I believe in God” or “Whoever you are and wherever you find yourself on your journey of faith, you are welcome to come to this table.” or anything else that we say. Pick something and then write about how you live it – and how you struggle living it — with the actions of your life.
“By what authority are you doing what you do? Who gave you this authority?”
I spent the past few days in Geneva meeting with officials from the United Nations who worked for various UN committees on elimination of racism, minority issues and human rights. In my group were people who were on the front lines of these topics and had been their whole lives. People like the Rev. Traci Blackmon, who marched in Charlottesville and was active in the Ferguson Uprising; Dr. Leah Gunning Francis, who speaks passionately not just as a scholar but as a mother of two young black boys; Dr. Iva Carruthers, who has spent a lifetime battling racial discrimination on the ground as a community developer, organizer and advocate.
As our time together progressed, I noticed I and others were listening differently depending on who was talking and what the speaker was talking about. When various experts were quoting statistics and studies, we were mentally engaged, possibly jotting down a few notes. But when people like Traci, Leah and Iva spoke from their heart out of lifetimes of personal, lived experience of racism, I found myself and noticed others leaning a little more forward in our seats. Engaged not just with our mind but with our hearts, with our whole selves.
It wasn’t that the voices of the experts and officials weren’t interesting and cogent. It’s that these others had a different and more powerful kind of authority. They had the authority of those who had lived and were living the life that for the rest of us enjoying different privilege could merely be a topic of conversation.
Leah, Traci and Iva and others … they all spoke with authority. Authority that came from a combination of lived experience and reflection on that experience. That authority compelled me to listen differently, more intently. That authority compelled me to try to let their words change me.
In this week’s Gospel, Jesus is asked by whose authority he acts. The truth is he acts on his own authority. But where does he get that authority?
Christ’s authority is incarnational. It comes not just from being the living Word, the Son of God but from being the “Word made flesh.” From being God emptying the divine self into human form and being one with every ounce of the human experience.
Jesus was able to speak with both the authority of divinity and the authority of humanity. Jesus’ authority was that of being God-centered and also dwelling with the deepest brokenness of human history … to the point of being born as a refugee child and dying as a common criminal executed by the state.
As followers of Jesus, this is the authority we are supposed to grasp. Paul related this call in Philippians 2 when he sings:
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied the divine self, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death upon a cross.
As followers of Jesus, any authority we have is rooted in our own self-emptying. Our ability to bring the truth of our creation in God’s image and belovedness to bear on the truth of the lived experience of the deepest brokenness in creation. We are to use our power and privilege for those who have little or none. We are to privilege the voices who are most impoverished and most oppressed and be informed by them.
We are not to ignore the experts and officials of the world for there is wisdom there … but we are to privilege the authority of those who speak with the authority not just of knowing about but, like Jesus who have the authority of living among.
Bishop Prince Singh of the Diocese of Rochester says: “In a time of economic crisis, we must rely on the experts … and the experts on economic crisis are the poor.”
In our times of crisis — and they are many — we need to seek out those with authority (and sometimes they will be us). And we need to make sure we are leaning forward a little more in our chairs when they speak.
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Check out the rest of Sunday’s readings
The Lectionary Page has all of the readings for this Sunday and every Sunday – just click here.
Collect for Sunday: Pray this throughout the week as you gnaw on this Gospel.
God, you declare your almighty power chiefly in showing mercy and pity: Grant us the fullness of your grace, that we, running to obtain your promises, may become partakers of your heavenly treasure; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Want to read more?
“The Text This Week” is an excellent online resource for anyone who wants to dive more deeply into the scriptures for the week.