We are approaching the end of Ordinary Time. We have been working our way through Matthew’s Gospel, and now we find ourselves near the end of the Gospel and the end of Jesus’ ministry. Here in Matthew 21, Jesus has returned triumphantly to Jerusalem. He has been to the Temple already, and driven out the money changers and the people selling animals for offerings. In these last days of his ministry, he will be confronted multiple times by the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the chief priests and elders of the people. They will try to trip him up, to make him say something they can arrest him for. We read about the first in this set of challenges this morning.
“By what authority are you doing these things?” I don’t think we are often cognizant of how much this question forms the basis of our lives. Certainly our lives in company with other humans. If you were shipwrecked alone on a deserted island, with only turtles and birds for company, then you might be forgiven for assuming that the only authority you needed to acknowledge was your own. If you wanted to live, you would act in your own best interests. If you didn’t care about dying, you could kill all the animals and burn the place down, and there would be no one to stop you or to judge your actions.
But as soon as we try to live together with other humans, the question of authority comes immediately into play. We either agree by what authority we will live together, or we have war. Parents exercise authority over their children. If they don’t, chaos happens. We collectively agree to obey traffic laws. If we don’t, people die. If we want to work, we submit ourselves to the authority of our employers. If we are employers, we submit ourselves to the laws set up to ensure fairness in the workplace, or we face lawsuits or striking workers. We agree on our borders, and within those borders, we agree that we’ll vote on representatives to write the laws we’ll abide by. In order to participate in an economy, we have to agree to abide by the rules that make that economy run, like what counts as money, and how much it’s worth. All of these things are so fundamental, so implicit in our everyday lives, that we don’t really think of it as exerting authority or submitting to authority. We act as though our lives function they way they do because they must, but that isn’t really true. We’ve collectively agreed on things like traffic laws and democracy and a free market economy, but we could just as easily have collectively agreed to drive on the other side of the road, to a communist system, or to libertarianism. Because the flipside of authority is power. The Pharisees asked Jesus, “By what authority are you doing these things?” but they also asked, “And who gave you this authority?”
I could assert to you now that I am hereafter to be known as Queen Beth of Regina, and everything and everyone in this city now belongs to me. I will by my mercy allow you to continue living in your homes, but now you will all pay your taxes to me, and I will assign you work and act as judge over all complaints. I can assert loud and long that I have authority over you as Queen of Regina, but I have no power to back that up. If I can’t make you accede to my authority, then that authority doesn’t exist.
It mattered to the chief priests and elders of the people what authority Jesus was claiming because they themselves had also claimed authority. They claimed Moses and the Law as the source of their authority, but the power behind it came from the people of Israel accepting their leadership. I imagine that they lived their day-to-day lives without having to think about that, but we see the realization creep up on them in this passage. They challenge Jesus to declare the source of his authority, but he answers their question with a question. “I will also ask you one question,” Jesus replied. “If you answer me, I will tell you by what authority I am doing these things. John’s baptism – where did it come from? Was it from heaven, or of human origin?”
They had challenged Jesus, in front of the all the people present in the Temple, to state plainly who he was and what his intentions were. But they were not able to compel a straight answer from him. And we see the conundrum his response caused them. “They discussed it among themselves and said, ‘If we say, “From heaven,” he will ask, “Then why didn’t you believe him?” But if we say, “Of human origin” – we are afraid of the people, for they all hold that John was a prophet.’” They were unable to assert their authority and say what they wanted to, that John the Baptist didn’t speak for God. And why? Because the power behind their authority was that the people agreed to follow them. And if they said something to cause the people to turn against them, which would happen if they spoke against John, who was popular, they would lose their authority, because the power behind it, the will of the people, would turn against them.
Though they could not have realized it, they had put themselves in an impossible position. By not answering Jesus – by saying, we don’t know where John’s baptism came from, they lost face with the people anyway, because they saw their hypocrisy. They didn’t realize that in challenging Jesus on the question of authority, they were entering into an unequal fight. They had authority only in the human sense – by the collective will of the community. But Jesus’ authority comes from God. It is not contingent on whether or not the community accedes to it. Indeed, ultimately, the community does not! The chief priests and elders shortly afterward succeed in turning the crowds against Jesus, and he is crucified. Human authority stops at the grave. But God’s authority does not. Jesus is resurrected after three days, and ascends into heaven, and sits now on the right hand of God the Father Almighty. From there he shall come to judge the living and the dead.
Think about the relationships you have in your own life with authority. As a citizen of Canada, to whom are you responsible? What authorities do you submit to? Are you doing so with integrity? As Christians, we submit ourselves to God’s authority in our lives. We can be more and less successful at this, depending on the day. Sometimes if I haven’t had my coffee, I’m not so good at submitting to God’s authority in my life. Same goes if I’m tired or grumpy or sick. But every moment I am stacking up my changeable feelings against God’s unchangeableness. We can give in to some pretty questionable authorities, just to get a little peace and quiet. But isn’t it wonderful that ultimately, we submit ourselves to the only perfectly just Authority? I think we should find comfort in that.
Jesus goes on to tell a parable about two brothers. Their father says to each of them, “Go and work in the vineyard.” The first son says, “Mm, no, I don’t feel like doing that.” But later on, he has a change of heart, and goes to work as his father asked him. The second son says, “Sure Pop, no problem.” But then he doesn’t go. Which of these two sons has actually acceded to the authority of his father?
This parable is about the connection between our words and our actions when it comes to submitting ourselves to God’s authority over us. If your goal is to get into the Kingdom of Heaven, Jesus says, it does no good simply to say all the right things.
Throughout his gospel, Matthew has shown Jesus befriending “tax collectors and sinners,” or, as in this passage, “tax collectors and prostitutes.” This was important to Matthew, as a former tax collector himself. In this parable, the son who says no to his father, but then has a change of heart and ultimately obeys, represents people like Matthew the tax collector, and the various and assorted other sinners in Israel who heard John the Baptist’s message and repented; who heard Jesus teach, saw his miracles, and believed in him. These are people who had grown up in the same synagogues as the Pharisees and the elders of the people. They had absorbed, if only by cultural osmosis, the Law of Moses. But they had said no to God. Matthew “took up” with the Roman imperialists by collecting their tax from his fellow Israelites. But these people, when they were shown the righteousness of God through John the Baptist and through Jesus, changed their hearts, and not only did they ultimately say yes to God, they did yes as well.
This is contrasted by the chief priests and elders of the people, who have just challenged Jesus’ authority. They’ve been saying all the right things to God all their lives. But when presented with the righteousness of God in the person of Jesus, they hardened their hearts, and refused to submit. Instead, they hid behind their words. They point to them and say, look how we have always publically acceded to the Law of Moses. We are righteous already, and have no need to repent. But recall the words of Jesus back when he first called Matthew to be a disciple: “Those who are well have no need of a physician. Those who are sick do. For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”
The problem of hypocrisy – of saying one thing and doing another – is as old as sin itself. Words are easy, and it can seem like they don’t cost anything. But the cost of living in a society where people don’t do what they say they will, and don’t act in line with what they profess to believe, is very high indeed. It costs us our ability to trust. It costs us our peace. As the church, if what we profess to believe doesn’t match up with our actions in the world, it will cost us our authority as representatives of God’s Kingdom here on earth.
The question of what it looks like to submit ourselves to God’s authority over our lives is a great deal too large and far-reaching to establish here. In fact, the whole of Scripture is devoted to answering this question! But as a for-instance, I commend to you our epistle lesson from Philippians this morning. “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,” Paul says. “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” God does not leave us alone to flounder, to try to live up to his standards and expectations. It is God at work in us, and our task is only to submit. It’s not a test, and it’s not a trick. It’s love. Amen.