Pentecost 17
Mary Holmen

Exodus 17:1-7; Psalm 78: 1-4, 12-16; Philippians 2:1-13; Matthew 21:23-32

The society we live in may be characterized by, among other things, a radical questioning of authority. It began when my generation – the generation of many of us – was growing up. The stable social order of the post-war period broke open and everything was subject to scrutiny. The authority of church, state, police, social norms, parents – everything was up for grabs. Many events and forces contributed.

  • The advent of reliable and readily available birth control contributed to the rise of feminism.
  • The civil rights movement shook up cultural assumptions about race and began the drive for equality.
  • The assassinations of John F Kennedy, his brother Robert, and Martin Luther King Jr became touchstones that measured the trauma of a generation.
  • The Vietnam War gave rise to protests across the United States and this country too. And it’s interesting to me that only now, decades after the end of that war, is a documentary about it being aired on television.

In many cases, authority became subject to question because it was exercised in some very questionable ways. And that was a good thing.

The legacy of this social upheaval can be seen to this day.

  • Mistrustful of medical science, some parents choose not to vaccinate their children, and diseases like polio and whooping cough are making a comeback.
  • A substantial number of people believe that climate change is a hoax, despite evidence to the contrary.
  • Governments marginalize and muzzle scientific research, especially when it reaches conclusions they don’t like.
  • A large number of people don’t trust news media and assert their determination to find things out for themselves, giving rise to two things: real fake news outlets that sow misinformation and seem able to influence the course of elections; and the epithet “fake news” to dismiss unwelcome truths.
  • A man doesn’t trust conventional education and pays over $8000 to an outfit that translates life experience into academic credentials, then is upset to discover his online degree is phony.

Like it or not, the radical questioning of authority is a feature of life in the 21st century West. And in some ways, that’s a good thing. No longer can any authority expect unquestioning obedience. Witness the current protests over things like the singing of national anthems at sporting events. Witness the fact that politicians of all stripes campaign on promises of openness and transparency. Whether those promises are actually fulfilled or not, people expect accountability from their leaders. And in a democracy, authority ultimately rests with the people.

The chief priests and elders likewise question Jesus: “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” What kind of authority does he exercise? What is its nature, and what is its source?

Let’s put this passage in context. Jesus has entered Jerusalem in triumph. The crowds hail him as Son of David and the whole city is in turmoil. Jesus enters the temple and drives out all who are buying and selling there. It’s a direct challenge to the whole temple apparatus and those who maintain it. Even the children are crying out, “Hosanna!” The leaders are quite alarmed! Their authority, in fact their very position, rests on getting along with Rome. “Jesus, your people can’t be saying these things. You’re going to get us all in trouble!” The people have greeted Jesus as a Messiah, and the leaders are threatened!

The next day, Jesus goes back to the temple and begins to teach. There must have been great crowds surrounding him, pressing in to hear him. One commentator even calls this an “occupation” of the temple. Occupation or not, the authorities cannot allow this threat, this maverick, this upsetter of apple carts and trading tables, to go unchecked. And so they challenge him. It is the first of five challenges, all aimed at undermining Jesus’ authority. If Jesus were to lose any of these challenges, his own challenge to the authorities would end and they would regain control of the temple. There would be no need to do anything further with Jesus. His credibility would be finished.

But Jesus has the upper hand. He knows the fragility of their position. Before he will answer them, he asks a question of his own. “The baptism of John, was it from heaven or was it of human origin?” The authorities are in a bind. To maintain their position, they need the support of the crowds, who had welcomed John’s mission, so they dare not say his baptism was of human origin. On the other hand, if they say it came from God, Jesus will demand to know why they didn’t accept it, as he himself had. So they mutter, “We don’t know.” It’s kind of like finding your child in some transgression; when you ask what they are doing they say, “Nothing”, even though you and they both know that isn’t true. The authorities have lost this one, but they’ll be back to try again.

The theme of Jesus’ authority is woven throughout Matthew’s gospel. He teaches as one with authority. He claims authority to pronounce forgiveness of sins. He exercises authority over nature and the spirit world. And it culminates with the commissioning of the disciples: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples…” The mission of Jesus’ followers, and its success, rests on his divine authority.

Jesus goes on to tell a parable rich in the imagery of Jewish tradition. Stories about brothers are as old as Cain and Abel. Think back to the biblical stories about brothers – full of jealousy, betrayal, struggles for power, even murder, and sometimes reconciliation. Stories about vineyards also abound, and the vineyard is always a symbol for Israel and its relationship with God, the landowner. So Jesus tells a story about a father, two sons, and a vineyard. He is not telling a story about a fictitious family. He is telling the people a story about themselves. Two sons. One refuses to do as his father asks but later changes his mind. The other consents to his father’s command but does not follow through. Actions speak louder than words. Jesus and his critics can agree on that much.

But Jesus goes on to equate the two sons with two groups of people. The son who first refused but then went to work represents the “tax collectors and prostitutes”, individuals who would seem to have turned away from living according to the commandments and covenant, tax collectors despised for their collaboration with Rome and with the temple authorities. They believed John’s message of repentance and turned back toward God. The son who gave lip service to his father’s request but did nothing represents the chief priests and elders, who rejected John’s message even after they saw evidence of its effect. Now, let’s be clear; there are two sons. Both groups are God’s children. But it is their actions, not their words, that reveal God’s true children, those willing to participate in the Father’s business. The “son” most expected to understand and do God’s will – the religious leaders – refuse to accept God’s activity through both John and Jesus. The “son” least expected to understand and do God’s will – the most despised of people – see, acknowledge, accept and do God’s work. Jesus’ authority is confirmed by the results of his work: healing, deliverance, restoration, repentance and changed lives. And elsewhere in the Gospels, Jesus identifies his true family – mother, brothers and sisters – as those who do the will of God. “Not everyone who says, ‘Lord, Lord!’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but those who do the will of my Father in heaven.”

Calling on Jesus as Lord brings me to our second reading from Paul’s letter to the Philippians. The core of this passage, verses 5-11, shows up at other points in our lectionary, most notably as one of the readings for Good Friday – no surprise. Today, we get to hear it in context. Paul’s purpose in writing is to show the Philippian Christians a pattern of thinking and a way of living, grounded in Jesus himself. Last week, we heard him call the Philippians to “live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.” Now he turns specifically to two qualities that must characterize a community that follows the pattern and way of Jesus: unity and humility.

The emphasis on unity is clear. “Make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.” What builds unity in the church? Humility. They are inseparable. “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.” This is absolutely counter-cultural. Instead of ambition, competition and upward mobility, Paul advocates the downward way – letting go of honour and self-promotion in favour of honoring others. Paul is not telling us to put ourselves down, but to elevate concern for others above concern for ourselves, our position, our reputation. In a highly individualistic, competitive culture, this is a radical calling into a community of self-giving and service. And it is based on the pattern established by Jesus.

“Let the same mind be in you which was in Christ Jesus,” says Paul. Think as Jesus did. Because how we think shapes how we live. And how did Jesus live? He emptied himself, first by becoming human and then by accepting death – even death on a cross, the most shameful and humiliating death possible. The way of Jesus is the way of self-emptying, letting go of status. His true authority is seen in the tortured, abandoned, crucified figure that to all outward appearances is a failure. But because of his humility and obedience, he is exalted as Lord, “in heaven and on earth and under the earth” – in other words, throughout the cosmos. There is much debate in the media these days about “taking a knee”. As Christians, we are called to take a knee before the Exalted One who still bears the marks of his suffering.

What does this mean for us, here at St. Peter’s, today? At St. Peter’s, we have embarked on something new, something at times perhaps a bit scary, at times uncertain, at times exciting and full of hope. It’s called collaborative ministry. It’s not just about who’s in charge, or who’s on the leadership team, or who does what. It’s not even about a new way of doing ministry. This is about a new way of being church. It’s a paradigm shift from former patterns of church life. The book that we’re currently studying, Collaboration: Uniting our Gifts in Ministry, describes the characteristics of collaboration: ownership of a common mission, a sense of unity and desire to work together for a common goal, and the identification, valuing, and bringing together of everyone’s gifts. “Be of one accord; be of the same mind.” The object of the exercise is not to say we’ve arrived when we’re collaborating. The object of the exercise is collaboration in order to carry out God’s mission, to build God’s reign of justice, mercy, forgiveness and love on earth.

We’ll hear more about gifts in a couple of weeks at the stewardship lunch. For today, we focus on unity and humility. Contributing your own gifts; valuing the gifts of others. Be like Christ. Find your true authority by emptying yourself. Jesus is more than just an example for us to follow. He embodies God’s will for all humankind. This is how we are supposed to live. He is the Son who said, “Yes, I will go” and then acted on his words. His humble obedience makes him a worthy object of our devotion, praise, and love. And so we join our voices with the chorus of heaven, earth, and the depths and acknowledge Jesus as Lord, to the glory of God. Amen.