“Never trust anybody over thirty” was one of the rebellious mantras of the 1960s. Those crazy hippies certainly knew how to question questionable authority. They get a lot of credit for that, but authority questioning has been going on for a long time.
So many people have claimed so much authority for so long, and with so little basis that questioning them is nearly a full-time job. For those claiming the most of it are generally the least trustworthy. We want to know, we need to know, “Who gave you the right?” It’s another way of saying, “By what authority…, and who gave you this authority?”
So, we have this very short story. It might be the shortest story ever, I don’t know for sure, but it’s very, very short. It goes like this: There was a man. He had two sons. One pleased him the other did not. Which son are you?
If we place this story in the context of authority questioning, though, it becomes much more interesting. It’s not a story that was originally spoken to you and me. Though we might spend a good bit of time thinking about what it means for us, it was originally for the chief priests and the elders. That’s who Jesus was talking to. The chief priests and the elders did not typically work on the same side. Their authority came from opposite sides of the aisle, is how we would say it in modern language. One derived its power from Rome, the other from the people. But, on this occasion they came together, they united around the common threat of Jesus, who was also laying a claim to some authority. Their question to him could be rephrased as, “Look, we know where our authority comes from, but who are you working for?” Jesus wanted to say something to them about this, but he had to be very careful. So, in keeping with the face-culture of his time, he chose an allegory to say it for him. Pretty smart.
There is a brand of Christian who prefers to see this story as a parable. Parables are about ideas; you sit and think about them, or talk about them, but often nothing conclusive comes of it. There are lots and lots of ways to interpret most parables. But an allegory like this one is dicier. In an allegory, you can draw equivalencies. One thing stands in for another. Unfortunately, one of the things might be YOU!
This is exactly what Jesus was doing when he linked the chief priests to the second son. That’s the son who said that he’d go and work in the vineyard, but then he didn’t. The chief priests appeared to have spiritual authority. They had special clothes and worked in the special places of the temple. By all appearances, they surely would enter the Kingdom of Heaven first, they had the clothes for it, after all; but the only real authority they had came from Rome, from Caesar who also claimed to be the son of God. The Chief Priests had said, “Yes, I’ll serve,” but, in the end, they didn’t serve, they sold out. Instead of serving God’s people they wound up collaborating with their Roman oppressors. It turns out that their authority was baseless and their special clothes were a joke.
Before that, Jesus had linked the elders to the first son. That’s the one who had said that he wouldn’t work in the vineyard, but later he did. This notion that those who were not chosen or special could also become servants in the vineyard was popular with the people. That the unlikeliest and least holy could also have a place in the Kingdom of God, that even without special clothing, they too might be “called” and holy was very empowering. The elder’s authority derived from this empowered population. They represent the power of the people.
So, in this little allegory, Jesus has turned the question around on the Chief Priests and elders. They had hoped to undermine his authority, but instead, he undermined theirs! It’s very clever. A great day for fans of Jesus.
We like identifying with Jesus, don’t we? Well, except when he’s up there on the cross. Otherwise, we like incorporating a little allegory into all our stories and seeing ourselves in the place of Jesus. He did, after all, say, “Go and do likewise…” Jesus was talking about showing mercy, but we like to “go and do likewise” when Jesus is verbally smacking down the authorities, and when he is victorious over Satan in the wilderness, and when the dove descends on him, and when he meets with Elijah and Moses becoming transfigured, we like to imagine ourselves feeding 5000 people, we even like to identify with Jesus when he is being persecuted, sometimes we feel persecuted too… Oh, we like identifying with Jesus plenty. Just not on the cross, remember.
Here’s the thing: We might not have correctly identified our role in this allegory. I’m not saying that you’re not like Jesus. I would never say that. I am saying that you might be even more like the chief priests. I am saying that our modern clergy, the police, politicians, and others with fake authority might not be the only ones who get it wrong. I am going to speak from my own experience and you see if you can identify: I have never been as clever as Jesus. I like to think I am clever, but I am not. Not like he was. I am not a transfigured miracle worker with doves descending on me while I feed thousands of people. I have sold out a few times. It was just easier. I admit it. I have betrayed those I should have protected, I have worn special clothes. If you think that a really fine suit doesn’t send a message of authority then you need a new tailor. I have claimed to be on one side of the fence when in reality I was working for somebody else. I have not always been who I said I was. I am getting better, but I am still not perfect at it so don’t be surprised if you see me mess up again. I’ve done those things, some of you have too. And worse, I suspect. If you are like me.
The question before us this morning is not, “Which son are you like?” The question is, “Who do you think you are?” And the follow-up is, “Are you sure?” Most of us are not the people we think we are. Our authority is not real because it is derived from our clothes, or our position, or the position we’ve convinced others we have whether we do or not. Our God is our own image of ourselves, or other people’s, and that’s a very shaky ground for authority. “Perception is reality,” as we used to say in politics. Only, it’s not true. Reality is reality. The perception created by selling out to one and then the other is not real authority at all.
The good news is that you do have real authority. It’s not the chimera of status or the borrowed authority of those who have sold out. It’s real. Jesus said, “But as many as received him, to them gave he power (exousia) to become the sons of God…” That’s you. Son of God. The things that Jesus did, are the things that you’ve been empowered to do. Remember, though, that when Jesus said “Go and do likewise…” he was not talking about all those things we love to think about, the miracles, and pyrotechnics. Jesus was talking about showing mercy.
The basis of real authority is to have sold out to the spirit of Christ, not the spirit of something more convenient. And the result of possessing real authority is the quality of mercy. Those who do not show mercy, possess no real authority, I don’t care if they are the president of the United States, or the bishop of the diocese, or anybody else. Authority is characterized by mercy. Like Jesus.
Go, and do like Jesus.
Some Notes of Possible Interest
Matthew 21:23… When Jesus entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?”
To talk about the vineyard is just another way of talking about the community of faith. It’s not about grapes. This is part of the allegory. The vineyard equates to the community of faith.
Luke 10:37… “…Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”
John 1:12… ‘But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name…”
© L. McMillan 2017 all rights reserved.
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