Jamie Howison’s sermon on Matthew 21:23-32 from October 1, 2017
“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?’”
In the arc of Matthew’s narrative, that question about authority is the signal that the tension is rising, a crisis is looming. The chief priests and the elders of the people—men who understood themselves as holding positions of status and authority within their world—confront Jesus in the temple and issue a kind of a challenge. They are clearly unsettled, because they are among the ones who must maintain some balance in the precarious arrangement that has been reached with the occupying Roman Empire. The temple system had been allowed to continue, Jerusalem could maintain its identity as a Jewish city, so long as taxes were paid and all signs of rebellion were kept down. That balance needed to be maintained, because if Rome began to get uneasy or suspicious, things would all come toppling down.
And then this Jesus character arrives, and they begin to wonder if he’s not already upsetting the balance. By what authority are you doing these things, and in saying “these things” they’ve got some very specific issues in mind. This is shortly after Jesus had first arrived in Jerusalem, riding in on a donkey, heralded by his followers with the words, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” Danger sign number one: they think he stands in the line of King David, and he’s coming into the city in the name of the Lord. They want him to save them, which is what the word hosanna means; “save us.”
And then he’s gone to the temple, and chased out the merchants and moneychangers, all the while justifying his actions by quoting the prophet Jeremiah. That’s danger sign number two; there is simply no way that the Roman guards didn’t hear about that incident.
What’s more, whenever he’s in the temple the blind and the lame are flocking to him, and increasingly people believe that he can heal them; that he can restore sight and mend useless limbs. More and more they cry out their “hosannas,” more and more is he called a Son of David. Whatever strange gift he might have as a healer, this is going to get out of hand and go to his head.
And so they come with their question of authority, which is a particularly important theme in Matthew’s narrative. What makes you think you can say and do these things? Lets see some ID, so to speak; where are your credentials?
It is at this point that Jesus illustrates something about the nature of his authority, which is not bound up in credentials or social status or being part of a priestly family, but rather is expressed in his handling of their questions with another question, and then a story. It is actually a very Jewish way—a very rabbinical way—of engagement. I’ll answer your questions about my authority if you answer a question for me: “Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” It is for them an unanswerable question, because regardless of what they say they will be cornering themselves. So no, no we do not know. Well, then “neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things,” which is the line which transitions into this little parable of the two sons. A man asks his first son to go to work in the vineyard, and though at first that son declines he soon shifts gears and decides to go. Meanwhile the man has gone to his second son, who immediately says, oh yes sir, I’ll go… but, you know, dad is out of sight and I’ve got better things to do than work in that hot vineyard… So, gentlemen, who actually did the will of the father? Pause. Deep breath. “The first.” Bingo.
Truly I tell you, the tax-collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For 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.
That is a very bold challenge to them, uttered very publicly in the temple no less. Not only is Jesus firmly declaring that John really was heaven-sent, he’s also saying to them that no matter how repulsive and unacceptable tax collectors, prostitutes, and the like might be to them, they were in fact the ones most likely to have had their heads lifted by John’s message; and if by John’s message, then by Jesus’ authority as well. Set aside your self-assured orthodoxy and right behavior; unless it is integrated with a willingness to see the new thing that God is doing in me, it all amounts to little more that the second son’s “yes sir, I will go and work for you.”
I’m reminded of Flannery O’Connor’s remarkable short story, “Revelation.” Set in the deep south during segregation, the lead character of the story is Mrs. Turpin, who with her husband Claud owns a farm. She is to her own mind a good woman, a Christian woman; hard working, principled, and dignified. She is less sure of the dignity of the black farmhands, who she considers lazy and not particularly trustworthy, and even more critical of those she considers “white trash.” Low living, poor white people, who should know better because, they are, after all, white. Over the course of the story a number of things happen that rather shake Mrs. Turpin, including being struck on the head by a text book, which was flung across a doctor’s waiting room at her by a sullen young student who had tired of Mrs. Turpin’s smugly judgmental small talk. For Flannery O’Connor, a textbook to the head can be an act of grace.
As the story winds toward its end, Mrs. Turpin is standing by the pigpen staring at the hogs, trying to make sense of her day. The hogs, O’Connor writes, “had settled all in one corner around the old sow who was grunting softly. A red glow suffused them. They appeared to pant with a secret life.”
Until the sun slipped finally behind the tree line, Mrs. Turpin remained there with her gaze bent to them as if she were absorbing some abysmal life-giving knowledge. At last she lifted her head. There was only a purple streak in the sky, cutting through a field of crimson and leading, like an extension of the highway, into the descending dusk. She raised her hands from the side of the pen in a gesture hieratic and profound. A visionary light settled in her eyes. She saw the streak as a vast swinging bridge extending upward from the earth through a field of living fire. Upon it a vast horde of souls were tumbling toward heaven. There were whole companies of white trash, clean for the first time in their lives, and bands of black niggers in white robes, and battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs. And bringing up the end of the procession was a tribe of people whom she recognized at once as those who, like herself and Claud, had always had a little of everything and the given wit to use it right. She leaned forward to observe them closer. They were marching behind the others with great dignity, accountable as they had always been for good order and common sense and respectable behaviour. They, alone were on key. Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces even their virtues were being burned away. She lowered her hands and gripped the rail of the hog pen, her eyes small but fixed unblinkingly on what lay ahead. In a moment the vision faded but she remained where she was.
At length she got down and turned off the faucet and made her slow way on the darkening path to the house. In woods around her the invisible cricket choruses had struck up, but what she heard were the voices of the souls climbing upward into the starry field and shouting hallelujah.
That’s where O’Connor’s story ends, with Mrs. Turpin’s world unsettled by this strange revelation of truth; so tipped on its head was her world, that even the sound of the crickets was like the heaven-bound hallelujahs of all those people she’d so easily scorned and dismissed. What Mrs. Turpin does with that—whether or not it actually changes her—is the question O’Connor leaves unanswered. But it is the important question, because it is the same one the priests and elders are left with at the end of Jesus’ parables, the same one the Pharisees and scribes must face when they come to confront him, and the same one we in our own ways must confront when we bump hard into the deep claims of God’s grace. Like Mrs. Turpin, sometimes our notions of in and out, acceptable and unacceptable, even loveable and unloveable, might just need to be hit across the head with a textbook. Or a maybe by a parable about a man and his sons.