Authority and Obedience

The Rev. Mary Vano
St. Margaret’s, Little Rock
September 25, 2011
Proper 21A
Matthew 21:23-32

In today’s Gospel encounter we have a question about authority and an answer about obedience. Authority and Obedience. These are words and concepts that are somewhat out of vogue among modern generations. We generally mistrust authority. Having lived through too many news cycles of corrupt political officials, and hypocritical religious leaders, it’s hard to know exactly whose authority we can trust. And we rail against the notion of obedience, as something that’s only good for children. I myself have been known to remind my husband from time to time that “obedience” was not a part of our marriage vows! And yet, as a priest, I have taken vows of obedience. It took a lot of obedience to follow God’s call to priesthood, and as part of the ordination service I vowed to obey my bishop and other ministers who have authority over me. It may be out of vogue, but in the language of faith, authority and obedience are important concepts.

So in our Gospel today, the chief priests and elders question Jesus about by what authority he teaches. They want to know – because it is their authority that is being threatened by Jesus’ words and actions, some of which run contrary to their own leadership. Jesus cleverly subverts their question, and instead tells a story about obedience.

It’s a simple little parable. The first son tells his father that he will not work in the vineyard. So the father goes to his other son, who agrees to go do the work. One is obedient and the other is not; but the twist is, their obedience is about their actions, not their words. The first son initially refused, but then thought better of it, and went out and did the work in the vineyard. The second son had agreed, but for whatever reason – we don’t know if it was laziness, or distraction, or passive aggression – he did not do the work. With this simple story, Jesus makes a simple point – obedience is measured by what we do, not by what we say we will do.

Most of us have probably stood in the shoes of both of these boys. We’ve been in the shoes of the second son, when we’ve said yes in order to please or in order to avoid trouble, and whether for our own laziness or distraction or passive aggression have failed to do the thing we agreed to do. Of course, if we’ve done this, then we know that there are consequences. When I was a teenager there was one particular task about which I was especially disobedient. I can’t even really tell you why. It was my chore to clean and care for the pool; my brother’s job was the lawn. This was our family system, and I had tacitly agreed to it. But instead of regularly cleaning and treating the pool water like I was supposed to do, I generally ignored it until it turned green, and then I would shock it back into balance. There were consequences. As with anything that needs doing, there are generally negative consequences when it doesn’t get done. This was a small task, and one that only affected my family, but still – there were plenty of days when we couldn’t use the pool because I had failed to clean it. But the consequence that was even more significant was how it took a toll on my relationships in my family. Now, my parents love me unconditionally, but honestly, this little disobedience drove my Dad crazy. It was understandably frustrating to him, which took an emotional toll for both of us, and I lost some of the trust that my parents had given me. That’s what happens when we fail to do the things that we’ve agreed to do – the relationship suffers, and we lose the trust of others. And that’s what happens when we disobey God. God’s will is at least delayed, sometimes thwarted by our willfulness, and our personal relationship with God is diminished.

Now, I expect that most of us have also from time to time stood in the shoes of the first son, who initially refused the will of his father, but then obeyed. I find the example of this character especially compelling, perhaps because somewhere along the way I learned that it was more pleasing to people to say yes, so I find it difficult to say no. But, then there was a critical point in my life when I did say no to God. That was the time that I initially felt God’s call to ordained ministry. The first reaction was no, and it was no for several years before I could finally say yes. If we look to the characters of the Bible and to almost anyone who has ever felt God’s call, there’s something of a theme – faithful people usually say no to God before they can say yes. If you remember the BBC sitcom The Vicar of Dibley, you might remember the stuttering vestryman who begins each response with a long series of “No’s”: “No, no, …no…no, no, YES!”

Sometimes it’s challenging to be obedient to God, because God calls us to challenging things – things that will disrupt our lives, things that will force us to face our fears, things that will require that we trust in God. Of course we say no. But if we listen to that still small voice that calls to us in love, we will find there the will and the power to be obedient. Listening is the key. The word obedient comes from the Latin word audire, which means “listening.” Only when we listen – when we push out the noisy worries that preoccupy us and free some inner space where we can be present and hear the word of God – can we be obedient. When we do the opposite – when we allow all the busy-ness, noise, and worry fill up our lives, we become deaf. In Latin, the word deaf is surdus – from which we get the word “absurd”. In his book Making All things New, Henri Nouwen challenges us therefore to move from “an absurd life to an obedient life.”

You see, however out of vogue the concepts of authority and obedience may be in our culture, these are still vital attributes of a life of faith. When we listen and obey God, following the example of Christ, we don’t diminish ourselves, but rather become more fully empowered through the will of God. When you first heard today’s Gospel reading you might have thought that Jesus’ changed the subject. He had been questioned about authority – when they failed to respond openly to him, he refused to answer, and then followed with this story about obedience that perhaps seemed like a non-sequiter. But when we read it more closely, I think we discover that the placement of this story is quite intentional. Jesus is teaching that true spiritual authority, can only come through obedience to God. That obedience comes from our willingness to be still and listen, and it is lived out in action rather than word. When we act in obedience, we exercise authority – not our own authority – but the authority of God. This is why obedience matters: because God calls faithful people, people who can listen with humility and servitude, to stand up with the will of God in our hearts and proclaim Good News, and to do justice, and to heal the sick, and to transform the world. This is the Great Commission. Jesus said to his disciples, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” It all begins in obedience. First Jesus’, now ours.