Trading Authority for the Kingdom

The Rev. Scott Walters
Christ Church, Little Rock
Proper 21A
Matthew 21:23-32

Even the chaos in the housing market of the past few years hasn’t managed to bump home ownership off of the American Dream essentials list. But why so many of us Americans are bent on owning houses isn’t clear to everyone. Financial advisors have long warned us that a 30 year mortgage isn’t a great investment, even when housing values aren’t in retreat. Add the cost of maintenance and the difficult process of getting rid of a house when it’s time to move, and the argument for buying one doesn’t seem like a cinch, even if you have the money. But we’re still bent on owning houses. Why?

My theory is that we each harbor an inner grumpy old man who likes to tell neighborhood kids to get off his lawn. Even if we’d never do such a thing in real life, we like the idea that a certain little plot of this earth is our own. Somehow that tiny fraction of my house payment that actually nibbles away at the principal affords me a certain authority. Cursing at trespassing children is just one of its hopefully latent pleasures.

But home ownership is about more than status and authority, isn’t it? I rediscovered this on Thursday for the umpteenth time when the upstairs tub drain clogged yet again. The drain is accessible from the kitchen below. So I pulled down a kitchen light fixture, removed and cleaned out the drain trap, then reinstalled it for a test. But when I turned on the faucet, the tub began to fill up as if I hadn’t just removed a wad of gunk the size of a small greasy rodent from the drain. I had to take it all apart again. So I stepped up on my ladder with a large—at least it seemed pretty large—plastic bowl to catch what looked like just a few cups of water that refused to drain. Then I discovered how poor my water volume calculations were.

As I stumbled off the ladder toward the sink, my bowl full and overflowing down the front of my pants, with plenty more water still pouring from the disassembled trap in the ceiling, knowing that I would still have to send my drain snake into more of the terrible black goo that must be waiting further down the pipe, well, let’s just say that in this moment home ownership lost some of its luster. As did my shoes.

At this moment I really could have used a kid to yell at on the front lawn. Expressing a little homeowner authority might have helped distract me from the humiliating fact that I’m also the guy responsible for the crud that gets stuck in the drain.

How often we’re enticed by the prospect of authority, only to have responsibility dumped onto us unawares.

Authority and responsibility are two things we usually think of as going hand in hand. People with more authority have more responsibility. And responsible folks are granted more authority. That’s the way the world’s supposed to work, we think. But in a short scene from the gospel of Matthew, we see that this isn’t always the case. At least it’s not the case in the Kingdom of God.

Jesus is in the temple teaching when the chief priests and elders challenge him. He’s on their turf. He’s in their front yard so to speak. So they question his authority to do the things he’s been doing. He’s been teaching and healing and making quite a stir. But who said he could do all these things, especially in the temple? The authorities want to know.

Well, Jesus famously trips them up by asking a question about the authority of John the Baptist. The temple leaders don’t want to say John’s authority is from below, that is, not from God, because he’s popular with the people. And they sure don’t want to say John’s authority comes from above. So Jesus halts the debate. If they can’t answer his authority question, he won’t answer theirs.

But Jesus isn’t just making a clever rhetorical move. He wants to make an important change in the terms of this debate. His questioners want to talk about who has the authority to act, and where that authority comes from. Jesus just wants to talk about responsibility and action. A very particular action, it turns out.

“What do you think?” Jesus says. “A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?”

Now, the two halves of this reading seem disconnected. What does a story about saying yes and not doing, verses saying no and doing, have to do with authority? Well, it might just be a deep, deep challenge to our very familiar and very human obsession with authority.

The scribes and elders were talking about something that is granted. They believed that God had granted them the authority to say and do certain things in the religious community. And Jesus doesn’t dispute their authority, per se. He sidesteps their authority question because it’s a bad question. It’s a distracting question. Jesus would rather talk about action, not authority.

Now, we might argue that there are different kinds of authority. There is an arbitrary authority that comes from being lucky enough to be born into a powerful family, or nation, or race. But there is also moral authority. Something earned by our honesty or virtuous living. That’s different, right? Someone without the moral authority to speak, shouldn’t.

But here’s where Jesus’ parable is most interesting, and most bewildering. He frames it so that neither son does what he says. So neither son has what we might call moral authority. Jesus seems to be saying that even moral authority is not what matters most. What we do has more to do with who we are than any of that.

Making myself feel better by dismissing the authority of someone else is an age old strategy. Get ready. The political debate season is upon us. And pundits and politicos will go round and round about whether this blunder in that candidate’s past undermines his or her authority to speak about thus and such. Very, very rarely will anyone say, hey, that’s true. And some things are true whether you’re a liar or a saint. Our obsession with moral authority can be a way of shirking our own responsibility. Whew! That’s guy’s a philanderer. I guess I don’t have to listen to anything he has to say about the poor, or immigrants, or schools. Even if what he says is true.

At times it seems like we’re a nation of people standing on our front lawns, making authoritative declarations about who can walk where and say what, when we really need to be inside repairing the plumbing.

And Jesus says that worrying about who has what authority when there is work to be done is a spiritual problem. The kingdom of God is at stake. He says to all of us upstanding people with nice houses and green lawns and good jobs and the authority that comes with such things, he says we can be fooled. Prostitutes and tax collectors walk right into the kingdom of God if they choose, and we can miss it. Because maybe the kingdom of God isn’t something that’s granted to people who have earned it. Maybe the kingdom of God just is. Maybe it doesn’t take any more authority to see the kingdom than it does to see a sunrise. It really doesn’t matter so much whether you said you were getting up early in the morning to see it or not. What matters is that you did.

You see, as Jesus finishes his story we suddenly understand that the two son’s going out to work the vineyard weren’t going out there to earn their keep or establish their authority. The father was sending them into nothing less than the kingdom of God, a kingdom whose order is not established by our foolish notions of authority and human value, but of God’s. A kingdom whose order is established by grace and mercy and forgiveness. A kingdom that a tax collector or a prostitute or an investment banker or a bum or a school teacher or any one of us could walk right into if we let go of our need to wield authority in our own silly little kingdoms and see that God has provided a better way.

I’m still drawn to the illusion of owning my own lawn (it’s really Iberia Bank’s) more than I am to the all too concrete reality of a drain clog. But I think Jesus named a very real spiritual issue in our lives today, when he challenged us to see that our bickering over authority, moral or otherwise, is really a tragic distraction. It’s tragic because even if we do happen to wield a little authority in this world, what we need in the depth of our souls is the experience of grace and forgiveness. We need to know that we’re ok. And in the depths of our souls we know that all our foolish battles over who gets to be in charge diminish us all in the end. They distract us from the good kingdom of God that is always and everywhere at hand. Whether we inhabit the top floors of a bank building or cell of a prison, it’s at hand. We just have to turn away from our infatuation with authority, and walk right into the vineyard.