(Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32, Psalm 25:1-9, Philippians 2:1-13)
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?” 24 Jesus said to them, “I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. 25 Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” And they argued with one another, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ 26 But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.” 27 So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.
28 “What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ 29 He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. 30 The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. 31 Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. 32 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.”
Many parents who are struggling with a rebellious child will often hear the age-old question, “What gives you the right?!” The child will undoubtedly raise the question with a smirk on their face. “What gives you the right to tell me what to do?!” the child boldly asks. A follow-up question might be: “Who are you to think you know better than me how to live my life?!” The smirk on the child’s face reflects the satisfaction of befuddling the parents. After all, these are tricky questions to answer. Some parents will try and list a number of perks they’ve bestowed upon the child. “Because I own the CAR you’re driving around!” or “Because I give you MONEY and FOOD on a regular basis!” or “Because I put a ROOF over your head!” are some common replies. Other parents will try to persuade the child through personal experience: “Because I’ve done what you’re trying to do and I only hurt myself.” Other parents don’t even try to give a qualification other than “Because I am your PARENT!” No matter how a parent responds to the question, the child will appear unsatisfied and the parent will invariably question their own authority. Hence, the smirk on the child’s face.
What gives parents authority? Experience? Ownership of the car or money or food or house? The mere title of ‘parent’? Does a parent have authority without any relevant experiences to share? Does a parent have authority without a car or money or food or house to share? Does a parent have authority if they are no longer considered a ‘parent’ by the child? What exactly gives parents authority? Well, both the child and the parent of course! The child gives parents authority as much as the parents give themselves authority. Oh, and Scripture gives parents authority too. GOD gives parents authority! The sooner the wayward child comes to realize this the better. You see, their rebellion isn’t simply against their parents but also against God and Scripture! But for the sake of discussion, let’s just leave God and Scripture out of it.
It’s true, children give their parents the right and authority to tell them what to do. Parents also give themselves authority through the mere fact that they have helped create the child. At the root of the word “authority” is the word “author.” And what do authors do? They create! Creating a child is much more than what happens at conception. Creating a child is a lifelong process. When a parent strives to encourage and enrich the life of a child in whatever way, that parent is creating a child. A child will gladly enable the parent to encourage and enrich. The child enables “authorship;” the child gives authority. Likewise, the parent has chosen to “author” the child, to encourage and enrich the child, and thus, gives him/herself authority. Of course, when a parent acts and behaves destructively towards the child then this is non-creative and authority is lost. Authority has creativity at its core. If something or someone creates than it has authority. Children give parents opportunities to create. Parents give themselves opportunities to create through children.
Phew! Did you follow me on all that? The bottom line is, the next time your child or another parent’s child dares to spout off the question, “What gives you the right?!” simply respond, “Well, you do, of course! You’re MY opportunity to create!” Watch and see that silly little smirk turn into a frown real quick…
About the same time that children are questioning the authority of their parents, they’re also beginning to question the authority of other people in their lives. They’re beginning to wonder what gives teachers the right to tell them what to think. They’re beginning to question what gives policemen and judges the right to tell them they can’t kill their enemies or use drugs or alcohol. They’re beginning to ponder what gives pastors the right to tell them who God is and how God operates. The authority of parents is just the first rung on a great ladder of authority. Managers, foremen, superintendents, sergeants, mentors, policemen, counselors, Sunday school teachers, officers, judges, presidents, senators, deans, governors, professors, pastors, mayors, small group leaders, God…the rungs of authority are endless in this life! Children learn fairly quickly, at least they ought to learn fairly quickly, that there’s a whole army of authority figures in this life. We are ALL butting up against an authority, ANY authority, each and every day of our lives. Only a fool believes he/she is under no authority. Something or someone is constantly at work creating you; creating your thoughts, your principles, your morals, your beliefs, your codes of conduct, and your identity. Someone or something is continually “authoring” you.
Our readings for today explore the authority of God. The authority of God is a great and mighty thing. But before we delve into the great and mighty authority of God, I want to lighten the mood with a little story about authority that I read from the magazine, Bits & Pieces. It goes as such:
When Christian Herter was governor of Massachusetts, he was running hard for a second term in office. One day, after a busy morning chasing votes (and no lunch) he arrived at a church barbecue. It was late afternoon and Herter was famished. As Herter moved down the serving line, he held out his plate to the woman serving chicken. She put a piece on his plate and turned to the next person in line.
“Excuse me,” Governor Herter said, “do you mind if I have another piece of chicken?” “Sorry,” the woman told him. “I’m supposed to give one piece of chicken to each person.” “But I’m starved,” the governor said. “Sorry,” the woman said again. “Only one to a customer.” Governor Herter was a modest and unassuming man, but he decided that this time he would throw a little weight around. “Do you know who I am?” he said. “I am the governor of this state.” “Do you know who I am?” the woman said. “I’m the lady in charge of the chicken. Move along, mister.”
Clearly that governor misunderstood authority at that church barbecue!!
But back to our readings assigned for today. In the text from Ezekiel, we hear the people of Israel crying out to God, “The way of the Lord is unfair! The way of the Lord is unfair! Oh, how the way of the Lord is unfair!” We heard a similar complaint last week from the laborers who were paid the same wages as their fellow laborers regardless of how long they worked. “Oh, how the way of the Lord is unfair!” Yet we came to the realization that though God’s generosity is ‘not easily understood, it is gracious, merciful, and given with steadfast love.’ It is a GOOD thing that God’s generosity isn’t allotted according to our actions! If God’s generosity was allotted according to what we DESERVE, I’m afraid most of us wouldn’t be satisfied with what we received. I imagine only those who feel they deserve nothing and yet receive something will be the only ones satisfied! No, God’s ways ARE fair! Ezekiel proclaims, “Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, all of you according to your ways, says the Lord God. Repent and turn from all your transgressions; otherwise iniquity will be your ruin. Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed against me, and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit!” God’s authority is life-giving, life-creating. We die according to our sins, we live according to our repentance and God’s mercy. God’s authority is creative in nature, not destructive.
The psalm lifts up God’s creative authority as a teacher. “Good and upright is the Lord; therefore he instructs sinners in the way. He leads the humble in what is right, and teaches the humble his way.” The authority of a teacher comes from implanting life-creating thoughts in the student. Through creative thoughts, the teacher is in a way “authoring” the life of the student. The thoughts eventually turn in actions that direct and shape the life of a student. A teacher’s authority is life-changing, life-altering. Praise be to God for teaching us of our sins and how to be humble!
We’ll come back to the Philippians text because therein lies the good news concerning authority. The reading from Matthew explores the authority of Jesus. The confrontation between Jesus and the chief priests and elders comes a day after Jesus cleanses the temple of the money changers and rededicates it as a place of healing and worship. The chief priests and elders are furious at Jesus for telling them how to run their temple and want to discredit his authority. They came to Jesus asking, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” Jesus responds with a question that silences them and discredits their authority. Jesus knew they had no authority anyways, despite being men of great learning and stature. He knew this because their rigid beliefs and hunger for power was killing them and those around them. Remember, authority is creative by nature, not destructive. Authority creates, not destroys. The chief priests and elders were less concerned with creating than destroying and their authority was lessened as a result. If only they could recognize that Jesus’ authority comes from his life-giving creativity, then they wouldn’t have asked the question.
Which brings us to the beautiful Philippians text. It highlights that authority of Jesus as a servant. It reads, “though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.” The nature of a slave is that of complete and utter servitude. Fulfilling the master’s desires is the highest priority; even higher than fulfilling one’s own desires. A slave is both compelled and consumed with creating for the master. A slave can’t destroy. A slave must always create. Jesus, as a slave, came to create for his master. Even when he was casting the money changers out of the temple, he was creating new life and new possibilities. The authority of Jesus is creative by nature. Jesus wants us to have new life through him, through belief in him. Jesus took on the sin of the world, died, and resurrected in order to create new life for us. The Philippians hymn lifts up our gloriously creative God! God comes to us in Jesus to create new life in each of us. Jesus wants us to let go of our pasts, to let go of our fears, to let go of anything that gets in the way of new life in him.
As mentioned earlier, we all butt against some type of authority in our lives. Parents, teachers, bosses, pastors, siblings, the law…you name it. There are many rungs in the ladder of authority. But there is only one authority that is fully creative, fully life-giving, fully life-sustaining—God’s authority. All other authority will have times of creation but also times of destruction. Parents might not always give you the keys to the car, teachers might not always give you the grade you want, and bosses might not always give the raise you need. But God will ALWAYS be creative in your life. God’s authority is supreme. We all must answer to some type of authority in life but I ask you…who do you answer to?
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.