When I was just beginning the process of becoming a United Methodist pastor, at the very beginning of the ordination process that we have to go through, they give you a psychological test.  And then, a bit more through the process they give you another test.  And then before they ordain you, they give you one more test.  So, I’ve been vetted three times, and they still let me come!  The very time I went through the psychological test, I went through and filled out the test.  I mailed off the test, and then I met with a therapist to go over the results of the psychological test.  At one point in the conversation, the therapist said, “Do you think you might have a problem with authority? Do you think there might be any rebelliousness in you?”

I thought for a few seconds, and perhaps as surprising to me and it was to her, the answer that I gave was, “I find the rule of faith passed on from the apostle’s to be rebellious enough.  I don’t need another way to rebel or go outside the lines.”  The rule of faith passed on throughout the church is enough for me.  As we were in our Bible Study on Wednesday where some of the youth are following the lectionary, as we started to talk about the scripture, that is the story that came up in my mind as we struggled with this passage.

The chief priests and elders ask Jesus the question, “By what authority are you doing these things?”  It is important to remember what has just happened.  Jesus has recently cleared out the temple, driving out those who are buying and selling in the temple.  He drives out those who would let the temple simply be another place of commerce.  We remember this part well.  What we often forget is what happens next.  When those who are buying and selling are driven out, the blind and the lame enter into the temple, and Jesus cures them.  For Jesus to welcome these disabled persons into the temple is significant.  As one of my favorite professors, Stanley Hauerwas, reminds us:

David had prohibited the blind and the lame from coming into his house (2 Sam. 5:8), and in Lev. 21:17 the blind and the lame were prohibited from offering sacrifices to God.  Jesus truly cleansed the temple, overturning the established order by inviting into the temple those who had been excluded.[1]

The cleansing of the temple is deeper than driving out those who were using it as a place of commerce; it includes creating peace in welcoming those who had not been welcome in the house of worship.  Those folks who no one thought had any business in their house of worship, Jesus invited in.  Maybe the rule of faith passed on from the apostles is just rebellious enough.   Jesus named that they were welcome, that they were significant, that they were important.  He welcomed those who were at the edges.  He welcomed those on the margins because those who were in the center of the authority refused to welcome them.

The chief priests and elders, the established authorities, want to know who Jesus thinks he is.  They want to know by whose authority he would drive out the moneychangers from whom they likely benefit.  They want to know by whose authority he would welcome the disabled who they think have no place in God’s house?  Hey Jesus, judging from your psychological exam, do you think you might have a problem with authority?  Just who do you think you are?  Jesus, the Rabbi, cleverly answers their question with a question of his own.  He asks, “Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?”

The chief priests and elders then argue amongst themselves how they should answer.  I can imagine them huddling together in a circle trying to figure out what to say.  If we say “heaven,” then w admit that John was a legitimate prophet whose words should have been heeded.  If we say earth, we fear the anger of the crowds, who did regard John as a prophet.  Like so many political and religious authorities we encounter, they are trying to maintain their own authority by keeping people happy without ceding any authority to others.  Those in the established authority did not accept John, yet the crowds, those without power, again, those on the margins accepted John as a prophet.

Jesus’ question does more than simply catch the chief priests and elders in a quandary.  His question links him directly to John the Baptist.  They want to know the authority, and while Jesus does not directly answer the question, he does gesture in that direction.  Jesus could have chosen any number of prophets with which to identify himself.  People they could have commonly agreed on:  Isaiah, Zechariah, Hosea, Elijah.  Yet, here, Jesus goes again to the margins with John the Baptist.[2]  John the Baptist, this seemingly crazy figure.  He was regarded as a certifiable religious nut.  This guy who hangs out in the desert.  This guy who wears camel skin and eats bugs.  This man on the margins.  This man who the crowds accepted, but the established authorities did not.  He was a prophet on the margins.

Jesus is linking himself to this man.  Jesus is again linking himself to the margins.  It was this man from the margins that the authorities rejected, who ultimately was killed.  It is Jesus now, who is also identifying himself at the margins who also looks ahead to rejection, to death at the hands of the powers that be.[3]  Jesus will not tell them by whose authority he has done these actions because their refusal of John demonstrates their unwillingness to recognize that Jesus’ authority also comes from God.   Indeed, because of who he is, Jesus’s authority comes from himself.[4]  He could have just answered “me.”

To illustrate his point Jesus again tells a parable, using vineyard imagery just as he did in our scripture for last week.  Interestingly enough, this parable seems more straightforward that most parables Jesus tells.  A man has two sons.  He asks one to go to work in his vineyard.  This first son refuses to go work in the vineyard.  Then he changes his mind and goes to work.  The second son agrees to go work in the vineyard.  Then he changes his mind and doesn’t.  Jesus asks a simple question.  Who did the will of their father?  The answer is clear, the son who at first said he would not work, but then changed his mind and worked in the vineyard.  This is not as surprising as some of the other parables, the answer seems so clear.

The surprise comes when he elaborates on the parable.  Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.”  This is the shocking part.  How could this be possible?  How could “those people” be ahead of anyone going into the kingdom of God?  How could those who are convinced they are living faithfully be behind those upon whom everyone agrees are the worst people in society?  Can you imagine?  Those who are convinced they are living faithfully will be behind those who on one likes.  Those who again, are on the margins.

Jesus makes it abundantly clear.  The tax collectors and prostitutes believe what John was saying, and those at the center of religious and political authority did not.  And what was John saying?  What was John doing while he was in the wilderness preaching repentance for sins and baptizing?  He was pointing always to the one would come next, to the Messiah, to Jesus.  The priests and elders would not believe John, and they will not believe Jesus.

The chief priests and elders want to know by whose authority Jesus does these things.  But it doesn’t matter what Jesus says because they will not believe him.  They consider themselves the authority.  They consider themselves the judges of who has authority from God.  Jesus, who is himself the authority, relocates the center of authority to the margins, because he locates himself on the margins, with the prostitutes and tax collectors, the people no one likes, those who are disenfranchised, and persons with disabilities.  Everyone is convinced “those people” are sinners and as far from God as possible.  Yet they believed John, and many of they now believe Jesus.  They didn’t at first, but now they have begun working in the vineyard.

So, when I hear the question, “Do you think you might have a problem with authority?” it depends on what authority you’re talking about.  If that’s authority that comes from Jesus Christ, discerned in the Body of Christ, led by the Holy Spirit, that drives us to the margins, that drives us to welcome into our midst those who no one else will welcome, then there’s no problem there.  To rebel, is be Christian in this case.  We are already doing something different by lavishing our time and talents on those about whom others have forgotten.

Before I go any further, let me make one thing clear.  Let me make it clear how not to interpret this passage.  Some would use this passage as a way to declare that God somehow replaced Israel with the church.  They cast a vision of all Jewish persons as being the same as these chief priests and scribes.  They believe that this scripture supports that vision.  This could not be further from scripture or the truth.  Paul makes it clear that the church is grafted on to Israel, and he also makes it clear that while we may not understand it fully, God has not rejected the covenant God made with Israel (Romans 11).  The implications of this are more than we can go into this morning, but what is clear is that Jesus is not saying here that all of Israel is being cast off in favor of the Church.  This is about doing the will of the Father.  Jesus is a Jewish person living among other Jewish persons speaking to other Jewish persons in the temple.  This is about looking at those in authority and asking if they are doing the will of the Father from whom all true authority comes.

Even better, the parable itself puts us in the middle.  Plenty of us said we would get to work in the vineyard, and then we don’t.  Plenty of us have said we wouldn’t work, but then we do work unexpectedly.  We find ourselves in the middle.  We find ourselves undecided.  We find ourselves at a crossroads.  We find ourselves asking the question, “How shall I live today?  Who shall I be today?  What authority shall I follow?  Who will I give myself to today?  Will it be Wall Street?  Will it be a news commentator?  Will it be a politician?  Will it be infidelity?”  We find ourselves always teetering on the edge between whether we get to work in the vineyard or we don’t.  But the beauty of this is that it is not final.

Jesus says that the tax collectors and the prostitutes will go ahead of the chief priests and elders into the Kingdom of Heaven.  He doesn’t say the priests and elders won’t go into the Kingdom of Heaven at all.  They just haven’t heard. They haven’t gotten down into the vineyard in a while.  They haven’t been down on the margins with folks lately.    There is still opportunity. There is still time.  There is still possibility.  The problem right now is that, like we talked about a few weeks ago, this isn’t the kind of Messiah the chief priests and scribes were looking for.  This guy rode in on a donkey, and they wanted him to ride in on a war horse.[5]  They wanted him to come in and conquer the Romans.  That’s the thing that’s floating around in the background during this whole discussion of authority.  The chief priests and elders consider themselves the authority, but they are a people who are under Roman authority.  Yet Jesus comes in and bucks all of it.

Jesus, do you think you might have a problem with authority?  It depends on what authority you’re talking about.  When Jesus comes in as the true authority, he messes with our lives because he disrupts our allegiance to all other authorities.  I realize that I don’t always get to work in the vineyard like I should.  I also recognize that God is still calling me there.  If I’m not there I need to get there.

So, I realize it was a weird way to answer that woman’s question about whether I have a problem with authority.  But I believe it was truthful to say that there is enough rebelliousness when we start to go where Jesus goes.  We’re going to look weird.  We’re going to look different, and it’s going to look like we’re rebelling.  There have been times when we have had a problem with authority. When the church stood up for those who were disenfranchised or on the margins.  For example, when parts of the church stood up for civil rights.  You might say some of those people had a problem with authority, but Jesus called them into the vineyard and they went.  They went out to the margins, and they got attacked by dogs, sprayed by hoses, and even killed at times because it looked like they had a problem with authority. 

The question always comes back to whose authority.  The authority of this Jesus who calls us to a table with people with whom we never expected to eat.  This Jesus who calls us to share bread with one another.  That’s been the theme of the stewardship campaign over the past few weeks:  growing bread, making bread, and sharing bread, as we will today in Holy Communion.  The authority of the one who is somehow present to us in the simple elements of bread and juice.  It is in that sharing that we recognize the authority because he consumes us in this meal.  [The Bread for Communion is being baked in the kitchen during the worship service.] Can you smell the bread?  As we gather together at this table, we are opening ourselves up to Jesus’ authority.  Not an authority that rules with an iron fist, but one that rules by washing feet.  And authority that leads by serving, and calls us into service.

[1] Stanley Hauerwas, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible:  Matthew, (Grand Rapids:  Brazos Press, 2006), p. 183.

[2] Kathryn D. Blanchard, “Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year A, vol. 4, (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox, 2011), pp. 117-118.

[3] Lewis R. Donelson, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting, p. 121.

[4] Blanchard, “Theological Perspective,” Feasting, p. 116.

[5] Hauerwas, Matthew, p. 181.  Hauerwas says this much better than I did: “Victors in battle do not ride into their capital cities riding on asses, but rather they ride on fearsome horses.”