By Rev. Michelle Magee
Commentary on Matthew 21:33-46
Where does authority come from and how does it work? This Sunday’s Gospel lesson is the second of three parables Jesus tells in response to the question from the chief priests and the elders: “By what authority are you doing these things?” (Matthew 21: 23). The deeper I go into this parable the more I sense Jesus flipping all of our notions about authority upside down.
As I read this question from the chief priest and elders I imagine their tone and guess that their question comes from place of: “WE are the leaders of the Jewish people. WE are the ones who will teach about God and religion, thankyouverymuch.” They ask the question not because they want a sincere answer, but because they want to establish their authority and emphasize that things should be done by the rules, and top-down.
Jesus has already given a (non) answer and told one parable in response to their question, but then seems to step it up a notch. In verse 33 Jesus begins with the very familiar imagery from Isaiah of the vineyard which is understood to represent the society of God’s people (aka Israel). In Isaiah the leaders (political and religious as they were very much intertwined) are taken to task for not caring for the people. Now Jesus speaks to the chief priests and elders, he asks them, “Who is responsible for caring for the people while the owner of the vineyard is away?” D. Mark Davis suggests that the religious leaders talking to Jesus assume the evil tenants in his parable are the Roman occupiers, hence their answer in verse 41: “God will put those wretches to a miserable death!” But by the end of the parable, Jesus has flipped their own violent judgment upon them (v. 44).
I see this as Matthew’s version of a “he who has no sin, throw the first stone” ethic. Jesus raises the question: If you--chief priests and elders-- have the authority of the One True God, why aren’t you using it to care for the people? If you are going to have a god who puts evil tenants to death, then you are those evil tenants. Judge yourself by the same code with which you judge others. Your pretty words about God and your actions don’t line up.
When the chief priests and elders are called out, rather than admitting that Jesus does have the authority of the One True God, they see that he is exposing their hypocrisy and want to arrest him (v 45-46).
So it goes every time those with power resist accountability.
Jesus tells them that their power of caring for the people and instructing in the Way of the One True God--in other words, their authority-- is taken, according to Jesus, from them and given to the new followers of the Way who are producing fruit. Those with true authority are the ones living with deeds that match their words (v 43).
There is always a temptation to make our god in our own image, to assume a god who wants revenge like we want revenge, who would do what we do, right or wrong, while only looking at us with favor. The gospel frees us to repent of that hypocrisy and examine our words (as individuals, movements or institutions) alongside the deeds and outcomes of those words. The gospel frees us to place authority not in the by –the- rules, top-down hierarchy, but to put authority in those who bear fruit of the kingdom.
Sermon illustrations in the negative abound: think perhaps of the sins of your own church institution, the democracy or lack thereof in our nation, who is indicted for which crimes, billionaire CEOs with idealistic sounding mission statements but whose employees live below the poverty line.
But what about the positive illustration: Who produces the fruits of the kingdom today? Which people are living lives of truly caring for others? Stories come to mind of immigrant communities who look out for one another, of homeless people helping each other find the resources they need. The less power people have, it seems, the more accountability they have to living lives of care. Perhaps there-- in communities rather than individuals, in those with the least power in worldly terms rather than the most--is where we ought to locate authority as followers of Jesus.
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