by Joseph Castañeda Carrera
Commentary on Matthew 21:23-32
To begin with the Matthew text we must look at how authority and Grace function at the juncture between oppressed and privileged peoples in our own neighborhoods today.
God’s Grace will always be with us. In fact, it cannot be separated from us.
Grace will always be most powerful, forever redeeming, upon each of us before we need it.
As people of faith and care who recognize the priesthood of all believers, God calls upon us to offer words of assurance of God’s Grace to each other always. Each person commanded to love their neighbor, and we respond by securely embracing those in need in our arms and rocking them back and forth, back and forth, with canciones de cuna about the gift that has been given freely. In a world of sin, chaos, and suffering, Grace is an eternal and unconditional relationship with everyone, with you, providing constant forgiveness, reassurance of our belonging and being loved by God, and unconditional reconciliation with God. It is good.
My Dear Siblings, it will not always feel good and comforting. We must take care; the presence of pain, or heartache, or difficult work left to our hands, or essential conflict to combat oppression, or the natural cycle of birth, life, and death of God’s beloved or our organization is NOT a measure of the absence of God's Grace. Let’s reform our heart, ways of thinking, and words to assure those who daily struggle that this gift meets them there. Preach that they don’t neither have to feel better nor do better. Otherwise, we are teaching weak Grace that somehow isn’t completely sufficient for everyone and adds to systems of authority, privilege, and oppression.
People of historic oppressions and of intersectionality marginalized identities have few days where they don’t worry for their livelihood or prejudice-based injury to their livelihood, few moments each day. Often Christian religious organizations and teachings are the culturally- and structurally-rooted authority to justify injury, pain, and suffering to the “least of these.” To withhold Grace is racist, transphobic, sexist, homophobic, ablist violence lifted up in the name of God, and it is vile. Where does the authority come from to birth this reality each day? Who has the authority? What has this authority caused and where has it led us over the last 1700 years, 300 years? Why do we allow our faith and this authority to continue? Where is their Grace and authority, and what will it do in the world?
People of abundant intersectional privilege have fewer reasons to worry about their livelihood and injury, and worry at different higher levels, at levels of prosperity and problematic wealth, not basic survival. Privilege does not need to be actively grabbed or used against marginalized people, but rather is like the air a newborn child’s body breathes in to cry out and to nourish their bodies. The air is something provided to them and is invisible, and nobody in the room questions the child’s access to the air or how they will use it. As the child grows, their air is constantly for them without consideration, much appreciation, or intentional use. To think about it is hard meditation and seems like useful meditation. To reflect on the privilege and find ways to breathe with others more intentionally is possible, and those who have never always had authority and possession over will align in with death. It will feel like death. It will feel horrible and ugly to encounter and process, but God’s Grace still abounds in their life. We must make sure they know this and know it is still worth the effort, and responsibility is placed upon them.
In the analogy, however, worldly authority does not provide all children permission to breathe, ensuring that only some children are permitted. These children are White, cisgender, boys, straight, born in United States, able-bodied without disability, only live in specific neighborhoods, and will never truly have to worry about food or rent. Other children outside of this list don’t have the same permission, and can only breathe when it is acceptable and convenient; we cannot breathe. Is the authority of privilege credible? Do we govern our church on authority of privilege and systems established upon foundations of oppression? Is the authority of our church the air some breathe without realizing? Blood covers this authority, and continues to violently injure today. Now, to examine the text.
First, let’s look at where this text falls within the Gospel of Matthew. Leading up to our text, Jesus heals a bunch of people, proclaims God’s favor for the vulnerable, and enters a political discourse regarding empire and colonization. Then, Jesus enters Jerusalem to great celebration. Upon a mule, Jesus rides into town as people lay their clothing and cut branches from surrounding trees in the street to honor the entrance, and people begin to publicly acknowledge Jesus as God. Then, Jesus forcibly drives people who are selling out of the temple to assert the place of capitalism in God’s space (this is a direct attack upon the status quo politics of the region), then shares how we all can be thriving fig trees who bear fruit.
The encounter in the temple was an intentional confrontation with the Roman Empire and the Chief Priests who had been placed in charge of maintaining the social order and status quo, which necessitated the oppression and use of those in poverty. Jesus is determined, many say angry, and confronts the hypocrisy of the Chief Priests for demanding his authority be explained, while their behavior and authority are highly problematic. They disagree with the crowds in the temple about John the Baptist, but in seeking to keep their power, they chose to not speak of act with dignity or integrity. Yet, they think they still hold authority that will matter in the Kindom of God. With only the desire to use the resources they think belong to them justly, they corrupt any authority based in God for worldly power and control over governance.
With the next section, make sure to begin making as many connections with parallel experiences today, if you haven’t already begun.
The Chief Priests are not the Pharisees, the Pharisees would not have occupied much power or space in Jerusalem at the time. Rather, the Chief Priest would have come from lines of privileged genealogy of Ancient Jewish families, inheriting power and elevated status. Their power would have been further confirmed by the Roman Empire who placed them in charge in Jerusalem to maintain order on behalf of the empire. Initially, there would have been an honest trade of Ancient Jewish protection and safety, and ultimately being left alone to practice religion. As with so many religious leaders, it appears that before long this protection became tempting to greed to oppress fellow Jews and reap the benefits of power. If their commitment and authority had been founded in values and commitments to God, they had evolved to greed and self-serving practices to retain power. Is it possible the Chief Priests and others who have built upon false notions of cultural and genetic superiority and abuse of empirical power don’t identify the dynamic? Is it possible that they need tension, conflict, and uprising? Are these questions?
The people in the temple structure who Jesus is teaching are everyday people. They are people who have no genealogical or political power assigned, but rather have also been innured by the status quo power dynamics and oppression. They gather around Jesus to hear about a different kind of authority that exists to guide, but not to control. The authority is from God and serves to uplift and protect those facing the worst lived experience, suffering, and oppression. They would have been meek folks who would not be assuming to deserve power or to engage in difficult political arguments. I can imagine the internalized systems of oppression made them also think they had no place in society and authority. If they were asked to serve as leaders, it would seem impossible and that they were completely without merit. The attention paints a scene. The crowds’ eyes falling to the floor and their heads turning away from the conflict, many of them probably received calls on their ancient communication devices that they had to answer and step away. They would not have known how to mechanize the authority of God, but curious and hopeful that God cared about their opinions and wellbeing. Today, when we try to diversify councils and boards to put authority in the hands of people of many life experiences, we encounter the same difficulty. People believe that authority is not for them, the system isn’t built to ease jumping in, and participation doesn’t feel meaningful or powerful.
Last, I care to look at where the different authorities come from. For the Chief Priests, power comes from genealogy and colonizing powers. Whereas, the authority Jesus is teaching to the crowds that surround him comes from God stirring us into the future, toward the Kindom of Heaven and from a New Commandment leading us forward. The new authority will continue to establish its place in communities of marginalized identity, revealing God cares to set authority in the hands of the economically, politically, culturally poor. Upon looking closer, the status quo power exists emerging from the past. They harness power of what has come before and what has gone astray from God’s will, like inherited power, political ruts, and systems of power. It is the way they have always done it. But for the crowds in the temple structure, their power is more mysterious and rooted in something not yet realized. Their power comes to them from the future, from the thought that their ancestors that will follow will realize authority, that in moving toward the Kindom their power increases, that in the face of despair God has better plans for them. Nobody in the story can return and reclaim the past, and it is inevitable in God’s creation that they will move into the future. Be of faith and hope. Engage. Be bold. Question authority.
This is the Revised Common Lectionary sermonizing archive.