Matthew 21:23-27; 33-46
What is the true place of authority? Who has the right and responsibility to speak and act for God? These are the questions behind this whole section of the gospel of Matthew.
We have skipped ahead a bit of where we last were in the gospel of Matthew, because some of the in between parts we save for lent or Holy Week, when Jesus enters Jerusalem triumphantly and then goes to the temple and turns over the tables of those taking advantage of poor country folk who have come to sacrifice to God there. It might be the next day that Jesus returns to the temple, maybe the very same area where he drove those sellers out of, and begins to teach at the beginning of where we read today. And the chief priests and elders start asking, by whose authority he is doing these things. They might be talking about him teaching there, where they consider themselves to be the ones who have the right to teach; they might be talking about what he did the day before, ruining the religious-based economy that they might also have benefitted from. Jesus knows what they are up to, wanting to disqualify him from teaching about what God really wants from people and what the kingdom of God would really look like, he knows too the hypocrisy inherent in their collusion with the Roman occupiers. So Jesus asks them a question back, what about John the Baptist, do you question his authority, too? Jesus and John had the same basic message if you remember way back: repent for the kingdom of God has come near. John had called people out away from the temple and to the wilderness to renew their spiritual covenant with God. He called people away from that center of power of the temple and rebuked the hypocrites who used religious authority improperly. So they are not fans of John’s; they know that to say he had God’s authority would immediately reveal their hypocrisy, their two faces- but if they say he wasn’t from God, well the people will come after them because they do consider John to have been sent by God. A prophet speaking God’s own message. And since they can’t answer, Jesus won’t either.
But Jesus goes on to tell a few parables about authority- what it means, where it truly comes from, how it is legitimate or not. I commend to you to read the parable I’m skipping in verse 28-32 on your own. But Jesus pushes the envelope a little more with the next parable.
He situates the parable in a vineyard, which all of his listeners would have recognized immediately as reflecting Isaiah’s song of the vineyard chapters 5-7. In that passage God calls out the leaders of the people for not truly caring for the people. The leaders instead abused their power and took advantage of the people and so God wanted them to repent and change. In Jesus’ retelling the tenant farmers are even more extreme in abusing of the authority entrusted to them. Notice that Jesus now turns to the elders and chief priests and asks what they think the true owner of the vineyard will do? And it is they who call down judgment on the bad acting tenant farmers.
Perhaps they are not thinking of themselves, but think that Jesus is talking about the evil Roman occupiers who are doing so much damage to the people and the society. Jesus turns it on them- issues their own verdict against themselves, and they figure it out in verse 45. He uses a verse from psalm 118 about God reversing what we do. God seeing the opposite of how we see.
Then Jesus speaks plainly – whatever authority you think you have, God is going to take it from you. and give the authority of the kingdom to the ones who bear fruit.
The fruit Jesus is speaking of, in terms of Isaiah and other prophets, is to live how God wants us to live. To live in harmony and peace. To be people who look out for other people, love and care for them. Lifting one another up. Not to go around and say, like they were, just who do you think you are? They are their own object lesson. Authority, Jesus is expressing, is not something you can take for granted. The authority comes with the living out of the kingdom of God. It is only when you are trustworthy that you are entrusted with the power. All power needs accountability. And that’s what was wrong with those chief priests and temple leaders allowing and maybe encouraging that marketplace that Jesus drove the sellers out of. They had exchange rates that were not fair. They were taking advantage of people’s faith and desire to please God, instead of the role of looking out for others that they had been assigned by their title.
It wasn’t that they were Jewish, Jesus was Jewish. But they had forgotten their mandate to be caretakers, shepherds and yes it seems that they held onto their power by colluding to some extent with the Romans, who were doing great harm with their policies, taxations and so forth.
I’ve read some analysis of what is happening or has happened in the world of American Evangelical Christianity. And there is a lot that points to a desire to hold onto power or get more power, through political means. And means that aren’t quite in line, in my humble opinion, with the ways that Jesus teaches in the gospel- of humility of solidarity of honesty and transparency. Rather some Christians seem to think that getting their way, whatever that might be, is the most important thing, at any cost.
That is not what Jesus came to show us. Not a way to get power. But to give our lives away.
The kingdom of God, Jesus says, is given to the ones bearing fruit. Who is bearing fruit today?
The fruit is the grace of God, the love of God, the self-giving and caring for others that Jesus expressed throughout his ministry and taught to his followers.
That kingdom work, that ministry, the church in action is happening, still today, all over the world. Have you heard of the ministry of sharing communion at Amistad park on the border between the US and Mexico? Families that have been separated used to be able to go and share bread across the fence for communion, look into one another’s eyes through the separation and talk. That has changed since COVID 19, now they do virtual services reaching people on both sides.
A ministry of truly being in solidarity with those families aching to embrace one another, trying still to provide a way to be connected and physically close even if the barrier is greater.
Ministry happens whenever people see a need, no matter what their religious background- my friend Elizabeth told me about how in Oregon as people have been evacuated from their homes because of the wildfires, in one area churches worked together with other groups, including some associated with Antifa and some non -Christian religions to gather and distribute donations to help feed and clothe people in need They are focusing not on sharing a creed but working together and truly caring, truly helping those who need it most. Jesus doesn’t talk much about creeds or getting all the words right- he talks about the ones who bear fruit.
Solidarity. Feeding one another, caring for one another in our hour of need. Showing true love, empathy, compassion. These are the fruits that Jesus is looking for. Authority for the kingdom of God is exercised whenever these fruits come about.
And our central rite, holy communion, is a reminder that this is our charge. We share food, we share a meal at least symbolically. What continues to grieve me among everything else these days- yes I am glad to do preside over this sacrament through this digital means, yes I know it is important to remember however we can the way Jesus feeds us with his own self, is truly with us when so much has been taken from us during this time- but what I grieve is that we are not sharing with one another from one physical loaf. So we are missing out on that part, the sharing and eating with those who aren’t from our own household, which is such a vital part of the core of this sacrament that people all over the world are celebrating this day. I can just say, don’t forget beloved- when it is safe, it is truly important to come back to physically eating and sharing together, to remember all that Christ came to show us, how we are a part of one another.
Because it is both a remembering of his sacrifice for us, but also the perfect metaphor for the way he came to show us. The kingdom of God comes near to us, and especially so when we look around for who we need to share with, how we can be part of one body together, yes gathered through these screens and the wavelengths in the air that make us present to one another, yes in different states and countries and continents, we are all one together in Christ Jesus. That we should care for one another like we care for our own bodies. This reality directs us over and over to live it out more fully, showing concern for others in all we do.
Beloved, The kingdom of God is coming near, yes even now. The kingdom of God is so very different than this world, we do not wait for orders of how to get it just right or need a hierarchy to tell us what to do, other than to live by the rule of love and obey Christ’s way. We don’t depend on a sense of political power of this world. We, along with our siblings in Christ all over the world, have been entrusted with the authority to make the kingdom of God evident here and now. To speak for God and act for God, as long as we are doing it faithfully. may we bear the fruit of living how Christ told us and showed us how to live, and truly bear out the authority entrusted to us to do so. Amen.