Message for Sunday 27 September 2020: “Question Authority”
Posted On September 23, 2020
Today’s lectionary message from Matthew 21:23-32 examines an encounter between Jesus and religious bureaucrats, who asked where Jesus obtained his authority.
Jesus responded by posing a counter-question, inquiring about the authority of John the Baptist. What Jesus asked his critics raised the controversial issue of where John’s baptism came from (heaven or earth). Both Jesus and the critics knew that there was no safe reply to Jesus’ question. If the critics said “heaven,” then it would beg the question of why the critics did not follow John’s teaching. If the critics had said “earth” then they risked lynching by the populist mob who adored John the Baptist.
Jesus was clever in his maneuvering with the bureaucrats, revealing how they lacked the integrity and courage to stand against the populist mob. To better illustrate what was going on, Jesus posed a parable about a hypothetical father asking each of his two sons to work in the vineyard. One said “no,” but later recanted; the other said “yes,” but was a no-show. Out of this Jesus concluded that the priests and elders—the Jewish critics who most hounded him—were wicked no-shows, hypocrites who claimed to serve God with their lips but who at heart were rotten from the inside/out. Jesus’ encounter with the evil rulers revealed how exposing lies is a necessary yet risky task.
Jesus didn’t pull any punches when confronting the idiots who tried to stymie him. Both Jesus’ ancient and contemporary despisers realize that God’s messengers can be trapped in arguments. Part of facing the world involves preparation with the proper attitude when facing critics’ questions. Jesus could brandish words like weapons, slaughtering nonsense arguments and exposing the naked inconsistencies of flawed reasoning. It isn’t easy to confront people, but the alternative is to be ruined by hypocrisy and authoritarianism inside and outside the church.
It seems that as much as ever, followers of God must not only question authority but hold it vigorously accountable. Who and what a person is willing to challenge both in the church and government reveals a person’s ethical priorities. The consequences can be catastrophic. People who are willingly deceived by false political messiahs, for instance, undermine democracy, the rule of law, and human rights. Astonishingly, people of faith become complicit in the demagoguery which rots souls from within. Jesus’ encounter with those ancient religious authorities reveals that some of the most deceived, inconsistent and ruinous people hide behind a toxic and ultimately false religion.
Speaking the truth to power is crucial. The threat to God’s principles is as great as ever, especially given how facts are increasingly under siege by people disconnected from reality. Despite fake news and a growing appetite for lies among many people, sincere followers of God are encouraged to discern the truth behind the façade. True God followers value the interaction between faith, reason and evidence to overcome blind obedience to religious or political authority. Yet, as much as we might wish for logic and good sense, history indicates that the herd often tramples God’s messengers. Legions of people consistently make bad choices, reacting with fear, ignorance and anger and thus cheating themselves and humanity of God’s love and truth.
Let’s get back to that parable Jesus shared about the sons who were supposed to work for their father. People who follow God are challenged to be clear and consistent in their response to God’s calling. This means that when God asks someone to go and work, the answer is ideally “yes!” followed by whatever it takes to keep a commitment. Even when a person says “no” to God it is not as bad as committing and then later withdrawing for no good reason.
One of the wonderful lessons from today’s story is a cautionary tale to not allow an authority figure, religious or political, undermine your relationship with the Almighty. Indeed, you are each invited to serve God directly without anyone’s approval. Enjoy your spiritual journey and don’t feel that you have to either be forced into or run over by a bandwagon driven by religious or political idiots.