It’s been quiet on the blog for a while as I’ve been taking my annual holiday. Back now, though, so here’s what I said this week.
One of our daughters, when she was young, apparently had no fear of danger, and holidays were often a nightmare spent trying to keep her out of trouble. If there was a wall it was there to climbed on and walked on. If there was a cliff she was the one who would walk right up to the edge to look over. We seemed to spend so much of our time saying “Get down from there”, “Come away from there”.
“Why?” was the inevitable response.
“Because it’s not safe!”
“Yes it is” would come the reply.
Try as we might, exercising our authority in such situations was hard work. Even if, eventually she did as she was told, as soon as our backs were turned she’d be off doing something else that was dangerous. On one occasion, when we were on holiday on a farm in Wales, she was fascinated by the two Welsh ponies that the farmer kept in a field next to the converted barns in which we stayed. We had tried our best to get across the message that she was to stay out of the field. Our authority counted for nothing – rather, telling her what she could not do was like a red rag to a bull – convinced that two Welsh ponies were perfectly safe and friendly one day she decided to climb over the fence and ride one of the ponies. The pony, who had never been ridden in his life, and wasn’t about to change the habit of a lifetime, had different ideas and bit her quite severely. She has never forgotten the experience. It made no difference though – she still refused to take any notice of us when she did something we thought was dangerous.
Today, the age of unquestioning obedience to authority is long over and each person, for good or ill, tends to consider themselves to be their own best judge and wisest guide. But this was not the situation in Jesus’ day, when the word of the religious leaders in all matters of life and religious observance was law. They were unused to having their authority usurped and their teaching questioned. They spoke and people obeyed without question – that was the way of things. And the presence in their midst of Jesus, an itinerant preacher from Galilee, was profoundly disturbing. Neither was this the first occasion. We are now – in Matthew’s Gospel – in Holy Week. The previous day, records Matthew, Jesus had arrived in Jerusalem riding on a donkey, hailed by the crowds with palm branches and cries acclaiming him as “Son of David”, and “the one who comes in the name of the Lord”.
On entering the Temple he had driven out all those buying and selling there, accusing them of turning his Father’s house of prayer into a den of robbers. He followed this by curing all the blind and lame that came to the Temple to see him.
The religious leaders cannot allow such a serious disturbance to their ordered way of life and worship to go unchallenged, and they confront Jesus. Desperate to restore their own authority and undermine him in the eyes of the crowd, they demand to know by what authority Jesus acts and speaks in the way he does, and who has given him that authority. Jesus answers this challenge indirectly, and in a manner that exposes the hypocrisy of the establishment to the full light of day.
Because of the religious leaders’ unwillingness to answer Jesus’ question about the authority of John the Baptist – whose teaching they have wilfully rejected – Jesus also refuses to answer their question. And he tells a parable about two sons which will ring bells for those of you with children – as it must have done for those who heard it then.
A man with two sons asked the first to go and work in the vineyard. He said “No” but later changed his mind and went. The man asked the second son the same thing – this son said he would go and work in the vineyard but didn’t. Which of them, asked Jesus, did the will of his father? The one who said he would work but didn’t, or the one who initially said he wouldn’t work, but did. The sons answers are quite important. This is a society where honouring your father was all-important, and how your children treated you in public was a matter of family honour. Imagine that the father asks his sons to go and work in the vineyard in front of other people. A son who said ‘yes’ to his father was honouring his father and would be seen as a ‘good’ son – even if he subsequently did nothing. And the son who said ‘no’ to his father in front of other people would be seen as dishonouring his father – and therefore be seen as a ‘bad’ son – even if he then did what his father wanted. So the view would have been that the son who said ‘yes’ was an honourable son, and the son who said ‘no’ a dishonourable son.
But Jesus shows in the way he words the question that it is not what you say that counts, it is what you do. and he uses the parable of the two sons to make clear to everyone that those who may appear to be furthest from God – the prostitutes, the tax-collectors and other outcasts – are actually the ones who most know their need of him. And in knowing that, they are closer to God than many of those who are supposed to be his chief representatives on earth. For the pillars of the religious establishment this was at best dangerous sedition, at worst, possibly blasphemy. By the end of this chapter in Matthew, the religious leaders are beginning to look for a way to arrest Jesus and silence him.
It is quite a salutary exercise to ask ourselves where we feel our sympathy lies in this incident as we look at the Church today. Is it with the religious leaders, deeply troubled by the challenge to their ordered religion Jesus appears to bring? Sometimes we don’t like our established ways of doing things challenged. We like things to stay the way they are – it’s more comfortable. Or perhaps we identify with the outcasts, reaching out in wonderment to one who offers us hope and acceptance for perhaps the first time in our lives? Jesus often calls the most unlikely people – what some in polite society might think of as positively undesirable. Imagine how the religious leaders must have felt, having their authority challenged in this way. Imagine how those who had been condemned and cast out by those same religious leaders must have felt to hear Jesus say they were closer to God. Perhaps, at different times, we have felt both of these things.
“By what authority…?” We too may ask this question of those who challenge us to move out of our comfort-zone, and allow our relationship with God to grow and deepen. We may have it asked of us, when our faith in Christ challenges the comfort-zone of others. Our daughter, when she was climbing on walls or walking along the edge of cliffs, had to decide whether she was prepared to trust our authority when we tried to get her to move to a safer place. She needed to learn that we were not trying to spoil her fun but that we really did have her best interests at heart.
Perhaps sometimes it is like that with us and Christ. Do we trust his authority in our lives? Are we prepared to submit to it? Do we dare to believe that his motive is pure love and our highest happiness? Are we willing to place complete trust in Jesus, to accept his authority in every aspect of our existence, knowing that his motive in exercising authority is to ensure our eternal destiny.