I explained that the Bible was written 2,000 years ago in the Roman Empire and my approach to Scripture is that of an historical critical hermeneutic (or lens) which calls me to read it in light of the culture in which it was written and, through communal prayer, discern its application for today. He conceded that we don’t interpret the Scripture passage about slavery the same as we once did … but then went right back to what appeared to be his literal interpretation of 1st Timothy 2:12. It was clear he had his mind made up – who was I to think I should be ordained? By what authority did I dare do this?? When someone comes at us with this kind of question, it might be because we’ve overstepped our bounds but more likely it is meant as a challenge or an attempt to undermine our authority in a given situation.
Chronologically, this reading happens after Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem … it is Holy Week and Jesus is on the way to the cross. It is the perfect setting for the questioning of his authority and its origins. This question asked by the Pharisees reminds us of the nature of authority and why it is different from power. Although we often speak of them interchangeably, they are not the same thing. Power is the sheer ability to force something to be done. Authority, on the other hand, is power which is given, directed and limited to achieve certain goals. We might think of authority as power which is granted by others and rightly directed for mutual benefit.
Authority is always given and it comes from two different sources. Those of us who have any kind of credentials know this. As we honor our first responders today, your uniform is a sign and symbol of a particular authority granted you by your local jurisdiction to use your power in a limited, directed way for the benefit of our communities. But your real authority doesn’t lie in the uniform or the badge. Your real authority also comes from the people you serve – the trust of the community for you to act on their behalf. The same is true for me as clergy. I may have the Masters of Divinity degree and be ordained by a bishop in apostolic succession, but if the congregation here doesn’t also grant me authority, then my ability to lead the mission and ministry here is non-existent. Authority, then, comes both from the “powers on high” above us and wells up from below.
This leads us to the question of to whom do you give authority and why? Sometimes the answer is obvious. There are people to whom we must grant authority, that limited, directed power to influence us for a particular reason in order to function well in society. However, in many if not most cases, we have a choice to grant authority to another person and sometimes we give authority to people who don’t deserve it! Consider this example: how many of us have told someone in our lives that they made us mad? Yeah, we’ve all done that, right? But think of it this way, when I tell another person they are responsible for my emotional process, I am giving them authority over my emotions instead of taking responsibility for them myself. As a priest, let me tell you there are a lot of people who want to make me responsible for their emotions! This doesn’t mean that we cannot be angry with or hurt by people when they wound us by their actions. What is within our capacity to decide is how we regard this person and their actions over time. If we hold onto those feelings of anger and hurt for so long that they turn into grudges and resentments, then we have given the other person the authority to hold our life hostage. We are giving them the authority to dominate and control our lives and our futures.
This background sets the stage for a deceptively simple yet simultaneously complex parable. A man has two sons and tells them to go work in the vineyard. The second son says he’ll do it and doesn’t – what parent cannot sympathize with that? The first son, who is the focus of the parable, says he will not go and then changes his mind and goes. It doesn’t really matter what his motivations were in refusing to do what his father told him to do. What matters is that he didn’t have to be tied to his original decision – he had the freedom to change his mind and, in so doing, he changed his course of action to be in alignment with his father’s desires. He didn’t let the bad choice of saying “no” to his father’s request hold him back from doing the right thing and in so doing he chooses a different future. In other words, his past action does not determine his future outcome!
This is the nature of the argument with the Pharisees in this moment. The Pharisees are mired in their past – their traditions, Scriptural interpretations, temple worship – which has given them authority. Instead of being bound by their past, Jesus is inviting them into a future which opens the possibilities of life, grace and healing. The Pharisees don’t want to accept this invitation – they have a great investment in the status quo and the systems which conferred their authority. But Jesus knows that the religious and political systems are not working to redeem all of God’s people – especially the down and out who are personified by the reference to tax collectors and prostitutes. Those whom the system has failed are the ones like the first son who do the will of the father precisely because they are not held hostage to a past which has excluded them.
Jesus makes this very same promise to us today. No matter what has happened to us or what we have done, we always have the ability to make the choice to step into a future that is aligned with God’s life giving redemptive love. We are more than the sum total of what has happened to us or what we have done. We need not submit to the authority of those people and situations from our past that are dealing in death and holding us back from a full life and a free future. Letting go of the past, taking back that authority and walking into a free and unknown future is scary … really scary. We often drag our dysfunctional pasts with us precisely because they are familiar. Letting these things go, taking away their authority to tyrannize your future away is a kind of spiritual and emotional death – the death of a dead past and the death of part of your identity. It will take you to the cross just as breaking with the past took Jesus to one too; however, the promise of that open future is the resurrected life beyond the cross.
So I ask you this day to look at your life. Where are you harboring past resentments and why do those people still claim authority over you? Who or what is holding you back from the open future Christ promises you? What do you most regret about what you have done and have not yet released? Is it time to strip all of these things of the authority you’ve given them so that you can walk into an open future in confidence that you are beloved of God no matter what? Lay these down, put them away, give them over to God and trust in the grace and mercy poured out for you at this time, in this place, at this altar. Give them over as your offering and accept the invitation of Christ in Bread and Wine, his Body and Blood, as a pledge and promise for your future … now and always.