Getting a Boost
Do you think that the chief priests and the scribes believed that John’s authority came from heaven or was of human origin? That’s what gets me about the Bible passage for today. Matthew tells us the exact calculus that was going on in the heads of the chief priests and scribes when Jesus asked them that question. If they say heaven, they will have to account for why they refused to follow him, why they rejected John’s message of baptism and repentance. But if they say human origin, the crowds (who supported John) will reject them. But we don’t ever get to hear what the chief priests and elders actually thought about John. Did they think that John was right and his call to repentance was exactly what they needed? Did they think that John was wrong and he should go take his camel’s hair suit somewhere else?
They don’t say. We never hear what the chief priests and the elders actually think about John the Baptist, because it doesn’t matter to them. What they believe about John the Baptist’s message is irrelevant to their answer. Because to them, the right answer is whatever will protect their reputation and authority.
Our passage for today happens shortly after Jesus raids the Temple, overthrowing the tables of the moneychangers and refusing to let anyone through. His behavior was a direct challenge to the system that the chief priests and the elders stand on top of. And so the elders have come to challenge Jesus’ authority. “By what authority are you doing these things,” they say. “And who gave you that authority?”
The chief priests and the elders had been given all the signs of authority. They are well educated. They studied under the great rabbis of their day. They are well employed. They’re priests; by their positions they represent God’s voice. They are well to do. The priestly class had huge landholdings outside the city, and villas in the city with servants to order around. And they are well-protected. The chief priests and the elders were kept in power by the Romans to keep the people of Jerusalem passive and non-resistant. If need be, they could count on both Temple guards and Roman centurions to be on their side.
The chief priests and the elders, the most powerful people in 1st-century Jewish society, have all the signs of authority, but they don’t feel secure in that authority. Every decision they make is done with an eye to how it will affect their influence. They’re so heavily invested in their own authority, they’re now more interested in keeping that authority than they are in using it for a purpose. Like a politician who chooses reelection over righteousness, they’ve inoculated themselves against new ideas that challenge their established way of living. So it doesn’t matter if they believe John or Jesus, because they still won’t follow. They’re unwilling to follow any authority but their own.
When the chief priests and the elders challenge Jesus’ authority, Jesus flips the script on them. Where did John’s authority come from, he asks? Their answer reveals what they truly value. Knowing that Jesus has caught them in the question, they claim not to know, for fear of the crowd. Though they claim to have spiritual authority, when spiritual matters come to light, their answer shows that God hardly figured in their reasoning at all.
In response to their challenge of his authority, Jesus offers a parable. Two sons, are each told by their father to go to the vineyard. The first son refuses. He says he won’t go, but later he regrets it and goes out to work. The second claims to be obedient. He says that he will go, but he does not. “Who did the will of his father?” Jesus asks. The answer for them as well as for us, is obvious. Saying that you are obedient is not the same as obeying. In the words of Conway Twitty, “Don’t call him a cowboy until you’ve seen him ride.”
The parable’s meaning is a pointed one. Jesus is comparing the chief priests and elders to the son who claimed to obey, but did not. You say that you are under the authority of God, he seems to be saying, but when push comes to shove the only authority you obey is your own self-interest.
Tax collectors and prostitutes was a shorthand that Jesus used for sinners and unrighteous people. They were despised within their society, and good pious people had nothing to do with them. But unlike the so-called “righteous” people of their era, they had the sense to be looking for something. They had the humility to know that their way of living was not necessarily right just because they were living it. And so when John comes calling, with a message of repentance, calling them to a deeper life, they’re ready to jump in (literally). Because these folks didn’t have much to lose, they were able to let go of what they had so that they might gain.
Our second reading this morning is from Paul’s letter to the Philippians. Paul was writing to the Philippians from jail. And the letter begins with a greetin and then an account of how things are going in jail. Only Paul doesn’t tell them how he is doing in jail. He doesn’t talk about how Paul is holding up. Paul tells them how the Gospel is doing in jail. Because as much as the chief priests and the scribes thought about how to protect their place in the world, Paul only thought about the Gospel’s place in the world. So he says even though he is in jail that he has great joy, because the Gospel is being proclaimed both inside the jail and outside by those who are emboldened by his imprisonment.
The Philippians, on the other hand, are struggling with some conflict within the church. The roots of the conflict are unclear. It could be a result of leadership conflicts, or external pressure, or even Paul could be the cause of that conflict. But Paul writes to the Philippians to be of one mind with each other. He doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone should agree all the time. But that they should share the same orientation, the same attitude and understanding of what they are called to do.
And he then gives them the shape of the unity that he is calling to. He says, “have the same mind that was in Christ Jesus” “who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, 7but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, 8he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross. 9Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, 10so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
In other words, Jesus had all the possible claims of authority that could be made. He is God. But he relinquished them, in favor of absolute humility. He came down in human form, lived a human life, fully in obedience to God’s will. At every moment, he proclaimed God’s truth, and when they came for him, he was obedient to God even to the point of death.
This is the shape of the unity that Paul calls to in the Philippians. He calls them to consider one thing and one thing only as they try to work out their salvation with fear and trembling. He calls them to humbly seek to obey with will of God in all that they do. Like Paul in jail, they should consider not their own success or failure, their own authority, or other’s opinions of them. But be of one mind with Christ Jesus, who gave it all up. And because he gave it all up, he was lifted up, so that every knee shall bend at his name.
Paul is calling us in our community today to let the cross be the shape of our ministry. That we judge ourselves not on the basis of how successful we are, but on the basis of whether or not the truth of the Gospel was proclaimed, whether or not the Kingdom was revealed in us and through us.
We have the opportunity, today, tomorrow, and the next day, to give up our concern for own authority and submit to a new authority. New life is waiting for us. All we need is the humility to realize that we don’t have all the answers, and the guts to go out and seek them. We need the awareness to know that our own authority comes from a higher authority. And its purpose is not to be protected and preserved, but to be used in service of Christ. And when we have spent all the authority we have, and given up our sure place in the world for a place in Jesus’ flock, we will count it as the greatest deal we’ve ever made.