This reading is all about authority, so I want us to look at authority in a bit of detail.
Dictionary definitions go down this line.
the power or right to give orders, make decisions, and enforce obedience.
the right to act in a specified way, delegated from one person or organization to another. official permission; sanction.
"the money was spent without parliamentary authority"
a person or organization having political or administrative power and control. Eg "health authorities issued a worldwide alert"
the power to influence others, especially because of one's commanding manner or one's recognized knowledge about something.
"he has the natural authority of one who is used to being obeyed"
A very simple understanding of authority is that it is the ability to have an effect on the behaviour of others.
Authority has two directions.
Bestowed authority which is given by an organisation or a leader who has higher authority. When a priest is ordained. They are given the authority to read the word of God, preach and teach and celebrate the sacraments by the church institution through the leadership of the bishop who ordains and this is seen to be in recognition of the calling of God who gives this authority.
Authority can also be given from below. Such authority comes when a person is respected, trustworthy and reliable and maybe have an air of personal authority about them. Such people are often loved by those who give them authority.
For all intents and purposes, Jesus’ authority was the second, because he had no institutional backing, and thus it was a cause of contention between him and the religious institution which he spoke to in many and often confronting ways. This is what we see in the Gospel this morning and it is what ultimately led to his death.
One must also say that Jesus had bestowed authority as well. His bestowed authority came from God directly. At his baptism the Holy Spirit was present and God affirmed ‘you are my beloved Son…’ So, Jesus had both forms of authority in bucket loads.
Let’s take a moment and look at today’s Gospel in more detail. This story seems to be set on the same day as Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, after he had cleansed the temple and cursed the fig tree [a symbol of the people of God]. As you can imagine, the tensions with the Jewish officialdom, was extremely high- the setting is the week before he died- and so they came to him in the temple.
The chief priests and the elders asked; ‘by what authority and who gave you the authority to say and do the things you do?’
Jesus didn’t say my authority comes from God- he knew and they knew that if he said that, they’d take deep offense at him [as in fact they already had]. Instead, he asked them a counter question which exposed their hypocrisy and deceit.
He said to them, ‘if you answer my question then I will answer yours!
Did John’s baptism come from heaven or was it from human origin?’
They don’t give a direct answer; they went off and had a little collaboration: ‘If we say from heaven, he will say, then why didn’t you believe him and if we say from human origin the crowd will be upset because they believe him to be a prophet.’
They went back to Jesus and gave a non- answer: ‘we don’t know’.
To which Jesus responded, ‘then neither will I give you an answer.’
But then he goes on to tell the parable of the two sons. One who said he wouldn’t do what his dad wanted, but then went and did it and one who said he’d do what his dad wanted and didn’t.
Then he asked them, ‘which son did his fathers will?’
To which they confidently answered, ‘the first’.
In response, Jesus said to them. ‘John came in the way of the righteous and you did not believe him but tax collectors and prostitutes believed him and even after you saw it, you did not change your mind and believe him, so the tax collectors and prostitutes will get into heaven before you.
These priests and elders liked to keep everything in place and did not allow room for repentance or forgiveness. It was about position and social standing at every moment.
The thing to realise is that all of us have bestowed authority on some level- that is authority given to us by God.
We are authorised through our baptism to be God’s children and to be disciples of Jesus. We have God’s authority to love our neighbours, with a preference for the poor and outcaste as we see in Jesus. We are also authorised to forgive and to live openly Christian lives joining in the whole company of heaven in God’s praise and worship.
Many people are like the Jewish leaders, afraid to take hold of their God given authority and give it to other people, or to law, and so never reach the fullness of grace which comes through trusting in God by standing in the authority given to them personally, by God.
So, they, like the priests and elders in this story refused to take the responsibility which comes from authority, by being honest and open about their views. They were afraid of the people or being caught out for not believing.
People who are mature in faith, are prepared to stand confidently in who God has made them to be, and not go running to others with complaints so they can hide behind or blame others for things they should take responsibility for.
Authority used well, helps people to mature and grow in appreciating their own God given authority. As God’s people, it begins as we see it in Jesus.
Paul in the letter to the Philippians wrote
5 In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
6 Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; 7 rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. 8 And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross!
9 Therefore God exalted him to the highest place. Philippians 2
Some see this as the mindset of nothingness, but in truth it is the opposite. It is recognising the full worth of our humanity in God’s eyes. Our given authority.
Paul said in 1 Corinthians 7: 17 ‘Let each of you lead the life that the Lord assigned, to which God has called you’.
So, with the authority we have in God through Jesus Christ, we can stand with confidence before God and others in our true selves- that is our God given personhood.
The point is, we always have choices:
They are to will God’s purposes or not. If we make a wrong choice as the first son did, we always have the option to change our minds and depending on what we do- this will affect our place in God’s kingdom.
Do you live and work and stand with the loving, generous forgiving authority of God or do you refuse it and try to close others off from it as well? The answer for today is; you can always change your mind and choose to stand in God’s authority as revealed by Jesus.
And that’s a relief because in that place there is room for all of us. Amen.