I’ve performed a few weddings in recent months, and I have to tell you that I get a little squeamish over them. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t mind performing the ceremony. I enjoy getting to know the couple, hearing their hopes and dreams for a life together, listening to the story of what brought them to this point. I am happy to be the one to speak a word of God on the blissful day, and remind the couple of the perfect example of love that Christ gives us.
It’s not the sermon that really gets me, nor dealing with nervous and sometimes frantic brides or bridegrooms, or teary-eyed parents; neither is it calming frayed nerves, or reassuring the couple that even if the flower girl and ring bearer should both stumble and fall, the day will still be magical and in the end, they will still be married.
Rather, what really gives me the shivers comes when I hear myself saying, “By the authority vested in me, I now pronounce you man and wife” – or words to that effect. I get squeamish because – really? By the authority vested in me? Whose bright idea was that? If I answer “the state” I have to question their authority to grant me authority! They don’t even know who I am! If I answer the church, then I wonder how and why the church has granted me this power. Is performing a wedding a civil action or a religious one? Is the simple act of blessing a marriage authoritative enough to make it stick? “Authority” feels like too great a word for me.
The word “authority” conveys different things to different people but generally connotes power, right or ability. And today’s gospel text begins with this question posed to Jesus about authority. While the chief priests and scribes question where Jesus’ power comes from, Jesus know their question is misplaced. Jesus has authority because of who he is, not where he’s from.
For Christians, the words authority and Jesus go together. We confess that we believe Jesus is the Word of God made flesh, and as such has all the power and authority of God. We believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of Man. We trust that God, in Jesus, has redeemed the world and we have faith that God’s judgment for the world rests on the cross of Christ. God, the creator and giver of all things, the one to whom everything in heaven and earth and under the earth belongs, gives Jesus authority. Authority about which Jesus is never squeamish. Jesus is the authority of God incarnate, and has come to take away the sins of the world in God’s merciful act of salvation. To us, Jesus’ authority is obvious. Or is it?
Do we sometimes question if what the scriptures tell us is true is, in fact, true? They can sometimes be confusing. Do we view the scriptures as the authoritative Word of God or do they simply convey with authority, the character and desire of God? We hope that our trust, our faith, and our believing in Christ is not in vain. We hope that Jesus’ words of forgiveness and redemption are authoritative and absolute. But sometimes, just sometimes, don’t we doubt? What if we’ve got it all wrong?
It is doubt that reigns whenever we try to take our ultimate redemption into our own hands. It is doubt working when we think through our own understanding and works we might earn our salvation, that if we think the right things and do enough good that we’ll be okay with God.
There are times when we all wonder if the world might have a point, that it is ridiculous to believe in a virgin birth, and preposterous to think that God would be born as a human baby conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit. We fumble around when we try to explain how God could allow his own Son to die a despicable death on the cross.
Yes, doubt is a part of our experience, and there are times when we confess with our lips belief in Jesus Christ and his power to save while we still harbor doubt in our hearts that this grace is a reality.
The chief priests and the scribes of the temple don’t find the authority of Jesus to be obvious. Although Jesus invites them to believe in him, they don’t get it. They don’t understand who Jesus really is, and they don’t understand where he has come from or believe that what he promises is true.
They try to trip him up by asking Jesus questions, because they don’t trust his word, his authority, or the power he seems to have. Have you ever noticed though, that although Jesus actually gets asked a lot of questions throughout the gospel narratives, Jesus doesn’t give many answers? As is often the case, in the text for today, Jesus answers the religious leaders’ question with a question of his own – and then follows with a parable.
It helps if we put this story in context. In the preceding verses of this chapter of the gospel of Matthew, Jesus’ has just made his triumphal entry into Jerusalem while crowds went ahead of him shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” The text tells us, “when he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil asking, ‘Who is this?’”
Not long after, Jesus goes to the temple and drives out all who are selling and buying, and turning this holy place of prayer into what he refers to as a “den of robbers.” The blind and the lame come to him there and are cured and children continue to cry out, “Hosanna to the Son of David.” And the chief priests and the elders of the temple became angry. The leaders of the Jewish community and the Roman officials all became afraid. And who could blame them? Jesus came in and made quite a stir.
The next day, Jesus curses a fig tree and then Jesus speaks to his disciples of the power of faith in his name. The conversation conveyed in the gospel passage today occurs in the time between Jesus’ triumphal entry and his death on the cross.
Jesus has gone to the temple to teach. Here he is approached by these angry temple leaders, who are determined to get rid of him. As I said, Jesus doesn’t just anger them, he frightens them. The rising, significant tension between Jesus and the Jerusalem leadership is coming to a head.
What the leaders don’t understand is that Jesus’ authority is based in who he is, rather than who or what he can prove himself to be. Robert Farrar Capon writes, “This is not something he can justify to their satisfaction. He is asking them to believe in him; they, at best, are trying to decide whether they can find room for him in their minds. And because Jesus knows there is no way of ending such a standoff, he simply contents himself with parrying their thrusts. In the face of their questions, he continually frustrates them by being what he always was, a fox, a rebel, a bad boy who refuses to answer except with questions of his own.” And by so doing, he puts them in a bind.”
There is no good way out of the fix the leadership find themselves in if they answer the question Jesus poses about John the Baptist and they know it, so they say, “We do not know.” And Jesus being Jesus, then tells a parable. Once again, while Jesus doesn’t directly answer any of their questions through the telling of this parable, he does give glimpses of what the kingdom of God is like and how God, and king and ruler of the kingdom, operates.
We have this story of the two sons and as usual, it is not as clear cut as it might at first seem. After describing how the two sons respond to their father when we sends them out into the vineyard, Jesus poses the question about which one did the will of the father. The response he then gives to the leaders’ answer is perplexing at first glance. But as he frequently does through these parables, Jesus gives us much to reflect on regarding God’s salvific love and life in the kingdom of God.
The fact of the matter is that both sons have done something right and both have done something wrong. Both in a sense, have shamed the father, in a culture that is heavily bound by honor and shame. The first son seemed amiable and respectful enough in his first response to his father’s request, but then shamed the father by not keeping his word and not doing what his father asked. The second son said “no” to his father and with that response shamed his father out of the gate. Later, however, he had a change of heart, and did the work asked of him.
Both sons have made the father angry. Both sons need a change of heart. Yet the father still loves them both. The father still reaches out to both. Is either beyond the reach and scope of the father’s love? How does the father judge either son?
We hear this text as a parable about judgment. But we see in it that the bad decisions of neither son was able to keep him from his father’s love. As a parable about the Kingdom of God, Jesus promises us here that none of our wrong or right decisions determine our ultimate outcome. God’s grace causes God’s judgment to be borne out on the cross, in Jesus, who takes on all our sin and shame, and promises life to all who believe. Jesus tells the temple leaders “even the tax collectors and prostitutes will enter the kingdom of God ahead of you.” Here again we see the reversals that God in Jesus brings: the first shall be last and the last, first.
Through our baptism, we are each welcomed in God’s grace. By Christ’s authority we are transformed from sinner to saint, from poor to rich and from beggar to honored guest at the feast of God’s delight.
We are given the grace to believe, as endless life begins in this kingdom of God, life which cannot be taken away. We are given gifts to work on behalf of the kingdom, but it is never these actions, no matter how noble, that earn us God’s love and mercy. God has already made that determination on behalf of the world. Our doubts don’t condemn us, and our works don’t save us. All who believe have the power to become the children of God, and God, the gracious merciful father has already forgiven us and assured us a place at the table. That, my friends, is very good news indeed.