The Question of Authority

“You’re Not the Boss of Me!”

The Question of Authority

A Sermon by

The Rev. Barbara Mraz

St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church

September 25, 2011

 

“When Jesus entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” Jesus said to them, “I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” And they argued with one another, “If we say, `From heaven,’ he will say to us, `Why then did you not believe him?’ But if we say, `Of human origin,’ we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.” So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.

“What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, `Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ He answered, `I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, `I go, sir’; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.”                                                                        Matthew 21:2

The two grandsons are really at it.

“Give me back that truck NOW!”

“No. You’re not the boss of me!”

Okay.  Then I’m not telling you where I hid your dinosaur book.”

“And I’m not telling you where we’re going out to eat tonight and I know.”

Today’s Gospel has a similar scenario.  Jesus is teaching in the temple and the chief priests and elders barge in and ask, “Who said you could teach here?”

Jesus responds, “If you answer a question, I’ll tell you.  Did the baptism of John come from heaven or was it of human origin?”

The scribes argue among themselves, realize they’re trapped and admit, “We don’t know.”

Jesus replies: “Then I’m not going to tell you where my authority comes from.”

Neither situation presents an ideal model of argumentation, but “who’s the boss of whom” is a question we never outgrow. It is the pesky issue of authority, the topic presented not only by today’s lessons, but also by events in our own lives when we must decide who or what to believe amidst the many voices that solicit our support and loyalty.

Cultural standards make their bid to dictate to us, and we succumb to them in varying degrees.  Though few of us go through life making firm conclusions about a person based on what they are wearing, trends in language, entertainment, technology, and even attitudes exert a notable influence, especially when we are younger.  I even wonder if the media doesn’t exert a kind of continual “peer pressure” that never loses its force.  We may snicker and note, “That jacket is so 2000” or “Using cash has gone the way of the horse and buggy.”  We can cluck and laugh at the outdated, that is until it qualifies as “vintage” and then it’s stylish again. Cultural standards are too fickle to be a reliable source of how to live our lives.

For some of us, science is the only authority; what is provable, verifiable, backed by facts.  The Scientific Method is our singular standard.  Science has brought us cures for illnesses, better living through chemistry (an old advertising phrase), convincing information on what is happening to our planet, and the miracles and challenges of technology.

But scientific thinking, by its very nature, is always evolving; new studies are being done, and what is gospel one day can be heresy the next. I firmly believe that my own health was compromised when, at one point, the best Medical Experts confidently and repeatedly told women of a certain age to take certain hormones to protect their hearts and bones.  A mere five years later a major national study was halted because the emerging evidence was so overwhelming that those same hormones caused cancer.

As Christians, we are sometimes told that the Bible is our only authority.  The book of Proverbs tells us that “Every word of God is flawless.”  Popular fundamentalist Rick Warren insists, “The Bible must always have the first and last word in our lives.”

This same Bible is now a sourcebook for public policy, providing documentation for a political position.  Biblical references to homosexuality, for example, appears in the Old Testament book of Leviticus, right there along with support for slavery and polygamy.  Jesus himself never says a word about homosexuality, although he speaks clearly against divorce.  But divorce has not become the political rallying cry that homosexuality has – perhaps because few in the political realm are untouched by it and people understand the complexity of the issue?

We should question such selective, misleading referencing of our sacred texts, allowing them to become political clubs, when they ignore the overwhelming mandate of Jesus that is present in these same pages to care for the poor and give justice to the oppressed. The poor are mentioned over 700 times in the Bible; homosexuality five times.  Scripture is as easy to manipulate as statistics are, but its major themes could not be clearer, and sections that only reflect the cultural norms of the times in which they were written can be outrageous references for the modern era.  We need to become our own “fact-checkers” when we hear the Bible bandied about in public discourse.

All of this is hardly new. The forces that opposed Jesus used all manner of argumentative tricks and deceptive questions to try and trap him.  Often it was the Hebrew Scriptures that were the bait. The Scripture says we are to rest on the Sabbath – but yet you use if for healing the sick, the Pharisees chare.  It is written that we should not break bread with sinners and yet you eat with tax collectors and prostitutes.

In every case, Jesus went beyond the letter of the law to the spirit of the law, to the overriding, overarching themes of love for God and for neighbor.  In fact, his usual response was: “You have heard it said — but I tell you this.”  Jesus was constantly interacting with his own Scriptures, always reframing exclusive, restrictive verses in a broader, more loving context.  Or, as my favorite Lutheran bishop is fond of saying, “Quote the Bible to me and I will quote Jesus to you,” a useful phrase I recommend you keep handy.

In today’s lesson, Jesus avoids the trap set for him by the scribes and instead tells a story, the very logic of which forces agreement.  Which is more important, the story asks, talk or action?   Action, the scribes concede.  Then Jesus chastises the scribes for failing to take the action of believing in his message while tax collectors and prostitutes seem to get it.

However, we may feel as indicted as the scribes on this point.

The requirement of belief is one that has fascinated me for decades.  As a young Lutheran, my questions were sincere, although the pastors often rolled their eyes.  I really wanted to know, so I asked: “If belief is the criteria that gets you into heaven, can you force belief?  Will God know if you’re faking?  What degree of belief gets you in and how much doubt keeps you out?”

I still have those questions, but they are less urgent because I have discovered belief is more than “a mental assent to a set of principles.”

My favorite definition of belief is this: To believe means: “I set my heart to this…” So I am here in church today, not because I because I have given unquestioning intellectual assent to a set of doctrines, but because I set my heart to what I find here: the overriding truths of the Bible, the beauty and sustenance of the traditions that have sustained so many for so long, the mystery of the music, the sanctity of my own reason and experience in understanding the world and God.

I set my heart to these things, to lead me, to teach me, to bring me closer to God and what God wants of me.  I turn my heart to these things.  Benedictine Joan Chittitser writes, “I believe a great deal less now about the historical or scientific dimensions of the faith, and a great deal more about the ongoing mystery of creation, the ongoing struggle of redemption, and the common place of the sacred.”  And I would add that I believe as Jesus taught, that nothing is more important than Love.  Love of self, love of neighbor.  Nothing has more importance in our lives than the reality of love, the importance of those we love, and the challenge to keep expanding the circle.  Nothing else even comes close. This is the main teaching of Jesus of Nazareth, overriding any legalisms, selective texting, and arguments.

I’ve alluded to the fact that I love what is called “Fact Checker,” that segment on the news or Internet where you can take a statement made by a political figure and experts investigate to determine its truthfulness.

For example, some in the media asserted that President Obama had his dog Bo flown to Martha’s Vineyard by private jet (at the expense of taxpayers).

The Annenberg Public Policy Institute (reputable by anyone’s standards) fact-checked this and found that this was incorrect.  Bo flew along with several staffers, not on his own plane.

Fact check the Biblical references next time you hear them.  Don’t let our Scriptures be hijacked.

Consider this: “Long ago, no one knew that birds migrated during the winter months. Many naturalists believed that they went underground or under the mud at the bottom of a pond to escape the cold. Aristotle, the Greek philosopher, thought that some birds changed into a different species for the winter!”  (Cited in The Soul’s Compass, by Borysenko and Dveirin)

We don’t write our biology texts now based on this information, no matter how much we revere Aristotle.  We have since learned that “migratory birds know how to find their way over thousands of miles of unknown territory because of small particles of magnetite (akin to tiny micomagnets) embedded in their brains.  A hummingbird headed from Colorado for a winter sojourn in Mexico doesn’t usually wind up in Chicago by mistake.  Its guidance system is hardwired for precision.”

There is also an internal compass of love and wisdom within the human soul that keeps us on track, a spiritual true north.  You can argue, you can quibble, you can trash all sources of authority.  You can refuse to let anyone or anything be the boss of you. But there is this internal true north, this unfailing inner voice.  Trust it.

Amen.

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