Text: Matthew 21:23-32
Upper west side balcony dwellers, I have a question for you this morning. That’s you, Pullen youth. Here’s the question: “Who do you listen to as a voice of authority?” Is it your parents? Teachers? Friends? Police? Youth Minister? Church? Another way for me to ask you this question is, “Who gets your attention when it comes to matters of importance?” For instance: everyone agrees that cheating on a test or graded assignment is wrong yet it happens constantly. Who in your life would you most listen to when it came to asking you not to cheat? Your parents? One of your friends? Laura? If someone you like or you are dating is not good for you, or a certain crowd of friends you’re hanging out with is changing you, and not for the better whose advice might you be willing to listen to? There’s a lot of pressure around body image for you guys—both for girls and boys—to be skinny and pretty and strong and handsome. Who are you listening to these days about body image? Your friends? Social media? TV ads?
I’ve been thinking about how many people you have in your lives who assume some kind of authority. For sure, your parents do. They hold quite a bit of authority over many areas of your life. When your curfew is, to some degree who your friends are, what kind of movies you see, and the list continues. Your teachers have a certain amount of authority when it comes to school work and what is required of you at school. Law enforcement has authority in your life—and I know for a fact some of you have tested that authority. I know your friends have some authority in your life—if for no other reason than you want to fit in and be liked. I would like to think that Laura and your church sometimes gets your attention on matters of importance but I don’t know if you see that as authority.
When I ask you who you listen to as a voice of authority, I’m wondering more about how you decide who you give authority to. What are the characteristics or what is the character of a person you deem to have the voice of authority? Is it that they have some kind of power over you? That they can punish you if you don’t do what they say? Or is it something else; like the way or manner in which they speak to you, or an experience that they have had that you value, or is it that their actions match their words.
Up to now, I’ve been talking to the youth. But adults, I hope you have been listening too. This question of authority is not just a question for young people. All our lives we wrestle with the question of authority. As adults we also have to decide who we allow to make rules for us, and then, in all honesty, whose rules we will choose to obey and when. On some level, as independent adults, we lose some of the choices the youth have – while youth are in a shifting balance of authority with parents that will have some natural endpoint, most of us, as working adults know for sure that our employers have some authority over us. And we know, some of us from painful experience that while we can choose to disobey the law, we do not get to choose whether we remain free to do so. Yes, there are hard and fast “authorities” that we choose to recognize most of the time, but even for adults there is passive resistance and revolt. We speed 8.5 miles over the speed limit because that’s where we think we won’t be ticketed. We say yes to the boss, but we don’t put quite as much effort into the project she told us to do that we think isn’t a great idea.
This tug-o-war with authority is playing out in significant ways in our society right now. In Ferguson, Missouri with law enforcement. But not just in Ferguson—all across our nation communities are questioning police authority. In politics the question of who has what authority to act or not act is debated daily. And with every action or inaction, authority is called into question. In almost every state right now the question of authority is being played out in our courts on the issue of marriage equality. It seems that in almost every dimension of our society and culture, the question of authority—who has it, how do you get it, where does it come from, do I have to obey it—is central.
On one level, the topic at hand in our text this morning is authority, as the religious authorities challenge Jesus’ right to teach and preach. The text engages in a game that Jesus often plays with the religious leaders. The game goes like this: the religious leaders try and trick Jesus with a question—this time the question has to do with what authority Jesus is teaching and preaching and who gave him his authority. In familiar fashion, Jesus turns the question on them asking about the authority behind John’s baptism—was it divine or human. Jesus then says, “If you answer my question, I will answer yours.” And in the end no one gets their question answered. Or so it seems. That is until Jesus tells the tale of two sons.
Listen again to that part of the text in the words of Clarence Jordan.
A man had two boys. He went to the older one and said, ‘My boy, go work in the orchard today.’ He said, ‘Will do, Pop,’ but he never did. Then he went to the younger one and told him the same thing. But the boy said, ‘I won’t go.’ Afterwards he felt like a heel, and did go. Which of the two obeyed his father?
Parker Palmer writes, “Authority is granted to people who are perceived as authoring their own words, their own actions, their own lives, rather than playing a scripted role at great remove from their own hearts.” In our parable, the son who says yes, but then defied the father seems to just be playing out a script. He knows that the thing to do when given an order by your father is to do it, so he says yes, but then he goes on about his business and doesn’t actually do anything. How familiar is that? We say yes, either to avoid conflict or to buy ourselves sometime, but we don’t actually follow through.
On the other hand, the younger son does the opposite – he does NOT obey the script of his day, the one that said you obey your parents. (The scripts today can get a little more complicated!) Instead, he denies the request of his father, which in its own right takes courage and a willingness to chart his own path. So from the beginning, this younger son is being his own author. And then, an interesting thing happens – he actually does go to the vineyard and work. Again, we don’t know a lot about why the younger son changes his mind, but he does, and he ultimately makes his own decision to do his father’s bidding.
And that choice seems to matter in this parable. Jesus is telling us that playing the scripted role isn’t enough. And interestingly, he doesn’t contrast one son who immediately does as he’s told with the other who defies. He contrasts one who says no but does his father’s will with one who says yes and defies his father’s will. Jesus seems to want to highlight that the son’s deliberation and decision to do right matters, that they are part and parcel of his faithfulness.
In my readings for this sermon there was a common thread that was woven through almost every perspective on the topic of authority. Most agree that authority ultimately is ALWAYS given. In other words, I can claim power over you, and give you orders, and even punish you, but unless and until you grant me authority over you, I do not have authority over you. We give others the authority they have over us. For our youth, that may not seem apparent today. You may be sitting there thinking, I did not say it was ok for my parents to tell me what to do! But in actuality you do grant your parents that authority. At this point in your lives, you have needs that you can’t yet fully meet alone – for housing, for food, for cell phones, for cars or gas money. You are all depending on your parents to some degree, and in that dependence you grant a certain degree of authority. Adults, the same is true for us – when we choose to work for someone we grant them authority over us. When we choose to live in a community, we grant some authority to the collective. When we enter into relationship and make a commitment to another person, we, in small and large ways give them some authority in our lives.
And so the question comes to us, “By what authority are you living your life?” It is a real and relevant question for all of us. Sacred words, sacred truths are not confined to only the Bible. That is why, when you go home today and think about the question, “By what and whose authority are you living your life?” I hope you will consider Parker Palmer’s words: “Authority is granted to people who are perceived as authoring their own words, their own actions, their own lives, rather than playing a scripted role at great remove from their own hearts.” My take-away on the topic of authority is this: authority is about authenticity—authoring our own words, our own actions, our own lives rather than playing a scripted role at great remove from our own hearts. The word authentic actually derives from the Greek authentes, “acting on one’s own authority.” Jesus spoke with authority because he lived an authentic life. He didn’t follow some script written by religious authorities that held no meaning for him. Being true to himself, being faithful to his own life, speaking from his own experience—that is what gave him authority. Authenticity, after all isn’t that what we look for in others when seek a voice of authority. And ultimately, isn’t authenticity what we are called to bring to our own lives – the willingness to be true to ourselves, to be faithful to our own lives, and to speak truth from our own experiences using our own words. It is only in accepting the responsibility to act as our own authority that we live fully into who we are meant to be in and through God.