By what authority

By What Authority…?

One of my most vivid memories of my time at Junior School, was when a toffee nosed girl from my class, (teacher’s pet might I add) was about to score a goal in a playtime game of netball.

Playing my part as a goalkeeper, I stretched up my arm as high as I could to prevent the goal.

The conversation went something like this…

She said, ‘You’re far too close get back!’

I replied, ‘Teacher said you must be three feet away, and that’s what I am.’

She said, ‘No you’re not, ‘

I said, ‘I am!’

She then shouted, ‘DON’T CONTRADICT ME!’ as she brought the full force of her foot right down on mine!

So perhaps I hadn’t been three feet away, or she couldn’t have reached me so quickly, it was all over in a flash!

But I can still remember the pain she inflicted on me. I retreated hugging my foot, hopping around and screaming out like a wounded animal, as she scored her goal. I got no sympathy whatsoever from her as she strode away back to the centre circle.

No penalty was awarded , no teacher to witness the attack.

I had only one question on my mind…I remember it well…

‘What does the word ‘contradict’ mean’

In those days a child could be placed in top class a year before their time, so she was one of the oldest, and I was one of the youngest in our class. To her, I was a little squirt, who knew nothing at all about the rules of the game, whereas she on the other hand was older, far more intelligent as I recall, and she had been playing the game for ages and had more ‘experience’.

When we look at the reading we’ve just heard read to us from Matthew’s Gospel, we see something similar happening.

The chief priests and the elders of the Jewish people confront Jesus, interrupting the lesson he was busy teaching people in their temple. Why were they annoyed with him?

Because Jesus had raised his hand, so to speak, not as a goalkeeper, but as a defender of the people!

The day before he had caused chaos in the temple, by driving out the greedy cheats, the fat cats who were practising ‘short-selling’

The elders and priests must have been well aware of the shady dealings that were going on and they had allowed it all to happen.

Jesus drove these rogues out, because ordinary people were being robbed, and it was happening in God’s most Holy Place,

Secondly he had been raising his hand to confront sickness and disease, and had sent sick people away from the temple healed of their diseases and sickness… and children were chanting and singing his praises.

Thirdly he was teaching the people everywhere a revolutionary message with an air of authority.

So when they confronted Jesus, they demanded, ‘By what authority are you doing these things and who gave you this authority?

They were really saying he was a little squirt, who knew nothing at all about the rules of the game, whereas they on the other hand were older, far more intelligent, more learned than he. They been playing the game so to speak, for a lot longer and had more ‘experience’.

By their words and their body language they were probably also warning him not to CONTRADICT their teaching, their laws, their rules, or they would hurt him!

The hurt they were inflicted eventually upon him was far, far worse than my badly bruised foot.

Rather than answer their question, Jesus continued to teach the people about a man who had two sons.

To the first one he said , ‘Son, go and work today in the vineyard.’

‘I will not,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went.

The father then went to the other son and said the same thing.

The second son replied, ‘I will sir’ but he did not go.

The Jewish elders and priests were standing there waiting for their answer… this story indirectly was their answer.

The common people, the sinners, were those who had originally said ‘No’ to God, but were now changing their minds and saying their ‘Yes’.

The elders and priests were obviously being identified with those who had said ‘Yes’ but were far from the heart and the will of God.

This was clearly not the way for Jesus to win friends and influence people!

But he spoke the truth, because he alone among them all was the only person who did have the authority to speak. He revealed this to his disciples later before he ascended to heaven, in Matthew 28, where he tells them , ‘All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me!’

But Jesus went on to say to them and the people,

Which of the two sons did what the Father wanted?

In some cultures, the answer would definitely be the one who shamed his father by saying ‘No!’ in front of other people, thus shaming him. That to show the respect of the second son, who said ‘Yes’ and showed him respect by addressing him as sir was more important, even if he didn’t get the job done.

We, in our culture, would probably say, well he’s the one who got the job done eventually…but surely the real answer is

‘Neither!

BOTH SONS WERE WRONG!

If the meaning of the story wasn’t clear to the elders and the priests, Jesus then made it perfectly clear to them. ‘I tell you the truth, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you!

At this point I guess you could have cut the atmosphere of the moment with a knife!

Try and imagine the eyes of the priests and elders as they stared at Jesus… now try and imagine what kind of eyes he looked at them with…and now the look on the faces of the ordinary people as their champion stood up for them!

But the real question that lies with all of us today is,

‘Am I doing the will of my Father, Does my way of life, my speech, my thoughts, my attitude towards others, please God or bring shame upon him? This is the surely what it means by the word the VINEYARD that Jesus speaks of in his parable, ‘Doing God’s will’.

I don’t know why we call this ‘Back to Church Sunday’. I would rather see it named, ‘Back to Faith’ Sunday.

The Bible says we have ALL sinned, we have ALL fallen short!

Jesus told a very similar parable at a different time, of another two sons, in which one son, repented of the way he had chosen to live his life, and he went back to his Father, rehearsing the speech he would say, dreading how he might be received back into the fold, worrying whether a crack would open in the ceiling of his former home when he walked through the doors.

He was, to his surprise, SWEPT UP into his Father’s arms and restored to life and health, and a party was organised specially for him.

The other son, you know the story well, said, ‘Welcome home brother, I’ve missed you so much, let’s work together you and I make our Father’s kingdom great once more.’Well that’s not exactly true, in fact he doesn’t want anything to do with his brother. He believed he fully deserved his downfall, got what as coming to him and if he came back at all, it would be on his terms and his alone, from then on. He was in charge, he owned the inheritance, and things would be done his way.

This story begs two questions for our churches today.

What was it that kept the wayward son from coming home sooner?

Did the attitude of the righteous brother have anything to do with losing him in the first place, did the attitude of the righteous brother have anything to do with the penitent’s reluctance to return?

Both sons here are guilty of wrongdoing. But what shines out from this particular parable is the Father love and forgiveness for his children, regardless of the way they have behaved towards him.

In Luke’s gospel we read there is more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who do not need to repent! (Lk 15.7.)

How much joy will there be in heaven today, if we repent having asked ourselves honestly if our lives and actions measure up to the message we preach.

There is a book by Kate Tristram about the life and character of St Aidan, as seen through the eyes of those who knew him. One chapter caught my eye, where King Oswald gives food from the banquet away to the poor at his door, (much to the disappointment of his rich guests I might add), but knowing this would delight the ears of St Aidan when he heard of it.

He says of his hero Aidan:-

‘There is no difference between what he teaches and what he is!’

Can we honestly say that of ourselves?

These two parables speak so much of the need for a ‘change of heart’, from heart of stone (hard and cold, which says, I don’t need to change, I’m fine as I am’ )to heart of flesh, soft, warm, malleable, which says ‘I could, I should, I will return to a genuine faith, full of love which shows itself in action…

or as Ezekiel describes it a new heart AND a new spirit. That we must repent (to turn completely around and go in God’s direction) in order to fully live life to the full!

(My walk home from my first ever confession…heartened by the priest who asked me to pray for HIM, ‘Pray for me, for I am a sinner also.’)

If we truly turn to God, turn our backs on that which we know does not please him and run into his loving arms, determined to stay close to him and follow his will, we will hear the same words echoing in our ears…

WELCOME HOME, MY CHILD, WELCOME HOME.