Matt 21:23-32 & Phil 2:1-13 The shifting sands of authority
Reflection by Mart the Rev
What was church like when you were young? If I was to ask you to think about church using the word ‘authority’ – what do you remember from when you were much younger? Where did the authority rest?
I recall the minister. Standing up the front. Dressed up. In my case, in a black ‘Geneva’ gown and a full ring of white around his neck with two flat pieces of white cloth below. He was the boss. He spoke with authority. He was looked up to. Not only because he was positioned higher than us in the building, but he was the minister. Not everyone bowed to that authority, I noticed, but most did. It was the 70’s – the times were a-changing – ten years after Bob Dylan sang it, the church began to catch up… and the authority of the minister was just beginning to show signs of unravelling.
I recall the Session – the elders. Serious people. Well, they were when they sat up the front on Communion Sundays. Sitting there with the minister, facing the congregation four times a year, in their best clothes and with their serious faces. Authority. With the minister they ran the church. Elders for life. From this position they displayed few signs of the flexibility that the changing landscape would soon demand of them. Decently and in order was the mark of their authority. Away from the meetings they were quite personable and kind. But as a collective they were formidable. Our youth group leader was the conduit for our liaison with the authorities and he bore the burden of it… our requests were often opposed.
The Bible. Worship began with the Bible held reverently as it was processed in with the minister following and the congregation standing. Ultimate authority? I remember the minister’s wife – a hard case, talking one day about how she and her sister used to sit in church and hunt through the Old Testament to find the juicy bits… the bits never read at church…the Songs of Solomon and the mention of breasts… “Your breasts are perfect; they are twin deer feeding among lilies. I will hasten to those hills sprinkled with sweet perfume and stay there till sunrise.” [Songs of Solomon 4:5-6]
What do we mean by the Bible having authority? It has been the question behind the questions of my entire ministry that has never been attended to in a thorough way. One side of the sexuality argument claim that the Bible says this, and therefore that’s the mind of God, full stop! Others say, hang on, we know more now, and if you zoom up a bit away from specific verses and study the threads of Jesus’ teachings, there is more room than you think. Which way is right? I know what I think – I look at the mind of God coming to us and something unfolding rather than rules to stand over us as commandments for all time. I look at the teachings of Jesus and his openness to and elevation of the little, the lost, the least, and the last, and I think you want to be a bit careful about what you mean when you say what God said through the writer of Leviticus is authoritative without interpretation. I found a clever little web page called ‘God hates shrimp.’ It has been set up by people who oppose the use of the book of Leviticus to justify the horrible ‘God hates gays’ slogan. God hates shrimp… how come? Because of this: ‘You may eat anything that lives in water and has fins and scales. But it would be disgusting for you to eat anything else that lives in water, and you must not even touch their dead bodies.’ [Leviticus 11:9-12]
Actually I do take seriously the Bible as authoritative, but it is not for me, the authority. God known through the life and witness of Jesus is the authority for me and the lens through which I read the scriptures. You may have noticed that we do not process the Bible in at The Village – we do take it seriously and read and interpret it with seriousness and reverence, but we do not worship the Bible. The Bible is not an idol – we worship God who the Bible bears witness to. There’s a difference! It is interesting to ask where authority rests these days compared to when we were younger. Things have changed.
Jesus wanders into the Temple and begins to teach. The chief priests and elders challenge him. Show us your credentials. Who gave you authority to teach here? Have you noticed how the changing nature of authority has played out in society? Back in the day the church was given a certain authority in the community – a kind of warrant to handle stuff… respect, room, and a voice in the public square. These days it is not like that.
I heard a disturbing comment made in passing on the RadioNZ National on Tuesday… It was a brief discussion where at one point one of the guests noted that Bible in Schools was still an occurrence at the school her children went to and she commented along these lines… ‘that means we get to have a sleep in that day as I won’t have my children participating in something that is clearly Fake News.’ That hurt! The Good News becomes Fake News. Just like that!
I can picture Jesus in the temple – and the temple authorities siding up to him and asking him to produce his credentials… who authorised you to teach here? Is your message authorised or is it fake? I think we are being asked the same question by the community around us. Is what you are on about for real or is it fake?
There are so many challenges for us. The community is suspicious of us. The community is doubting of our message. The community is probably a bit blind to the good that we do. The community is increasingly of the view that science and religion are at odds. The community is put off by the extremism and bad behaviour of some – and we are lumped in with them despite our own sense of alienation at the extreme messages or bad behaviour of some of our fellow Christians. The community is rightly disturbed by the sheer volume of complaints about the behaviour of ministers and priests and how the church has used its authority to take advantage of vulnerable people and cover it up. Show us your credentials. Who authorized you to teach here? These are not easy times!
Jesus’ answer is interesting. He bamboozles the protagonists with a question of his own – did John the Baptist have authority (as many believed) or not? They backed off. But Jesus chases after them with what is, I believe, a word about change. It kind of happens with authority figures that one day their position is going to be eroded by their inflexibility. I remember the comedian Garrison Keillor telling a story about the old boys’ network on his Prairie Home Companion radio show. And how a few teenagers caught doing something they shouldn’t have were kind of handled by the powers that be and the misdemeanours were quietly swept under the carpet by a nod and a wink from someone who knew someone. Keillor was lamenting the loss of aspects of the old boys’ network in the way it once handled stuff that shouldn’t become a police issue. But, of course, the old boys network had its dark side, as a system it behaved atrociously towards the empowerment of women, it was a system where favours were done to advantage some over others, and serial offenders were quietly removed to somewhere else and able to continue their appalling behaviour. The old boys’ network had to go. All authorities eventually pass and new authorities take their place. That’s the nature of things. We would just want to make sure the new authorities are motivated by kindness and goodness and a good dose of the kind of humble service that Jesus demonstrated.
Change happens. Those who want to deny it and cling to the old are denying what is happening everyday on this good earth and in their very bodies. In the temple that day a new authority was in town and the chief priests and elders didn’t like it.
One of the things about authorities is that they to make separations – like the godly and the godless. It is kind of understandable. In the religious system of Jesus’ day there were clear expectations around codes of behaviour and some people, like tax collectors and prostitutes were seen as acting outside God’s authority and therefore beyond God’s mercy.
The curious thing is the chief priests themselves had compromised God’s authority. They had been granted freedom of religious expression by the Romans, but only if no one rocked the boat. Thus the authority of God was effectively under the Roman Emperor’s authority, and good civil order was maintained if people obeyed the Roman rules. This is well-illustrated by the startling admission by the chief priests when they were under pressure during Jesus’ trial. The crowd had been incited to call for Jesus to be crucified but Pilate, the Roman governor was reluctant to grant them this wish. The turning point came when the chief priests looked Pilate in the eye and betrayed their God, “We have no king but the emperor.” [John 19:15-16]
You can see why Jesus was in conflict with the temple authorities – how were they any better than the tax collectors and the prostitutes? They parade around with all the authority of God who commands that you shall not have any other gods before me, but under pressure they bow to the emperor as god.
So to the parable: “‘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 will 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 [the Baptist] 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.”
I’m thinking about the authorities who were around when I was young and some of their well-meaning intransience – ‘this is how we do church’ was their well-intentioned statement as they dug their toes in and resisted change. This attitude also revealed itself on the faces of the congregation whenever my friends and I showed up in jeans and tee-shirts, and with some of our hairy and dark-skinned friends. These people meant no harm, they just found change hard. They hadn’t been prepared. Looking back I’m not sure that my friends and I were very patient with them. I’m not sure that we were at all organised in our arguments either… we were upstarts… everything had to happen now.
These days I think the church is more flexible. It has to be. The tides of change are well upon us and we know as plain as day that if we don’t change then one day one of us will be closing the door for the last time.
If we don’t reconnect with our community we will fall over. The authority has shifted. It no longer rests with us and what has gone before. In that sense we are free. Some will call names at us and undermine our integrity by describing our faith as fake news. But actually in our little corners in the city, our humble service and warm welcome to anyone will take root and make a difference (especially those who society casts as little, least, lost, and last). I think Jesus is inviting us to get with the programme – the new thing is happening. We have to change how we do church. Who knows, a few tax collectors and prostitutes might find their way here! Wouldn’t that be fun! For we don’t want Jesus saying of us ‘even after you saw what the Baptist had done, you did not change your minds and believe him.’