Where does the authority lie?
Matthew 21: 23-32
Authority issues. Have you ever known anyone with authority issues? Authority is the theme running throughout today’s gospel. The chief priests and elders take issue with Jesus’ authority. The two sons challenge their father’s authority. They’re not the only ones with authority issues.
And yes, I’m talking about you. I’m talking about myself. We all have authority issues but I am not talking about authority issues in the way we usually understand them. In our usual understanding of authority issues the obvious question in today’s gospel is whether we recognise and submit to the authority of Jesus and the Father. That question, however, is so obvious that I have to wonder if it isn’t really the question at the heart of today’s gospel. It’s so obvious that I think there has to be something more going on. To jump on that question as the obvious and only question to be answered only reveals our misunderstanding of what true authority is.
More often than not we are confused about authority. We misunderstand it to be based on credentials and expertise, a thick CV, years of education, successes and accomplishments, status and reputation, or the position held in society. We assume that authority comes from outside a person and that it’s given them by their circumstances. In this interpretation some have authority and others do not.
“Who do you think you are?” “What gives you the right to tell me what to do?” Or to use a phrase from my childhood, “You’re not the boss of me!” That represents our usual way of understanding authority issues. We don’t like someone else teaching us, correcting us, or telling us what to do. We hear that in the challenge of the chief priests and elders to Jesus, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” We see it in the refusal of the two sons to go to the vineyard.
There is, however, another authority issue at play in today’s gospel. That issue is our failure and sometimes our refusal to recognise, to claim, and exercise the authority within us, to go to the vineyard. That’s the authority issue I believe this gospel is representing today.
So let’s push this a little bit on authority issues? If you think God is the boss of you, you’ve misunderstood authority. Let go of that idea. God is not the boss of you. God is not the boss of me. God is not the boss of us. God is our author and creator. Every day God authorizes us to go into his vineyard, to act in this world with his authority and on his behalf through the gifts he has given each one of us.
True authority always comes from within. It is an interior God-given quality not an exterior circumstance. That’s what the chief priests and elders failed to understand. I think that’s why Jesus was always so annoyed with the religious leaders. They chose to exchange their God-given authority for human power. Sometimes we do too. That’s what’s happening in much of our world today.
In the absence of true authority there will always be power struggles. Look at the antagonism in our political system. Look at the wars throughout the world. Look at the conflicts in our own relationships. Those are about power, not authority. Our leaders exercise power but very few exercise authority. In the exercise of power we look to our own interests but in the exercise of authority we look to the interests of others.
Think about the people who hold authority for us. They are not concerned about themselves. They do not dominate or control you. They inspire us. They call forth from us faith, hope, and trust. They expand our world, open up new possibilities, and bring life and gifts in us that we never knew were there. They cause us to reevaluate our life, change our mind, and live differently. That sounds an awful lot like Jesus and it’s very different from those who exercise power.
I will always remember and give thanks for the authority of Gordon, it was his authority, his silence when I had gone wrong, his listening, his presence and wisdom were not just personality traits they were the divine attributes in his life, gifts God had given him, that created space and place for me and for others, that invited us to discover our own authority, that showed us the way to the vineyard of our lives.
There are people in this parish who have no leadership position, title, or theological diplomas and yet they have such great authority. I see it in their compassion and gentleness. I hear it in the way they pray. I feel it in their love for me and for others. They too show me the way to the vineyard of my life. That’s what authorities do. But it’s not about them. It doesn’t come from them.
All authority originates in God, but it is not exclusive to God. God shares his authority with us. The authority God shares with us is nothing less than his own divine qualities. It is the expression and manifestation of God’s life in and through our own.
That shared authority exists in us and is revealed by us as the many and varied traits, the gifts, God has imparted on each of our lives. That means every one of us has authority. As your priest I do not have more authority than you. I do not have better authority than you. I just have a different authority. God gives each of us gifts and authority unique to our lives. God is generous, extravagant, with the gifts he gives and the authority he shares. We all have God-given gifts and authority.
There is no one without authority. The difference isn’t that some have authority and others don’t. The difference is that some recognize and exercise their authority and others do not. Regardless, God knows and sees the authority he has given us and waits for us to see and know it too. And when we do, we change our mind and go to the vineyard.
So let me push you a little bit more on your authority issues, okay? What is the authority God has given you? What gifts, what divine attributes, has God bestowed upon you? Are you living from that authority and sharing those gifts? Have you gone to the vineyard or are you simply stating the answers you think God wants to hear? Amen.
The Rt. Rev’d Maureen Lunn, St Mary Magdalene, Enfield, 27/09/2020