Reflection, Proper 21, Year A, 9/27/20

Reflection, Proper 21, Year A, 9/27/20

Barbara Metcalf

Our gospel reading today asks us a big question: What makes for authority? Who merits our deference? Who is worthy to render judgments, offer guidance, make choices that impact us, — tell us what to do — whether as individuals or as part of a larger community?

Like most Americans in this agonizing political year, we’ve each no doubt made that decision at the national level. We may also be finding authoritative voices outside obvious places. Who might they be? A close friend, one of the most socially conscious and progressive people I know, said to me recently that she had been astonished this past summer at how much she had to learn about racism. In the past month, she said, she realized that she had only begun to have some sense of what it meant to be Black in our society. The people speaking with authority were not the experts, but the “ordinary people” who from the depth of personal experience were able to teach us. Ruth Bader Ginsburg, whom we’ve all thought so much about these past days, wound up in a formal place of authority. But in her early years she was a voice crying in the wilderness. Who is the early Ginsburg, that marginal person, we are missing today?

In this story, the people, the men, formally in authority, the priests and elders, confront Jesus. “Who gave you this authority?” they ask.

And Jesus replies almost in the style of a fairy-tale riddle: “I’ll ask you a question and if you can answer my question, I’ll answer yours.”

Did John’s authority come from humans or from heaven?

We tend to read Jesus’ words with suitable reverence and in a monotone, but I often wonder what his tone and facial expression were in conversations like this. How did he sound when he asked this question? like this?

As for the question, like the fairy-tale suitor who could not answer the princess’s question, the elders failed the test. Jesus did not respond with a put down. Instead, he invited them to consider what was at stake if they opened their minds. And, as I read it, he offered real sympathy for their dilemma.

He did so by asking a second question, and this time, he lobbed them a softball.

A father had two sons. He asked each to work in the vineyard. Each defied him. The first said he would not go, but then he did. The second said he would go, and then he did not. <Which did the will of the father?

The first, they answered, hands down.

They didn’t need to know anything about the father or the sons or the vineyard. In a society like this one, the father’s authority was paramount. The father was the patriarch, the linchpin of the family as social and economic building block. Sons obeyed fathers. (at least for people like the priests and elders)

I think Jesus was offering the priests and elders sympathy over their dilemma. Doing what was right could be very hard, even when the obligations were obvious, even in regard to something as mundane as doing your part on the family’s farm.  There was no third son who said “Sure, Dad; I’m on it,” and then jumped in.

Making the right choice to accept the authority of someone as marginal as John and Jesus as people were doing — voting with their feet to hear them and other teachers and rebels of the times – that could be hard. The Hebrews’ paradigmatic myth of the hard journey from Egypt, which we encountered in the first lesson as we did last week, made it clear that change was hard and following appointed authority was hard. It’s a week later and the Hebrews are still complaining. But God, ever present, ever ready for conversation, ever generous, as Chantip reminded us last week, shows mercy.

Hard or not, the stakes were high.  Jesus was explicit about what the questioners were missing in the choice they had made.

The tax collectors and the prostitutes are making their way[1] into the kingdom of heaven ahead of you.

And Jesus marveled at the elders’ blindness. You resisted, he tells them, “even after you saw” saw all those prostitutes and tax collectors who gathered to hear John, and now him.

What did they see? Or, maybe, what should they have seen? The prostitutes and tax collectors had said no to the authority of community standards by the choices they had made. But then they found a new community and certainly a new authority.  And in doing that, they had intimations of nothing less than the kingdom of heaven. Intimations in the repentance and reconciliation John called for made them part of the stories our Psalm describes, the stories that they heard “from of old. things that we have heard and known, that our ancestors have told us,” the stories of God’s power and mercy exactly like the Exodus story. They must have seen healing and feeding, they heard Jesus’ message of love, creating the kind of community that we hear Paul call for, long for, week after week in our lessons: “having the same mind, having the same love…[looking] to the interests of others.” They found welcome.

All this the priests and elders had seen – or should have seen? –

And they still did not believe.

I mentioned that I often wonder in these gospel readings about Jesus’ tone, the look on his face. Do we hear this gospel differently if we hear it with the sections of the chapter that come before and after? Our selection today follows the entry to Jerusalem and the palms, the cleansing of the temple, the withering of the fig tree.  The elders were reacting to much more than Jesus’ teaching at that moment. I think we can hear Jesus’ voice as deadly serious,[2] not least because his teachings escalate, culminating in the section following what we heard today with the portentous parable of rejection of right authority with a vengeance. That is the parable, or allegory, of the defaulting tenants who kill the landlord’s son.  We need to hear seriously. Like the prostitutes and tax collectors we need to seek gratefully the richness of God’s hospitable grace. Unlike the priests and elders, we need to find ways to welcome the fragile[3] into community at every level.

Collects often begin by reminding God of who God is. Today we pray in our collect to a God who shows “mercy and pity.”  Recognizing authentic authority and then committing to it is hard –so we need God’s grace and mercy to share in the “heavenly treasure” of the right relationships of the kingdom that Jesus offers. This was the treasure that the tax collectors and prostitutes, and Paul’s beloved saints in Philippi, were “making their way toward.” May we pray to make our way there as well.

[1] The Jerusalem Bible translation

[2] Aha. Jerusalem Bible says he told them “solemnly,” not “truly.”

[3] A word owed, with thanks, to Steve Hitchcock, whom I thank for his incredibly helpful response to a draft of these comments.