Proper 22 (October 2-8)
Texts: Matthew 21:33-46;
BREAKDOWN IN AUTHORITY?
The drama in this morning’s Gospel lesson actually begins several verses earlier, where we read:
When [Jesus] entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” (Matthew 21:23)
We’ve come to view the chief priests and elders as villains in the Gospel stories, but I’d like for us to put that aside for a moment, because they ask a question that interests us. We worry a lot about authority, don’t we? I hear the elders among us comment on that a lot. We have a sense that respect for authority has changed a lot in the most recent generations, and we wonder what it is costing us.
We are confronted with another horrible story of violence this week, the group of twelve or so youth in Milwaukee, some as young as ten years old, who spontaneously ganged up on that adult and beat him to death. “How can these things happen?” we wonder. Does it have to do with a lack of respect for authority? What is the cost for our society of this change in how we experience authority?
There was a new television show that started Sunday night, called American Dreams. Our family watched it together last week, and we’ll probably watch it again this week, because it seems to be a decent family show about a family living in the sixties. It is November of 1963, to be exact, since last week’s debut ended with one of those historical moments we remember so well, the assassination of President Kennedy. The sixties — that decade to which we often trace the “breakdown of authority.”
And this debut episode was very much about the issue of authority, primarily around the authority of the father as the head of the household. The oldest son quits the football team at his Catholic school, against the wishes of both his biological father and his religious father, the priest at the school. Their plans for him are to get a football scholarship at Notre Dame. And the oldest daughter (second in birth to the oldest son) gets an invitation to a dream of hers that her father doesn’t approve of. The story takes place in Philadelphia, where the old American Bandstand TV show with Dick Clark was broadcast. The oldest daughter gets invited to be in the audience for the taping to get a chance to dance on TV. But Dad says no.
The contrast with the other two children helps bring out the conflict with these two oldest children. The oldest daughter is generally rather honest and sincere, accepting the authority of her parents. The middle daughter is a snob who is getting the attention of her parents by moving up the ladder in local spelling bees. You immediately get the picture that she is obnoxious, the daughter you would least like. But it is her older, more likeable sister that gets into hot water with Dad. American Bandstand is such a dream of hers that she can’t let it pass her by, and so she lies to go anyway. The daughter who is generally more honest and sincere turns to deception when thwarted at a critical point by her father. What will happen in this matter of her father’s authority?
The oldest son is contrasted with the youngest child, whose only dream is to play football for Notre Dame someday, a dream that his big brother seems willing to pass up. Why? That’s the funny thing. You get the sense that he has always been like his youngest brother, with that same dream of playing football for Notre Dame. So what happened? He has reached the age of rebellion, and the reason he seems to have for passing this by is that it is also his father’s dream for him. He doesn’t want that dream anymore because he has reached a moment in life when he doesn’t want the same dream as his father. Who will win out? What is the cost of rebellion against authority? It seems that, for the oldest son, the cost might be giving up the dream that he himself has carried since he was his youngest brother’s age.
The interesting part of this show, though, was watching our sons reactions to this drama. They became angry at the father, who seemed to be denying his children’s dreams. How could he do that? How could he be so mean? Ellen and I actually felt somewhat vindicated. We sometimes tell them that things have changed a lot, that kids don’t respect authority the way they used to do. We told our sons that that was the way it used to be: you were expected to do whatever your father or mother told you, with no questions asked. You were expected to respect authority.
But this television show also carefully brought out the cost of that kind of authority. Another plot in this family revolved around the husband and wife. They had lost a child to a miscarriage recently and hadn’t wanted to talk about trying again for another child. As the story moves on, the wife wants to talk about it, and the husband doesn’t. You, in the audience, can also see something that the husband doesn’t see: that the wife and husband are now at a different place. She doesn’t want to have more children; he does.
Finally, near the end, the wife gently forces the issue. She tells her husband that, as much as she has loved being a stay-at-home mom, she also is at a point in her life when, with the kids more grown up, she would like to do other things as well. Now we see the cost what we might call the traditional approach to family authority. The husband shares what his dream has always been and that he has reached it — except for maybe getting a boat. And he ends his little speech by asking, “Since when was my dream not good enough for everybody anymore?” In other words, he doesn’t get it: that this is his dream and not everyone else’s. The question of authority now becomes, “By what authority does he try to make his dream work for everyone else in his household?” We see the cost of that traditional brand of family authority: other people’s dreams are squashed in favor of the dreams of one.
Actually, the question of the chief priests and elders is more like the father’s question here. They are representatives of the traditional form of authority. Jesus has come around apparently preaching by an authority other than their traditional authority. They want to ask Jesus, “Since when was our dream not good enough for everybody anymore?” And they seemingly have God to back them up.
This is where we are confronted once again with what I feel is so crucial: a virtual re-formation of our faith. That is what Jesus came offering everyone, including the chief priests and elders. Why? Because we were, and still are, holding false ideas about who our God is, and what kind of authority God represents to us. Our idolatrous ideas about God say that God tries to force the divine dreams on us. If we cross God, then we will feel the divine wrath; we will know that punishment; we may even end up experiencing a divine violence.
But that’s how we human beings wield authority! In Jesus Christ, we are able to see a different God, with a different authority. We experience an inviting God, a loving and forgiving God, a God who persistently invites us to share in the divine love in ways that help each of us to discover our own dreams within that divine call, that divine invitation to be stewards of this creation, to love and care for each other and for this earth. This God of Jesus Christ is decidedly not angry or violent when we choose to go our own ways, ways which lead to death. This God of Jesus Christ continues to persistently invite us into his way of life.
How does this Parable of the Tenants match up with such a view of faith, especially its apparently violent ending? I would ask several counter questions:
- After the first set of slaves were killed, what would have been the typical human response? To send an army right away, or another delegation of folks to be killed? We would have wielded that violent authority right away, wouldn’t we? But this owner of the vineyard doesn’t. He continues to send more delegations with the invitation to respond in good faith.
- After this series of delegations sent and killed, then, what would have been the typical human response? To send an army to “put those wretches to a miserable death” (21:41), or to send your son? It wouldn’t be to send the Son! But this owner is about persistently making the invitation to the point of sending it through his Son.
- Now, after the son is killed, how significant is it that Jesus (in Matthew’s version) asks his listeners what they would do, instead of supplying an answer himself? Jesus lets the chief priests and elders supply the answer that they would have given after the very first delegation was sent. And their answer is exactly what we would typically give: “put those wretches to a miserable death” (21:41).
- Then here’s the crucial question about this parable: we know what our answer would be; it is given through the chief priests and elders. So what, in fact, was God’s answer in Jesus Christ? When we did kill God’s Son on the cross, what was God’s answer? To put all of us miserable wretches to death? No! He raised the Son not bring vengeance but to bring forgiveness! If the owner of the vineyard in this parable is God, then Jesus was about to live God’s answer to us tenants who like to think that we own the vineyard. Jesus, the stone which the builders rejected, has become the chief cornerstone of God’s household, into which he continues to persistently invite us.
- I have one more question. When we fail to act as God acted in Jesus Christ — in other words, when we act with violent vengeance instead of loving forgiveness — are we failing to represent the invitation of God into his household the Church? When we ourselves have been forgiven for killing the Son, can we turn around and not live with forgiveness toward others? Even when someone does something so hideous as to fly planes into buildings, are we going to make the same age-old response of “putting those wretches to a miserable death”? Or can we begin to find ways to respond as God in fact responded to the killing of his Son?
Our Lord is here once again this morning to offer us that persistent invitation to live in God’s realm of forgiveness. Come to his table. Accept his invitation….
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Our Savior’s Lutheran,
Racine, WI, October 6, 2002