Matthew 21:23-32

Who is in Charge?

If you are living with another person or people in your life?who is in charge at your house?? There are many answers to that question.? Historically in our culture men have been the authority, and are encouraged to answer the question by saying, ?Well, I am.?? We know how problematic patriarchy has been and is.? And, yet, we get into our more post-modern living arrangements and many have no men involved. I?ve heard it asked how two lesbians know what to do?? They seem to be coping just fine. And then we get a couple of guys living together, and we ask again, ?Who is in charge??? It is tiring sometimes, isn?t it?? We live in a world that assumes that hierarchal power arrangements are better than any other kind.

I am a second-born in my family of origin.? There is never any hope for being in control as a second-born.? First, we second-borns have parents, and then there are those problem children called first-borns.? First-borns just assume that whether in the parent?s absence or presence, they are more special and favored by the parents and hence all decision making should fall naturally to them.? However, I don?t want to say too much because I am married to a first-born.

For me all of this has do with struggling with this morning?s Gospel According to Matthew, which asks the question about what makes Jesus think that as he stands in the Temple Court, he has the authority to teach the things that he does.? We have to be careful here because traditionally Christians have derisively answered that question by saying, ?Oh those arrogant and blind Jews?, they just couldn?t recognize Jesus as the Messiah and obviously if you are the Messiah you have the authority.? Case closed.

This passage has long been used to privilege Gentile believers (us) over Jews who refused to accept Jesus as Messiah.? That could be what Matthew had in mind, but we need to be more careful, living as we do with centuries of Christian abuse of Jews for their supposed refusal to believe in Jesus.? It is important that we avoid supersessionist readings.?? There is enough anti-Semitism in the world, and we should be chief among people not adding to it, but doing our part to recognize that we are all partners in faith and no one has to be superior to another.

It is not surprising that Jesus shows up in the Temple and the Temple authorities ask, ?Who are you?? By what authority do you teach these things??? This is a story out of season, out of the sequence we are used to.? This story is out of the 21st chapter of Matthew.? Just before this story, Jesus has ridden into Jerusalem on a donkey, gone into the Temple and overturned the tables where Roman money was exchanged for Jewish coins.? So this is what comes after the Palm Sunday narrative.

Matthew tells us that this is now the next morning, after Palm Sunday, when Jesus is coming back into the Temple for his second visit.? If you look at the text, as Jesus is walking toward the temple, it says he is hungry and he sees a fig tree and wants to eat a fig but the tree is barren.? Jesus curses it and it withers on the spot.? Someone hadn?t yet had his coffee!? Further, in this story sequence, it is springtime and the tree should not have borne fruit yet.? I don?t believe that Jesus wilted a fig tree, but I do believe that the author is trying to tell us in advance with some rhetorical flourish that Jesus has authority not only over the Temple, but over nature as well.

In all fairness, the people in charge of the Temple probably had never heard of Jesus of Nazareth.? Never.? Not because they were arrogant and above noticing but because they had busy lives and they were at the top of the pyramid of religion.? Jesus had just overthrown the tables the day before, surely they knew about him?!? Perhaps not.? The temple area was the size of twenty football fields.? If you were tailgating yesterday at the IU Game and group of fraternity guys dumped over some tables up by Dunn Street, if you were already in the stadium you would have had no idea what happened.? Jesus overthrowing the money changing tables in one section of that huge area was probably more symbolic that noticeable to many.? His followers remembered it, but quite probably no one else did.

Jesus shows up in this twenty-football-field-sized area and begins teaching.? Temple workers come up and ask, ?By what authority do you teach??? ?Who gave you permission to do this teaching which is not very favorable to the way we do things around here??? It is a fair question, and the temple workers had the authority and the right to ask the question.

Our text just tells us that Jesus was teaching.? It must not have been very orthodox or standard teaching for him to have been noticed.? Jewish thought then and today is not a standard orthodoxy.? It was and is varied.? But, it is safe to say that one thing that was taken for granted was the Temple process.? Everyone went to the Temple because it was there that God lived, God had a room and it was there that everyone was reminded of whose they were and what they were?Jews, whom God favored.

We get a hint at what Jesus might have been teaching when he tells the Temple people about his sense of authority.? He asks, ?If John the Baptist got his authority from God or from human sources?

The temple was not only the center of Jewish religion it was also big business and was tightly interwoven with the oppressive Roman government.? John the Baptist was a crowd pleasing prophet, the people loved John and John was not afraid to be on the side of the people, the little ones.?? John was even critical of the sacredness of the Temple.? He was baptizing people out in the wilderness, calling all Jews to be purified not in Temple rituals but from being baptized in the Jordan River, reenacting the original Passover of passing through the waters as they escaped from the oppressive Egyptians and then crossing the Jordan to take the land from the Palestinians and Canaanites.

John the Baptist was beheaded by Herod for his preaching.? It may be no longer than one or two years, tops, since John?s politicized death and the general populace still highly favored this prophet and Jesus is suggesting that the authority that gave John the voice of one crying out in the wilderness is the same authority from which he speaks.? Jesus came into the capital city with some very serious attitude.

Jesus continues this attitude in the next little passage where he tells the religious leaders of the temple that prostitutes and tax collectors who hear and respond to the presence of God will get better seats in God?s coming kingdom than will the religious executives who claim to have all the authority.? It was a testy exchange, to say the least, and by the end of the week Jesus is crucified.

I am always asking in passages like this morning?s, ?What is the take away for me, for us??? We are left like Jesus? audience asking the question, what is our authority to be the people we are in today?s social, political, religious environment?

If we were living in Ferguson, Missouri would we have street cred?? Would we have the authority to be leaders in that community that is so horribly divided by over a century of racism?? Do we even have the authority to be leaders in Bloomington, Indiana on issues of longstanding systemic racism?? The answer is undoubtedly, ?No!?? And, we need to be saddened and embarrassed about that to the point of new action and direction.

The Church claims Jesus as the Christ, the One who informs us about what it means to be servants of God, living representatives of God?s presence in our world. If we are to have authority to speak and be found credible?, then our hands, our feet, our clothes, our faces need to be very dirty from going out to the places where those who are left out are, and we need to be welcoming them, inviting them into our meals, our fellowship, our well-being, our homes and church.? The purpose is not for them to become more like us or us like them but for a new us to be created.? A new us where true community is formed, as God desires community.? God does not look upon this planet and see nation pitted against nation and colors of people divided and say, ?This is good!?

God sees these things and cries tears of loss and tears of hope.? And wishes, hungrily desires, for us to grow and risk community where the rainbow of colors and sexual identities are not whitewashed but clearly delineated and celebrated.

God?s community that has the true voice of authority is not only the one that truly embraces not only the great diversity of our world but also purposefully and with great rigor seeks out those who are left behind by our great societies.? God?s world, God?s realm does not work the way our world works.? God is always turning to notice those at the bottom that need a helping hand up, and is always saying, ?No, this way.? It is your turn to be at the front of the line.

There are a lot of folks who have a lot of authority in this world.? God?s church, God?s faith systems that consistently and fervently desire and work to bring the least of these to an honest to goodness place of honor, respectability and safety?these are the people who have?????????????? the authority that I hope we are seeking to create.

This past weekend, the mini-Telluride Festival in Portsmouth, NH showed a pre-release film called The Imagination Game, about the brilliant, tragic life of Alan Turing.? The film was so hot at its premiere in London that over 35,000 people stood in line waiting for tickets, prompting a London paper to call it the most sought-after performance in history.? Turing, a mathematical genius who decoded German transmissions in WW2, saving an estimated 14,000 lives, was homosexual.? After the war, caught in a sexual liaison, Turing was tried and given the choice of prison or medication to turn off his libido.? The medication interfered with his ability to do math as well as his ability to be sexual.? After two years he committed suicide.? In 2011 the Queen pardoned him, and honored him posthumously.

Alan Turing.? He?s a hero now, beloved by the British people.? And they are no longer waiting for the churches or the law to tell them who is righteous, or what is holy.? Jesus would say Amen.? Let us create authority worthy of the Way of Jesus.