Authority is a loaded word. It bespeaks power and control—until it doesn’t. Recently, economic concerns have led some experts to question the authority of the US Dollar as the world reserve currency. The upcoming publication of Ron Suskind’s book treating the financial crisis in the early months of Obama’s presidency is said to reveal the undermining of presidential authority by top advisers in the administration. And, as politicians at all levels gear up for elections, they seek to maintain and secure their authority in the courts of fundraising and popular opinion. Authority is a loaded word, and the chief priests know that.
“By what authority are you doing these things?” they ask Jesus. “And who gave you that authority?” They aren’t concerned about whether or not Jesus can work miracles. They aren’t even afraid, as it may be for some others in the gospels, that Jesus’ ability to cast out evil spirits may indicate an alignment with the evil one. No, their concern is much more practical. They are the religious and social authorities—the chief priests and the elders of the people. They are the ones who make the decisions. In a corrupt temple system, they’ve paid mightily for their titles—their authority—and in a volatile political community, they have carefully balanced their relationship—authority—over everyone else.
That is, of course, why they won’t answer Jesus’ question. He has put them in a catch-22. A situation where if they answer one way, they’ll lose not only their financial backers, but their positions themselves—they will be forced to concede that the true authority, the one to which they ought submit, comes not from Rome (where they have earned their status), but from heaven; therefore admitting that they have no real claim to authority and ceding their power and status to Jesus and the disciples of John whose authority they would have just stated comes from heaven. Yet, if they answer the other way, it’d be a public relations nightmare. A lot of people believed in John and still did, so if they openly disputed John’s authority, it could create distrust and resentment among the crowds, undermining their authority over the people no matter what titles they may happen to carry.
Authority is a loaded word, but Jesus turns it on its head. He knows, of course, what the chief priests and elders are after. It’s human nature. It is the basis of perhaps every political system. Establishing authority—making clear who has the power and who is in control. Governments tend to do this through laws. That is where the chief priests received their authority from Rome. But such laws and titles are only as good as the ability to enforce them. The Roman troops stationed in Jerusalem were not enough to overthrow a complete popular uprising, and the chief priests knew this—that is why they had to keep the people happy, or at least complacent enough to not resist.
But Jesus has another idea. A father, who we might suspect to be the authority by title and force, asks his sons to work in his vineyard. The first son says no—undermining the parental authority. The second son says yes, presumably submitting, but then fails to go—again, undermining the authority of the father. Following this parable, heavenly authority, it seems—who is “in control” and has “power” in the Kingdom of God—comes neither from force (physical or financial) nor from popularity (titles or opinion polls). Perhaps, in a post 9/11 world, in a struggling economy, amidst constant politicking, it may seem that heavenly authority is no real authority at all. But then, for reasons unstated, the first son turns around and works in his father’s field anyway…
Jesus doesn’t attribute his authority to any laws or titles (though, perhaps, he could). He doesn’t call down the powers of heaven to show his superior force (though, perhaps, he could). He doesn’t even appeal to the crowds of the people who have been following him, or stake his reputation on John to win popular opinion (though, perhaps, he could). So what is Christian authority staked on? Where does it come from? How does it work? All Jesus leaves us with is a disobedient son, who turns around and does the work of his father anyway. In American politics and economics, there is plenty of “disobedience” to go around. But what might it look like if rather than asserting human authority, indeed, rather even than questioning and undermining it, we turned around and did the will of the Father(Mother)? How is God calling us to work in this vineyard? And how do our claims to authority and moves toward power get in the way?
The Rev. Amy Allen is an ordained pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America and a Theology and Practice fellow in New Testament at Vanderbilt University. She and her family reside in Franklin, TN where they attend the Lutheran Church of Saint Andrew.
This article is part of the series, the Politics of Scripture. While the focus of the series is on weekly preaching texts, we welcome commentary on sacred, classic, and profane literature, film, and artistic expression. Submissions may be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.