"By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?" Jesus said to them. "Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you." The Pharisees are astounded at this. They are the authorities in Jesus' world. They hold the power. Who is this Jesus who says that his authority comes from someone or something other than them? Who is this Jesus who eats with tax collectors and prostitutes and sinners? Who is this Jesus?
Let’s remember that we have been hearing about forgiveness and reconciliation in the gospel of Matthew, as well as in the Old Testament Exodus stories for quite a few weeks now. What follows in Matthew’s story is this series of parables. We know something about parables. They are about describing the inbreaking kingdom of God; they are about showing us what the kingdom of God looks like. We know that the kingdom looks nothing like what anyone is used to or what anyone expects. God’s kingdom is something absolutely new, something no one has any experience with, that’s why there are parables, they make us and the original hearers think in ways not before imagined. This new kingdom is nothing like what had come before.
So what we hear today follows from Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. Jesus enters Jerusalem for the last time, and he asks the disciples to get him a donkey. Jesus rides into Jerusalem on that donkey, not a stallion as would be expected of a Messiah. Jerusalem is in turmoil. The question among the people in the crowd that day is who is this? They were saying this is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee. Then Jesus enters the temple, tosses out all who were selling and buying and he overturned the tables of the moneychangers. Jesus healed the lame and the blind, and the chief priests and scribes became angry, they asked Jesus “Do you hear what these people are saying?” Jesus knew what they were saying. Jesus went out to be by himself, he came back to the temple, and there were the chief priests and elders again. Then comes the question, this all-important question. By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority? The chief priests and elders end up arguing with each other, nobody can answer the question, and nothing really gets solved. By what authority are you doing these things? And who gave you this authority? The tax collectors and the prostitutes know something about this authority, but not the chief priests and the elders.
The chief priests and elders were concerned, understandably so, because if they went along with Jesus, who is doing something – they’re not quite sure what - with authority they can’t identify, the chief priests and elders also may be brought up on the same charges Jesus is. They too may be tried for misaligned loyalty. They could be held liable for the damage Jesus has done in the temple throwing things around and turning the tables over.
By whose authority? By God’s authority, not the Roman authority, not the Jewish authority, but God’s authority. Jesus heals, forgives, includes, feeds, by God’s authority. Jesus changes the system. Truly I tell you, we hear, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom before you, because they get it. They understand that the arc of God’s love in this kingdom is toward mercy, healing, and forgiveness.
So we finally get to this parable of the man who had two sons. In Jesus' time, a father had ultimate authority. He could decide the fate of his children in a moment. He can give and he can take away. This father has asked his sons to go out into the vineyard to work. The first son says no, but eventually changes his mind and goes, the other son says yes, but in the end doesn't go to work. What is this about?
Maybe it’s about the surprising possibility of hope that someone who has refused to listen to God may yet change their mind. Hope that it’s never too late to respond to the grace of the Gospel. Hope that our past actions or current status do not determine our future. Hope that we are never beyond the reach of God. What does the kingdom look like? I think it looks like the possibility that God is willing to meet us right here and now, no matter what we think about how worthy or unworthy we may be. I think it looks like forgiveness and healing. I think the kingdom looks like each one of us who walk forward today ready to love those with whom we agree, and to love those with whom we disagree.
We live at a time of such division. I think following Jesus, living under Jesus’ authority, partnering with God in bringing about the kingdom is about reminding ourselves that beneath all of those differences is a profound commonality and solidarity in that we are each a child of God whom God loves, adores, and is speaking to right here and now. In God’s kingdom we take a little more time to listen to each other, we try to understand each other, and try to listen for God’s calling for ourselves and our community together.
And in this particular room in God’s kingdom we gather together to experience the awesomeness of God in the bread and the wine, the mystery that heals us and makes us whole. We gather together to experience the awesomeness of God in the midst of our humanity and in the forgiveness of the hurt we’ve caused ourselves and others.
By whose authority? By the authority of the one whose love calls us into being and blesses us. The one whose Word lives among us, in us, and through us. The one whose love forgives us when we are greedy and full of ourselves. The one into whose life we are baptized, the one whose love wins. Amen.